From a soldier’s life to civvy street

18th October 2019

Last month, five Chelsea Pensioners and Royal Hospital Captain of Invalids, George Cochlan, visited Chavasse Military Recovery Centre in Colchester. 

Chavasse is one of four UK centres dedicated to preparing wounded, injured and sick soldiers for life as civilians, as Captain Cochlan explains: 

“They go there to help build their employment prospects, they do courses, CV writing, interview techniques – so they’re prepared when they go to a civilian employer. Normally, if you’re in the Army, you don’t apply for a job and go through the normal interview process. People tell you what job you’re going to do and you just move into it. The Pensioners can relate to the young soldiers because they’ve had a military career then they’ve become civilians and had a career of some description. When they retire and decide to become Chelsea Pensioners, they’ve almost come full circle. They can relate to the young soldiers and show them that there is stuff you can do after you leave the Army. 

The idea is to share best practice. The Pensioners can explain what they did in their younger days and give them help and advice.  The young soldiers can tell the old Pensioners what the modern day Army is like and the equipment they’re using. They share stories about the operations they’ve been on.”

During the outing, the Pensioners toured Merval Barracks where the Recovery Centre is based and visited the military corrective centre. They also had the opportunity to try out modern range finders. Pensioner Michael Campbell-Smith compared them with those he’d used in the Army:  

“Our range-finders had a split image. They had two lenses and you could see two pictures. You had to wind the knob until you had one picture and that gave you the range. Now it sends a laser beam which bounces off something and comes back again. Very accurate if it bounces off the thing you’re aiming at, but if there’s a pole sticking up, it can give you the wrong reading.” 

Sampling today’s 24-hour ration packs – which can be eaten hot or cold – also brought back memories for the Pensioners, who recalled ‘hot cans’ that self-heated when you pulled a ring.   

One of the high points of the visit was an opportunity to join a pen-making class. Each Pensioner chose a piece of wood and used a lathe to craft a personalised pen. The activity was about more than just creating a pen though, as Captain Cochlan explains:

“The whole idea is to get your mind off something that’s bothering you. You’re focused on making the pen. And you get a finished product from the raw material, so you’re reaching your goal if and achieving something.”

Michael Campbell-Smith is very proud of the pen he made:

“I thought I could never do that. It taught me that I was more skilful than I thought I was. It’s very rewarding to see something being created out of a lump of wood. You’ve got an end product, you can say ‘I can do that’. I could have stayed there all day! It’s very therapeutic.”

All in all, the Pensioners found the visit illuminating, while Captain Cochlan says recovery centres like Chavasse play an important role in bridging the gap between military and civilian life:

“Before the Recovery Centres, if somebody was injured to the point where they wouldn’t be able to recover and go back to full service, a doctor would give them a medical discharge. It’s a much better system now. The guys are better looked after and better prepared for civvy street.” 

Chelsea Pensioners: (L-R) Michael Campbell-Smith, Ted Heath, Tony Judge, Charmaine Coleman, Michael Bunce, Fred Boomer-Hawkins
with Captain of Invalids, George Cochlan (back row)


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