Mo Ahmed tells his unique story of joining the RAF as a young Muslim in 1980s Britain, progressing through the ranks and then transitioning to the business world after 33 years of military service.
Given that my decision to enter the Forces was highly unusual for a young man of Pakistani background in 1980s Britain, it’s no surprise that it happened purely by chance. My interest originated from an unexpected encounter I had as a tall and gangly 17-year old on a shopping trip to Bradford. When walking past the local job centre I was offered a cup of tea by a large white man in military uniform, with tattoos covering the length of his arms. I was a little taken aback by his imposing presence, but my curiosity and the offer of a free cup of tea got the better of me. I’m a Yorkshireman at heart, after all!
I went into the office and was in the middle of hearing about what it was like to work in the Army from the Sergeant, when another man wearing a light blue shirt walked past me. I asked why the man’s uniform was different, and was told that it was because he was in the Royal Air Force. Curious, I followed the man upstairs to find out more – and when he put a brochure in front of me showing an F2 Tornado, I felt the same rush of excitement as I did when I saw a red Ferrari in my Top Trumps cars. I was desperate to see one in the flesh.
I was sold, but my family weren’t. Nobody from my community had ever joined a military environment and, naturally, they were concerned about what I would face. It was a blank ‘no’; they said it just wasn’t something that our community does.
Undeterred and ultimately against my family’s wishes, I signed on the dotted line and, in November 1984, arrived at RAF Swinderby to begin my six-week basic induction course.
After completing my initial training and then airframes engineering training at RAF Halton, I was posted to RAF Coningsby – the home of the Phantom, Tornado F2/F3 aircraft and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. The moment had come to see the planes up close and start settling into squadron life.
It was a mixed bag; I loved the engineering work but didn’t enjoy the racism, which was considered banter in those days. That, and the lack of consideration by the RAF for my religious and dietary needs, was hard to take and began to wear me down. The final straw came when my superior tore up my leave application to celebrate Eid, after which I was put on guard duty on Christmas Day. Christmas Day isn’t holy in Islam, of course – but this one happened to be my 21st birthday. Those two negative experiences prompted me to think carefully about my future in the RAF. I reasoned that if this had been my experience after three years of service, perhaps it would be better to leave.
“I was sold, but my family weren’t. Nobody from my community had ever joined a military environment and, naturally, they were concerned about what I would face.”
As part of the exit process I had to attend a Squadron Commanders’ interview. Upon being asked why I had decided to go, I told the Squadron Leader everything that I had experienced. I was very surprised by his response. He told me that he wasn’t aware of any of the issues I had mentioned, would address them and that, from this one engagement alone, he thought I had great potential. He said that he found me to be very mature and that he could see me as an Engineer Officer one day. There was something very sincere about him and he clearly saw something in me that I didn’t. Long story short, Senior Aircraftsman Ahmed was persuaded to withdraw his application to leave and to this day is very grateful to the Squadron Leader, sadly now passed away, for this intervention.
Challenges and opportunities
As predicted by the Squadron Leader, I had a great RAF career and went on to complete over 33 years’ service: 16 as a non-commissioned Airframes Engineer and the other 17 as a Communications and Electronics Engineer Officer. I retired as a Wing Commander, with career highlights including working on many different types of aircraft, including my dream F3 Tornado, Phantom, Harrier and Hawks – including the Red Arrows and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
My commissioned career was very varied, including operational tours in my specialisation as an Engineer Officer but during which I was also able to employ my linguistic, cultural and religious expertise. I received an MBE from her Majesty the Queen for Op TELIC, and during my NATO tour was deployed to Pakistan to carry out Humanitarian Disaster Relief duties where I briefed the Pakistani military hierarchy and village elders in their languages and dialects – amazing, the skills you can pick up in Halifax!
Remembering my experience as an airman and the impact of bullying and harassment, I made it a personal mission that wherever and whenever I could help the RAF and other services to address such issues I would do so willingly. I am proud of the part I played in helping to establish equality and diversity networks and supporting the development of policies to reduce bullying and harassment. Change started to happen because I had some exceptional people to help me who both believed in equality and diversity and were willing to go the extra mile to address issues.
“I received an MBE from her Majesty the Queen for Op TELIC, and during my NATO tour was deployed to Pakistan to carry out Humanitarian Disaster Relief duties where I briefed the Pakistani military hierarchy and village elders in their languages and dialects.”
Outside of the RAF, I had to deal with the realities of life as a Muslim in the UK and, at times, this proved interesting. A particularly notable incident occurred in High Wycombe outside a halal butchers shop, in the aftermath of 9/11, where a passer-by shouted obscenities at me and my family – including the very original ‘Go back to where you came from’ jeer. The level of unconscious bias and venom that the individual had shown was horrendous. I wondered what his reaction would have been if he had stopped to find out that I am actually from Halifax and was, at that time, the Engineering Authority for the UK Air Defence Surveillance Radars, charged with protecting people in the UK – including him.
The challenges of being a Muslim and a British Forces serviceman continued as we entered Iraq and Afghanistan. As you might expect, I was challenged by my own community about why I was operating in an environment that was, in their view, supporting the killing of other Muslims. I now felt ostracised by these people as well as those ignorant people outside of my community – but I wasn’t going to let either beat me or sway me. I realised that I had to demonstrate to them through evidence that they were wrong, and the best place from which to do this was the military.
I felt that minority groups often have to work harder to fit in because of norms that have been established over time in the working environment. This general impression continued to spur me on to work in the areas of recruitment and retention and continue to show a keen interest in diversity and inclusion. As a result, I was approached by the Chief of the Defence Staff, Service Diversity Heads and fellow military Muslims to head up the Armed Forces Muslim Association. Whilst the network was established to help make life better for Muslim service personnel, it covered a range of BAME issues and was used as a template to create other networks with the objective of making the services diverse and a reflection of society – a career highlight of which I am extremely proud.
Path to Civvy Street
I was discharged from the RAF in 2018 after sustaining an on-duty spinal injury. It was completely unexpected and a real blow, but I was very fortunate that the strong reputation I had gained during my time in the Forces meant that I soon had opportunities to pursue in civilian workplaces. In the space of a week, I went from the absolute slump of being told that my military career was over to effectively having five companies offering me a job because they’d liked working with me before and could use my skills.
I opted to join Sopra Steria, a European information technology consultancy, seven months after my eventual release from the RAF. What I really liked about Sopra Steria was they didn’t just dictate what I would be doing when I joined – they asked what I wanted to do. In light of the fact that in all of my RAF posts the common thread was engineering with a large focus on people and leadership, and that I had consolidated this HR experience by achieving a Master’s in Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM), my personal ambition to do something more SHRM-focussed than pure engineering was reinforced.
Having explained this, I had the chance to speak with Sopra Steria’s HR Director. She told me that she’d love to have me working in HR. The Head of Defence then said he’d like to have me working in defence, and the Head of Consultancy said he thought I’d make an excellent consultant. I felt very valued and could see that they really wanted to help me have the best possible experience; one from which both I and the company could really benefit.
“In the space of a week, I went from the absolute slump of being told that my military career was over to effectively having five companies offering me a job because they’d liked working with me before and could use my skills.”
All of the opportunities, training and experience I had in the RAF helped me gain a secure foothold and assisted my transition to the commercial civilian work environment. Attributes espoused in the Forces, including discipline, organisation, preparation and leadership, added to the knowledge I gained through my academic studies, went a long way to allowing me to hit the ground running when I started at Sopra Steria. The next challenge was to find out how the company operated and obtain a better understanding of industry, commercial and financial management and of the myriad of technologies that Sopra Steria has to offer. In my first year, I ran a complex programme with a team of 70 staff. I achieved an excellent level of customer satisfaction and met the challenge of growing the business and the size of my team.
The past 18 months has been a great transition and learning period. My past defence experience allowed me to hit the ground running, but the real success was achieved through being open to learning. I have been particularly impressed with our junior consultants, who bring immense energy and aptitude to all that they seem to do; they are a great reminder to me that although they are less experienced, I can learn a lot from their fresh approach to business. This is also true of the wider consultancy, aerospace, defence, strategic sales, bid, marketing and HR teams, who have taken me under their wing and helped me better understand the Sopra Steria business. I appreciate what they have done for me.
My work in consultancy continues apace and I am already involved in wider company initiatives. On behalf of the Executive Committee, I had the additional responsibility of establishing the Race, Religion and Belief Network for Sopra Steria, for which I am now the Chairman. The objective of the network is to capture issues affecting people’s working lives so that action plans can be developed to address them. This work is moving forward swiftly, and the network is already influencing company policy on recruitment and retention, and holding many events designed for improving diversity awareness (and eating lots of samosas and cakes!).
When reflecting on the successes of my military and civilian careers, I never lose sight of the fact that everything was only made possible because people believed in me. I have tried to mirror the behaviour of those who changed my life and see them as a measure of my own leadership and people skills. My best advice to employers is to avoid pigeonholing service leavers. Military people don’t do just one job – they have to lead people, manage many things concurrently, run projects and operate in high-pressure and fast-changing environments. They are driven, proactive people with a great deal to offer. Tell them about your opportunities and ask them which one would really excite them – that’s how you’ll get the best from them.
Mo placed as a finalist in the New Service Leaver of the Year award at the 2019 British Ex-Forces in Business Awards. He is available to help and assist anybody leaving the Armed Forces and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Ex-Forces in Business Awards is the world’s largest celebration of military veterans in second careers. Our mission is to showcase, highlight and promote the huge value that ex-servicemen and women bring to employers in all sectors and the wider economy, often enabled by the skills and values they gained during their time in the military. Click here for more information.