#Veterans Speak Out – Rusty Cole

Tell us a bit about yourself, background? 

I am a former RAF member, having served for 15 years as a Driver, Gunner (RAF Regiment), and Operations Officer. I was born in Poole and raised in France, returning to the UK at 18 to join the Forces. After leaving the military in 2018, I transitioned to the defence sector, working with AWE and Lockheed Martin, and currently with Amazon Web Services.

You left the Armed Forces 6 years ago, what are you doing now? 

I am currently employed as a Program Manager in the National Security and Defence Sector, specializing in Operations and Risk Management. I have been in this role for nearly two years.

Can you share a specific moment or accomplishment from your time in the military that you’re particularly proud of? 

My proudest moment was serving as a translator in Central Africa for seven months to support counter-insurgency operations. For my efforts, I was awarded a distinguished operational medal by the French President. Growing up in France, I became fluent in French, which proved invaluable to the Forces and allowed me to travel extensively, often to challenging environments.

What challenges did you face during your transition to civilian employment, and how did you address them? 

The transition to civilian employment presented significant challenges for me. I felt abruptly disconnected from the Forces community, moving from that structured environment to a civilian job at Thames Water as Head of Incident Management. However, the workplace culture and values were vastly different from what I was accustomed to, leading me to resign after just three months. I even contemplated re-enlisting, but the Forces were not receptive. 

Consequently, I experienced a two-month period of unemployment before securing a position at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). During this transition, I also struggled with mental health issues stemming from my tour of duty in Africa. Although I was informally diagnosed with PTSD by a chaplain, he was unable to offer further assistance due to having to meet his wife to go shopping……. (long story)!

What do you feel are the main differences in culture and environment between military and civilian workplaces? 

The differences between military and civilian workplaces are significant. In the military, there is a strong sense of pride in service and an unwavering commitment to completing the mission, regardless of obstacles. The mantra is to find a way to get the job done, no matter the status, cost, or resources. In contrast, I often observe that corporate teams tend to adopt an “it can’t be done” mentality when faced with challenges, citing various limitations. This mindset is contrary to the military’s approach, where any form of progress, no matter how small, is valued.

Can you describe a mentor or leader who had a significant impact on you during your time in the armed forces? 

As a young driver, I had the privilege of being the Station Commander’s driver for Air Commodore Colin Basnet. Spending long hours with him and transporting dignitaries to high-profile events, I was humbled by how he always took the time to discuss current issues and how best to address them, regardless of my junior rank. He consistently viewed every situation as a learning opportunity, a mindset I have carried forward in all my endeavours.

Have you stayed connected with fellow veterans since leaving the military? How important is that sense of camaraderie to you? 

Staying connected with fellow veterans is extremely important to me. In my diverse workplace at Amazon and AWS, I frequently encounter other veterans, who often stand out with their bold, direct, and to-the-point demeanour. These shared experiences and relationships help keep me engaged and focused, as we often remember the good times together. Additionally, I support the Forces network by raising money and awareness for their mental health charities. I also provide a safe space for veterans to learn and develop their cycling maintenance skills while discussing their military experiences. Sports, especially cycling, can serve as a powerful way to break down barriers and encourage veterans to open up about their past.

How do you think civilians can better understand and support veterans? What do you miss most about being in the military? 

Sometimes, all it takes is the ability to listen. Some veterans feel more comfortable talking about their experiences with strangers, while others prefer to speak only with those who shared the same experiences. Understanding the lifestyle and mentality of someone from a Forces background can be challenging. Veterans carry certain traits, such as punctuality, cleanliness, and attention to detail, long after leaving the service. For many, a job in the Forces is more than just a job; it defines them, pushes them to achieve more, and becomes a core part of their identity. Recognizing this inherent lifestyle is key to fully supporting veterans.

Do I miss it? Absolutely. However, we all have to leave the Forces someday. The deployments and travel were beyond anything I could have imagined, but it’s the people you serve with who ultimately get you through it all. The ones who made you laugh and the memories of those who didn’t make it home stay with you forever.

What do you think are some common misconceptions people have about veterans, and how do you address them?

Veterans are often described as rigid, aggressive, harsh, and unapologetic in the workplace. To address these misconceptions, give veterans a task, role, activity, or program that has either failed, stalled, or been deemed impossible to progress – and watch them excel!

Looking back, is there anything you wish you had known or done differently during your transition out of the military?

Yes, three key things: First, the power of LinkedIn; second, the importance of CV preparation and templates; and third, the use of spider diagrams. These insights completely transformed my approach to planning for future roles.


Rusty Cole’s journey from the RAF to the civilian workforce highlights both the challenges and triumphs faced by veterans. His dedication and adaptability have led him to a successful career in the defence sector, currently excelling as a Program Manager with Amazon Web Services. Rusty’s proudest military achievement, serving as a translator in Central Africa, exemplifies his commitment and skill. His transition, marked by initial struggles with cultural differences and mental health, underscores the need for better support systems for veterans. Rusty’s story is a testament to the resilience and value veterans bring to any organisation, advocating for greater understanding and support for those who have served. Discover more about Rusty’s journey and insights in our #VeteransSpeakOut interview series.

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