Jim Bowden (Class of 1980)

Jim Bowden (Class of 1980) served for 28 years in the Royal Engineers, commanding 21 Engineer Regiment and serving in the Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq and Northern Ireland. He is now an Executive Director at AECOM, the global infrastructure consultancy and also a Trustee of the FirstLight Trust, which works with emergency services and armed forces veterans.

Can you tell us what your current job involves?

Our company advises on engineering to clients across the spectrum – from private business to institutions and government departments. Education, health, science, travel, technology. There isn’t anybody we don’t work for! We could be repurposing a building into a five-star hotel, designing or managing the build of a school, barracks, airfield, or port - or excavating archaeological sites prior to HS2.

Was it your military background that qualified you to do this?

I’m not a qualified engineer or an architect. But I have a degree of relevant experience and maybe an ability to lead people because of my military background.

I don’t start by thinking people will let me down. I do the opposite - and I think that’s a military approach. I start on the presumption that people want to do the best they can. I just want to encourage them and create the opportunities for them to do that. I believe passionately in delegation. There’s a quote: you need to delegate to a position of extreme discomfort, and then delegate a bit more.

When did you first know you wanted to go into the military?

When I joined the School at 13 – my brothers were already there – the thing I looked forward to most was joining the CCF. It was absolutely brilliant. That’s when I first thought the military would be quite interesting. By fifth form, I’d decided I wanted to join the military as a career.

But I went to university and changed my mind and thought I’d like to be a mountaineer or something silly. I was reading Geography at Liverpool – I picked all the outdoor topics that meant I could spend time in the mountains.

But then my father pointed out I had a lot of debt and needed a proper job. I applied for a lot of things I didn’t really understand and had a job with Royal Insurance for about eight months before I decided, again, that I wanted to join the Army.

Mine-clearance in the Falklands, leading bomb disposal teams in Iraq… did you take those high-stress roles in your stride or did it take time to adjust?

I didn’t find it stressful – not because I’m some sort of lunatic or iceman, but because the whole purpose of bomb disposal is to protect life. So it’s all about safety: getting everybody out of the way and having a cup of tea and thinking about your strategy.

In counter-terrorism, it is more of a mind game: you have to ask what the target is, and if you can’t work that out, then the target must be you. But if you are 100 metres back then you are safe. I mean, I think my wife found it stressful, but as a military wife, you get used to all sorts of nonsense and people being away.

I never thought about it being stressful. It was just great fun.

What is something that civilians don’t know or understand about military life?

I don’t think TV ever shows what the military is really like. In dramas, senior officers are old and fat; idiots in a smart uniform. Colonel Blimps. We haven’t had those types of leaders for generations - in fact we never have. And it’s a myth that the Army is all about shouting and giving orders. In real life, things happen by consent and trust. The modern army does rely on orders, but the culture is generally very collaborative and consensus-based.

How did your view of the world change during your time in the army?

Everything changed because of the end of two linked things. The Cold War was simpler to understand: it was NATO versus the Russians and even military conflict was conducted under rules. Modern conflict is now ‘war among the people’ and it’s much more complex world: it’s impossible in some circumstances to identify combatants from civilians and often people are switching rapidly between the two roles.

The main actors now are frequently independent or quasi-independent terror organisations. States, proxy actors, all sorts. It’s very complex.

The world is not going to end tomorrow but there are a lot of dangerous people out there and I think a lot of the UK population has switched off to it, which is a worry.

Was there one tour of duty that especially shocked you?

There were definitely times when I was scared. I didn’t show it because you don’t. It comes when you feel helpless. In Iraq, living in Portakabins at an airfield in Basra, we were attacked with rockets and mortars every night for weeks on end. Portakabins are paper thin: there’s not much you can do if a rocket hits them.

If I were out on patrol with my team I never felt helpless but there were moments where I thought, ‘Blimey, this could go badly wrong.’ The massing of crowds I always kept my eye out for. Then I would find myself leading patrols in vehicles through the desert in the dead of night thinking, ‘What am I doing here?!’ but then also, ‘I’ve got eight other people with me and I’m the boss and they need me to be in control…’

Northern Ireland was very weird. I suppose, like Iraq, like anywhere, it just seems full of normal people and you want to trust everybody but you know there must be the odd bad person or else why are we there?

The Balkans was just incredibly depressing and shocking. Europeans being barbaric to other Europeans in places where you might have gone on holiday to. So brutal and cruel and pointless. When you see some of the consequences of that in person, it’s just so awful.

But you are skilled and trained and you have people around you and it’s your job. We’re armed, we’ve got helmets. It’s not that bad. It’s a volunteer army. You can always leave. The people that really bear the brunt are the wives, partners and children.

In those conflict zones, you are living in a very intense way over long periods, with no let-up. Do you need a certain personality to do that?

It is intense and you are perpetually tired – but never hung over because you don’t drink. You can operate on a lot less sleep than you think. But you are tired. There’s a physicality to a lot of it and the kit is quite heavy and Iraq in the summer is extremely hot – so it is wearing. But I think you grab hold of small moments. You end up at an American base and they have pizza and you think, ‘I’ll have a slice of pizza, that’ll be fun.’

You become a bit more mindful and celebrate the little positive things: the chef who went a bit further than he needed to in terms of producing a lovely meal. Humour, I guess, is the most important thing.

Also, not to trivialise it, but on a certain level, it is a great adventure and there is a pleasure in that and there’s the pleasure of doing a good job whether it’s turning the power back on or opening a school or stopping people shooting at each other. Those pictures you see of young soldiers handing out chocolates to small children in the streets: there is something really marvellous about that. That’s what motivates them. Us.

When you say ‘stopping people shooting each other’, are you thinking of a particular event?

Yeah. I think people think Iraq was quite straight forward but it was really quite complicated. There were Sunni and Shia factions and warring tribes all shooting at each other and shooting at us. We ran a series of operations to secure the powerline between Basra and Baghdad. Electricity is the most important supply to maintain, even more than water: without electricity you can’t pump the water. And every night the tribes would shoot at each other, fighting for control of the power line, because they wanted to get hold of the cable and sell it.

They would turn up in vehicles and shoot at each other and we would come along with armoured vehicles in between them and point the guns at them and tell them to go away and eventually they did.

In the end, we said we would give both sides the value of the cable to go away and they agreed. We just paid them off in order to deliver power to tens of thousands of people – it just made sense. There was a lot of politics and gentle manipulation.

We did unusual projects, too. We set up and ran the city tip because they had no refuse collection. We incentivised them to bring rubbish and then we realised that some people were bringing the same bag of rubbish and taking it away again all day and making hundreds of dollars! You had to really think about how you do these things. I liked that intellectual challenge.

Do you feel optimistic about whether the world’s conflict zones can ultimately be healed?

In the long run, success in those areas will not be down to us, as outsiders. It’s down to the normal decent people in those places, and whether they can outweigh the toxic people. I think the Average Joes are pretty good wherever you go. And one thing we can say is that in our country is that we have nothing to worry about compared to what millions of people have to put up with every day of their lives.

You are involved in FirstLight Trust, so you know first-hand that not every soldier takes the return to civilian life in their stride…

Yes, some people find it really hard. Our charity has been going nine years. It’s been hard but very interesting. Primarily, we try and support people with mental health issues, not necessarily PTSD, but basically individuals and their families who have fallen through the cracks. Leaving the armed forces or police can be a shock. Most people don’t need any support; some people need an enormous amount. I don’t think any of it, other than PTSD, is the direct fault of being in the military. I think maybe the military life can mask things: the military looks after people – you’ll never starve, you’ll always have a bed, an education programme, and structure in your life.

For some, the world outside can be a scary place and if that is added to by drink or drug or debt or mental health problems, it can spiral out of control. So the transition can vary but we try to offer a little bit of help in the right direction: some coaching, some mentoring, just some listening.

But most people lead very fulfilled lives when they leave the military and add a lot to society. They make great employees, a point we are always pushing. They’re punctual, loyal, hard-working, they have high standards. They get on and do a good job.

Which subjects did you enjoy at school?

I did Geography, History and Politics for A-Level. I liked Politics the most, Geography I liked because it involved the outdoors. History I didn’t really get on with. I did what my mother would describe as the bare minimum and my reports would use words like ‘lazy’. I was good at exams - I got As and a B - But my heart wasn’t in it. And I didn’t really thrive academically at University either.

The characters I remember most from school were the ones who ran the CCF, who were great people, really fun: Martin Clements, Pat Whitmore, Knotty Hart.

Apart from cadets, which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

I loved every sport apart from swimming, which I hate. First-team cricket, rugby, football, a bit of fencing, mountain climbing in the cadets – and I loved drama too. The only thing I didn’t really do at school was the academic bit!

I’d have been happy just doing the CCF and playing sport all day and that’s mainly what I tried to do. Sixth form especially was phenomenal. Like a big club. We’d meet in a café for breakfast and try to go to the pub at lunchtime. We had a lot of freedom. I couldn’t think of anything better than going to school.

Did CLS shape you as a person?

I think the freedom we were given, the way we were treated responsibly and even the responsibility of getting yourself into the middle of London and back every day was all very important for us… I really did enjoy every minute of it.