How Justin Donnelly turned Defence experience into a new civilian career

Why former Army psychological examiner Justin Donnelly sought a career change at RSL LifeCare Veteran Services, and how he empowers veterans in the new role.

At a glance:

  • Justin spent 12 years in the Army, nine of those as a psychological examiner, and transitioned out in late 2021.
  • Finding work at RSL LifeCare Veteran Services has allowed him to continue facilitating the connection between veterans and the financial, educational and psychological assistance they seek.
  • Transferable skills he has brought to the new role from Defence include critical thinking and adaptability.
  • His new career offers him the chance to be a force for good in the lives of fellow veterans.

Justin Donnelly spent almost a decade as a psychological examiner in the Army before joining RSL LifeCare Veteran Services as Operations Manager. The new role was a natural next step after years of providing psychological support to peers in the military.

Now, just over a year since transitioning out, Justin explains how he embraced the shift from Defence to civilian life by helping fellow veterans in his role at RSL LifeCare Veteran Services, and how the role has proven rewarding.

Career in Army Psychology

I served more than 12 years in the Australian Army, the last nine in Army Psychology as a psychological examiner, where I was a sergeant.

Serving in artillery wasn’t a long-term career for me. Once I was helping mates get support at the unit’s health centre when I saw uniformed officers working in psychology roles. I thought, that’s me – that’s my next move. So I transferred from artillery to Army Psychology.

I worked alongside the uniformed registered psychologists, providing low- to mid-level mental health treatment including acute intervention and mental health screening.

For my three years at the 1st Psychology Unit in Townsville, I specialised and focused on human performance and mentoring. I was responsible for mentoring junior soldiers through an Army resilience training program and providing them with access to a range of support services, so they start on the right foot.

Finding a new direction

I finished up in December 2021, and started looking for employment where I could support veterans and the Defence community, because that’s what I was passionate about. That’s what attracted me to RSL LifeCare Veteran Services.

I’d had enough shared experiences to understand what soldiers go through. My background has been around supporting soldiers on the ground, so I don’t ever want to be too far from the reality of what veterans are experiencing.

For example, in October last year, a woman posted on a Department of Veteran Affairs’ entitlements Facebook page about her situation. She had experienced financial hardship, family relationship breakdown and was on the verge of experiencing homelessness. I reached out to her directly and within 48 hours she was linked into our services.

A week later, she came into our Homes for Heroes program to receive support from our case managers, who provide support including financial assistance, educational opportunities, DVA claims and advocacy, and pathways into affordable and sustainable housing options.

My experience with the veteran made me recognise I will always have those moments where I realise directly, on a human level, why I do what I do.

Transferable skills

On the management side, my experience in Defence left me with transferable leadership skills that have helped in finding a job in the civilian sector.

In the past I’ve met managers who are not critical thinkers. They’re faced with a complex or dynamic, unfolding situation and they don’t know what to do. Military experience helps me to stay composed in these sorts of situations.

It also provides adaptability. In Defence, you learn to roll with the punches. You’ll always have a plan, but also a backup if the plan fails. You’re always thinking, “If this doesn’t work, this is what we need to do to achieve the task objectives or outcomes.”

In the civilian sector, you see veterans become unsure about their decision-making ability when things don’t go right the first time. They’re used to having the support of a team to achieve goals. That’s where you have to become adept at remaining calm and composed.

Life-changing support

Often, the dynamic and unfolding situations we encounter involve human beings. They might come to us because they’re behind on their electricity bill this month, for instance. When they do, we run a comprehensive wellbeing assessment to discover the underlying issues. It means we can offer support to help stop the issue from recurring.

We’re not a crutch; we don’t pay people’s bills forever. Instead, we help people recognise their strengths and opportunities. We might link them with free courses to boost their skills, or support services to help reverse their situation. At all times, we keep the veteran at the centre of their own care journey.

I’ve responded to critical incidents many times while on operations. I’ve seen and heard the worst of what humans can do, so I have my own baggage in a sense. But being proactive, I want to keep moving forward and support people to improve their situation.

The end user is the veteran. The support they don’t receive could cost them their life, and we all know I’m not being dramatic by saying that.

So if we can keep moving things forward and improving things for veterans, it will absolutely be life-changing for those who have served.


A version of this article was published in the December issue of Reveille magazine.

Supporting fellow veterans is part and parcel of Justin’s day job. Contribute to a good cause by making a sub-Branch donation to the Veteran Support Fund.

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