Who is Sulle?
I think I’m now a decent person with a good heart, I’m trustworthy, reliable and tries to do the right thing. I guess I’m just a regular guy who made mistakes, I didn’t have a mentor or father figure to look up to. I got lost several times but now I want to make amends by helping others and letting them know that if I can help them make the right decisions, then I will, as I know what it’s like to plough through life without any support or a mentor.
Who are your role models?
During my formative years, I didn’t have any black mentors, hence I made a lot of mistakes. Now I look for decent people with a good moral compass, have compassion and are very effective in their chosen field of work, such as; Nelson Mandela, Lieutenant General James Bashall and Muhammad Ali.
What do you do in your downtime?
Mountain biking, woodwork, repairing mountain bikes and travelling. I also care for, my disabled wife.
For people, who don’t know what you do in your career, what is your job title and what does it entail?
I started off as a soldier in the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, I then transferred to the Royal Army Physical Training Corps and got promoted up through the ranks, I’m now an officer. I was asked to put together a team to engage with the BAME community and in particular the youth element. I handpicked 9 soldiers and designed the Army Youth Outreach Team, known as the AYOT. We engage with the youth of Britain, from 11 to 16 years of age. We have an award-winning presentation where we inform the audience about what we’re doing in the Army, we have a suite of equipment used to improve communication skills, develop leadership and problem-solving. We deliver STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) activities and lessons covering Science, Forensics, Nutrition etc.
Why did you join the British Army? What was it like?
For a personal challenge, excitement and to make a difference. It was extremely hard, 87 recruits started and 11 finished the parachute regiment training. Hence, it’s not for the faint-hearted. It was extremely rewarding once we finished training. At times I felt invincible and could do anything.
Were your family and friends supportive on your chosen career path?
Initially, my family were against me joining the Army as my mother thought I would die. She did not attend my passing out parade which was really sad as I was the only soldier without a mum attending. I then went to the Falklands War and my mother was beside herself as she thought I would not come back alive, she was a classical worrier. My father left when I was 13 and he didn’t really have an opinion that I could take into consideration as I’d lost all respect for him, but that’s another story.
What attracts you to the world of Engagement in the Army?
I just wanted one black youth to join the army and have the same amount of fun I’ve had. When I first started this job I noticed how students hung on every word I said and they viewed me as a real-life model, this gave me the drive to expand my audience by engaging with the more challenging youths such as Academies, Pupil Referral Units and Secure Homes. The students think they’re bad and want to be gangsters but when I tell them what I’ve done and how I came through and changed my life, it acts as a real example of social mobility and how you can succeed from an authentic person who has actually experienced it themselves.
A lot of the kids/teenagers and people including myself can really relate to you, why do you think that is?
I’ve been told it’s because I’m passionate, authentic, energetic and tell the truth, warts and all. I’ve been delivering my own personal story of overcoming adversity, which I deliver to the disenfranchised such as those in Pupal Referral Units (PRU) and secure Homes, the feedback I’ve received has been so positive that I feel compelled to continue delivering my story as it has made this cohort actually think about their actions, as they hear it from someone who has succeeded but came from the worst childhood than themselves
How different is the Army now from when you first joined?
The Army has changed hugely and for the better. I joined in the days when it was normal to use inappropriate language, heavy-handed discipline and humiliation which is not tolerated today. We now have Equality Diversity & Inclusivity (ED&I) trained representatives in each unit who attend annual an annual ED&I conferences. We now have a robust policy to deal with anyone who discriminates against someone else. We have mandated annual training which includes subjects such as ‘Respect for others’ so those who subsequently discriminate have no excuse and are then dealt with swiftly. Finally, the Army does not tolerate any form of discrimination, which is reassuring to people like me who actually experienced discrimination back in the early days.
You are the highest-ranking black officer in the Army, how difficult was it to get to where you are now?
It’s been a long, interesting and at times extremely painful journey. I joined as a soldier and worked my way up through the ranks, this takes time, dedication and self-belief. The jobs I’ve done have all been interesting and I was allowed to put my spin on each job and add value, which resulted in being promoted. We now have two other BAME officers who are actually higher than me but they joined as officers via the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, whereas I came up through the ranks and then gained a commission. Their journey demonstrates that BAME people can succeed by joining as a soldier or a direct entry officer via Sandhurst.
The Army launched the BAME network recently do you think this is beneficial for Army staff?
Yes, as it provides BAME soldiers with a feeling of inclusivity as they have a specific network to offer support. It’s also important that the Army chain of command have a point of contact to ask advice on cultural issues, such as the wearing of beards, dreadlocks etc. So the networks are good for both the soldiers and the bosses. Finally, when I’m engaging with the public, I received very positive feedback when I tell them that take we cater for all religions and have a structured network for most ethnicities.
What is your biggest achievement so far?
Being able to mentor so many young soldiers, being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and being able to create the Army Youth Outreach Team, which has been a huge success.
What memory in the Army still stays with you? Good or Bad?
Taking part in the Falklands War. Receiving my Commendation from the boss of the Army. Being the first person to ride a horse in the Calgary Stampede. Taking my wife to a Falklands conference and she witnessed a friend telling the audience how I saved his life. Being present when the Berlin Wall came down.
Have you ever received any negativity whilst being in the Army?
Only in the early days when we didn’t have the D&I infrastructure in place and initiation tests were the norm.
Since you have been in the Army what positive changes have you made that you are proud of?
I created a new management process for the assurance of physical training, sport and adventurous training which is used across the Army, it changed the way we deliver training. I stopped widespread racial discrimination in my first regiment. I created the Army Youth Outreach Team which has since become the leaders of engagement within the Army. By default, I’ve now become a positive true model for other younger BAME soldiers to emulate, which I’m very proud to be seen like that.
You are very proud of your Engagement team and rightly so. Is it important to work with a team with the same vision?
Fundamentally yes but only to a point, I encourage them to have an opinion and share that opinion with me and the other team members. We obviously need to stick to some rules, such as we don’t actively recruit due to the age of our audience. Other than that, they are individuals who I selected due to their ability to engage and communicate. I want them to think on their feet but be part of a very effective team who look after each other, which includes looking after me.
Anyone wanting to join the Army what would you say to them?
Basic training is going to be tough but always concentrate on the end product. Once you’re fully trained then look for other areas that interest you and get yourself on a relevant course. Don’t just drink your money away, save it up and do something positive with it. Aim high and look for good mentors to assist you to achieve your full potential.
What is next for Lt Col Sulle Alhaji?
I leave the Army next August, I would like to get into public speaking, I’d like to continue engaging with the more challenging groups and I would love to continue with this job. Other than that, I may just coach mountain biking, repair bikes and do bespoke woodwork.
Finally, As of Easter 2019, I was diagnosed with having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It resulted in cancelling all my bookings to talk to disenfranchised groups for about 4 weeks. I then realised that my story affects so many that I must try to get back out and deliver it. I’ve been lucky enough to receive cognitive treatment which has allowed me to recognise that I need to get back out and deliver my story.