Anniversary brings meeting of minds over veterans affairs
Wars and conflicts are driven by division but put together a group of servicemen from a variety of nations and they will find common ground. The same is true of veterans. As the 40th Anniversary of the South Atlantic Conflict draws nearer two men, whose nations were at war in 1982, talk to Glyn Strong about the universality of ‘being a veteran’ and how best to deliver support to these very diverse communities.
CEO of London-based charity Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, and Argentine Ambassador HE Javier Figueroa, have the same aspiration; to ensure that, in their respective countries, former servicemen and women are able to live with dignity and respect.
Those who participate in wars do not initiate them; they do so at the bidding of others. Whether as peacekeepers, attackers or defenders, they undertake to carry out, unquestioningly, actions that put them in harm’s way. Eventually however, those who once wore uniforms become civilians again.
In terms of how they live the rest of their lives, national context is often the determinant. Many of Argentina’s ‘Malvinas Veterans’ are former conscripts, whereas the UK’s ‘Falklands Veterans’ are overwhelmingly former career soldiers, sailors and airmen. Forty years on, they are ALL just men and women trying to survive in a climate of economic hardship, unprecedented global threats and personal challenges.
Hugh Milroy: “We know that the social, economic and cultural factors of their respective countries shape the post-military experiences of ex-servicemen and women, but underlying these differences is a unifying expectation of respect and acknowledgement. Veterans Aid offers a validated model of support and wellbeing that transcends language and nationality. I am honoured that Ambassador Figueroa approached us in the spirit of inquiry and mutual interest and I look forward to further dialogue.”
In the UK there are around 2.5m veterans – in Argentina just 22,857; these latter are now on Javier Figueroa’s radar. It’s his second posting to London and one to which he brings a fervent desire to build bridges. He was a university student in 1982 and although not a combatant, is part of the generation that went to war over the future of the disputed South Atlantic islands. Much of his subsequent diplomatic career has been related and he is personally acquainted with veterans who found themselves in “very hard situations” as a result of the war. He recalls that for he and his contemporaries, as for many in the UK, the speed at which events escalated 40 years ago was a shock.
On the cusp of the Anniversary, both nations are giving thought to how events might best be memorialised and interpreted.
Javier Figueroa: “I believe that those who fought need recognition from their nations and thanks. That ‘thank you’ can take many forms such as healthcare, respect and economic aid. In Argentina we define veterans as those who fought in a war and who have a direct link with operations. There is a universe of difference between the Argentine definition of veteran and the UK definition.
“Also, the veterans community in Argentina is comprised of mostly men in their 60s. Here, where one day’s service qualifies someone as a veteran, you deal with very different kinds of problems - say, pressures that lead to young families falling apart, drug abuse - completely different.”
There is a huge difference, too, in the way that veteran care is delivered - something the two men have also discussed.
Javier Figueroa: “In Argentina we have a federal system. Each province has a different system, a different law. There is a national law, of course, that guarantees that all veterans receive an honorific pension that is equivalent to three minimum wages. It also enshrines the right to a special pension for disabled veterans. Additionally, each province decides on its own scheme. The socio-economic environments at the subnational level are different. If you go to Buenos Aires, it is a big city, it’s like London, you know, you see a big city modern, very cosmopolitan. But if you go to other provinces that are less populated with a different level of development, infrastructure, there are different political cultures. “
Hugh Milroy: “Our recent meetings, ahead of the 2022 Anniversary, represent an attempt to focus on the universality of the veteran experience. For most millennials (i.e. those reaching young adulthood in the early 21st century) the Falklands/Malvinas Conflict is a forgotten war, an event that took place before they were born in a place they are never likely to visit - yet it impacted on hundreds of veterans and civilians who are alive today - in Britain and in Argentina.
“Ambassador Figueroa and I are seeking to build on the common experiences of men and women who served in the Armed Forces and to share best practice in terms of their care and support. I regard his decision to learn about, and work with, Veterans Aid as a mutually enriching process. We must never forget the sacrifices made by the members of our respective Services, but the best way we can honour our veterans today is by supporting them - regardless of rank, ethnicity, age, gender or length of service.”
Veterans Aid was founded in 1932 to deliver immediate practical support to ex-servicemen and women in crisis. Commitment to doing this with speed and efficiency has been its hallmark ever since. Its Welfare to Wellbeing© pathway has proved transformational for many UK veterans who had given up hope. Over the past 90 years it has reached out to former UK serviceman and women in more than 70 countries and interacted, in an advisory capacity, with government and veterans organisations worldwide.
Javier Figueroa: “I can see at least a couple of areas of co-operation with Veterans Aid. One is for my country to take note of its technical approach - the process, through which a small team deals with stressful situations in a very practical way, not involving a large infrastructure, and providing immediate relief, on the spot. This is, I think, a very interesting way to approach certain critical situations. And not only for veterans in distress - I think for many other social problems you could apply that. For example, for women in distress. In Argentina there are now organisations that deal with domestic violence using the same approach that Veterans Aid has to veterans, and are successful because they get in fast, before the situation escalates to something terrible.
“I was reading in the paper just recently, the tragic story of this toddler who lost her life because nobody reacted and intervened immediately. In contrast, this way to work is very valuable and I think that organisations working with veterans in Argentina could profit from this experience. There is a language barrier, but it is not unbeatable and this is one area in which technical co-operation is possible. An alternative could be, perhaps in one province or through the Ministry of Defence, to develop a small structure – a pilot scheme or project that mimics the Veterans Aid initiative – a crack unit to deal with special cases.”
Differences notwithstanding, Javier Figueroa believes that the political and symbolic value of the mooted alliance with Veterans Aid is significant.
Javier Figueroa: “It’s a very positive thing and I have already spoken to the chairman of a big organisation in Argentina, dealing mainly with officers. They are very eager to have contact with their counterparts. I can see a couple of ways in which we can co-operate and how my country might take notice of the Veterans Aid approach - for example, in the way that a small team can de-fuse a stressful situation in a very practical way.”
As 2021 draws to a close, groups in both countries will be reflecting on the legacy of the conflict. Inevitably words like ‘sacrifice’ and ‘pride’ will feature prominently but, for those who fought, the reality was grim and the post-conflict experience of being a veteran with legacy issues, a difficult one. The brutal 10-week engagement involved 22,857 Argentine troops and 25,948 British; 887 service personnel lost their lives (237 British and 650 Argentine). Many more - on both sides - were wounded or left with invisible scars.
It will be a sensitive time for both nations and feelings of nationalism will understandably be stirred, but the UK and Argentina have enjoyed a diplomatic relationship since 1823 and have much shared history.
Javier Figueroa: “I think that the focus now should be on the things that bring us together. The boys, the soldiers that fought in the war, have tremendous symbolic capital - they are entitled to say something about their experience and, I think, when you put veterans from both sides in contact it is fantastic because it creates camaraderie. It’s immediate. I think it's because when you face something terrible in your life, even if you are on different sides, you create some connection. It’s very powerful talking with someone of whom you can say ‘Forty years ago, this guy wanted to kill me, and I wanted to kill him’, but we also shared an experience.
“Veterans voices are very powerful, because they invested so much; they invested their own lives. War magnifies everything for those who took part, it is completely outside normal experience – it will always be in their memory.”
Much has changed in the world since 1982 and both men are conscious that the future everyone now faces is an uncertain and unsettling one.
Hugh Milroy: “All historical events viewed through the prism of hindsight and time prompt reflection. Working together has never been more important. Issues like climate change and the global COVID pandemic unite countries far more meaningfully than territorial or political disputes ever divided them. These life changing threats affect everyone, regardless of nationality. In the same way, the experience of being a veteran is so much bigger than having served in the Armed Forces.”
A single act of co-operation between a UK veterans charity and an Argentine diplomat may seem like a small step, but it is a step in the right direction – and small actions have consequences. Two anecdotes relayed by the ambassador perhaps best sum up its symbolism.
Javier Figueroa: “Today I received a belt from an Argentine uniform. It had been in the possession of a Royal Marine who, in 1982, took it as a war trophy. Forty years later he got in contact and today I wrote a letter to this gentleman to say thank you, because returning it was very kind and gallant. It meant something to his partner because it was part of his life.This was an act from one veteran to another. Some months ago, a British veteran returned the remains of a plane that was shot down during the conflict. These gestures bring us closer. Maybe some people will say, this was nothing, and not relevant, but I don't think so.
“Emotions are strong and probably we will have some agitation regarding that 40th anniversary, but because of that, I think that initiatives like this contact (with Veterans Aid) are really, really important. Global challenges like climate change and conservation will define the international agenda. Closer cooperation is not only desirable, it is now necessary, not only with UK, but with everybody.”
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