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Armed Forces drugs policy is leaving legacy of distress

Armed Forces drugs policy is leaving legacy of  distress

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO | Veterans Aid

7 min read Partner content

A recent research paper into the  discharge process for men and women dismissed from the Armed Forces for drug use found it ‘inconsistent and damaging’. Pledges to explore and redress this are welcome, but in the interim frontline charities like Veterans Aid are dealing with its devastating impact on individuals and families. Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the charity, explains why a review of the policy is needed.

This week the VA Ops Team have been deeply involved in trying to support a serving soldier who is just about to be dismissed from the service after having been caught taking drugs.  In effect, the man will be made homeless. 

Needless to say he was distraught and full of remorse, openly admitting that he loved life in the Army, in which he had done a notable number of years.  He is in a technical arm and I couldn’t help reflecting on the waste of taxpayer’s money this man’s instant dismissal represented.

I’m not challenging the need for such a system, but I am pleading for a more mature and realistic approach to the problem. Surely there has to be a better way? It is just plain wrong that someone be serving one day and homeless the next.  Under current rules this is not just  a  possibility, it is happening.

Dismissal for drug use in the Armed Forces can be a blunt instrument. For an estimated 600-700 personnel each year  it means the abrupt loss of employment, income and, in many cases, accommodation. This ‘wastage’ (sic) equates to the manpower of an entire battalion.

In 2019 the then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace revoked the services’ zero tolerance drugs policy in favour of giving individuals a second chance - and he went further, to say that  those who had  been dismissed and wanted to re-join, should be given the opportunity to do so. In recruiting terms, it was expedient.

Today, in line with current guidelines, a positive CDT (Compulsory Drugs Test) result almost certainly means dismissal.

The rights and wrongs of these various policy decisions have been anatomised in all sorts of ways – ethically, operationally, legally and pragmatically; but by any measure an annual ESL (early service leavers) outflow  of 700 from a trained strength of under 137,000 (77,200 in the Army, 29,458 in the Royal Navy/Marines, and 29,941 in the RAF) is significant.

The transition debate is multifaceted and, in my opinion, ripe for modernisation (Milroy: PoliticsHome June 2021) but the system that catapults individuals precipitately back into civilian life without any time to prepare is one that is having demonstrable repercussions. Many of those are CDT casualties. For example:  

‘A’ had served in the Household Division for three years and was well regarded with good career prospects. He took a few puffs of cannabis at a family gathering but failed to report it. ‘A’s CDT failure resulted in notification of dismissal and - even ahead of his formal discharge – he was required to vacate his accommodation. Veterans Aid had to step in to provide emergency hotel accommodation and is STILL working with him on longer-term options.

‘B’ had served for 10 years and attained the rank of sergeant. He failed a CDT for cocaine use and was summarily required to leave his unit. Due to Social Services involvement he was unable to return to the family home and became effectively homeless. Again the Catch-22 system left him dismissed but not formally discharged and therefore unable to access benefits. Faced with the prospect of rough sleeping ‘B’ allowed his mother to pay for a week in a hotel while he rang various military charities for emergency assistance. When he reached Veterans Aid the nightmare stopped.  Talks with  his Unit Welfare Officer resulted in an interim solution – provision of an Army  camp bed until his discharge was completed.

During the course of helping this ex-serviceman  the Veterans Aid  team explored his drug issues; he wanted help and was keen to get treatment. This was quickly arranged, at a trusted residential rehab facility, and all expenses paid. Former Sergeant ‘B’ successfully completed treatment. He is now living in his own flat in London and working towards completing a Railway Track Maintenance course.

These are just two of the many cases that we deal with on a regular  basis involving ‘instant veterans’ – servicemen and women cut off at a stroke from everything that sustains them, yet without  recourse to public funds.

Annually, in the overall spectrum of UK homelessness, these numbers are not large – and those who seek  help from Veterans Aid receive it promptly. My point is that it is entirely avoidable and for those whose drug use is related to other issues, the sudden severing of support can compound and amplify their problems.

The Fall Out report says: “Overall, findings from qualitative interviews  . . . suggest that those failing drug tests during service appear to be a particularly vulnerable subgroup of this ESL cohort who are more likely to face co-existing and sometimes multiple difficulties. Yet, by their own account, they are less likely than other colleagues to be supported as they negotiate the challenging transition back to civilian life.”

This is particularly relevant in the wake of Covid-19. Reflecting on the Everyone In initiative  Crisis CEO Jon Sparkes says:   “Homelessness has always been a risk to life and it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for this to be fully recognised.”

My concern for this particular cohort of veterans may seem like focus on a niche issue, especially as the whole transition process is under review, but I believe it plays into a wider ethical theatre that should underpin the way all vulnerable people are treated – for three reasons.

  1. No system – military, prison or other - should discharge an individual knowing that  in doing so, s/he will be deprived of accommodation or, in some cases, access to funds.  Such behaviour is at odds with the ethos of organisations, such as the Armed Forces, that purport to care for their personnel.
  2. The CDT process in particular should be revisited to determine whether discharge is a) the best option and b) likely to render an individual homeless.
  3. Victims of ‘zero tolerance’ are judged much like those designated by the Victorians as ‘undeserving poor’ – individuals who, as authors of their own fate, deserve neither sympathy not support. This view denies their basic humanity and creates longer term personal problems and societal burdens.

Morality aside, the waste of money in Armed Forces terms  is incredible – especially in the case of longer serving individuals like Sergeant ‘B’. As an RAF officer who served for 17 years I fully understand the operational implications of drug use – but it is a fact of life. It’s  a problem from which the Armed Forces, are not immune – and it’s not confined to the ranks. Veterans Aid’s clients include  former officers who are drug users and addicts.

One solution might be to create a formal ‘Hands up for help’ system rather than initiate instant discharge. Or even a second chance process? It would help with retention of expensively trained personnel – and stop the potential traffic from  ‘service to streets’ that Veterans Aid is seeing all too frequently.

Transport for London offer a model that bears examination.

“TfL is committed to supporting employees who come forward to the Drugs and Alcohol Assessment Treatment Service (DAATS) or to their line manager with an alcohol and/or drugs related problem. DAATS was established to provide assistance for employees who are experiencing problems with alcohol and/or drugs with the aim of returning them safely back to the workplace. When an alcohol and/or drug use problem occurs, employees will be given reasonable support and advice in dealing with the problem. If an employee fails to inform DAATS or their line manager before a breach of this policy, TfL is unlikely to afford any additional support and appropriate action will be taken through the disciplinary procedure.”

We have been actively involved with this service because a number of veterans work for the organisation and as recently as last week we saw one depart for three months detox and rehab – fully funded TfL.

This isn’t wastage – it’s investment in people.


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