Care for veterans must continue to be integrated into national infrastructures that are already in place
Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of the national charity Veterans Aid, reflects on the suggestion that veterans’ problems should not be dealt with by mainstream agencies.
It sometimes seems that the compulsion to label veterans as a breed apart is reaching epidemic proportions. Calls abound for ‘veteran-specific’ accommodation, healthcare, rehabilitation, recreation, employment advice, debt, drug and alcohol counselling . . . as though this diverse group of men and women, who often share little more than the designation ‘veteran’, are somehow apart from the communities they inhabit.
Society is changing and responses to need are being driven by identity politics. In the public mind veterans have coalesced into a single group, under the banner of an icon that covers homelessness, mental health problems, heroism and dysfunctionality . . . to name but a few. This ‘identity’ gives them an enormous socio-political footprint and makes them impossible to ignore.
It also makes them highly exploitable as an entity for whom, some believe, special provision must be made.
The historical evolution of discrete care for veterans goes back centuries. ‘Hospitals’ for UK soldiers and seamen were established in the 1600s, but the word had another meaning in those days and, of course, there was no welfare state.
In the 21st Century there are many options including some outstanding facilities dedicated to our veterans. But we live in a post-benevolence era; a time when process, resource and funding can be welded into streamlined operating systems that ensure value for money and – most importantly – solutions that work for individuals.
That, in microcosm, is what Veterans Aid does.
This charity tackles homelessness prevention on a national basis and sees no evidence of demand for specialist accommodation. Very few of our clients request veteran-bespoke housing, nor do they have needs that can only be addressed by residence in a veteran-specific facility.
We appropriately homed 177 veterans in 2019 and intervened in 122 cases where clients’ circumstances could have resulted in homelessness. We do not struggle to find accommodation, which is available from a wide and diverse variety of sources. Every veteran-specific residential project we deal with has vacancies that they struggle to fill. We know this because they contact us regularly to seek clients.
Veterans Aid has been operating as one of the nation’s key frontline agencies for 88 years and has an enviable success rate in terms of getting clients back into sustainable housing and into work. It is incredibly frustrating to hear the continuous cry that veterans have ‘special needs that no one understands’. This has got to stop, or more money will be wasted on projects driven by myth rather than outcomes.
Of course the causes of individual veterans’ problems are, sometimes, service-related and there are singular examples - but they have to be seen in context. I believe that each one underlines the importance of investing in robust and integrated national solutions that enable everyone to receive the help they require - rapidly and at point of need.
Our experience at Veterans Aid is that the NHS is generally delivering for our referrals. Over time, and with investment, it will get even better - and more able to demonstrate the outcomes of its interventions. It will become more accessible and more responsive to the needs of veterans (and non-veterans) suffering from mental health problems. In terms of PTSD - well, our numbers have always been low and we have seen no deluge of clients seeking referrals.
But still the perceptions persist.
A recent episode of the nation’s much loved TV drama series, Midsomer Murders, revolved around the narrative of an Op Herrick amputee (suffering from PTSD and survivor’s guilt) and a ‘Walt’. The stereotypes of hero, victim and villain were reinforced, fictionalised and served up in one powerful entertainment package on prime time TV.
An armchair audience of millions was exposed to a simplistic linkage of military service to damage, dysfunction and heroism that no real world statistics had a hope of refuting - and that’s why politicians need to be brave.
Now is the right time to stop investing in stovepipe solutions and to hardwire the care of veterans into integrated, national infrastructures that are already in place. The Government’s pledged commitment to the NHS and social care (£34bn extra funding etc) is significant, as is it's declared intention to make treatment of mental health as urgent as treatment of physical wellbeing.
The ‘veteran community’ does not exist in isolation. Its youngest members are in their teens - its oldest, 90+. Some are well and wealthy, others are socially excluded and struggling. A number have operational experience and seen frontline action, others have served only for weeks and never been in harm’s way. What they have in common is the need to work, receive good local healthcare, have access to decent accommodation and receive an effective ‘hand up’ when in crisis.
Just like civilians.