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Will the COVID-19 pandemic actually disenfranchise veterans?

Will the COVID-19 pandemic actually disenfranchise veterans?

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO Veterans Aid, (centre) during a fundraiser for the charity | Credit: ©Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid

Dr Hugh Milroy | Veterans Aid

9 min read Partner content

After 15 years at the helm of the frontline charity for veterans in crisis, and a previous 10 years as a Trustee, Dr Hugh Milroy reflects on the lot of socially isolated veterans and how the COVID-19 pandemic has re-shaped the landscape of support in the veterans’ world. 

A new study to understand the effect of coronavirus on former service personnel was launched recently to help us “understand the effect of this terrible pandemic on the veteran community”. Its brief was “to collect data on loneliness, social support, alcohol consumption, mental health, gambling and general well-being.”

The study’s purpose was to explore whether veterans were any more or less resilient to the  impact of COVID-19 as a result of their military experiences. I must say the announcement made me pause for thought – and reflection upon just what is realistic in this increasingly unpredictable ‘new normal’ where the data categories listed above potentially relate to the entire population.

A paper recently published in the  European Journal of Homelessness points out  that in the UK “statutory homeless statistics, derived from administrative data, reveal that very few households are recorded as having support needs due to having served in HM Forces”.

Author Mark Wilding reports discrepant accounts of numbers and suggests that while reforms to the data capture process may close the gap between recorded and anecdotal figures, much of the research into veteran homelessness is ‘gray literature’.

But what if the number is actually small and very few veterans have unmet needs?  It’s the one question in the “system” which seems, in the current approach to the veterans’ world, to be unspoken.

There has been a staggering improvement in the care of veterans in need since I first became involved 25 years ago.  I continue to applaud any move to improve the  lot of veterans and I am delighted  that Veterans Aid received much needed support from the  £6m COVID-19 Impact Fund - but against a background of shrinking resource I’m forced to acknowledge a brutal need to prioritise. Expectation management has never been more necessary. 

The inspirational Captain Sir Tom Moore provided a beacon of light for many in what are truly dark days; an icon representing all the virtues that the idealised veteran is supposed to embody, he tapped into a reservoir of regard and veneration that was further reinforced on Armed Forces Day, VJ Day and Battle of Britain Day.

Back in the real world however... many of the ‘nice to have’ facilities, services and pieces of “so what” research for veterans have, in our very intense recent experience, been of little help.  More than that, it’s getting very hard to see their future relevance - so why fund them?  

Like many people I work in the field because I believe in a better life for veterans in crisis, free from a ‘cap-in hand’ approach to support. 

Those who need help should receive it, without prejudice and at point of need. Some will argue that this is what happens, but the past six months have shown that many of the things in place for veterans are far from relevant to their lives when the chips are down. 

Veterans Aid was born in the aftermath of the Great War when poverty and unemployment had created a similar ‘ground zero’ environment. Then, as now, the charity homed-in on crisis intervention to address the most fundamental of needs.

Speaking from the frontline I can see the huge gulf that exists between the needs of systems and the needs of those veterans living in poverty and acute distress.

For example, since the pandemic the number of places in detox and rehab seems to have dwindled while the cost of treatment has soared.  We recently spent nearly £8k supporting a client who needed detox and shelter … there was no alternative. Without Veterans Aid’s intervention he would have been homeless throughout the pandemic while his addiction slowly killed him. His service association gave us  £900 by way of a contribution. 

The reality of life in Britain is biting hard but benevolence that looks inward or is over-cautious will only exacerbate the issues at a time when everyone needs to look to the larger picture. It is predicted that the effects of increased alcohol abuse alone could have a knock-on effect for a generation. From a frontline perspective, doing nothing or delaying help until funding appears isn’t an option -  either now or in the future.

The pandemic has been a leveller; blind to whether its victims are doctors, politicians, students  or veterans. It neither judges nor prioritises.

Veterans Aid was born in the aftermath of the Great War when poverty and unemployment had created a similar ‘ground zero’ environment. Then, as now, the charity homed-in on crisis intervention to address the most fundamental of needs.

We no longer have the choice  of over-thinking or over-providing. I appreciate that there are many actors in this play but I want them, just for a moment, to walk in the shoes of those at the bottom of the pile and ask themselves if their efforts are truly helping.

Often, the presented need is quite simple but the systems put in place to resolve it are bureaucratic and slow-moving - at a point when quick and decisive support is the key to halting and reversing decline. Sadly, the pandemic has worsened the problem and the very system that socially excluded veterans face sometimes  deters them from seeking help. 

Clients who beat a path to Veterans Aid’s door regularly arrive sceptical and disillusioned to the point of despair.

Their hard road is frequently littered with broken promises overlaid with bureaucracy and failure to address their real - and usually very fundamental - needs. I cannot see that the post-pandemic time will lessen the problem. 

By anatomising the veterans’ community, assigning to it nuanced and discrete requirements that can only be met by new and singular initiatives, we are at risk of creating a monster that never really satisfies. Occam’s Razor argues for a conclusion based on the simplest of explanations – i.e. a homeless person’s most urgent need is a sustainable home. Surveys notwithstanding, experience has shown me that a homeless veteran’s need is no different.

Funding the “nice to haves” at this time will only deflect resources from where they are most urgently needed.

Over my 25 year association with Veterans Aid and the military charity world I have seen  many initiatives and collaborations; some have failed, some have been successful and some have missed the target completely. But what is clear is that assumptions have been inverted.

Occam’s Razor sadly has become a kaleidoscope in which component parts constantly shift and mutate, fuelled by (funded) research geared towards  justifying an ever  more complex view of veterans and their perceived needs. Indeed veterans often present having  ‘learned’ about their  issues  through newspaper articles; e.g. a few years ago it was (often self-diagnosed)  PTSD - now it is ‘complex PTSD’.

A climate has been created in which some veterans (regardless of age, situation or status) are perceived as needing ‘special’ things - holidays, pastimes, therapy, medical treatment, retail discounts, travel facilities, access to housing etc.

That’s great, but it’s not what we see among those in the veterans’ world who most need help. My worry is that as we come out of the pandemic, this number will grow exponentially. 

Funding the “nice to haves” at this time will only deflect resources from where they are most urgently needed.


Our experience of  the pandemic has confirmed a view that veterans’ needs are not as complicated as portrayed.  Before they were ever serviceman or women they were civilians and human beings. It is our common humanity, not our status or differences, that should be binding us together at a time when the country is going through a shared experience of adversity.

Veterans Aid has worked throughout the crisis, tirelessly attempting to get support for clients from a large but dwindling number of support organisations - many of whom have struggled, and are still struggling, to assist in their normal timely fashion. 

Few of those who sought our help required counselling or complex,  long term specialist support. In the final analysis the needs that clients presented with were simple... shelter, food, realistic financial support and someone to speak to.  Not one was with us because of a problem related to their military service.  It really was a case of going back to basics. 

Financially we dug deep to ensure continuity of service and I hope we didn’t let anyone down. The veterans’ charity world is wealthy and the Government, for the most part, has the resources to do the right thing.

Certainly the COVID-19 Impact Fund made a difference. In our case that injection of money got to those who most needed it.

My concern is that while there is always a lot of sector talk about further collaboration and initiatives, there is still very little is said about outcomes and I believe it likely that there will be a tsunami of need when we come out of the current crisis.

Given the difficult financial future the charity sector faces it may be time to look at funding on the basis of tangible and holistic pathways, measurable results, based on response to most basic needs, rather than brand familiarity. 

From my perspective, the pandemic is daily magnifying and widening the gulf between the haves and have nots, in the veteran community as much as every other.

If that happens then the unmet needs in the veteran community will be the norm. And why, in the end, should the less wealthy charities bear the brunt of the financial problem? It is hard to describe how exasperating it is to have to battle for the basics every single day.   

All of which begs the question of how best to reach that ideal state where veterans’ problems are a thing of the past. Are multiple new initiatives and costly research the answer – or are they part of the problem? Just distractions that contribute to dodging the real issues and in the end waste money that could have been put to much more effective and realistic use?

At this moment, let’s not be side-tracked. It’s always encouraging to see positive actions being taken, as long as they are pertinent to those most in need.

These unprecedented times have introduced pressures beyond anything we have experienced in recent history; from my perspective the pandemic is daily magnifying and widening the gulf between the haves and have nots, in the veteran community as much as every other – so  let’s  not pretend it is business as usual!  

The future provision of immediate and relevant services to poor and disenfranchised veterans has never been so important.

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