Radical rethink required for veterans’ support in 21st century Britain
In an interview with PoliticsHome, Veterans Aid CEO Dr Hugh Milroy conceptualises what veteran support should look like in the 21st Century.
A casual observer of modern Britain could be forgiven for thinking that life for our veteran community was dire. Images abound of ‘heroic warriors’ who have served their country, only to be abandoned by society on their return. Prisons, we hear, are full of veterans who are unable to settle after service; men whose traumatic experiences in the military have left them fit for nothing but crime and a one-way ticket into the criminal justice system. The cri de coeur that ‘nothing is done’ for former soldiers is heard regularly along with the belief that their ‘poor transition’ is due to lack of support. But at the same time, the word ‘Covenant’ is being vaunted as if it were a utopian solution to all current and future veterans’ problems.
Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid and an ex-serviceman himself, is passionate about challenging these and many other assumptions about the future of the veteran community. From his office in the charity’s London, Victoria, HQ, where pictures of Winston Churchill, William Wilberforce and a modern business award sit on the shelves behind him, he explains to PoliticsHome why.
Milroy joined Veterans Aid in 1996 and became its CEO in 2005 after a 17-year career in the Royal Air Force. The charity is often referred to as the ‘Accident and Emergency Unit’ for the veteran community with its successful “distinct and effective prevention ethos”. It has been on the humanitarian frontline since 1932, helping former military personnel who are homeless or in crisis ever since.
His considerable experience of dealing with veterans’ problems has convinced him that they are misunderstood and wildly exaggerated. Questioned about his own return from the first Gulf War Milroy says, “I came back and got on with my day job in the military”.
“If I believed all I read about transition [back to civilian life] I’d have to conclude that my experience was not typical but that’s not the case. Yes, I genuinely missed some friends and the way of life but like most ex-service people I have come across, I just ‘sucked-up’ the change and sorted my life out. Just like we were taught to do in the military, I took personal responsibility for my situation and planned my future. Indeed, having spoken to many veterans in crisis over the years, I can’t recall anyone specifically blaming poor ‘transition’.
Today there are an estimated 2.6 million UK Armed Forces veterans in Britain.
“Overwhelmingly,” Milroy continues, “our observations and research show that most veterans in the UK are fine.”
“Sadly it’s almost automatic now, within the media in particular, to pigeon-hole veterans as heroes, victims or villains. I believe this is absolutely unhelpful to all concerned. My worry is that this stereotyping will inevitably create policies and procedures that may not ultimately help veterans with real problems.”
The practice of portraying veterans as a homogenous, damaged group is an issue that could have long-term implications, Milroy argues. “We’ve over-pathologised military service. It’s almost as if, linearly, those who serve are damaged in some way. Currently, the emphasis is on mental well-being. I’m still wondering what that actually means and how the NHS and charity world are meant to respond? But there are wider issues than this and our current approach to veteran ‘problems’ may be missing the mark.”
“For example, I was in the Gulf War in 1991 and have possible legacy. During the conflict I was with the Army in Saudi Arabia and was one of those who was given anthrax and plague injections; I have no idea what they might be doing to me in the long-term. I recently went to have a possible cancer investigated. In the GP’s waiting room a poster trumpeted ‘If you are a veteran, tell your GP’. I duly did and he asked me if I was having bad dreams. When I said no, he dismissed the topic. I understand that he didn’t have time to explore further and, because people were waiting, I decided to drop the subject. But I was left wondering if he should have asked me if anything in my service might be linked to my condition.”
The CEO remarked that most of the veterans who come to the charity for help come largely due to “life in Britain”, with problems that are “almost always unrelated to military service”. Rather it is poverty, addiction, relationship breakdown and debt - difficulties for the most part unrelated to the spent as soldiers, sailors or airmen.
“Far from being the cause of their problems military service is what comes to their aid when things go wrong,” he insists.
“Life in Britain is complex and expensive. Look at the bigger picture; there is a national housing crisis, a North-South divide! Sadly, much of the ‘research’ I see about veterans seems to be written by exclusion, ignoring the wider context. A pointless exercise.”
Among other things, Veterans Aid received 15 calls related to housing in the 48-hours that preceded our meeting. “It is a vignette of life in Britain today”, says Milroy. “The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that some 14 million citizens are living in poverty; invariably some of them will be veterans.”
So, what is behind this stereotyping of veterans? Milroy assigns much of the blame to the media and journalists who focus on narratives that perpetuate the image of the brave soldier abandoned by society. Without further investigating the picture presented through that particular prism politicians assume that there is a major issue; their responses are picked up by charities, who further influence the public – and the cycle continues. Milroy thinks much more detailed discussion is needed at Westminster.
“Despite all the effort and help that is available it’s bizarre that so many people think that nothing is done for veterans. It’s a situation that speaks to the power of media mythologizing! We’ve got good NHS services and there are some fantastic charities to support veterans. Sometimes they fail, but overall, I would say that in Britain today, if you are in some sort of social crisis, you’re singularly lucky to be a veteran.”
But Milroy’s primary concern is for the future, as the UK enters what he calls the ‘post-heroes time’ and the memory of Iraq and Afghanistan fades. He is concerned that as the metaphorical drums stop beating and political attention is drawn to issues like Brexit, the Covenant and the welfare of the ex-service community will gently slip off the agenda.
“I am concerned because I see no clear direction. There is no visionary saying ‘Well, here’s what the veterans’ world will look like in 10 years’ time or 20 years’ time.
So, what needs to be done? Milroy has four suggestions; “I’m not talking about radical inclusion but of a future framework where veterans’ rights are unconditional, based on actual need and heavily focused on prevention.”
“Firstly I think the time has come to have a national debate about who veterans are in 21st Century Britain, because the model we’re looking at today smacks of Victorian philanthropy, and I don’t think that’s right. It should include the views of all veterans and the general public, not just politicians and large charities. To date, I have not once been asked about what I, as a veteran, want to see for my community.”
If the sentiment is that veterans are special, their rights need to be clearly defined. While a ‘well-intentioned’ Armed Forces Covenant (“A promise from the nation that those who serve, or have served, and their families, are treated fairly”) was created in 2011 under the Coalition Government, Milroy says it is simply too “permissive” and has rarely helped any Veterans Aid client.
“For example, hundreds of Local Authorities have signed up to the Covenant and I’ve been amazed at the different responses received by our clients. There is no standardisation, no clarity about entitlement, no monitoring. Surely it shouldn’t be down to the veteran to argue for his or her support! That is why we need the national debate.”
Department of Veterans Affairs
Milroy would like to see the creation of a Department of Veterans Affairs.
“It seems incredible that there is this huge cohort of people who are unrepresented. I have watched confusion heaped upon confusion when it comes to what is going on between different Government departments with regard to veterans’ matters. This isn’t good enough. Successive Governments seem reluctant to go down this route. Why? Surely this would be a signal to all that in 21st Century Britain, veterans really matter.
The CEO also called for the UK to follow he believes that a potential example for the UK to follow is the Canadian model where a Veterans’ Ombudsman, with appropriate military experience, has oversight of all issues faced by former servicemen and women. “This shouldn’t just be a retired senior officer but someone who has had a foot in the worlds of both social exclusion and military life.”
One action that would go a long way, would be to create “a genuine, national living Charter for Veterans”, says Milroy.
“I think that would be a really good starting point,” he continues. “It’s not about the views of a big charity, or those of an MP who has served for a few years. The issue is ‘What does the general veteran population want and need?’ The existence of such a Charter would define what veterans’ rights are within the NHS and all other relevant areas of society.”
“Successive governments claim that veterans matter… now is the time to prove it by looking to the future and taking both the country’s and veterans’ views into account. Veterans shouldn’t be facing a future where they must beg or argue for support in 21st Century Britain and nor should they end up as objects of pity. Unequivocally, they should know what their rights are. And in particular, socially excluded veterans deserve a better deal.”