Time to hit 'Pause' and review support provisions for veterans?
© Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid
Armed Forces Day offers a chance for the people of Britain to show their support for those who make up the Armed Forces community. Ceremonial events will be held – indeed funding will be made available to facilitate them. But behind the pomp and pageantry there remains a cohort of veterans with very little to celebrate. CEO of Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy discusses support for a section of the AF community that may not be saluting on June 24th.
For more than 90 years Veterans Aid has offered hope to ex-servicemen and women in dire straits; the invisible veterans whose issues can’t be resolved by provision of a handout, a holiday or a grant for assisted living. So before the Armed Forces Day celebrations get under way I’d like to hit ‘pause’ and describe who we are seeing and what problems they are facing. I’m not doing so to rain on anyone’s parade but to remind people that there is more to do. We are a small charity but the numbers we deal with are not insignificant.
Our clients frequently present a truly alternative reality of life as a veteran in this country today. They arrive angry and disillusioned by a seemingly log-jammed system which, despite incredible efforts by so many, seems to be incapable of dealing with complexity and unfamiliar pathways. Almost every working day now we get approached for help by veterans who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families. A few, who had previously been helped elsewhere in the sector, are given food vouchers to present in supermarket queues.
Some of our clients' lives are full of contradictions; they are imbued with the idea that the Nation cares about them, yet they are struggling to get help - often with serious problems. Recently we were approached by a former soldier who had been injured on operations. After receiving some initial help he was told that he must wait a further 72 weeks (i.e. over a year) for further assistance. He came to us in desperation, seeking financial support to access private medical care. He and his family are facing a gargantuan struggle – despite assurances that, as a veteran, there would always be someone to turn to. But most clients don’t come with service-related injuries – they are members of the working poor, casualties of a condition that, in many cases, the system fails to recognise. Their futures are frightening and uncertain. They are confused and disenfranchised by the labyrinth of helplines that signpost, but don’t deliver.
I don’t challenge convention and orthodoxy lightly, but to support the case for a method and strategy that truly reflects the diversity and complexity of veterans' lives, by a re-examination of conventional thinking. We need a system with the maturity to balance realism with idealism; one that moves beyond the simplistic homogenisation of the word ‘veteran’, towards a more nuanced delivery system.
Large organisations have their place; but increasingly, I must argue, it is the smaller charities - regardless of how 'inconvenient' their message may seem - that can and do deliver. Our philosophy at Veterans Aid is one of ‘travel lightly and move swiftly’, because our specific remit is prevention and amelioration of crisis. ‘Crisis’ cannot wait 72 weeks’; ‘Crisis’ hasn’t time to follow the signposts provided by a call centre; ‘Crisis’ doesn’t have the leisure or capacity to fill in forms – indeed ‘Crisis’ and ‘distress’ often don’t even have an address.
The sector is large enough to accommodate many players. Those with vast resources who are in the business of funding major projects have their place, but I would like to raise a Call to Alms (sic) on behalf of those that operate in a grittier reality, where poverty has reduced veterans to destitution, led them to turn to drug or alcohol abuse, caused homelessness and the break-up of families.
On Armed Forces Day, when the nation will be echoing its support for the Armed Forces Community, I urge you to look around you - at the cost of living and the numbers of people homeless or seeking help for anxiety-related mental health problems. Some of them will be veterans. Very few will be heroes. All will need the kind of swift, practical compassion that only organisations geared-up to interact personally and respond swiftly can deliver. Our system for veterans needs to generate a stronger sense of empathy. I believe we must all take a moment to stand in their shoes and see life as they see it. To understand what it’s like to live in fear of opening the post in the morning and live with a constant sense of feeling helpless, hoping that a charity might, once again, take pity. All of this in a sector that is very wealthy.
I’m sounding this cautionary note because my concerns for the future are serious; the landscape of need has changed and signposting rather than acting may trigger some unexpected consequences – such as the uncoupling of ‘veterans’ care’ from traditional charities and/or government support systems.
If effort and expenditure don't relate to demonstrable need, something is wrong, and the assumption that veteran adversity is always linked to service is becoming harder to sustain. Overwhelmingly our experience at Veterans Aid is that poverty-related problems heavily outweigh any that are legacies of military service.
There are other changes too. Our clients have no brand loyalty and a very different attitude to what 'duty of care' translates as. Numerically veterans are a diminishing cohort which, for some organisations is worrying. I recently had a conversation with a very senior person in the military charity sector who was lamenting the fact that their extremely wealthy organisation was struggling to find clients. If this meant that the need for support had disappeared, I would welcome it, but I'm afraid it was merely an indication of a business model that must change with the times! Unaddressed realities will have a knock-on effect, regardless of brand.
For the most part, top-down support systems are not geared to swift intervention and their inability to deal with multi-faceted, complex and enduring problems may result in veterans by-passing traditional channels of help-seeking.
It's often hard to identify underlying causes of complex problems - especially in a climate where people expect more and assume wraparound care as a right. The binary effect of social media also plays a part. It allows those who are dissatisfied when a service or brand isn’t delivering to both flag up failings and give undue prominence to single issues.
The corollary of this is that the support base for the brands or projects - often the recipients of significant government funding – may literally walk away towards those that provide comprehensive support. The strategic implications could be significant. What if failed aftercare is directly linked to recruiting figures or votes?
Our nation is in a state of flux unlike anything in modern times; it's a state that calls for swift adaptation, in terms of both delivery and attitude. It is time to face reality about the powerlessness facing some of our veterans and adopt a ‘Call to Compassion’ – a call putting our veterans in a stronger, better position because our joint efforts. We in the military and mainstream charity sector, the NHS and the Government should complement one another’s strengths, not spend vast amounts on shoring up the status quo. Nor should we be replicating models that look good on paper but either fail to deliver or are out of synch with the reality of veterans' lives. Wave the flags by all means, but please don’t forget those in the veterans' world who are falling through the cracks. They may be invisible, but they really do exist.
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