Re-evaluating veterans – it’s time we were honest
Speaking to Glyn Strong of Veterans Aid, the organisation’s CEO, Dr Hugh Milroy, says the nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but our stereotypes of veterans may end up having a negative impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system.
As the Government contemplates a radical shake-up of its housing policy to end rough sleeping, perhaps it’s time to decouple the issue from military service – a linkage that, despite evidence to the contrary, comes up in debate with monotonous regularity!
The nation’s love affair with its Armed Forces is an enduring one, but like any long-term relationship it can be turbulent and complicated.
CEO of Veterans Aid Dr. Hugh Milroy - a combat veteran of 17 years who has been involved in the world of homeless veterans for more than 20 - is quick to point out that service in the Royal Navy, Army, or Royal Air Force does not confer sainthood. He runs a charity that has been helping veterans who are homeless or in crisis since 1932 and his bête-noir is stereotyping.
“I applaud the CSJ for advocating a ‘Housing First’ approach to chronic rough sleeping. ‘Housing First’ is a seductive and appealing concept for politicians and policy makers but a quick Google search shows that it is not regarded as being universally successful. There is a real danger of urban myth subjugating reality. The world of homelessness among veterans is a case in point.
“I’d like to use the current focus on Housing First to point out two ‘inconvenient’ things; firstly, veterans do not feature disproportionately in Government homelessness statistics and secondly that ‘Housing First’ isn’t the only solution! The Veterans Aid ‘Welfare to Wellbeing’© model has been delivering holistic solutions to street homelessness for many years with a heavy focus on prevention. It is a transferable and highly successful pathway with 92% of those completing it going on to lead sustainable independent lives.”
There are now fewer than 3 million veterans in the UK and the strength of HM Regular Forces is just 153,470. Unsurprisingly, most voters get their information about military life via the media. And as we know from recent debates about ‘fake news’ and the power of controversial ‘tweets’ there are people who will say, and believe, anything.
“The shorthand that treats veterans as an homogenous group, comprising heroes, victims and villains, has implications that impact on government funding, recruiting and even the judicial system. Claims become certainties, trapped like redundant ghosts in popular search engines, ready for rapid recycling before they pass into public perception and crystalise into fact.
“My staff and I have been verbally abused for speaking out about stolen valour, self-diagnosed PTSD and our daily experiences with veterans whose life-crises have less to do with military service than poverty, homelessness, social isolation, addiction, relationship breakdown and debt. Some of our clients come straight from prison; not because ‘war drove them to crime’ but because, after serving for as little as one day in HM Armed Forces, they are ‘entitled’ - to call themselves veterans and tap into a vast dedicated support network. This has to be said: The ‘hero, victim and villain’ tagging of veterans simply isn't helping anyone and it’s time that those politicians, members of the media and charity world who routinely use such designations, stop doing so.
“My PhD was about homelessness among veterans and my experience, over years as a researcher and practitioner, is that very few can ascribe their life problems to military service. My worry is that if veterans continue to be regarded as causally damaged, it may impact on the defence of the nation by deterring young men and women from enlisting.”
Veterans Aid has been accused of ‘talking itself out of business’ by challenging the universal hero narrative – a claim that only underlines the power of the media and huge lack of understanding among those who confuse reportage with research.
“It seems to me that by assigning the term ‘hero’ to everyone who has served, society is devaluing the actions of the few who truly deserve the label. Many veterans are never deployed, never serve on operations and never find themselves in harm’s way. And let’s be clear, today’s ex-servicemen and women are not conscripts; they chose to enlist and wear a uniform. They signed up to a career and accepted a wage – just like members of the police, fire or ambulance service.”
Perhaps uniquely among military charities, Veterans Aid confirms the service of putative veterans seeking its help. Those who exaggerate or lie about their service are quickly identified. The irony is that they don’t need to make fictive claims; the charity is there to provide immediate practical support to any veteran in crisis, regardless of his/her age, ethnicity, gender, orientation, religion, length of service or rank – on humanitarian grounds and because they are entitled.
“It’s worrying that veterans are being singled out as a societal ‘group apart’; a cohort of universally vulnerable, damaged, deserving and abandoned individuals. This perception has been shaped by media activity, which, in turn, has driven legislation, and on 16 May 2011 The Armed Forces Covenant was rolled out. (“A promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly.”) I’m on record as hailing its worthy motives . . . and questioning its relevance.”
Many homeless veterans, lionised by local media and described as heroes, are former clients of the Veterans Aid.
Milroy concludes, “The number of genuinely ‘street homeless’ veterans is so small that we now recognise many of them as they move around the country. Some have complex mental health or behavioural problems that long pre-date their military service. Some have alcohol or drug addictions that they have been unable, or unwilling, to face. Hardly any are there because, at one time in their life, they served in the Armed Forces. A recent example was a chronically homeless ‘veteran’ used as a flagship case study. His ‘PTSD’ was highlighted and there was a distinct impression that the man’s 30 years on the streets was linked to his military experience. The reality is that he served for fewer than three months and had never been deployed on military operations. This linkage has to stop.
“As for not enough being done; for some years it has been clear that there has been over-capacity in facilities for homeless veterans. There is no reason for any veteran to be on the streets of Britain today but this doesn't seem to stop almost daily exaggeration and exploitation of the issue. Challenging the script is a constant battle, whether it relates to homelessness, PTSD or numbers in prison.
“I fervently hope that whatever approach the Government adopts to tackle rough sleeping in future, reflects this and acknowledges that veterans are a part of – not apart from – society.”