Is tsunami of goodwill failing to target veterans in most need?

Posted On: 
27th March 2017

Armed Forces Covenant is a 'first-rate idea' but is not improving the lives of those who need the most help, says CEO of Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy.

There should be a nationwide debate about what it means to be a veteran in modern Britain, says Dr Hugh Milroy.
Credit: 
PA Images

A few weeks ago members of the House of Lords put the Armed Forces Covenant under the microscope to evaluate its impact. The debate provided an opportunity to revisit issues like mental health provision, housing, family life and injury compensation. But according to CEO of Veterans Aid Dr Hugh Milroy, it isn’t improving the prospects of those who, he argues, need it most.

Crafted formally in 2011, in response to a national belief that it already existed, the Covenant has been both applauded and attacked. Hugh Milroy has keenly observed and commented on its strengths and weaknesses. While giving plaudits for intent, he is dismayed at the lack of practical progress for those in the veteran world most in need. “From my perspective this excellent initiative has been overshadowed by ‘issues’ that often utilise veterans as marketing sound-bites in a post-heroes maze of problems” he says. 

Milroy is on record as describing the Covenant  - in whatever form  - as a first-rate idea.  What he struggles with is its broad-brush approach and seeming inability to identify and target those who most need its support: “I don’t claim to speak for everyone, but I do believe that my extensive experience of the frontline work undertaken by Veterans Aid qualifies me to offer an observation on one major point.  Last year we took 3,535 calls for help from veterans or their families - a total of 10,632 hours’ interaction. In all that time my team can only recall the Covenant being helpful on rare occasions.

“It has been suggested that our clients and their ‘acute’ issues are an aberration – not typical and therefore not relevant.  I would counter that by saying they are actually the most relevant. Who could be more in need of an effective Covenant than the socially excluded veterans with whom we deal?

“Of course it will take time, and of course there have been successes such as the new housing initiative in Cheltenham. Many local authorities and employers have signed up to support the Covenant and expectations among veterans have been raised. However, I see little evidence of it delivering practically, at grass roots level.

“Could it be that the Covenant’s greatest flaw is its presentation as a universal panacea for the problems of a group who are superficially and naively thought to be homogenous? A group widely assumed to be damaged and disadvantaged as a direct result of military service? A group unable to cope with ‘life in Civvy Street’? 

“Despite our unique frontline work, I am stunned that no-one who reports on the Covenant has asked what we, at Veterans Aid, see.”

Milroy offers this opinion from the perspective of over 30-years experience in the military and veterans’ world, as a published academic, a practitioner dealing with veterans in crisis and advisor on veterans matters worldwide. “It may be an inconvenient truth, and an odd thing for the CEO of a veterans charity to say, but I am far from convinced that our clients are with us because of military service.”

His concern is for the future; one he fears may contain yet more ad hoc initiatives that are not demonstrably needs led. Milroy admits to having been accused of not ‘playing the game’ but is unapologetic and recognises that many of the initiatives are on the surface, well-meant. Government direction is critical he says, and is wary that the vacuum concerning what they will or will not do for veterans is disconcerting. “This makes for a third sector that is struggling to plan for the future and may well exacerbate an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the Government.  The third sector should be used to pick up gaps in support, not to replace Government welfare or health failings.”      

“Until there is much greater clarity, approaches such as “forcing” cooperation between military charities would be a very strange way of addressing the wider societal factors that affect the veteran community and which are always compounded by bigger issues.  For example, 14 million people live in poverty in the UK (JRF 2017) – inevitably some of them are veterans!”

But is ‘veteran poverty’ different from ‘civilian poverty’? Milroy thinks not and believes that labelling issues faced by clients as uniquely ‘veteran’ is only enforcing the mythical creation of ex-servicemen and women as a sub-species.  

“I don’t doubt that they are well intentioned, but I worry that new ventures if not based on actual need will waste money and lead to unrealistic expectations among veterans; if unfulfilled these will engender feelings of injustice and alienation. The first step must be to deal with the veterans in a strategic sense by asking the fundamental question - ‘In all their diversity, who are veterans in 21st Century Britain?’

“The complexity of the problems we see at Veterans Aid clearly exposes an intrinsic flaw in the idea of a collaborative ‘military solution’. We certainly work with other military charities, such as RBL et al, but the highly effective resolutions we broker are driven by individual need, not historical service in the Armed Forces.

“In a recent two week period we decided to count the number of agencies we had to deal with. When the number passed 70 we stopped. Very few were in the ‘veteran’ world. Last year Veterans Aid appropriately accommodated 154 veterans, helped 62 into employment, placed 35 into detox and put 72 on major training courses.  For the most part, there was little necessity for involvement from the ‘military/veteran charity’ world. Indeed, none of our clients asked for that.”

Milroy refers frequently to the ‘unicorn approach’ to problems allegedly caused by military service: “By that I mean the tendency to talk about service-related problems that  ‘everyone’ believes are there but which, evidentially, are rarely seen. Of course I’m over-simplifying; some problems demonstrably are directly related, but the over-attribution of all the ills of life to a period of military service is as dangerous as it is daft.

“I often wonder if history will judge that LIBOR assignment of so much money to a single group actually over-exaggerated veterans’ problems. Indeed, whether any political involvement in veterans’ issues really helped?

“On balance, and speaking as an ex-serviceman, I hope time proves me wrong, but at the moment I believe that the well-intentioned Covenant needs to go much further before it changes the lives of our clients – the men and women in real crisis.                    

“I support wholeheartedly the need to ensure that service personnel, veterans and their families should be treated fairly and with respect, not disadvantaged by service and adequately compensated for injury, but I question the Covenant’s assumption that all are equally needy. Indeed in assigning to all, the vulnerabilities of the few, a perception has been created that they are uniquely and equally disadvantaged. This is categorically not so.”

Milroy believes that the time is long overdue for a national debate on what it means to be a veteran in 21st Century Britain.

“You need to understand a problem before you craft a solution, audit what provision already exists before offering more and establish an assessment metric before disbursing funds indiscriminately. I still remember listening to The Jeremy Vine Show when the first tranche of LIBOR funding was assigned to the Veterans Accommodation Fund. Calls flooded in from organisations supporting sick children, MS sufferers and many other worthy causes – all asking why veterans had ‘scooped the jackpot’.”

So how has this happened? Is it simply a case of nature hating a vacuum? Because so few people have served - and numbers are shrinking - a mythology has evolved around ‘military life’. Informed by movies, the US experience, war novels, TV dramas and news reports, a ‘universal soldier’ has evolved. Hero, warrior and family man his (sic) military service is a seen as a physical journey to a place from which he ‘comes back’ to civilian life, altered and unable to adjust, noble but damaged.

Certainly this is Milroy’s view and he returns to his critical question of what it means to be a veteran in 2017.

“There needs to be a national debate on the subject and a view delivered on whether ex-servicemen and women should even be considered as a discrete group. If veterans are special today, then we need to know in what way and what, if anything, they are entitled to. Phrases such as ‘ensuring no disadvantage’ really don’t cut the mustard. If the conclusion is that they are unique and should be supported as such, then the logical next step is establishment of a Department of Veterans Affairs and creation of a Veterans Charter. In addition, there should be a Canadian-style Veterans Ombudsman, someone with experience of military life and a genuine understanding of the lives of socially excluded veterans in Britain today.”

Under current arrangements the MoD has no formal responsibility for veterans – their welfare and wellbeing is the bailiwick of dedicated charities (of which there are more than 2,500), the NHS, housing associations, commercial training and recruitment organisations and a raft of other ‘interested parties’ - some benevolent, some blatantly commercial and sadly a few with a political agenda.

“I’m deeply concerned that we’ve now reached a situation where employers, local authorities and NHS Trusts are pledging their support for the Covenant, without really understanding the issues it is trying to address. For the man in the street, the Covenant must not be seen to ‘assume’ damage and disadvantage and ignore the positive aspects of military service. Many men and women enjoy long and hugely rewarding military careers – are paid, trained, and educated.  

“In sum; if after informed consideration, a case for having a Covenant is made, its application should be tailored to take account of what provision already exists nationally and be applied only with reference to those in demonstrable need.  Relying on blanket application of the phrase ‘no disadvantage’ is a cop-out. ”