Graham Fowler

Caseworker for SSAFA Brighton and Lewes

Looking for something to do following early retirement from a career in the City, Graham Fowler became a caseworker for SSAFA. Finding himself without any work for the first time in decades, the former Scots Guards veteran wanted to ‘fill his time’. Eleven years on and he still commits time every week to helping dozens of veterans, some in dire need.

“I cover the area of Brighton and Lewes, which has a total population of 500,000 people. The case work extends out from the city to Lewes, Worthing and Eastbourne.

“Brighton itself is like mini London, it's so diverse. It's known as the gay capital of Europe and gay Pride, for example, is one of the best attended anywhere in Great Britain.

“Traditionally South Londoners retired to Brighton some 60, 70 years ago, and it’s an easy commute to London so people initially moved here because property prices were cheaper. They aren’t now!

“As the area is close to Gatwick Airport, the area has seen a lot of immigration and people seeking Asylum, for example a Kenyan, Iranian and Ugandan population grew from the 1970s.

“The veteran population in my ‘patch’ is mixed. It ranges from veterans from the Second World War or their partners, to increasingly younger ex-Forces. We have a mix of RAF, Royal Navy and Army residents, and in particular I tend to work with those who served in Korea and Northern Ireland.

“I also volunteer for a homeless charity, and despite perceptions, though there's a high percentage of homelessness in Brighton, not many are veterans. Since supporting SSAFA, I have only come across five genuine veterans who were homeless. Sadly, with the exception of two, they were all too institutionalised by the streets, or effected by substance abuse to take the help on offer. Of the veterans that I have helped off the streets, one was ex-Royal Air Force who’d been sofa-surfing and another from the Royal Navy who had just been released from prison. We managed to find both permanent accommodation.

“Lots of things have shocked me in this role. For example, the abuse experienced by homeless veterans by members of the public.

“The local NHS mental health system here in Brighton is quite good. But there's still somewhere in the region of an 8-10 week waiting time for help. The local NHS Veterans' Mental Health Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service is good too, but the number of cases they deal with are huge. The added issue of Covid also means there are currently no face-to-face interviews, which can impact the support given.

“I think SSAFA is needed now more than ever.”

I made some loose enquiries about volunteering

“I joined the Army when I was 15 as a boy soldier. I was a Junior Leader at Oswestry. I had left school without qualifications as what I describe as ‘factory fodder’, after two years at Owestry I had six O-Levels and an A-level. It was a fantastic grounding. I became the Junior RSM (Regimental Sergeant-Major) of the unit and I then joined the Scots Guards, initially in Iserlohn in Germany.

“I served a full 22-year career, which covered seven operational tours of Northern Ireland and a number of tours in Germany. I was an instructor at Sandhurst twice and I was also Regimental Sergeant Major of the advisory team to the British Military in Nigeria for two and a half years. I then was appointed the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 1st battalion Scots Guards and was lucky enough to be in the role during the Queen's Birthday Parade in 1986. I was then commissioned, and I spent two years as a Captain in the role of Quartermaster with the 2nd battalion. I left when I was offered a job in the city of London.

“I retired early at 60 and I was looking for something to fill my time. I knew of SSAFA and they'd been a lot of help to my wife when my daughter was born in Germany, while I was away on an operational tour in Northern Ireland.

“I made some loose enquiries about volunteering, and I met the then divisional secretary and a caseworker over a coffee. I got on very well with them both, and they convinced me to take up casework. It’s been a hugely fulfilling period of my life.

“A lot changed in the military during my 22 years in service, but during the early years of my career, I felt it was quite appalling really how little help was given to the families. I felt, after I left, I wanted to do something to help, and I can do that through SSAFA.

“One of the skills I learnt as a senior NCO, a Warrant Officer and a LE Officer, was to build empathy with people. It is one of the greatest skills you learn in the military, and as a people person, those skills are very useful for carrying out casework.”

I've had very fulfilling moments when something goes right

“What's in it for me? It fills my time. I meet interesting people. And I've had very fulfilling moments when something goes right.

“Helping a widow who has been worried about the cost of burying her husband and seeing the relief on her face when we’ve secured her some financial support is really worth the effort.

“Or to see a veteran who is suffering from terrible mental health problems and we've been able to help him get support, it makes it all worthwhile.

“I'd be more than happy to speak to anybody who thinks they want to become a caseworker or a visitor for SSAFA. It's very worthwhile and rewarding. You can do as little or as much as you like. On average at the moment, I'm doing between 10 and 15 hours a week.

“We always need more volunteers, and ideally we are looking for people who can empathise with others. The training you're given before you start the casework is excellent, and there is a wealth of knowledge in the branches too, to support anybody who is new. I’d say, give it a go!”