A fitting memorial we should all support
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The memorial has been more than two years in the making. It was commissioned by former Prime Minister David Cameron, who emphasised the importance of honouring this generation’s contribution with a permanent place in our national consciousness alongside memorials to the service and sacrifices of our past. “We have a duty to do for them what we have done for the generations that came before them,” he said.
The level of service has been enormous and the sacrifice immense, 179 dead in Iraq, 456 in Afghanistan, quite apart from those who have been seriously injured. It’s entirely right that the Nation should have a memorial in its capital to commemorate these very challenging campaigns.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are over and easily forgotten; as with any campaign, the national memory can be very short. But the impact on some of those who served – and their families, will continue to be felt every day well into the future. Almost one in two callers to Forcesline, the confidential helpline operated by SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, are now made by veterans, compared to one in ten when the service was set up a decade ago.
We took a call recently from the wife of an ex-serviceman, who had completed two tours of Afghanistan. She cannot leave her two children alone with their father, not because she’s scared he will hurt them but because he often locks himself away for hours at a time and sits alone sobbing. To her, that is the collateral damage of conflict.
Some are physically damaged, while for others the damage is psychological, but that is not always apparent until many years later. Those psychologically damaged can often be more difficult to reach; their wounds are not visible and then can be reluctant to admit they have an injury. We are still helping the victims of previous campaigns, which took place long before Afghanistan and Iraq, and we will be helping the victims of the most recent campaigns for many years to come.
Another caller, Alec, left the Forces after serving in Iraq, developed an alcohol dependency, couldn’t hold down a job and ended up in prison. Four weeks ago, for the first time, he walked into his local SSAFA branch to ask for help. He is now 40, but until now he has never been able to admit to himself he couldn’t cope or ask for help because “it’s not the Army way”.
SSAFA is the oldest military charity and has been around for more than 130 years so this is a familiar scenario to our network of 6,000 volunteers and trained case workers. The impact of a conflict is often not immediate; but the moment when it is starting to fade from the public consciousness is frequently the time when veterans and their families most need our help. For example, one of the newest members of our Bereaved Families Support Group lost a loved one during the first Gulf War of 1990-91, but it has taken her more than 25 years to find the courage to speak about her loss.
More than 220,000 service personnel fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and a new generation of men and women are leaving the service at a younger age than in times gone by. One in three callers to Forcesline is aged 31-50 and our report published last year, The New Frontline: Voices of Veterans In Need, highlighted the plight of a ‘forgotten generation’ of younger veterans. Of those veterans being assisted by SSAFA, seven out of ten who had served in Afghanistan said they were suffering from a long-term physical or mental health condition or illness. Yet many of those interviewed for the study admitted they had struggled on for five to ten years before seeking help. The war in Afghanistan finished just three years ago; the full consequences are only just beginning to play out.
The public perception of a veteran is an old boy with World War Two medals on his chest, proudly marching in a Remembrance Day parade. We need the public to understand that these days a veteran is very often someone from an ordinary background – quite possibly with little family support - who, at the age of 20, did something quite extraordinary and truly courageous. Going out on patrol every day for six months, knowing you are putting your life in danger every day, is not an ordinary thing to do. That’s why they deserve our support and gratitude.
But it’s not only the public perception that has to change. It’s the self-perception too. These young men don’t see themselves as veterans, they think they’re too young, or they make light of their service, and so they don’t see themselves as needing or deserving support. My message to them is: don’t be too proud to ask for help.
As a member of the Iraqi invasion force in 2003, I feel personally committed to those who made sacrifices and to helping their families. In many ways, it’s just as challenging for the family during a deployment. They may not be facing bullets or bombs, but spouses and partners are often living away from the heart of their own family, looking after young children in an unfamiliar garrison, and bracing themselves every day to hear the worst. That’s immensely stressful. And when their loved ones do return home, they will have changed as a result of their experiences; the family have to understand and accommodate that too.
I’m pleased that the memorial is recognising not only servicemen and women – full time and Reservists, as well as their families, but also the commitment of civilians, whether they were civil servants or contractors. They are all critical to the success of a military campaign.
I hope that, whatever people’s views of the campaigns themselves, they will respect the service and sacrifice of young men and women who did what they were asked to do with exceptional courage. If that’s the legacy of this national memorial it will be a very fine one