SSAFA Chief Executive introduces our Research Report
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'For many people, a veteran is an old man with medals and a beret, marching on Remembrance Sunday. The truth can sometimes be very different. We are now seeing a generation of men and women leave the services at a young age. Some have served their country on the frontline and suffered life-changing injuries. Others have returned to civilian life abruptly because of disciplinary problems or a failure to cope in their chosen career. At SSAFA, we do not distinguish between any of these people; we help all veterans, whatever their personal circumstances or background.
Over recent years, Britain has become much better at looking after wounded and sick servicemen and women. We surely owe a similar duty of care to veterans who have found it difficult to make the transition to civilian life due to deep-seated welfare problems or other issues. Most veterans do not struggle when they leave the services; indeed they flourish, often as a result of the skills they have acquired during their military career. However, this report holds a mirror up to our society. Our research has identified a cohort of veterans living in pretty desperate circumstances, often through no fault of their own. The average household income of the working-age veterans supported by SSAFA is just £13,800 a year, a figure that will shock many.
These men and women are being forgotten, their plight too easily ignored. The purpose of this report is to change that. We want to shine a spotlight on this vulnerable group and suggest practical ways in which they can be helped. SSAFA knows that the transition period is a pivotal time for those taking their first steps back into wider society. Our key recommendation within this report is for an early intervention programme focused on a group of service leavers who will struggle in civilian life. Commanding Officers know who these people are: they have struggled to cope, have never been promoted, lack leadership skills and are unprepared for the transition.
We must identify these vulnerable service leavers before they walk out of the barracks for the last time. Each one needs to be allocated a mentor who will help them for at least the first 12 months of their new life as a civilian. Mentors act as a guide and they motivate, give advice and advocate on behalf of the veterans. Their role is to help service leavers to help themselves during a period of their lives which one of SSAFA’s beneficiaries described to me as being “harder than any front line I have ever served on”. SSAFA knows from experience that if a support mechanism, such as a mentoring programme, is not put in place during the transition period, it quickly becomes much harder to put lives back on track. Veterans quickly disappear from view; their problems multiply; and they reach crisis point, either unaware of where to turn or too embarrassed to ask for help.
Our second recommendation is for the service welfare records of veterans to be shared with civilian agencies. Service leavers may have deep rooted problems, but the moment the gate shuts behind them for the last time and they become civilians, those problems are left behind. Their welfare records do not come with them and individuals can fall between the cracks. We understand the legal and practical difficulties associated with data protection. Veterans cannot be coerced into allowing their confidential information to be shared – and nor should they be. But many of the veterans we surveyed seem to regard government agencies as hostile to their interests; we need to educate them that social services and charities will be much better equipped to help them if they are aware of past problems and future needs.
Disappointingly, the message that comes across loud and clear from our report is that many of the veterans helped by SSAFA do not feel valued. Eighty-five per cent think the UK does not give them enough support. They have served our country – sometimes suffered for our country – and yet they feel forgotten. In 1892, Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem ‘Tommy’ which includes these lines:
We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind,
There’s trouble in the wind, my boys, there’s trouble in the wind,
O it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind.
You talk o’ better food for us, an’ schools, an’ fires, an’ all:
We’ll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don’t mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow’s Uniform is not the soldier-man’s disgrace.
For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot;
An’ it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ anything you please;
An’ Tommy ain’t a bloomin’ fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
We would all like to think those words no longer ring true, but this report will test that easy assumption.'
Read and download the full report here.