Last month, a 12-week-long government survey was launched along with the release of the Office for National Statistics 2021 Census data on the veteran population of the UK –estimated to be around 1.85mn.
According to Jonny Mercer, the minister for veterans affairs, this survey will ask the veterans about their experiences as a civilian and using government aid. He hopes that through the information collected from the survey coupled with the census data, the government will be able to “step-up” their services for the veterans.
Veterans remain sceptical
“I have no expectations from this survey”, says David Hames, a former sergeant with the Royal Engineers. “All I see is manipulated data being used as a tool for someone’s agenda. Veterans are always ‘cared’ for when they are chasing a positive public opinion. But there is never any action.”
David volunteers for homeless charities and has noticed that a lot of veterans are part of the homeless population. He says: “In most cases they are on the streets because relationships have broken down since leaving the forces and they do not have the support. Many are happier on the streets because they feel safer than if they were accommodated in shelters.”
He feels that a lot of charities don’t offer any help or assistance to the veterans unless they were seriously injured or maimed.
A sentiment echoed by Phil Lee, a former lance corporal with the Coldstream Guards:
“After leaving the army, the only way that I could get on a government-funded employability course, to gain the skills needed to land a job, was to be unemployed for longer than six months or have an injury, illness or disability. In my case I had a lower back injury caused by my military service that enabled me to get onto the scheme.
“But it felt wrong to have to use my injury to get access to something that all veterans should be offered with or without injury. Because saying I am an unemployed veteran wasn’t enough – I had to be disabled, or long term unemployed to get the help I needed, which was and remains ridiculous!”
Government schemes are as good as a chocolate fireguard
Matthew Ramsey, a former corporal with the Royal Air Force, is also not convinced about the promises of this new move. “They will do the survey, they will dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s and then file it away for ten years. I am too long in the tooth to believe anything’s gonna come from it.”
The 80-year-old veteran wryly added, “Government schemes are as good as a chocolate fireguard”.
According to the last census there are about 20,000 veterans in Leeds, and the only support the majority of them get is from each other.
“The veterans clubs and the breakfast clubs – they all were started up and run by veterans”, Matthew informs me. “They are not government funded. So here, veterans support veterans, because if we wait for government, hell will freeze over by then.”
Matthew, along with David and Phil, are part of the Leeds North Armed Forces & Veterans Breakfast Club, one of the many veterans’ community clubs around the UK.
These clubs are run and managed by the veterans and function as a support group where they can share their struggles, get help, and generally relax and have a good time with people who truly understand them.
Veterans reluctant to rely on charity
Schemes like the Veterans’ Gateway or SSAFA have existed for a long time in the UK, but according to the veterans, they seldom help them adjust back into society and live a normal, healthy life once they retire.
Phil told me:
“There are 1,600 charities set up to assist veterans when they fall into hard times according to the charities commission. But the problem is, people like me and many other veterans are rarely going to go to a charity, we are often too proud.
“And I wish people would really grasp this – many veterans are not the kind of people who will run for help from a charity. There is a disproportionate number of veterans who self-harm because of feelings of self-worth, often not seeking assistance and masking behind pride.”
Suicide rates among veterans
There have been a shocking number of veterans who have committed suicide in the past two decades. According to the Ministry of Defence report, “For the 20-year period 2002–2021, 285 suicides occurred among UK regular armed forces personnel: 264 among males, and 21 among females”.
Whilst Phil managed to turn his life around and use some of his transferable skills to further his life as a civilian, not everyone has been that fortunate. David has lost a lot of close friends to untreated trauma and internal struggles:
“The last four years have seen six of my veteran friends commit suicide due to being unable to adapt to civilian life and deal with past traumas. When we leave the army, we lose our family and the best support network available. There need to be more resources readily available where veterans have access to psychological support and employment support”.
How can veterans be helped?
Veterans have lived a life of honour and respect; they are leaders upon whom an entire nation depends in times of crisis and war. These are not the people who will ordinarily go to charity to ask for help, proactive programmes need to be put in place that help them transition smoothly into civilian life.
“We need, what I class as a proper veteran’s support function, which would allow us guys to feel proud again”, says Phil.
David suggests: “Many people I know that left the forces really struggled in their personal lives and struggled to hold down jobs where the employer and veteran had different values. We have 3 years resettlement grants, but I think it would be of greater benefit to the veteran if the govt subsidised wages for the employer for taking in a veteran and if they lasted 2/3 years. Then they could see that as a success and the employer at this point would have a good employee. And if not, that veteran has 2/3 years in a job which will help them find a new one and not be a statistic that sees them job-hopping.”
Help with adjusting to ‘normal’ life
Along with job security, veterans also need proper housing benefits.
Phil shares his experience of going to a housing office to secure accommodation and being treated with disrespect:
“I was made to feel completely and utterly worthless. The flat that I was given was in the burglary capital of Leeds, Burmantofts. Within two weeks I had been burgled and the few possessions I had were stolen. They did leave my Northern Ireland medal in the middle of the table, but that’s because they can’t sell it because it’s got a mark on it, an MOD mark, so they left that but they took everything else.”
The psychological effects of being trained as a soldier, serving in the army, witnessing death and destruction regularly and then trying to fit into society cannot be understated, yet they still go untreated.
“When you serve, you have a greater sense of why you are serving,” David explains: “which from a biological point of view is the limbic system of the brain. The part which regulates emotions and has no capacity for language. We can only try and rationalise why we serve or do the things we do. But when we leave and work a ‘normal job’, we lose our ‘why’ and we cannot rationalise why we feel the way we do and the loss to our lives.”
Recalling his own experiences Matthew states: “When you are discharged, all of your protection and contacts go. And there’s nothing there to replace it. The only way the veterans survive and cope with day-to-day issues and various traumas that we all have is by speaking and mixing with other veterans.”
A message to the government… “Honour your word”
Veterans’ mental wellbeing needs to be in the forefront of any reform that the government is planning to make on top of this survey. But, for veteran Phil, there is one more thing that the govt needs to provide that is just as essential: “I’ve got a benefits/discount card set up by a private company, it is called a Defence discount service and I carry it in my wallet. This expired in 2018, I’ve never used this card once. It just says, ‘Armed Forces Veterans Defence Privilege Card’ this is the only thing that says I am veteran.”
“An identity is everything, I was in one of the world’s elite regiments, and I’ve got nothing to show for it other than memories.”
Fortunately, Johnny Mercer recently announced that all ex-servicemen will receive a veterans identity card which would “help them get speedy access to vital health, housing and charity services”.
Even though they are sceptical, these war heroes still wish for a future where those who have served their country are better respected and well taken care of.
As Phil says: “I hope they deliver against the promises they make. Politicians honouring their word would be a nice change.”
I reached out to SSAFA but they were unavailable for comment.