First published in ‘THE CORMORANT’ 2011
*Since this was written Veterans Aid has championed the cause of at least 100 Foreign and Commonwealth ex-servicemen and women who through bad advice or legal anomalies have faced deportation and/or acute hardship.
One veterans charity is much like another right? They all mean well, have the same objectives and operate to the same exacting standards.
If you agree with this statement, it’s likely that you think all veterans are the same. Hardly likely given that there are around 4 million of them!
According to the Charity Commission there are nearly 3,000 organisations registered with the aim of supporting ex-Servicemen and women. Some have been operating for more than a century – others for a matter of weeks. Few have the pragmatic approach of Veterans Aid, its range of expertise or its commitment to delivering help to those in difficulty at point of need.
Those who know about ‘VA’ often ask why it doesn’t have a higher profile in the Service community – one answer is that its remit is to help ‘Veterans in Crisis’ and, media scare stories notwithstanding, there simply aren’t that many. Another explanation is that it doesn’t assume that the words ‘veteran’ and ‘hero’ are interchangeable. “The most heroic thing many of those who come to us have done is put up their hand to ask for help,” says former RAF officer and CEO Dr Hugh Milroy.
Last year VA provided 20,000 nights of accommodation, took around 2,000 calls for help from all over the world, put an average of 4 people per month into alcohol or substance rehab facilities and enabled 150 formerly homeless veterans to move into homes of their own. And all this on an annual budget of just over £1million.
But that’s not the real story. VA’s achievements aren’t about quantity – they’re about quality and a philosophy of treating everyone who seeks its help as unique.
“The men and women who come to us are individuals in crisis; in the last 12 months we’ve helped Guards officers, TA soldiers, single mothers, training failures, veterans of WW2, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Gulf 1 &2, the Falklands, Iraq – and even one or two from Afghanistan. Virtually none have experienced PTSD or claimed a link between military service and their subsequent problems” says Milroy.
“If there’s a ‘common factor’ in post-discharge crisis, it’s life! Poverty, debt, relationship breakdown, mental illness (like one in four of the population) and drink or substance abuse. Veterans are not immune to the problems that affect everyone else, and although most (about 94 per cent) transit seamlessly to ‘civvy street’ a few do end up facing issues that threaten to overwhelm them.”
Milroy, who is Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at Kings College, speaks from a position of some authority. A PhD researching the reasons for street homelessness, tri-Service operational experience and many years association with Veterans Aid have positioned him as a voice to be reckoned with. A straight talking iconoclast he is unequivocal about the scale and nature of the perceived problems – and courted as an expert by overseas governments and academics.
“It is wrong to perpetuate myths that raise expectations of failure,” he repeatedly tells journalists. “The streets of Britain are NOT littered with homeless ex-Servicemen for whom nothing is done. You are ‘citizen plus’ if you are a veteran as those who come to us discover.
“The ‘hero stereotype’ may help to raise funds, but the things we need money for are pretty prosaic. We address people’s most basic needs – provision of food, new clothes, footwear and shelter – having confirmed that they are bona fide veterans we start the ‘unpacking’ process that gets to the root of their problem. You would not believe some of the things that we’ve done or paid for to help people put their lives back together – a ticket to Katmandu, a DNA test and a set of oil paints, to name but three!”
VA presently operates from a 58-bedroom hostel in London’s East End and an HQ/Drop-in centre in Victoria. The latter straddles three floors and features a motley selection of second-hand furniture. Milroy’s office doubles as a store-room and on a busy day staff perch with laptops on the staircase or take clients to the café next door.
A familiar thread of service humour colours the daily banter; the ‘veteran helping veteran’ philosophy permeates every aspect of the help process. “Our aim is to act immediately delivering a message that conveys feelings of safety and hope,” reflects Milroy. “It’s hard to give people the privacy and dignity they need in our current premises, but we have some wonderful friends and supporters and with their help we will one day be able to migrate our team of experts to a centre that is more suitable.
“We already operate virtually – helping UK veterans from all over the world and utilising links with all the established Service charities (e.g. SSAFA, the RBL, ABF/Soldiers Charity, RN and RAF benevolent Funds, Combat Stress and St Dunstan’s). We already have an ‘A&E’ service staffed by a barrister, psychiatrist, social worker, case workers and substance abuse specialists. This is a thoroughly post-modern organisation – an agile, responsive powerhouse of expertise committed to Churchill’s exhortation to ‘Action This Day’.
All we need is the financial support to do what we’ve been doing for nearly 80 years that bit better”