The new frontline: voices of veterans in need
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.
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These are the voices of veterans whose stories we rarely hear. They are men and women who have found the transition from service in the Armed Forces to civilian life a humbling, sometimes humiliating, experience. Often too proud to ask for help, they feel isolated and alone. Marriages and relationships have broken down. They worry about their finances. They are struggling to find suitable housing. Many of them have chronic physical or mental health problems, which they believe were caused or exacerbated by their military service, but cannot get the medical help they need.
These men and women served their nation, but many of them do not feel supported by society, and some feel they have been disadvantaged. They contrast their experiences with those of their counterparts in the US and feel they have been forgotten.
This report gives them a voice.
There are 900,000 veterans aged 16-64, according to the Ministry of Defence’s 2014 survey of the veteran population. It is important to remember that most successfully make the transition to civilian life. They do not need support and will never have to call on a charity for help. However, for some the transition is a lot harder, and it is amongst this section of the community that SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, does much of its work.
The challenges faced by these men and women are stark. Working-age veterans receiving help from SSAFA highlight these key problems:
- Not enough savings to buy or replace essential items
- Not enough money for day-to-day living
- A lack of hope for the future or purpose in their life
Greatest challenges faced by SSAFA veterans
Welfare needs of SSAFA veterans
Our research identified the top ten challenges faced by SSAFA veterans, which fall into three main categories: financial hardship, poor physical and mental health, and lack of hope and self-esteem.
Financial hardship is a near-universal concern for the veterans helped by SSAFA. In all, 86% say they face financial challenges, defined as a problem paying the bills, budgeting and managing finances, dealing with debt or getting the right benefits.
The average annual net household income of SSAFA veterans is only £13,800, compared with £28,200 for all working-age veterans1 and £31,000 earned by the average family with two children in the general population. A third of SSAFA veterans have household income below £7,500 per annum. Some of them have to rely on food banks.
Veterans interviewed by SSAFA’s researchers gave four main reasons for getting into debt: difficulties paying for housing after leaving the services; unemployment; low income, often compounded by illness in jobs which do not pay sick leave; and relationship breakdown. None of those interviewed could recall being taught money management during their time in the Forces.
Working status of SSAFA working age veterans, compared with general working-age population
Three quarters of SSAFA veterans surveyed have long-term health problems – defined as any physical or mental health conditions, illnesses or disabilities expected to last at least a year.
This means they are in much poorer health than the general working-age population; less than a third of 16-64 year olds reported long-standing health conditions or disabilities in the General Lifestyle Survey 20114. The difference was most marked among SSAFA veterans aged 16-44, of whom 70% cited long-term health problems compared with only 22% of men and women aged 16-44 in the general population.
The research showed that clinical mental health problems are extensive. Six out of ten SSAFA veterans have been formally diagnosed as currently suffering from depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other conditions. Mental health conditions, illnesses and disabilities peak among the 44-54 age group.
SSAFA working-age veterans with current diagnosis of PTSD, by conflict
SSAFA working-age veterans’ current mental health diagnoses
Amongst SSAFA working-age veterans, one in four (26%) say they have been formally diagnosed as currently having PTSD. But, amongst SSAFA veterans deployed in recent conflicts, the number increases significantly: 49% of those who served in the 1990-91 Gulf War; 46% of those who saw action in the Falklands; 43% of those who fought in Afghanistan; and 41% of those who served in Iraq.
Making the transition from the services to civilian life requires a period of adjustment for everyone who has served. However, veterans who come from challenging backgrounds prior to military service can face a more difficult time after leaving the Forces.
In many cases the interviewees had joined the Forces straight from school, often to get away from difficult home circumstances or neighbourhoods, and military life gave them a stability they had not previously experienced. Many of our interviewees said that, on leaving the Forces, they had no family to turn to. Often it takes a crisis before these individuals consider asking for help.
Every June in the United Kingdom we celebrate Armed Forces Day – an occasion to honour those who have served their country and remember their sacrifice. Nevertheless, 85% of SSAFA working-age veterans who completed the survey believe the UK does not give enough support to its veterans, and 78% think they are not as well supported as their counterparts in the USA.
Four out of ten of veterans helped by SSAFA do not feel valued by society, a feeling that is most pronounced in the 16-34 age group and amongst veterans of recent conflicts in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Similarly, four out of ten believe they or their household have ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ suffered disadvantage in relation to housing as a result of their service, four in ten in relation to employment and three in ten in relation to health.
Veterans aged 35-44 are most likely to feel disadvantaged in relation to housing or health and 16-34 year-olds in relation to employment. SSAFA veterans who have most recently left the military – especially those who served in
Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans and the Gulf War - are also the most likely to say they have experienced disadvantage.
How SSAFA working-age veterans believe they and their families have been disadvantaged by military service
The Armed Forces Covenant, enshrined in law by the 2011 Armed Forces Act, is supposed to ensure that veterans and their families are not disadvantaged as a result of their military service. It covers public services, such as health, education and housing. It says:
“Those who served in the Armed Forces, whether Regulars or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most, such as the injured and the bereaved”.
More than half the veterans surveyed by SSAFA, however have never heard of it. When its provisions were explained, only 39% of SSAFA working-age veterans thought it was 'fair', and 55% said it was inadequate and should be more generous. Only 16% thought it was being implemented effectively.
Do SSAFA veterans believe the Armed Forces Covenant is being taken seriously and implemented effectively?
What mental image comes to mind when we think of veterans? When One Poll asked that question on behalf of SSAFA, four out of ten said it was someone aged 65 or over.
In fact, one in three veterans are aged under 65 according to the Ministry of Defence’s most recent survey, and the generation aged 35-44 is experiencing some of the worst problems. Many have gone to war and seen action in Afghanistan, Iraq or the Balkans. Some have been scarred by their experiences and are unprepared for a return to civilian life.
Our research suggests that transition is a particularly difficult time and can lead to both short-term and longer-term problems. The crucial window of opportunity in which to reach the vulnerable is as they are leaving the Forces, not months or years later when they are in a downward spiral and find it more difficult to ask for help.
SSAFA, along with other charities, acts as a safety net, and it is reassuring to know that 84 per cent of veterans helped by SSAFA rated the assistance they received as either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. SSAFA beneficiaries reported the greatest impact of SSAFA assistance in helping to resolve short-term financial crises, housing problems and mobility problems as well as helping them to navigate ‘the system’ for state benefits and services, building self-confidence and lifting their mood.
What they value most is the empathy. They describe SSAFA as being like a caring big brother; case workers are good listeners and restore self belief in those who have lost hope. They provide a bridge between the services and civilian life. However, it is too much to expect a single charity to shoulder the burden alone, especially when so many veterans seen by SSAFA need specialist treatment for mental health problems.
This report has highlighted that welfare and health services are often perceived by SSAFA veterans as mysterious and sometimes even hostile. Greater collaboration is needed between military charities and public sector agencies to signpost the support on offer and decode its language.
In addition, the Armed Forces need to identify potentially vulnerable men and women before they leave the services. It is usually obvious to commanding officers who will manage and, conversely, who will struggle once they have left. The vulnerable ones should be assigned a mentor, or champion – funded by the Government -. to guide, motivate, give advice and advocate on behalf of the veterans. They should stay in contact for at least a year, checking in at regular intervals and making sure they do not fall off the radar, which happens too frequently.
A formal review of their status should be carried out by the mentor 12 months after they have left the services to check their progress and identify problems which might require further assistance. Can they manage their finances? Are there any health concerns? Are there family problems? This annual review will act as an early warning system, pinpointing those who need continuing help from a mentor beyond their first 12 months in civilian life.
One of the lessons learnt from this report is that veterans can fall through the net and do not always get the help that they need. Information from their service records should be made more readily available to GPs, social services and local authorities as a matter of course. Veterans should be educated about the advantages of giving permission to allow their data to be shared in this way. Only by adopting this pro-active approach will we be able to help those that need support
before problems spiral out of control.
The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise from the nation that those who have served, and their families, will not be disadvantaged. Only by ensuring collectively that we are there at the start of their journey into civilian life can we hope to turn these words into reality.
The moment when those who have served our country leave the Armed Forces to begin new lives should be the new frontline.