Adrian Blair is Research Secretary of The Bow Group.
Today is Armed Forces Day.
Most people reading this would agree we have a moral obligation to help soldiers who have risked everything to lead a normal life afterwards. However, a new Bow Group paper by Ross Carroll, Stuart Carroll, and Julien Rey reveals how far the nation is from that ideal. Falklands hero Simon Weston told them Britain “is good at honouring its war dead, as this costs little… it’s not so great at honouring its war living.” After reading their paper, it’s hard to disagree.
By conducting in-depth interviews with veterans of several conflicts, Carroll, Carroll and Rey reveal deeply inadequate medical and psychiatric support for veterans, inferior to systems in Australia and the USA.
Britain only has two dedicated treatment centres for service personnel (in Selly Oak and Surrey), to cover a veteran population of four to five million. So the main treatment burden falls on the NHS. Yet although the Government claims to have extended priority NHS access to all veterans (not just war pensioners), it’s not clear what that means in practice, and 71% of GPs and 76% of veterans are still not aware of it.
In addition to physical injury, psychiatric disorders among those who have served in combat are common. Because disorders resulting from active service often don’t become clear for many years, and are unlikely to be self-diagnosed, the key to providing effective help is ongoing monitoring and support following active service.
That’s where the NHS really falls down: NHS psychiatry services are naturally geared towards the needs of civilian society. The NHS isn’t designed to provide the sustained support and follow-up that is essential for veterans.
Given these failings, it is not entirely surprising that around 2,500 ex service personnel sleep in homeless facilities in London on any given night (there are no adequate UK-wide figures), and 8,000 are currently in prison (close to 10% of the prison population). Thousands of others are leading lives that are anything but normal, thanks to the lack of an adequate veteran support system.
One Iraq veteran told the authors:
“Serving my country has been worse than a personal credit crunch for me. I have lost two houses, one career and one relationship from it, and sustained more health problems than I can count.”
The next Conservative government will face many dubious calls on an over-stretched public purse. The veteran support action plan in today’s Bow Group paper is emphatically not one of them. Indeed there are few better uses of public money.