TWO RECENT EVENTS prompted me to delve into the lives of ex-service men and women – or veterans as we now seem to know them – living in Scotland. The first was the awful and sad death of ex-Royal Tank Regiment Corporal Darren “Dan” Greenfield on the streets of Edinburgh (pictured), our capital city, in plain sight of the general public.
The second was the launch in London on 9th February of the Democrats & Veterans Party, a new political entity which seeks to champion the cause of the ex-military community in the UK, although so far it seems to be a bit Anglocentric. Maybe that’ll change in the months to come.
Both are indicators that all is not well in the veterans sector. Mr Greenfield’s untimely demise quite rightly sent shockwaves through the tight-knit ex-services communities in Scotland, and yet a stroll down Princes Street in Edinburgh shows that he was far from the only veteran living on the streets.
But homelessness is only one of the problems that besets veterans. Whilst most, thankfully, manage to make a successful transition back into civilian life, some find it very hard. They may have health issues, particularly in the fields of mental health and PTSD, or find getting meaningful employment far from easy. Coming from a relatively structured military lifestyle into the perceived chaos of civvy street is too much for some.
According to Veterans Scotland, the charitable representative body for Scottish ex-military services, the veterans’ community in Scotland is some 550,000 strong (Scottish Government estimate is circa 400,000), a figure including ex-service men and women themselves and their extended families. In other words, some 10 per cent of the Scottish population has military links, which is quite astonishing.
What is equally astonishing is that there are more than 70 other charitable veterans organisations that make up the membership of Veterans Scotland itself. Now, some of these are well-known major organisations like PoppyScotland, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA), and the Erskine Hospital to mention but three. And all of them are no doubt run by well-meaning and energetic staff and volunteers. I don’t think anyone would be critical in any way of those involved in running or operating them.
But 70-plus seems an awful lot and inevitably there must be duplication of effort, as those involved themselves admit. And, yes, the Scottish Government does have a Veterans Minister and a Veterans Commissioner, and it does provide significant funds to various veterans’ organisations throughout Scotland. Senior civil servants in the Government have been identified to champion veterans’ issues. I also understand that some, if not all, local authorities and NHS boards have established “Armed Forces and Veterans Champions” to better deal with the issues at council level.
Forgive me for being over-critical, then, but it all seems a bit ad hoc to me. A cynic might observe that the Ministry of Defence more or less washes its hands Pontius Pilate-style of its former employees once they leave the services and passes on responsibility to central and local government. They in their turn pass on their responsibilities to the charities sector, helping them on their way with a bit of cash here and there to ease the pain. Or am I being unfair here?
We should also look at the founding of the Democrats and Veterans Party, mentioned earlier. Despite being heavily trailed on social media its launch was a little bit of a damp squib, which tells its own story. The speeches were also a bit turgid and, notwithstanding the outstanding bravery of their main speaker and spokesman, it was all a bit understated. “UKIP in military blazers” was how one of my friends described it.
However, we should applaud this group of veterans for at least doing something in the face of widespread political inertia. Sadly, under the current UK political system, I suspect they haven’t a ghost of a chance of getting anyone elected to Westminster. But you never know, so we should keep our fingers crossed.
Against this somewhat gloomy background, I think it’s time government took this on properly. Whitehall and Westminster aren’t going to do it given their current seeming paralysis over Brexit, but maybe the Scottish Government could take the lead here as it has on other issues which have subsequently been adopted UK wide?
We need a proper, governmental, Department for Veterans Affairs, along the lines that the US and, perhaps more realistically, Australia has. In the latter case, it is a department of the Government of Australia, instituted in 1976, with responsibilities for veterans’ income support, health, housing, and veterans’ children’s education amongst other things. The US version is very much more comprehensive, especially in health matters with its responsibilities for veterans’ hospitals.
The Scottish Government doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Best practices from other nations can be adopted where appropriate to form the basis of a Scottish department. And we have a basic framework with out Veterans’ Minister and Commissioner already in place.
But what I don’t think we can do anymore is leave the after service care of our veterans mainly to the charitable sector, no matter how well-intentioned and committed it may be. It’s time our politicians got a grip.
Stuart Crawford is a former officer in the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (Scotland’s Own) and military commentator.