When you think 'Veteran' what springs to mind? America. Tom Cruise. Born on the Fourth of July. Vietnam. Stick the word into a search engine, and the results will be littered with stories from the States.
'Veteran' also implies old. We need to reclaim the word for the thousands of young men and women who leave the Armed Services, either on medical discharge, redundancy, or out of choice.
There are estimated to be 4.8 million veterans living in the UK, that's one in 10 adults.
Here in Britain we seem to have a schizoid relationship with the word. Quite rightly, veterans are heroes if they've had a limb blown off. 'Help for Heroes' has a more winning tone than 'Help for Veterans'. Especially help for veterans on the streets, addicted to drugs or booze, and drowning in a mental health hell. Or in prison for violent, erratic crimes.
A feature in The Guardian interviewed veterans who'd gone from the army to prison. It quotes the MoD figures that veterans make up 3.5% of the prison population, but said the statistics were conservative, with 11,500 on probation or parole. Reports suggest half those in prison had depression or PTSD. As the army withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan (and after increased redundancies), it means there are more British troops in the UK since 1784, and it presents new challenges. Although the majority make a successful transition into Civvy Street, a minority don't.
Physical injuries of veterans are visible, mental health conditions aren't.
As part of my work with Cause UK, I was part of the team that helped set up a Veterans Artisan Bakery at The Beacon- a flagship veterans support centre - near Catterick Garrison. The bakery is a Community Interest Company that provides therapeutic baking, although some veterans have gone on to catering college, inspired by our Patron, the chef Rosemary Shrager.
The Beacon is run by Riverside, a civilian Housing Provider working with the MoD to offer much needed services for homeless veterans. Its run and developed by ex-Service personnel who understand the struggles veterans face.
As one of the leading registered providers of social housing in the UK Riverside run centres for veterans at the UK's major Garrisons. The Beacon is its flagship centre and helps up to 70 veterans a year. It gives them a home for up to two years, signposts them to therapy or detox programmes, and offers training and education. 90% go on to independent living, such as 30 year-old Sean Percival Scott, an ex-Army Commando who found himself suicidal on the streets, suffering PTSD after serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photo of Sean Pervical Scott with WW2 Veterans at the #LightsOnForVeterans campaign launch, credit: Ross Parry Agency
He called Riverside's National Helpline, SPACES, which has helped over 12,600 Veterans into housing since it started back in 2000. After a stint at the Beacon, he quit the booze, set up his own dog handling company and although has days where he's fragile, is an incredible success story. He shows with the right support, lives do change. Without the Beacon he said, he'd be just another news headline, 'Ex-Soldier Found Dead in Park'. "Civilians go to bed at night knowing soldiers are keeping them safe," Sean said, "it's nice to give back and help keep us safe when we need it."
I've worked with Riverside for a number of years now and interviewed many of the veterans. Some are broken before they enter the army - working class kids growing up in care, going straight from school to the Armed Forces - and come out even more brutalised. Most have a huge sense of pride in their army careers, and it shapes their sense of self. That's one of the reasons why there's a worry there's a silent number on the streets who are too proud, or ashamed, to ask for help. Vulnerability is hard to admit for people trained to face up to situations most of us run away from.
Riverside is trying to raise awareness, encouraging at-risk veterans or people who know of a homeless veteran to come forward and ring SPACES this winter, with its #LightsOnforVeterans campaign.
Film by Jessie Phillips of Forces TV
If it hadn't been for the efforts of SPACES, a lot of ex-servicemen would now be homeless. If a veteran approaches their Local Authority, it doesn't mean they'll be prioritised for housing. There's no statutory responsibility for councils to accommodate ex-servicemen.
Funding to maintain the support and counselling service at The Beacon is increasingly under threat.
The reason we set up the bakery and are working hard to try and make it generate funds (we've created a range of biscuits to sell and are now working with Greggs to hopefully take it to a wider market) is because it helps pay for counselling and therapy. The Government needs to remember that The Armed Forces Covenant recognises that the whole nation has a moral obligation to former members of the Armed Forces and their families.
If you are a veteran in need of housing or know of a struggling veteran please contact the SPACES office on Tel 01748/833797 - 872940 - 830191 or Catterick Military 94731 2940. Or visit www.spaces.org.uk for more information.