Strange things happen when you put your hand up and say you want to help Britain's combat Veterans secure civilian employment when they leave the Service. At short notice, and with little qualification other than this general willingness, I found myself sitting at a table with HRHs Prince William and Harry, a three star General and twenty international captains of industry. The meeting was the brainchild of the Princes' Royal Foundation and its purpose was to develop some joined-up thinking between the military and business when it comes to veteran resettlement.
We met just before the opening ceremony of Prince Harry's Invictus Games in a meeting room in East London. After some formalities The Duke of Cambridge explained to the collected CEOs; "It is about making those serving aware of the avenues open to them, and translating their skills into your language." And it's not simply a matter of swapping 'nineteen hundred hours' for 7pm. Servicemen generalise civilian employment with the concept of 'Civvy Street' but well-intentioned business folk are no more helpful when they talk about 'The Military' and its fine qualities. To do so homogenises a group of around 180,000 people, glossing over the fact that Service leavers cover an enormous spectrum of talent. There are Oxbridge educated ex-SAS officers landing lucrative jobs in prestigious consulting companies like Bain & Co and McKinsey but, at the other extreme, teenage ex-infantrymen coming from broken council estate homes, with low reading ages and life-changing injuries to contend with. To imagine that both require similar employment support is folly.
Into this void have stepped a plethora of some 500 charitable bodies, both national and local, many of which are somehow inter-linked. The most celebrated is probably 'Help for Heroes' but also notable are 'Walking with the Wounded,' 'Hire a hero' and even Andy McNab's initiative 'Suited & Booted'. When 32 year old Chris Church found himself recovering from life-threatening stomach injuries sustained in an IED blast in Afghanistan he was directed to a job at Jaguar Land-Rover by yet another charity, Mission Motor Sport:
"I spent about a month in Selly Oak Hospital and as a result of my injuries I was discharged from the armed forces. Other than the physical aspect of being injured, the biggest challenge for me leaving the Army was finding work. Like many soldiers, I joined the Army at a young age and got used to the life and the institution. Trying to find where you best fit in the world and the work environment can be a little daunting."
Prince Harry was clear on the nation's obligations towards people like Church; "For many of these great people, what comes next is jobs. By definition, servicemen and women are highly skilled, well-trained and motivated people. Many of those injured are young men and women, with their whole lives ahead of them. For those no longer able to serve in the Armed Forces, the future is often uncertain. However, we should be there, ready to support them, if or when they need it. For a few this may mean long-term physical and mental support, but for the majority this means fulfilling employment. Not special treatment, but to be treated as they were before injury, with respect, admiration and recognition of their considerable talent. "
The Ministry of Defence's response is fragmented. Support comes from the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Career Transition Partnership (CTP), Recovery Career Services, Future Horizons, Officers' Association and so the list goes on. Into this confused hopper the military is discharging around 20,000 regular soldiers, including the most recent tranche of 1,060. Exactly how many of these servicemen fall into the WIS (wounded, injured, sick) category is hard to say. Operations in Afghanistan put around 2,000 men and women into field hospitals with combat injuries. To this number you can add PTSD and other afflictions. According to the military, 97% find jobs within 6 months. But many charities say this figure refers to any form of income taxable event and is highly misleading, countering with unsettling statistics of veteran unemployment, homelessness and even imprisonment.
One thing that is not under dispute is the value-added of ex-military employees. John Roberts, Britain's £500 million "Kitchen King" and founder of appliances company Ao.com, had some harsh words for the CTP but claimed a 95% hit-rate with servicemen that he had appointed to delivery driver positions. He told the Princes; "They're disciplined and used to keeping to deadlines - they don't resist." Prince William agreed; "If someone can weld fibre optics in a desert under hostile fire in fifty degree heat, leading men and women as they do so, just think of what they're capable of doing here and what that means to your productivity figures!" The other point of universal agreement was that more could be done and the Duke referenced our closest allies; "The Americans are good at it - not that it's a competition. But they have learned to harness skills for their bottom lines. I had the privilege of launching a nationwide hiring fair called Hiring Our Heroes in Los Angeles three years ago. We may not wish to go down the precise same route, but I am convinced that, as a nation, we can do better."
Everyone around the table agreed that organisation "treacle" was getting in the way of doing precisely this and Prince Harry was quick to plunge his army boots into the sticky middle; "We need to have another meeting to figure out exactly what this "treacle" looks like," He declared, "and how to get it sorted out." Judging by the success of his latest venture, the Invictus Games, no one should under-estimate his determination to do exactly that.