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Monday, 4 November 2019

Veterans Issues - November 2019


Background
It’s that time of year again where parts of the nation reflect upon the sacrifices made by the few for the many.  I’d like to share some thoughts from a Veteran’s perspective.

I served a 2 year tour in County Down, Northern Ireland from 1983 -1985.  I remember experiencing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as early as December 1983 as a result of my duties.  By the time it was time to leave the province my Senior NCO knew I was suffering from PTSD but no one ever told me that I was afflicted by the condition.  In those days, people in the forces weren’t given much support, if any; we were expected to cope, do our jobs or face ridicule and stigma if diagnosed with a mental health condition.

I left the RAF Police in 1985 and then served with the Metropolitan Police from 1986 – 1989.  My career was cut short owing to an incident that triggered my disability relating to PTSD and military service.  Again, senior officers knew that I was suffering from PTSD but no one told me or even entered into a discussion with me about the condition or my history, so as to provide help or support to me.

From 1990 to 2000 I worked in various roles with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) service as it was then.  I was a Guidance Tutor responsible for providing support and training to advice workers, I managed a social policy unit in Newquay, carried out casework and represented on tribunal up to Commissioners Decisions level.  I spent the last 5 years managing Truro CAB in Cornwall. 
While interviewing clients with disabilities, I would sometimes recognise my own symptoms in their accounts but I would hide my feelings and continue with delivering the service.  The recognition of having a mental health condition generated fear.  What if I had a disability that would stop me working?  How would it affect my relationships with friends and colleagues?  I suppressed my emotions and got on with the job; after all, that’s what I had been conditioned to do since the age of 17 in the Armed Forces.
In 1995, I was hit by a stolen motor vehicle.  I was told that I was lucky to have survived.  I was still very fit from martial arts training and I wasn’t aware that Karate acted as a good coping mechanism for PTSD…the road accident changed all of this.  I couldn’t train anymore and my symptoms became much worse.  So much so that I visited my GP in Bristol.  I’d left Cornwall in 1994 to be with the mother of my son and support her in raising him.  I was diagnosed with PTSD in 1996 and eventually received appropriate support from Combat Stress; 11 years after I was discharged from military service; 13 years after contracting the condition.

Combat Stress (CS)
5 years or so ago, Combat Stress changed the way they operate and many Veterans like me were left unsupported.  They now operate the NHS 20 week support model and then discharge you.  The older system of care that allowed Veterans 4 weeks or so of respite a year has gone; these breaks benefited both employed and unemployed Veterans.

Help 4 Heroes (H4H)
H4H was initially set up to only care for Veterans that had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Most evidence of this has disappeared from the internet now.  H4H marketed themselves brilliantly and captured the attention of the general public.  As a social policy issue, I contacted H4H about this many years and it was confirmed.  This was at a time when we were still supporting Veterans from WW1 onwards.  The suicide rate of Falklands Veterans has been high and is continually increasing; the same applies to Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan engagements.  I raised the question about who supports Veterans for all of the other operational theatres before Iraq.  There was no response.  H4H were, at that time, only providing other projects with buildings.

On a side issue, you’re not a hero for putting on a uniform and doing a job.  You’re no different to a refuse collector or and IT Engineer.  You do the job you’re paid for; we define a hero as someone that did something over and above what was required of them.



Homeless Veterans
Not all homeless Veterans want a home.  I’ve worked with many in the past that have taken a conscious decision to break away because they don’t fit in with civilian society and over their lack of faith in human society coupled with the corruption involved in governments at local and national levels.

Please bear in mind that some of these Veterans have served in theatres where they have first hand experience of the existence of governmental collusion with opposing countries and terrorist organisations.
They therefore found themselves unable to trust society and want to live apart from it.  So before attempting to assist a homeless Veteran, they should be asked if they would like help and then which level of help they would like.

Armed Forces Charities Squandering Funds
Some of the largest military charities are sitting on £277m - while veterans struggle to cope with various disabilities and trying to make ends meet in civvy street.
Annual accounts show the 10 wealthiest armed forces charities have cash reserves totalling £277m.

There needs to greater accountability as well as mandatory networking for charities in any sector, which is something that has to be proven for any charity start up application or project application.  The requirement to network with relevant statutory and voluntary agencies must be ongoing and enforced by legislation or, at the very least by the funding body, with the proviso that those refusing or failing to network adequately, will have their funding removed and will have to repay any funds issued.

I have found that charities and organisations won’t network with each other for fear of creating competition for the same funding pots.

Racism
From my own experiences and having talked to people from my generation of service, racism was rife in the Armed Forces in the 80s and 90s and while there has been an improvement, there is still much racism in the Armed Forces and in the Veterans’ Community as a whole.

A lot of it is hidden in the term ‘banter’.   Racism is racism.  It is ugly, hurtful, demeaning and illegal.  Racism in the Paras came to the fore earlier this year when 2 black lads took the regiment to an Employment Tribunal.  The hearing started a few months ago.  As I haven’t heard anything about it in the press, I’m assuming a settlement was reached with a gagging clause attached.

During the course of the hearing I posted articles about their experiences of racism in the armed forces in various private Armed Forces groups on Facebook.  Some of the comments from the Veterans’ Community were filled with hate and racism towards myself for posting the article and asking the questions and towards the subject of the post – the 2 black paras.  However, there were positive, supportive comments from some Veterans which, to me, suggested that attitudes are changing.  The split between negative and positive comments was roughly 50/50.

The originating article is
here.

It’s fair to assume that BME Veterans who have experienced racism will avoid regular Veterans meet ups in case they’re subjected to discriminatory ‘banter’ because such behaviour was deemed acceptable and even encouraged by some leaders of different ranks.  The first sergeant that I served under in Northern Ireland was an outspoken racist who would openly use racial slurs at social occasions.  He would ensure that I got more than my fair share of the jobs people didn’t like doing.

During my service I witnessed sexism and homophobia too and I saw how people were treated just for being themselves.

Veterans Suicide Support
Approximately 71 Veterans have committed suicide over the last year.  In addition, another youngster has committed suicide this week.

We have some decent projects operating at local levels nowadays but a lot of Veterans won’t access the support.  I can relate to this and the reasons are complex and the majority of civilian society remains ignorant of them.

From the moment that we start basic training, we’re taught our most basic of duties – to kill other human beings.  We’re pushed, re-programmed and moulded into people that will do their duty … even if that means dying.  If we get knocked down, we get up.  If we’re wounded, we still find a way to fight.  If we see a brother or sister in danger, we’d lay down our lives to save theirs, without hesitation.  We were proud people that continually exceeded our expectations.  Of course there was always a small percentage that didn’t meet the mark.

The way we coped with traumatic incidents was to lock them down in a compartment and bury them deep inside.  It took a long time for me to remember all of the incidents that I’d been involved in or had witnessed.  My reactions to the most serious one only came to light around 2010 … some 25 years after the event.  I had buried the event so deeply that I had forgotten it.  We get up, we face the day and we carry on.

Most Veterans that have been helped have come to notice because of an incident and someone has been switched on enough to connect the dots and get the support ball rolling.  However, even then, the journey is a slow and perilous one because there’s no telling how the process will affect each individual.

When I first visited Combat Stress, it took 30 minutes to drive through their gates and into the compound.  I was sat there remembering incidents, shaking and fearful. Fearful of my own feelings and reactions to the incidents that I’d been involved in.  The person on reception that was using the intercom was very patient and eventually talked me in.

When I started my first individual therapy session with my key worker, I couldn’t sit inside the building.  I needed to be on a piece of nature.  I had been coping by disappearing into the wilderness with my cameras and just being with the Earth as often as possible when on leave. 

Eventually I found a hollowed out tree in the grounds that I could fit into.  My Key Worker was happy to sit outside and work with me there.

That level of therapy is the hardest thing I have ever done but it didn’t cure me.  I don’t feel there is a cure for PTSD and I don’t feel that the medical community understands the condition properly.  The NHS deal with the mind and the body.  PTSD is also a wound to the spirit of the person.  To understand this fully, I embarked on a few trips to different Native American (First Nations) tribes in North America and experienced some of their healing rituals and ceremonies … and while I’m not cured, I am better equipped to deal with PTSD through the things that I have been taught by them.

It’s a scary thing to face yourself in the mirror and see everything that life has done to you…and what you have had to do to survive.  It’s scarier still to accept it all and ask for help.  When the average person hears a gunshot or an explosion, their reaction is to run away from it…ours is to run towards it and deal with whatever we find.  To then realise that we have something wrong within us that will require us to examine the feelings, memories and experiences that we have locked down deep in our souls, can be a further trauma.  It can be easier to face death again than to examine your ‘self’ which is why many Veterans go back and work as mercenaries.  They can’t fit back into civvy street.

During my exhibition (Living with PTSD), I met with CPNs, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and medical students to raise awareness of PTSD and how differently it affects Veterans.  They were open and honest about their experiences in treating PTSD.  You can read their comments here.


Veterans Support Group (VSG)
I set up the VSG last year and it has specific aims:

A place for Veterans to meet and enjoy a breakfast together (50% off food)
Access to free counselling by qualified practitioners
Fast track access to the NHS for Veterans in Nottingham and Doncaster
Free access to art, poetry and photography groups
Banter without discrimination on any front
Supporting each other irrespective of political beliefs or other differences

This group is open to anyone that has served in the Armed Forces of any country.  A group of Veterans met and discussed this issue last month and we accepted that we’ve probably got more in common than we realise; particularly how we’ve all been used and lied to over the years.

Anyone found to have served in a terrorist organisation is not welcome, nor is anyone who has committed a war crime.

Veterans brekkie is at Tesco Bulwell Extra on the 3rd Sunday of every month at 10:30am.

The art events take place every Friday evening, in a relaxed atmosphere, at 7:30pm in the Community Room, Tesco Bulwell Extra, Jennison Street, Nottingham NG6 8EQ.


Soldier F
The trial of Soldier F has begun but I haven’t heard about any progress in the media.  In short some members of the Parachute Regiment are to be put on trial for actions carried out by them while on duty.

Having served in the RAF Police, I’m of the opinion that you have to carry out your duties in accordance with the law.  If you don’t then you suffer the consequences.

I feel that the Soldier F scenario is unique though because part of the Good Friday Agreement set free terrorists that had been bombing, shooting, kidnapping and murdering innocent people for decades.  I feel that the British Government should treat people on both sides of the line equally and draw a line under the situation and drop proceedings.

It’s easy to judge someone else’s actions when you haven’t walked in their shoes.  Even with my viewpoint on following the rules, would I have been able to do my job correctly if an angry mob were about to get to me?  The simple answer is that I don’t know.  I wasn’t there and I didn’t have to deal with the situation.  I would draw your attention to the funeral a few years later though where soldiers were pulled from an unmarked vehicle, stripped and killed.

Soldiers follow orders.  Politicians create the situations and brief the top brass; they should be made responsible for the incidents too.


Fireworks
The domestic use of fireworks needs to be addressed.  There are many Veterans that end up in a triggered state when fireworks are let off.  The sound from modern day fireworks resembles small arms fire and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).  I and many other Veterans are asking Nottingham City Council to at least take steps to ask people to be aware of the problems that Fireworks cause – to pet as well as humans.

In my own area, people have been letting off fireworks over the last 2 weeks after midnight.  Can we have some clarity on which number to call for help and whether steps will be taken to prosecute those that break the firework laws.

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