Soldiers are trained to endure harsh conditions, a punishing
physical schedule, and to stay calm in situations that would cause
civilians great stress. So why on leaving the forces do so many end
up homeless or in prison, and what help is there for them? Anabel
Unity Sale reports.
Serving your country in the armed forces is a tough and
dangerous job that most of us would consider daunting. But many
people who have served in the armed forces find that life gets even
harder on leaving the services.
One in four rough sleepers have an ex-services background,
according to the government’s rough sleepers unit. Crisis, the
single homelessness charity, goes further and estimates that
100,000 former armed forces personnel are living in hostels, on
their friends’ floors and on the streets. And anecdotal evidence
from agencies working with prisoners suggests that a significant
percentage of the prison population comes from the services.
For some people leaving the forces, the problems of adjusting to
life back on civvy street is the result of the cocooned environment
they lived in, and the type of individual attracted to that.
So what sort of support services need to be provided for people
leaving the armed forces to smooth their transition into everyday
life and keep them off the streets and out of prison?
The answer should hopefully be provided in the action plan being
created by the newly formed Veteran’s Forum. Its members include
the rough sleepers unit, the Ministry of Defence, the army, and
various national agencies working with the service communities. The
forum has been charged by the government with developing a strategy
to makes sure vulnerable people leaving the armed services get the
appropriate support required, be it housing, emotional support or
social care. The strategy is due to be presented to a “veteran’s
task force”, made up of government ministers, in October 2001.
A spokesman for the rough sleepers unit at the Department of
Transport, Local Government and the Regions, says: “The government
is determined to ensure that people leaving the armed service do
not end up sleeping rough. We are working with the MoD, the army
and the services benevolent sector to ensure that vulnerable people
who have served their country are given the right help and support
to secure a stable transition into civilian life.”
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces
Help (Ssafa Forces Help) is often the first port of call for people
from the armed forces, whether they are serving or not, in need of
The charity was founded in 1885 by Colonel Sir James Gildea to
provide emotional and practical help and support to the serving and
ex-serving communities. It helps around 80,000 people a year and
says one in four of the UK’s population is eligible for its help.
Ssafa Forces Help has 7,000 trained volunteers at 99 branches and
divisions throughout the UK, with more than 500 volunteers working
on forces bases worldwide. It provides welfare services, housing;
residential care, specialist family support, and social work
services funded by the MoD. It also operates a confidential support
line for army personnel.
Cathy Walker, Ssafa Forces Help director of welfare, says:
“People join the services for all sorts of reasons and those who
join the army often come from dysfunctional families. The army
gives them a structure and a routine, sometimes for the first
These young adults, she says, are vulnerable and have not yet
developed their independent living skills. The short length of the
service they sign up for only compounds their vulnerabilities.
“If servicemen are serving for a short period of time like three
years, and they don’t have any independent living skills, there is
a chance they will not learn them,” she says. And this lack of
ability to do everyday things like enter a tenancy agreement or
even manage their budget can push some ex-forces to breaking point.
“If people can’t cope with paying bills and so on and they freak
out when they can’t cope, they might end up on the streets or in
prison,” she explains.
Young recruits coming out of the services are not the only ones
facing these problems. Walker says those with long and successful
careers are used to being told what to do and can find the
transition of having to make decisions for themselves
But empowering recruits in the decision-making process while
still in service will not always help: “People need to be
encouraged to make choices but it is difficult to balance the
requirements of a lean, mean fighting force with a civilian society
that is encouraged to make choices. A battalion in Kosova under
attack is not going to be asked if they think they should fight or
Walker says the clients Ssafa Forces Help deals with are often
those who have slipped through the nets of over-stretched social
“The key thing we do is extend the hand of friendship because
many people we deal with are lonely and the help they get [from
social services] is the briefest of help,” she says.
Extending this sort of help to serving prisoners with an
ex-forces background is something Ssafa Forces Help is keen to do.
It is going to explore ways of raising its profile among the prison
population in order to reach all its potential clients. “If a
prisoner wishes to make contact with us we would be happy to accept
that but we do not want the army to tell us who is in prison.
People need to be empowered themselves to contact us,” she
Commodore Toby Elliot, chief executive of the Ex-Services Mental
Welfare Society known as Combat Stress, says he would welcome more
referrals of ex-forces clients by social services departments.
The charity provides care and support for ex-service personnel
with mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress
disorder, resulting from traumatic battle and peacekeeping
experiences. It has 6,500 men and women on its books, some of whom
it has worked with for 60 years, and sees between 500 and 600 new
clients every year. Since it was launched in 1919 it has dealt with
more than 75,000 veterans.
Combat Stress has three 30-bed treatment centres in Ayrshire,
Shropshire and Surrey that take up to 1,500 clients per year. It
also has 11 regional welfare officers that visit clients in their
own homes to offer support across the UK and the Republic of
Elliot is adamant that his organisation’s work cannot be done in
isolation. “Combat Stress cannot do it all any more than the NHS
can or social services can, it is a team effort. We can only become
engaged and play a part if there is a referral to us,” he says.
This point was hammered home when he spoke to an 82-year-old
World War Two veteran who, despite having problems since being
medically discharged from the army nearly 60 years ago, had only
just approached the charity for help.
Elliot agrees with Walker that these clients can be hard for
social services departments to keep an eye on. He says: “People
slip through the social services net because a lot of this group
are very vulnerable and find it hard to cope with their
He adds: “People come to our attention who have not been near
their GP, the NHS or social services. They are reluctant to go to
government bodies that are not linked to the armed forces for
The British Legion is perhaps the most well known charity
working for service men and women. In 2000 it spent more than
£40 million providing welfare services to current and
ex-forces personnel. More than £20 million of this was raised
through its annual poppy appeal. It has 4,000 branches and clubs
and predicts that demand for its support and services will continue
to rise for the next 10 to 15 years.
Simon Cracknell, head of the British Legion’s resettlement
services, is responsible for offering people leaving the forces
resettlement support, career advice, and guidance on starting their
own small businesses.
The problems for forces personnel often start when they leave
because they have been institutionalised. He explains: “They have
been there for 20 years and are not experienced in civilian life.
They are used to being told where to go and what to do when they
Crisis wants to see more done to help those from the ex-forces
who are struggling to cope with civilian life. A Crisis
spokesperson says: “We are particularly keen to see a national
network of one-stop centres set up to provide whatever help
ex-servicemen need, whether it’s housing or employment advice, for
the rest of their working lives.”
She adds that such a network could be set up by the MoD jointly
with the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of
Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
All agencies involved in assisting this client group will have
to wait until the autumn to see what the veteran’s forum action
plan contains and the government’s response to it. As the sector
urges, isn’t it about time those who served their country get the
support services they need?