RAF Cosford, a base nestled in the green 10 miles out of Wolverhampton, is everything you expect a military barracks to be. The compound is flanked with barbed wire and CCTV, uniformed officers march in smart lines and khaki-toned aircraft zoom past overhead. Just outside the wire, a small social services office serves as a link to the outside world.
SSAFA (formerly the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association), is an armed forces charity that employs a team of 55 social workers, support workers and service managers based at 26 stations across the UK. They support military personnel and their families through anything from injuries and disabilities resulting from battle, to relationship difficulties, bereavement, domestic violence and child protection concerns.
“We know the social workers’ language and the military language so we can be that go-between,” says Parminder Boughan, a personal family support worker at the RAF base in Cosford in the West Midlands.
“We have social workers on our team with different areas of expertise, for example working with disabled adults, but we also work closely with the local authority social workers. They use us as a resource and we access training through the local authority on legislation and processes.”
At times, SSAFA’s role is to make sure people get their statutory entitlements. When an airman discharged from hospital with a back injury from service wasn’t given a needs assessment, SSAFA workers were able to flag this up to the local authority. The council sent someone out to assess him within 48 hours.
Speaking their language
On other occasions the team jointly works child in need or child protection cases. Parminder recalls a mother she worked with whose child had received a physical injury, the cause of which was never proven. It had happened while the woman was located in a different local authority but even though there had been no similar incidents since, she struggled to work with social workers and was unable to come off the child protection plan. Her military career meant she moved around too much to ever be able to form a strong relationship with social workers.
“There were certain things that weren’t being explained to her. I was able to communicate what the social worker was asking of her and her partner in their language. They have come off the plan and the children are thriving,” Parminder says.
Some are issues exacerbated by being in the military. Kim James, also a support worker, says the nature of not being in a stable environment, the isolation of being away from support networks of family and friends, relationship difficulties from being apart if one partner is deployed, coupled with the fear they’re not going to come home, can make people more vulnerable.
Kelly White is not herself in the RAF, but she sought help from SSAFA after her husband’s deployment to Afghanistan made the intrusive thoughts she’d suffered since she was a child unbearable.
‘Plagued with thoughts’
“I suffer with a condition called primary obsessive compulsive disorder and I’ve had it since I was kid. I’m plagued with thoughts that bad things will happen and it will be my fault, but when my husband Pete went to Afghanistan in 2011, the anxiety and worry pushed my condition over the edge,” she says.
“The intrusive thoughts are like having your worst nightmare played in your head all the time. I never knew what it was, it was just part of me.
“I kept thinking ‘Pete’s going to die, he’s going to get blown up and I’m wishing it will happen’. I became depressed, withdrawn and paranoid. I got to the point where I was scared to be in my own head,” she says.
She developed a fear of knives, living in terror as her intrusive thoughts led her to believe she wanted to stab someone. She was convinced if she told anyone they would call the police or have her sectioned.
When Kelly realised she couldn’t cope anymore, she went to her GP who put her on the waiting list for counselling. In the meantime, someone on the base suggested she visit SSAFA.
“I was so unwell I couldn’t function properly. When I came in and talked to Kim it was such a relief, talking about it now makes me want to cry. Being able to talk to someone about what was going on in my head and for them not to run away or think I was a freak but to sit down and support me was priceless.”
SSAFA are often able to help those, like Kelly, who are on long waiting lists for counselling. “We’ll do lower level work with them, almost hold them and look at coping strategies to try to get them into a better place while they’re waiting for that counselling. If you’re a civilian you just have to wait,” Kim says.
In some cases, sessions with a SSAFA worker will prove enough and that person will no longer feel the need for counselling, Kim adds.
The layers of support in place for military personnel represent huge progress for an organisation more often associated with conservative values and stiff upper lips. But those values are not completely in the past yet, according to Kim.
‘Man up’ culture
“Not to generalise but I have worked with a lot of young men in the forces who don’t know how to express their emotions. There is a culture of ‘man up’.
“They deal with some horrific things and they’re expected to get on with it so when something happens in their personal lives that’s upsetting, they often can’t accept those feelings. They think, I’ve dealt with far worse in service, why is this—say, a relationship problem—affecting me so much?”
Mental health issues are still deeply stigmatised, and can have a real impact on a service personnel’s career if flagged to their superiors.
“They can be medically downgraded from their rank if they are diagnosed with depression,” Kim explains. “I can see why they might be reluctant to put their head above the parapet.
“If they are working with live arms, it does have to be risk assessed. So for us it’s about getting through to them that it’s more important to feel better and once they’ve been medically upgraded, it won’t impact their career,” she says.
“I try to tell them if they don’t get the help and support now and their mental health deteriorates, chances are they will lose their career because they’re not going to be able to function.”
And while the armed forces provides housing for its employees on a scale unseen in any other sector, unmarried couples can’t expect to live together in RAF accommodation, even if they have children together.
“Welcome to the 1950s,” squadron leader Tony Morris quips. “If you’re not married, you’re not entitled to family quarters and that presents modern challenges.
“We do the best we can to give people options but usually the option in that situation is ‘get married and you can have a house’. It’s definitely a contentious area.”
‘Welcome to the 1950s’
Tony, along with flight sergeant Jim McClymont, the service community support officer, and warrant officer Raoul Sach-Brian who deals with personnel management and support, are involved with the RAF’s internal welfare provision. Unlike SSAFA, which is independent and external, they work in uniform and their brief crosses over into matters of discipline as well as welfare.
“Although we work very closely with SSAFA, we have different aims,” Tony says. “For these guys it’s all about looking after the individual and getting their problems resolved. We do that to a certain extent but we have a different reason for doing it- we’re not completely altruistic, we’re focused on getting an individual back to full operational effectiveness.”
These seemingly conflicting aims mean uniformed welfare and the social workers and support workers at SSAFA are able to provide a healthy challenge to each other, Raoul adds.
When someone gets in trouble and disciplinary matters arise, there are often welfare issues in the background.
Tony explains, “We have service discipline as well as civilian law in the military. I might be overseeing a charge and summary hearing, which is like a magistrates court, while also making sure that person gets support.
“It’s a bit of a conflicting role. SSAFA provides that balance so I don’t go too hard one way. Even people who’ve come off the path and need beating back with a stick need some love and care too.”
It’s an odd contrast, hearing the support workers—who have just been discussing empowerment and person-centred work—and the gruff men in uniform banter across the table. This is a world of rules, stoicism and equivalent military rank. The head of service, a former local authority social worker, is referred to as ma’am, a token of respect she says she quite enjoys after life in a council children’s department.
The armed forces have a zero tolerance policy around domestic abuse, and—unlike your average employer—any incident where the police are called is directly reported to the perpetrator’s chain of command. But when a woman recently made a disclosure of domestic violence, which had been witnessed by her children, the solution was to give him a different room in the mess block to “cool off”.
It’s a practical solution on the one hand, but on the other, oddly reminiscent of a naughty schoolboy sent out of class to calm down.
Parminder says she referred that particular case to children’s services, but it did not meet their thresholds. “At least he was got out of the house and can be persuaded to stay there until he can control his anger. You wouldn’t have that anywhere else.”
As Raoul says: “SSAFA have to be practical. This wouldn’t work if there’s been a big clash between right wing 1950s RAF and pink and fluffy SSAFA with scatter cushions and cocoa.
“In the RAF we need to have tough love, and SSAFA understands that.”