Back to previous page
Share |

The lack of support for retired soldiers shames us and must change

Only fools, the desperate and the supremely dutiful may be drawn to join Britain’s armed forces in the near future. This is partly because the government’s cuts will render them too small and feeble to be used in anything but a symbolic defence of the British mainland. But it is mostly because, for all the carefully crafted rhetoric about the mutual obligations enshrined in the “military covenant”, no such thing yet exists.

This is a country in which private charities have to make up for the failure of the state to ensure that limbless servicemen and women have access to decent rehabilitation facilities, and in which families looking after catastrophically wounded, bedbound young fathers, husbands and sons are left to fend for themselves.

It is telling that both the present and previous governments have been so oblivious to the price paid by wounded service people and their families that they failed to budget for the 24-hour care that hundreds of severely injured soldiers and marines will need for the rest of their lives.

Soon civilian society will have to absorb waves of newly redundant veterans, many of whom will need help and training if they are to lead productive, prosperous and fulfilling lives. Their participation in war and their emergence into civilian life when the economy is still fragile makes them all too vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

It does not have to be this way. The next government could and should offer Britain’s warriors a new and better deal.

It could begin by copying the best of America’s GI bill. This gives war veterans — or their families if they are killed or severely disabled — an array of educational and other benefits that not only keeps them off the breadline but gives them a real chance to make a good life.

The GI bill dates to 1944, when the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act offered every US veteran who had been on active duty money for education, low-cost business loans and subsidised mortgages.

More than 8m servicemen took advantage of the GI bill and went into university or technical education. Their skills gave a huge boost to the US economy in the 1950s and 1960s.

American veterans also have access to a Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA, as it is known, has hospitals, clinics and benefits centres around the US. It was founded in 1930 but expanded to deal with the 15m American veterans of the Second World War. After the withdrawal from Vietnam, the US shifted from a conscripted military to smaller, all-volunteer armed forces. But there have been sufficient veterans from the conscription era and subsequent conflicts to ensure that the VA’s facilities have always been well used.

The American GI bill still provides both vocational and academic training and subsistence allowance for service people who are in full-time education. It also pays for counselling and employment assistance for veterans with disabilities.

Today the VA system has care homes and jobcentres and even ensures that old soldiers get a decent burial — a benefit that is all too often denied their British comrades.

Although American veterans rightly complain about the quality of some VA hospitals, and the often slow and inefficient bureaucracy that administers their benefits, what those institutions offer men and women who have served their country still puts Britain to shame. And no one in America, not even on the hard left, begrudges American veterans the billions that are spent on them.

There is no reason Britain could not provide equivalent or superior opportunities to those who come out of our proportionally much smaller armed forces. Yes, it would cost money to offer education benefits and business loans, but both of these are investments in Britain’s future and cost less than dealing with homelessness, addiction, suicide and other problems that disproportionately affect veterans. It would not cost anything for veterans to be given preference in the queue for public housing, or in hiring for jobs in the public sector.

Indeed, a hiring preference for veterans could transform many public sector institutions for the better. Imagine, for example, what it would mean for the British police if they recruited large numbers of hard-working, public-spirited, mentally and physically tough people who were used to putting the safety of others above their own.

Our failure to make use of the unique skills of servicemen and women, including their technical capabilities and their experience of work that requires responsibility, initiative and leadership at a young age, damages us as much as it does them. And when our highly trained veterans end up stacking shelves or on the streets, it represents both a moral failure and a waste of human capital.

The motto of America’s veterans system is a quote from Abraham Lincoln: ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan’. This is a hallmark of a decent society, one that respects sacrifice and repays its debts.

A British version of the GI bill would demonstrate better than any parade or poppy drive — valuable and inspiring though they are — that we genuinely respect and are grateful to those who have risked or lost limb and life in our name.

 http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/comment/regulars/guestcolumn/article1338115.ece

Back to Top

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Back to previous page
Share |