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A GI Bill for the UK (Demos Quarterly January 2014)

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The British welfare system is normally considered superior to the US’s, but in one respect – the treatment of those who have served in the armed forces – America leaves us way behind. Jonathan Foreman argues that the shoddy treatment of veterans is a political opportunity for Labour.

When US veterans come back from the war in Afghanistan and join the civilian population they face a less uncertain future than their British counterparts. This is thanks to what Americans have long referred to as the ‘GI Bill’ and the ‘VA’ – short for the Veterans Administration – which refer to a system of veterans benefits established after World War II.

US veterans make abundant use of this system’s offer of free higher education and vocational training. Those who are physically or mentally injured get treatment and rehabilitation in veterans’ hospitals and clinics. Though scandal-prone and far from perfect, these facilities specialise in the wounds inflicted by war and allow veterans to recover in the company of and with the help of other veterans of the country’s various conflicts. The hospitals, along with job training centres and the whole system of veterans’ benefits, are all administered by a Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is no equivalent in the UK, where the few benefits offered to veterans are piecemeal and where private charity has had to make up for the failures of the state to look after those who have served the nation in a military capacity. A comprehensive British Veterans Act would transform this to the benefit of both Britain’s veterans and the wider society.

Like its American inspiration, its primary purpose would be educational: the provision of subsidised education or vocational training for all veterans and free higher education for disabled veterans and for the widow(er)s and orphans of those killed in action.

But it should also include preference in public housing, preference in public sector hiring, home loan guarantees – low levels of pay while in service mean there is little chance of getting on the housing ladder without state help – and nationally discounted transportation.

Ideally, a UK GI Bill would also see the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs and the re-establishment of dedicated medical centres and clinics for veterans. As well as arguments rooted in compassion and in the obligation any society owes to those who take extreme risks with their lives and bodies on its behalf, there are pragmatic reasons for the establishment here of both a US-style Department of Veterans Affairs, a national system of veterans’ benefits and the re-establishment of dedicated military hospitals.

Perhaps the most obvious of the latter is the unlikelihood that Great Britain will be able to find sufficient recruits for even a radically shrunken defence establishment if the poor treatment of British veterans continues. Given ongoing geopolitical developments, it is highly likely that British forces may have to be deployed in combat and/or humanitarian operations during the next twenty years, even if governments would prefer that this is not the case.

It will be difficult if not impossible to recruit adequate numbers of qualified individuals to serve in the armed forces if, on top of poor pay and conditions and inadequate equipment, potential recruits know that they face uncertain futures in civilian life after their service even if able-bodied, and miserable futures for themselves and their families if they are disabled. The GI Bill also applies to dependents of veterans who died on active duty or who are permanently and totally disabled as a result of their active service – an aspect of the Bill that is very reassuring to serving troops.

Thanks to cuts by the Major Government, there are no longer any dedicated military hospitals in the UK – merely a single military ward at the Selly Oaks hospital in Birmingham. However it has become clear since 2003 that military casualties require kinds of specialist emergency and long time care that only military hospitals can provide.

This is partly because of the nature of modern combat injuries. The ratio of dead to wounded for British troops in the Afghanistan theatre is approximately 1:30, as opposed to 1:4 during World War II. Thanks to radical improvements in battlefield medicine and body armour, many soldiers survive blasts that would have killed their predecessors. However, these survivors are often left with combinations of severe life-changing injuries, including amputations and traumatic brain injury or TBI. (The latter, little known in the UK, but much discussed in the United States, often has crippling physiological and psychological effects and is rarely encountered among the civilian population.) Doctors in the US call these combined injuries ‘polytrama’ and they present a unique set of challenges to both patients and medical practitioners.

Some seven out of thirty British casualties in Afghanistan have severe, crippling ‘tier 4’ polytrauma injuries. If there are 2,000-3,000 men who are extremely disabled thanks to their war wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the Government does not seem to keep count), the cost of their 24-hour care over the next 15 years will be something between £2.5 and £4 billion. However, to the discredit of two British governments, neither the NHS nor the MOD have budgeted for this. The burden will therefore fall on already devastated, mostly working-class families that are ill-equipped to bear it. (The maximum MOD payout of £570,000 is hopelessly insufficient to pay for wheelchairs, widened doorways and long-term nursing care.)

The call for the re-establishment of military or dedicated veterans hospitals also reflects a growing understanding that military casualties are more likely to be treated with respect and understanding at such hospitals, and because overall recovery rates for military casualties are higher in these environments. Non-military medical institutions seem to be particularly ineffective at treating veterans suffering from the various psychological afflictions that come under the loose rubric of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Among other powerful arguments for a UK GI Bill is the potential benefit to British society as a whole of a reservoir of human capital that is currently under-used or wasted. This human potential could be cultivated, enriched and then contribute to the common good as it did in the United States after WWII when veterans were offered better opportunities for education, training and financial credit.

Veterans have unique skills and abilities that could be better made use of by both the private and public sectors. This is not just a matter of technical skills, though thousands of even the most junior soldiers, sailors and airmen operate cutting-edge technology on a daily basis. Military people are selected and trained for qualities that are often lacking among their generational equivalents. Many come from the most deprived and unpromising backgrounds but have been spotted for leadership abilities that are too often missed by civilian employers. Few in civilian life appreciate that combat veterans are young men and women who have exercised remarkable responsibility including life and death decision-making.

A third argument for a UK GI Bill is the strain on social welfare and criminal justice systems that is likely to deepen as thousands of veterans are discharged onto the streets as a result of government cuts, with the British Army being cut from 110,000 to 82,000. Despite their skills these man and women can suffer from certain disadvantages when confronting the demands of an individualistic market-based society.

This is mostly because military life is more communal and cooperative than most civilians realise (though one should not underestimate traditional cultural prejudice against veterans, who tend to be portrayed in popular culture as dangerous or damaged or both). Regiments and battalions function like families and clans. Small units, especially if they have experienced combat, offer even more intimate and powerful human relationships.

Discharged soldiers accustomed to depending on their fellow service people, on a paternalistic officer structure and on their regiment, often feel radically alone and adrift in civilian society. This is one of the factors than can result in homelessness, addiction and other social ills, especially when combined with the sudden loss of respect and status that often comes with discharge from the military.

Although there is more research to be done on this, there is evidence that some of the social and psychological problems that plague British veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts (and also those of the Falklands war) are not solely due to combat trauma as such. Instead, the inability of the wider society to accord them both the respect and the economic opportunities that they might expect given their experience, training and collective sacrifice for the greater good could play a significant role. A UK GI Bill would be a demonstration of such respect by the wider society and therefore would by its mere existence contribute to the mental health of British veterans.

There are also tactical and strategic political reasons why the Labour Party and progressives in general might wish to advocate for a UK GI Bill. Increased support for veterans is a potential ‘wedge issue’. After all, properly looking after those who have risked or sacrificed their bodies for the nation is one aspect of the welfare state that consistently commands strong popular support; it is also one which Conservative governments can plausibly be accused of undermining or betraying. Calls for the state to improve the welfare of and opportunities for veterans would inevitably and rightly echo the original ‘land fit for heroes’ and ‘homes for heroes’ rhetoric used by the Lloyd George Coalition government in the aftermath of World War I in support of welfare reform.

There are various reasons why the UK has arguably failed its veterans over the past decades. And it is certainly one of the peculiarities of contemporary politics that the political class has revealed itself to be blind to both the plight and the potential of people in the armed services, even as the UK was taking part in major military interventions. A comprehensive new deal for Britain’s veterans would reverse that failure and do the right thing by a particularly deserving and vulnerable group. It would also manifest both a sense of national community and a respect for service, which could have a powerful effect on the UK’s political culture in general.