UK military personnel, veterans and their families are being “completely failed” when they need mental health care, a committee of MPs has said. In a report, they said it was a “scandal” that a “shamefully small” part of the UK’s health budget was spent on support for veterans. The NHS and Ministry of Defence should create a specialist mental health centre those in need, the report said. The government said it spends millions on armed forces’ mental health care.
The recommendations come from the House of Commons Defence Committee – a group of MPs who have been carrying out an inquiry into the issue. Their report, part two of the inquiry, says that despite improvements, “there is no doubt that some serving personnel, veterans and their families who need mental health care are still being completely failed by the system.”
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“With specific mental health care provision for armed forces families also non-existent, it is no surprise that many veterans and their families believe that they have been abandoned,” the committee added. It found many servicemen and women often do not seek help because of the stigma around mental health problems and the fear of damaging their career; the quality of care given to servicemen and women is a postcode lottery – with “unacceptable variation” across the UK.
‘Waiting a year’
Out of an NHS budget of more than £150bn, less than £10m a year (0.007%) was spent on mental health services specifically for veterans, the committee found. It said demand was “swamping” the capacity with some individuals being forced to wait up to a year for treatment. The MPs recommended that a “world-class centre for the treatment of mental injuries” should be set up within the next 12 to 18 months, where veterans can go as soon as they are diagnosed. They suggest it could be located at the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. The NHS in England should consult with the MoD to set it up, the MPs said. The MoD must also review the help which is available for the families of armed forces personnel and veterans, the report added, as they can also be affected by military life.
Ruth Smeeth MP, who chairs the defence committee, said the MPs acknowledged the work being done by the MoD and UK health departments, “but it is simply nowhere near enough”. She said: “Fundamental issues still clearly exist, with scandalously little funding allocated to veteran-specific services, and it is unacceptable that veterans and their families should feel abandoned by the state as a result. “It is vital that veterans get the quality of care they need when they need it, no matter where they live, supported by a world-class national centre.” The chair of the British Medical Association council, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said the situation as it stands was “completely untenable”, and welcomed the creation of a specialist mental health facility.
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A spokeswoman for the government said NHS England was committed to providing mental health care around the country so anyone can access help as close to home as possible. “This includes bespoke services for veterans, which have been supported by an extra £10m as part of the NHS long term plan,” she said. “At the same time, the MoD has increased spending on mental health support for those serving in the armed forces to £22m a year, and is working to tackle the stigma around asking for help throughout the military community.” BBC News
A British Army Colonel has said people in the Armed Forces should be able to serve beyond 55 years old as he takes up a new post as the voice for veterans in Scotland. Colonel Charles (Charlie) Wallace, former Deputy Commander of 51 Brigade & Army HQ Scotland, has spoken of the need for a balance in the military between maintaining the physical demands of military life while ensuring the services did not lose intellectual experience among longer serving personnel. He was speaking after taking over from Eric Fraser as Scottish Veterans Commissioner, an ambassador for all veterans in Scotland.
He said the rules over retirement age had been changing to reflect a society that was now living longer, with people remaining active into a much older age than previous generations, and he said he supported moves to allow people to be able to serve until they are aged 60 to reflect society and ensure valuable experience remains within the forces. Colonel Wallace, speaking to broadcaster Mark McKenzie at the Forces Radio BFBS Scotland studio in Dreghorn Barracks, Edinburgh, told of his own transition to civilian life after reaching his mid-Fifties following 35 years of service.
Independent from the Scottish Government in his new role, he gives impartial advice on how to improve support for the veterans community to both the government and other public sector organisations. He said: “I have to say I wasn’t sure I was going to do 35 years but what was offered to me kept me in for those 35 years. “But I do think I’m probably a minority.
“Most people will leave well inside 35 years and so the transition for them is going to be different than it was for me.
“I had the lucky privilege of being able to work out, knowing that I had got an end date, that I could, therefore, have to prepare for my time when I became a civilian, so that process has lasted for three / four years, leading up to the moment that I left, and of course now continuing now that I’m in civvy street. “I was looking around. I knew that I was going to have to leave the Army at the back end of 2018 because I had reached my 55th birthday, that’s it, time up, so I knew I had to look for a job. “I knew I had to work out what I was going to do when I left. “This particular post with the veterans commissioner gives me an enormous opportunity to have a positive effect, I hope for our veterans, with the Scottish Government.”
He said he believed personnel should be able to serve in the Armed Forces for longer than 55 years, especially as society lives longer, and he said the rules are changing and people should be able to serve until they are 60. However, he said the Armed Forces had to take a balanced view as being in the military was a very physical activity and very demanding role.
“How much demand can you place on someone who is in their late 50s?
“There’s a balance to be had, so it’s about intellectual capacity and experience versus physical capability and if you get the balance right then you succeed and if you don’t then you either break people or you’re chucking people out too early.”
Col Wallace’s 35 years’ service included various command appointments on operations and at home. He saw active service in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the UN in the Former Yugoslavia, and in Northern Ireland during Operation Banner. He also served in Brunei, Hong Kong, Nepal, the Falkland Islands, most of Northern Europe, the USA, Canada and India.
Col Wallace recognises that he was lucky to have so many years to prepare for his return to civvy street. He is concerned for those who have served a shorter amount of time because there’s sometimes less time to prepare for life outside of the Armed Forces.
“I think what the military should be doing is concentrating more on preparing their people to leave and actually shouldn’t be afraid to talk about that.
“They shouldn’t be afraid to consider the issues that are going to be facing somebody who has been well looked after, in relevant terms, working in a very isolated environment and then suddenly being booted out the door and they’ve got to fend for themselves.
“That’s not right so I would like to see the military doing more about that.”
Charlie was the chief planner in HQ Multi-National Division (South East) in Basra, Iraq and held the same role for a year in HQ Regional Command (South West) in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province for which he was awarded the US Bronze Star.
“There are hundred’s of stories of service people who have left the services and have been hugely successful in what ever walk of life they’ve gone into, and we mustn’t forget that.”
Col Wallace took over from Eric Fraser who wrote four comprehensive reports on various aspects of life for veterans in Scotland.
“The first thing I’m doing right now is taking a review of all those recommendations and exactly what has the Scottish Government done to address some of those issues that he has raised.”
In his role as Scottish Veterans Commissioner Col Wallace is meeting the veterans he represents so what is he discovering? He said:
“There is actually a very positive view that I’m getting from the community itself so far, admittedly I haven’t been everywhere yet so I’m sure there will be some where things aren’t working quite so right and I’m looking forward to finding out about that.”
Col Wallace is also interested in how the Scottish Government is behaving towards the veteran community.
Graeme Dey MSP was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veterans in June 2018 and in Col Wallace’s opinion has made a concerted effort to ensure that ministers in health, housing, jobs and skills are actively engaged in supporting the veterans community.
A new ID card for armed forces veterans, which will help them access specialist support and services, has started to be issued to service leavers. From today, any personnel who have left the military since December 2018 will automatically be given one of the new ID cards, which will allow them to maintain a tangible link to their career in the forces. The cards allow veterans to easily verify their service to the NHS, their local authority, and charities, helping them to access support and services where needed. All other veterans will be able to apply for a new ID card by the end of this year, to mark their time in the armed forces.
Minister for Defence People and Veterans Tobias Ellwood said:
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the ex-forces community, and we are working hard to ensure they receive the support they deserve.
These new cards celebrate the great commitment and dedication of those who have served this country, and I hope they can provide a further link to ex-personnel and the incredible community around them.
Veterans UK – which manages pensions and compensation payments for the armed forces – local authorities, service charities, NHS and GPs will also benefit from the change, as they will not have to conduct time-consuming checks to identify individual veterans. The new ID card is one of three that are available to service leavers. Personnel leaving the armed forces are also able to keep their military IDs, known as the MOD Form 90, allowing them to maintain their emotional connection with their service. Additionally, veterans can access a range of discounts through the Defence Discount Service, the official MOD-endorsed service for the armed forces.
Last year saw the launch of the Strategy for our Veterans, published jointly by the UK, Welsh and Scottish Governments, which sets out the key areas of support for those who have left the armed forces. The consultation closes this Thursday (21st February). All relevant Government departments have a responsibility to ensure that the military community is treated fairly, and not disadvantaged by their service, as part of the Armed Forces Covenant. The new ID cards will ensure the process of validating service is as straightforward as possible, so that ex-forces personnel can access support for issues related to their service quickly, where needed.
The cards will complement the NHS’ commitment to providing specialist health support for veterans in every part of the health service, enabling ex-service personnel in England, Scotland and Wales to access treatment where they have been affected by their service. Last year, NHS England announced that dedicated mental healthcare services are up and running in every part of the country, backed by £10 million of investment, with increasing numbers of GPs and hospitals becoming ‘Veteran Aware’, in order to fully address the needs of those who have served.
Any veteran in need of support can contact the Veterans’ Gateway – the 24 hour service which signposts ex-forces personnel to the wide range of support available to them, including housing and financial advice, career guidance, and medical care from the NHS. Since being set up in 2017, the Veterans’ Gateway has already received over 20,000 contacts, advising ex-forces personnel and their families.
The biggest intake of Gurkha recruits in 33 years has arrived in the UK. The last-minute increase in numbers meant the Infantry Training Centre (ITC) in Catterick had to free up an extra accommodation block and Gurkha Brigade had to supply an additional 32 staff. However, Gurkha Company are confident they can cope with the numbers.
The new recruits had to be spread across six different flights, to get everyone safely across to the UK. The day of their arrival in the United Kingdom is arguably the most important day of the year for Gurkha Company. “It’s exciting, but daunting as well,” says Warrant Officer Class 2 Hemraj Gurung, Gurkha Company instructor, when recalling the day he arrived as a new recruit. When asked if he is looking forward to starting his Gurkha training in Catterick, Training Rifleman Hitson Magar said he could not be happier:
“I heard the weather is cold but I’m still excited.”
After a couple of flights across the world and a bus trip through the British countryside, the new recruits finally arrived at ITC Catterick.
There was the traditional blessing from the pundit and the Commanding Officer’s welcome to the Brigade. “We’ve waited two and a half months and finally they’re here,” says Captain Milan Rai. Despite the last-minute increase in numbers, the team in Catterick was thrilled: “We are so excited and this is also a test for us, because last year [it was a] smaller [group].” The decision to increase the numbers came at quite short notice to Gurkha Company.
Originally, they thought they were receiving 320 recruits instead of 400. To make sure the facilities were adequate for the new intake, the Brigade swiftly scrambled 32 new staff and the ITC made an extra accommodation block available. “We only had 3 months warning but everyone top to bottom worked to make it happen,” explains Captain Milan Rai.
The decision allowed more young men to leave Nepal and join the Gurkhas in the UK – a dream for many of them. “It’s been my dream since I was a child because I was inspired by our forefathers so I wanted to join the Army,” says Training Rifleman Ashis Rai. “It’s difficult because I’ve never been so far from my family, but I have a new family here now.” The new recruits will now have seven weeks in barracks, during which they will learn basic soldiering theory. Only after the seven weeks have passed will they be allowed back off camp and be able to explore the outside world.
The Falkland Islands are one of the UK’s most isolated overseas territories and home to one of the most remote military garrisons. Getting people and equipment there is difficult, with all deliveries having to be flown or shipped in. As a British Overseas Territory, the people of the islands rely on Britain to guarantee their security. Tasked with this crucial job is the British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), staffed by more than 1,000 personnel from all three services, which also protects South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
After the end of the Falklands War in 1982, Britain invested heavily in the islands’ defences, including constructing a new airfield at RAF Mount Pleasant, 27 miles (43 km) west of the capital, Stanley. The base became fully operational in 1986 after being opened the previous year. Stationed there are the four Typhoon jets that provide air defence for the islands and surrounding territories. There is also one A400M and one Voyager aircraft, which are used for heavy lifting, transport and air-to-air refuelling.
Until April 2016, two Sea King helicopters were used to undertake air transport and search and rescue missions. These duties were handed over to AW189 helicopters flown by AAR Corp, however, after the MOD awarded the company a 10-year, £180 million contract to provide this capability. The Mount Pleasant Centre is a tri-service base and as such is staffed by personnel from all three services. The Army’s main commitments are the Roulemont Infantry Company (Infantry) and the Resident Rapier Battery (Royal Artillery). There are also detachments from all the other Army Corps.
Out of the Army staff in Mount Pleasant, there is an Explosive Ordinance Disposal at BFSAI. The Royal Navy contribution is made up of an RFA vessel in the South Atlantic, a patrol ship permanently close to the islands – a role currently being performed by HMS Clyde. An Ice Patrol Ship, HMS Protector, is also on station close to Antarctica for half of the year, although it does not fall under BFSAI command. Ships can dock at RAF Mount Pleasant’s port facility, Mare Harbour.
It is speculated that the Royal Navy also has Trafalgar and Astute-class nuclear submarines, armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which could potentially be deployed to the area – although the details of these deployments are classified. The submarines can hit targets up to 1,500 miles (2,400 km) away, including those within an enemy country. Their capability was demonstrated during the Falklands War when HMS Conqueror sank the Argentine cruiser ARA General Belgrano.
Also integrated into the defence system for the islands is their part-time volunteer force, the Falkland Islands Defence Force (FIDF), a company-strength light infantry force. The FIDF does not come under BFSAI command as they are a national defence force. However, the BFSAI support their training when requested. The FIDF receives training from a Warrant Officer seconded from the Royal Marines and has been trained by the Royal Navy to operate the Oerlikon 20 mm cannon and to board vessels suspected of fishery poaching
The unique location and the special relationship with the Falkland Islanders allows the BFSAI to train in a unique environment. “What I want to achieve here [in the Falklands] is take the training one step further,” said thew new Commander BFSAI, Brigadier Nick Sawyer, in an interview with Forces News. “We’ve got such a great training environment here, and I think there is more that we can make of this. “I want to move to great joint training, where we integrate the ships, the planes, the ground troops, and the supporting elements,” he explained.
The improving relationships with Argentina, over the past few years, are a metaphor for the relationship with the British Government. “We’ve always had shared humanitarian values with Argentina, even during the 1982 war we had shared humanitarian values with Argentina,” explained Brigadier Sawyer. In 2017, when the Argentine submarine San Juan went missing during a routine patrol in the Atlantic, the British Forces in the Falklands offered support in the rescue operation.
“Argentina, the UK and the Falkland Islands have a shared responsibility to do search-and-rescue, humanitarian work in and around this area.”
Because of this shared sense of responsibility, Brigadier Sawyer will send a small team to perform joint UK-Argentina search-and-rescue exercise in Argentina in the coming months. The remoteness, however, while being a set advantage to perform training and joint exercises, is also one of the downsides to being stationed in the Falklands. “We are 8,000 miles away from the UK,” said the BFSAI Commander.
“Everything we do here is at the end of a small line back to the UK.”
Troops stationed in the Falklands are almost completely self-sufficient. They have their own power station and water plant, as well as their own school and airfield.