Last month, the oldest surviving pilot from the Battle of Britain passed away. Flt Lt William Walker, who was shot down and wounded in 1940, died at the age of 99. As a veteran, Flt Lt Walker was helped by the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, just one of a growing number of veterans’ charities.
Flt Lt Walker’s story reminds us all, as we approach Remembrance Sunday this weekend, that, while there is conflict, there will always be veterans.
Such is the level of support required by veterans today, that the United States has its own department dedicated to it. The US Department of Veterans Affairs has the most comprehensive system of assistance for ex-service personnel in the world, tracing its origins back as far as 1636, when New England pilgrims passed a law giving disabled soldiers additional support following a colonial war with the Pequot Indians.
Yet the British government has always been seen to lag behind. The last Labour government had official ‘champions’ for both women and green issues within each government department. Yet only the Ministry of Defence has a focus on veterans’ issues.
The MoD focuses, some say too much, on future threats and present conflicts and there is mounting perception that veterans are left to fend for themselves once they have done their duty. One way to combat this would be to create a ‘veterans champion’ both within government and local authorities. A plan to get councils to directly support veterans within their own communities is currently being championed by former cabinet minister Hazel Blears.
From the veterans of the second world war to Korea, the Falklands and now Iraq and Afghanistan, every generation in Britain has a connection to veterans. For today’s serving soldiers are tomorrow’s veterans.
There are about five million veterans in England today, so, whether it’s a single veterans champion cutting across government or a designated minister in each department, the need is clearly there.
Homelessness is one of the biggest issues facing service personnel who leave the forces. In Colchester, a proud garrison town, we are working with the Ministry of Defence, service personnel, their families and forces charities to support those who decide to leave the forces and resettle locally. One initiative that is helping those making the transition is around housing. After a hugely successful Colchester borough council scheme to turn ex-army housing stock into new homes for ex-personnel, the council now plans to convert a former sheltered housing complex into a centre for Gurkha veterans.
As well as housing, health – especially mental health – is an issue that needs championing. Veterans already receive priority access to NHS care for any conditions which are likely to be related to their service, but this is subject to the clinical needs of all patients. Groups like the North Essex Veterans Mental Health Network has been established to bring together a range of agencies in the local area concerned with the mental health of veterans.
By championing schemes like these, veterans’ champions can ensure that military communities like Colchester are able to share their expertise with other local authorities. We need to guarantee that support and assistance around issues such as health and housing are addressed across the country and that veterans and their families know what services are available to them.
So whether it’s speaking out for veterans, standing up for their families or advocating improvements to benefits, health or housing a veterans champion is need – as while there is conflict, there will always be veterans.
In the true words of remembrance, Lest We Forget.
Jordan Newell is chair of Colchester Labour party. He tweets @JordanNewell
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