Veterans Outreach Support is a UK-based charity that since 2008 has provided welfare, wellbeing and mental health support to veterans and their families. Ian Millen, CEO at Veterans Outreach Support, chatted to Freya Millard from LGIU about the key challenges facing veterans re-entering society, the support needed for the families of ex-service personnel, and how local government can best support veterans during the initial re-integration period and throughout their lives.
Read our Global Local Bulletin on local government and support for veterans – open to LGIU members and Global Local subscribers.
How did you get involved with Veterans Outreach Support in the first place?
I joined Veterans Outreach Support (VOS) as the CEO in 2018 following a 30-year career in the Royal Navy followed by another 10 years in public service and the private sector. I am a veteran of the Falklands War, and I was initially attracted to the role at VOS because of its origins, being initially set up by veterans of that conflict. As someone who benefited greatly from my own service, and transitioned well into civilian life, I wanted to help those who were not so lucky.
If you’re comfortable answering, can you tell us a bit about your personal experience leaving the military and reintegrating back into your community? For example, what assistance did you find beneficial or what aspects do you think could have been improved?
I’m very fortunate to have transitioned into civilian life fairly painlessly. After leaving the Royal Navy, I continued in public service for the first few years, which was a reasonably smooth transition. Working in law enforcement, the working environment and the ethos of my work colleagues was similar to that in the services. Moving into the private sector after a few years required me to learn new skills and do things differently. Whilst this transition went ok for me, it was a very different world to public service, and I can understand why some veterans struggle to adjust to a world that is very different to the one they are used to in the armed forces.
The armed forces do a fantastic job of turning civilians into soldiers, sailors, and airmen, educating, and shaping young people well to serve their country. There are resettlement schemes and support available on leaving, but I’m afraid that the same effort does not go into preparing those who leave the service early, and some young people face re-integration into an unfamiliar society. If you have never had to worry about housing, paying bills, finding a doctor and dentist and looking for a job, these things can be daunting. I’m happy to say that some charities are putting an effort into making this transition easier for early service leavers, helping them to take their place back in our communities.
From your experience at Veterans Outreach Support, what would you say are some of the key challenges facing veterans upon leaving the service?
Challenges for veterans vary greatly, as do the circumstances of leaving the armed services. At one end of the spectrum, if you have served a good number of years and have a family and stable home, you are far less likely to face the challenges that a young early service leaver, who joined the forces at 16 and left a few years later might have. For many, the fundamental challenge on leaving the service is one of adjustment. In the armed forces, you live alongside your peers and develop very strong bonds that come from shared experience, and sometimes danger, so it’s understandable that you miss that close camaraderie on integrating back into civilian society. Some service leavers find life outside of the armed forces to be an unfamiliar place, but it’s important to note that this is by no means all service leavers. The vast majority will transition well into civilian society with a great work ethic and many transferable skills that can serve them and their employers well.
What do you think are the best ways local government and their community partners can support veterans during this initial reintegration period?
By investing in support and services to help people transition into civilian life by recognising the challenges of what can be a significant change in life. This starts with understanding veterans. Our own local council has an Armed Forces Champion, someone who is a focal point within local government and can help others to understand veterans. Signing up to the Armed Forces Covenant is another way that local government can help. Many businesses also take this step and actively seek to hire veterans. I would like to give a shout-out to the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS), which encourages employers to support defence and inspire others to do the same. The scheme encompasses bronze, silver, and gold awards for employer organisations that pledge, demonstrate or advocate support to defence and the armed forces community and align their values with the Armed Forces Covenant. Our city council in Portsmouth has an ERS Gold Award and is a great supporter of the armed forces community and our veterans, working closely with charities like ours and other local councils for the benefit of veterans. If I have one piece of advice for local government, it would be that the Defence Employer Recognition Scheme is a great place to start.
What would you say are some of the big challenges facing veterans later in life?
The first thing to note is that veterans are citizens, just like everyone else, so the challenges that they face are mirrored by many in our communities. That said, it is fair to say that life in the armed forces can expose some of those serving to things that they might ordinarily experience in a civilian occupation. The greatest challenges are, once again, related to adjustment to new circumstances. Retirement, divorce, bereavement, poor or declining health are problems that all members of society encounter and veterans are no different. That said, some of the more serious aspects of poor mental health can present themselves in a veteran’s later life, including PTSD which can have a particularly long incubation period. Whatever the challenges, we and other charities, along with the statutory services are here to help our veterans.
Again, how do you think local government and their community partners can best support and assist veterans during these challenging times throughout their lives?
Local government has a big part to play in supporting veterans in our communities, not least by partnering with local charities and statutory services to ensure that support is both available and joined up, ensuring that the picture of need and the understanding of resources to meet it are clear. At Veterans Outreach Support we have strong links with our local city council, working closely in alignment with the UK’s Armed Forces Covenant. The key to providing support to our veterans lies in this close collaboration, based on understanding. Our veterans are citizens, and the balance sheet shows that they are a positive asset in our communities, for the most part contributing more than what they take, but we need to be there for them when they need a little help.
What type of support do you find that the families of veterans usually need? And do you think there is a role for local government in helping provide that?
Families in general, armed forces or not, deserve the very best support we can give, but the families of veterans often need extra support, not least as they have probably lived service housing and moved around a lot. On leaving the service, this support is no longer available, and they need to either get onto the property ladder or join the queue for housing with everyone else. I personally think that housing is one of the biggest challenges for the families leaving the armed forces. Not far behind is probably schooling for children who have also moved around a lot and had Mum or Dad spend lots of time away from them, deployed on operations. There are some excellent charities, such as the Naval Families Federation, but I urge local government to put plenty of effort into understanding how difficult it can be for families moving away from service life into our communities. Those that need help deserve all that local government can do to assist them.
Lastly, what can the wider community do to help veterans integrate after leaving the service? And do you think local government can be used to facilitate this?
As I said earlier, veterans are citizens, so having them welcomed when they join our communities is very important. They won’t expect any special treatment but will benefit from having people around them who recognise the challenges of transition. Local government can play its part in providing support and services for the whole community and, where appropriate, educating and encouraging others to provide a warm welcome to our service families. My final response to your last question is to remind all your readers of the Armed Forces Covenant and the Defence Employers Recognition Scheme. It’s a great place to start the process of understanding our veterans and their families and the first step in serving those who have served our nation – not just the veterans, but the families without whose support our armed forces would be far less effective.