From Service to the Streets
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.” How many times did we hear Laurence Binyon’s famous words in 2014, the centenary year of what was meant to be the war to end all wars, but turned out to be quite the opposite?
This country has gone to such moving lengths to remember the more than one million young men and women over the past century who have had their lives cut short so that their country could endure.
But for all those who have died, there are many more who lived, who have grown old, whom age has withered. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, they are too often being forgotten.
There are 2.5 million people in this country over the age of 65 who have served in the Armed Forces. For many of them at this dark time of year, when winter is at its harshest, it is the time at which they must make the choice whether to switch the heating on or to save the money for food.
Having noticed this growing problem, this year, the newspapers I own – the London Evening Standard, the i and The Independent – are running a campaign to raise money for two charities helping veterans of this country’s Armed Forces who have fallen on hard times.
In the weeks it has been running, I have met some extraordinary people and heard stories I hadn’t imagined were possible. I’ll tell you just one.
Ben Thompson had to use the survival skills he learned in the Army to build himself a shelter to live in an abandoned area behind a pub. After 14 years in the Armed Forces, this was his home.Ben is a resilient man. They all are, those who have served. They have, in many cases, faced down gunfire, and seen and done extraordinary things. But on their return, the problems they face are the same as those that befall all of us. They have to cope with family breakdown and all the issues that so often come with it – personal debt spiralling out of control, alcohol problems, sometimes drugs.
There is an old rule in the Armed Forces about not leaving anyone behind, about picking up the fallen. These people need no more than an outstretched hand from us to get their confidence back along with their health, and to get on with their lives. It should be our privilege and our honour to do so.
There are people out there doing just that, but they need help. Veterans Aid and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, the two organisations my newspapers are supporting, have both been in the business of assisting ex-servicemen and women for more than 70 years. In that time they have helped people who have fought in many conflicts: from veterans of the First and Second World Wars, to those who served in Korea and the Falklands, to the many more recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
These are organisations determined to give back to those who have fought for our way of life, the decent life they deserve. Men such as Albert Young, a 95-year-old veteran of the notorious Arctic convoys – that gruelling naval journey through the icy ocean to deliver supplies to the Soviet Union – who I met in Glasgow last month. Now Albert lives in an Erskine Home, a wonderful place for veterans that will be receiving money from our campaign this year.
These men and women follow widely varied paths to the help that is available to them. Albert has a loving family who knew what was best for him. Others find help via healthcare workers, or even the police. Without the Veterans Aid drop-in centre in Victoria, London and its hostel in Limehouse, however, Ben Thompson might still be in his shelter behind the pub.
“They clothed me, housed me and set me up in my own place,” Ben recalls of his time with the charity, for which he now volunteers. “I’m 52 years old and this is the first place I’ve had that I can call my own. Just two years ago I was sleeping out. Now I have a home. I can’t thank them enough.”
IN FROM THE COLD
Ex-servicemen and women of all ages have found themselves out on the streets after returning from service, some of them for prolonged periods. Ashley Rosser was living in a tent in the Oxfordshire countryside before he received help. His marriage had collapsed, his savings had run out and he found himself ineligible for benefits due to time spent out of the country.
Meanwhile former soldier Mark McKillion, 42, survived jumping from Westminster Bridge when he decided the only way to end the experience of living on the streets was to end his life. It’s an anecdote that pays testament to just how debilitating life on the pavement can get. Meeting the care-workers responsible for bringing men like Mark out of the cold, I’ve been told it takes no longer than seven days of street-living for mental health deterioration to set in.
“Being homeless is like being in battle,” says Mark. “If you think you are tough you should try it – the fear, the violence, the stabbings, the loneliness, the tiredness and the exhaustion – it’s just unbearable.”
This winter, forecasters have predicted temperatures in Britain will drop to as low as -12C. No one should be outside during nights that cold; least of all those who have risked their lives for this country abroad. These are men and women who deserve our love, respect and admiration – but more than that, some of them need our help.
There will never again be a year like the one just past, when millions flocked to see the poppies at the Tower, where almost every home and workplace stopped at least for a moment, to dignify the dead.
I hope you will also take the chance, however, to help us dignify the living.