This piece was published in The Big Issue in September 2009.
Tommy Moffat is on his mobile again. There are other people’s problems to sort out. Last night he stayed with one of his buddies, a traumatised ex-serviceman suffering from a nervous collapse. This morning, a young army family turned up on his doorstep, penniless and hungry, hoping Moffat was the man to find them a home.
Brian, 23, lost his way after leaving the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and can longer stay with his parents. His girlfriend Angela, 20, has been living in a hostel and is just five weeks from giving birth. “They came in here in their sandshoes, looking for something to eat,” says Moffat, shaking his head. “I mean, what’s happening in this world?”
Yet these are the kind of problems the former Queen’s Own Highlanders Corporal thrives on. “We always find them a house within a few days, guaranteed,” he winks.
Moffat set up his charity Front Edge of Battle (FEBA) in a derelict Hamilton warehouse in 2006 for the town’s homeless veterans. There’s a café- kitchen, a gym and office HQ, where he tries to organise housing and medical care.
He scours the region’s hostels and rough-sleeping hotspots, finding former armed forces men everywhere he looks. Having served for 15 years, experiencing conflict in the Falklands and later suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he knows just how difficult readjustment to civvy street can be.
In taking on other people’s struggles, Moffat has found his mission. But this tough little man, who recently recovered from a quadruple heart by-pass, now has a major quandary of his own. The rent is overdue, the coffers are bare and an ongoing effort to prise some cash from the Ministry of Defence looks to be a losing battle.
FEBA is weeks away from closure. Moffat is now seriously considering a funding offer from the BNP. He is appalled by the idea (suspecting he is being manipulated by the far-right group for the publicity), but is even more appalled at the thought of his boys losing their lifeline.
“I really need help,” he says. “We’re counting down the days now. If the BNP are willing to help our ex-service men and women, of all creeds – black, white, whatever – if they are seriously willing to help, then my door is open.
“They have some deplorable ideas. The irony of them helping people who fought against fascism is not lost on me. But at the moment I would bite the hand off anyone for money. This organisation is so fantastic that it would be a disgrace to let it go under. It would be a tragedy for it to be swallowed up. I don’t say that lightly. If we weren’t here…”
As if to finish the point, the mobile rings with another member in need of assistance.
Hamilton is far from the only town with a population of ex-service personnel who have slipped the net and are surviving hand-to-mouth. Some, like Moffat, experience breakdowns many years after their time in Northern Ireland, the Falklands or the first Gulf War.
Others, younger men and women returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, can find it difficult to get started on adult life, with all its humdrum options and responsibilities.
Across the UK, many are living in the shadow of a nation’s expectations for its war heroes, unsure how to carry the weight of all those double-edged memories into everyday existence.
Chris Savage, an ex-sergeant from Nottinghamshire, knows what it’s like to lose all sense of purpose. He left the Royal Corps of Transport in 1999 after a decade of service, including tours of Bosnia and Iraq. Some of his experiences left him with memories and flashbacks he still finds difficult to talk about (“it’s like fireworks going off”).
Severe PTSD started up seven years after he left. Savage lost his marriage, his landscape gardening business and his home. After turning to the bottle, he found himself sleeping rough on the streets of London.
“I used to wait for the wardens to open Regent’s Park every morning, between seven and quarter- past seven so I could use the toilets,” recalls the 38-year-old. “I was stripped down to my waist cleaning myself, like a ritual. It was the bit of pride I had left. I had probably been guilty of looking at homeless as dossers or whatever else, but being there thrust my eyes open. Being down there in the gutter, I understood why people can turn to drugs – to blank out everything.”
Savage thanks Veterans Aid, a London-based organisation, for taking him in and sending him up to Edinburgh, where he began slowly to piece his life back together. “They were fantastic. I was on self-destruct, so the next step for me was probably inside a wooden box,” he says.
Jock, 44, a Black Watch veteran from Perthshire, has also struggled to readjust. He has pictures of RAF jets and ceremonial knives on the walls of his sheltered flat in Edinburgh, and his mobile phone rings to the pipe tunes of the Scots Guards.
“I’m still military in my head,” he smiles. “You can’t just switch it off.”
Jock has suffered from PTSD since leaving in 1985, and a complete breakdown a few years ago left him looking for clothes and bits of cardboard on the streets of London. At Whiteford House, a collection of flats for veterans nestled next to the Scottish Parliament, he has overcome his bottle of rum a day addiction, found work and formed a common bond with fellow soldiers.
“It’s helped me get my self respect back. I’m here for the other guys too because I know some of what they’re going through. If it wasn’t for this place, I’d be dead by now. I’d have been dead long ago.”
How common are these experiences? Statistics are notoriously untrustworthy, but there have been some revealing studies in recent years.
A joint project by Shelter and the MoD in 2002 indicated that out of an average of 20,000 people leaving the armed forces every year, at least 25 per cent would experience homelessness. Snapshot surveys seem to suggest the current proportion of homeless people in Britain who have been in the forces to be somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent.
Stephen Robertson, chief executive of The Big Issue Group, says the figures tally with the anecdotal experiences among The Big Issue’s support staff, and he estimates there could easily be around 300 vendors in the UK who have spent time in the military.
“There is a kind of delayed reaction, so it’s often further down the line after leaving the services that people come to us,” he says. “Undoubtedly, there will be future vendors with experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sadly, some come crashing through every kind of safety net there is.”
Although many single ex-army men spend years too proud to seek help, there are a large number of organisations with something to offer. Hugh Milroy, of Veterans Aid, says there is a “well funded and powerful network” of ex-veterans charities. A co-ordinated effort with the local authorities in the capital has seen the proportion of veterans among the London homeless fall from 22 per cent to six per cent over the past decade, according to York University academics.
“We’ve been able to put people back on their feet, turn lives around and really bang this problem down,” says Milroy. The amount of assistance can depend in which city you happen to be asking for help, however. The Scottish Government has now offered guidance for local authorities assessing homeless applications in the hope they can determine who has military experience, and refer them toward specialised care.
Despite some progress, Ian Ballantyne, chief executive of the Scottish Veterans Residences (SVR) says help in finding social housing is “only as good as whoever is on the desk that day”. The SVR run veterans’ centres in Edinburgh and Dundee as well as owning some ‘move on’ flats for those, like Jock, who are ready for more independent living.
The charity concedes there is a glaring gap in Glasgow and hopes to build a new £5m centre so long as local authorities in and around the city can pledge long-term support. Ballantyne believes it is vital for ex-military people to staff such places.
“If you’re telling a social worker about mortar shell, their eyes can glaze over, so it’s better if you can talk to someone who knows what it’s all about,” explains the former Lieutenant Colonel. “We rely on each other in the military – you know you can take your problems to your buddy. We can’t guarantee to solve all your problems here [in Edinburgh], but we will have a bloody good go.”
He concedes the danger for residences like Whiteford House, with its games room, kitchen and plush new lounge, is in allowing inhabitants to become too comfortable. “We are focused on getting them to move on with their lives,” says Ballantyne. “Sadly, we’re finding there is a group who want to find a comfort zone, and might never leave here. People institutionalise themselves, but military people are more susceptible to it.”
For many vulnerable veterans, finding a place to live is often the most straightforward puzzle to solve. Other complications take more time, and the bureaucratic maze can be bruising for those in a tender mental state.
Although former sergeant Savage still has trouble going on public transport or walking through busy streets without thinking about sniper fire, he has yet to receive his war pension, with the MoD still assessing the severity of his PTSD. Savage now lives with his fiancée in Midlothian, but he says housing associations have been uninterested in his service record, and the unemployment benefit office has shown little understanding.
“The hoops they’ve made me jump through are unbelievable – it leaves you banging your head against the wall,” he sighs. “I want to work, but I can’t while I’m still recovering. I don’t want priority, I just want to be treated fairly.”
While he is grateful for the support of ex-service groups, Savage says they are not fully aware of these practical hurdles. “They’re not always attuned to the 21st century. There are guys and girls out there that have been through hell and back. There should be more help out there.”
But the charities are adamant veterans are provided with greater protection than any other sensitive group can expect. “What’s interesting if you are homeless, and you are ex-military, then you stand a much better chance,” says Hugh Milroy.
“The ex-service community will band together to support people who have fallen down. If a business sacks you, can you go back to them in 10 years’ time for help? In the services you can. Of course they’ll be people we’re missing, but I’m afraid that happens in society all the time.”
Jock believes the MoD must shoulder more responsibility when services personnel decide their stint is at an end. “They need to be thinking about looking after people in the long term too,” he says.
“They should do a proper six week comedown. They’ve taken a long time to build you up into being a soldier – they should take time to build you down, teach you how to readjust. You’re built to be angry, so you need to know about anger management, coping with stress, all these things.”
A spokeswoman for the MoD says debriefings on housing, finance and employment, available immediately after leaving the forces, provide a “structured approach which aims both to prevent new service leavers becoming homeless and to provide an effective safety net”.
The resettlement package depends on length of service however, and an early leavers scheme (for those serving less than four years) seems little more than a pat-on-the-back interview.
The shocking cost of failing to connect with the least stable of military retirees has been made clear by a new study of Britain’s prisons: 20,000 veterans are in the criminal justice system. They account for almost one in 10 of the prison population.
Back in Hamilton, Tommy Moffat is fielding yet more phone calls. He has to take one young veteran with a badly sprained elbow to the hospital, and it seems there might be a flat in Airdrie for Brian and Angela to bring up their baby.
However overstretched and underfunded, he remains measured in criticising his former employers. “I wouldn’t say they [the MoD] are failing them, but they have a duty to think about care for soldiers over the longer term,” he sighs.
“They simply aren’t doing that at the moment. There’s no realistic thought about what’s coming. Afghanistan is horrendous. There’s an epidemic coming, an epidemic of homelessness. They should be sorting this stuff, not guys like me.”