As Patron, I am so delighted to be here this evening in such a splendid setting to promote the work of Combat Stress, The Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society. My beloved Grandmother as you probably know was the Patron for sixty years, and I know just how much she valued its work. Having lived through two World Wars herself, I think probably she knew better than most the impact of war and the huge difference the Charity made to the lives of ordinary servicemen and women.
She took great pride in the work of this invaluable charity and the fact that, since 1919, some 85,000 veterans from the three Services and the Merchant Navy, together with their families, have been helped and assisted by this splendid organization. It is an extraordinary record of service which continues today. I don't need to tell you our Armed Forces are the finest in the world, but that does not make the men and women in the Services super human. Sometimes, they do need help in overcoming mental health problems brought on by their harrowing experiences. Last year alone 600 new cases were taken on and this year Combat Stress is taking on the first veterans from Iraq. Let's remember that.
As many of you know, Combat Stress is unique in being the only specialist provider of clinical care and welfare support amongst the ex-Service organizations and the treatment given is very highly regarded by mental health professionals. That is why Combat Stress has been so influential in the Government's Veterans' initiative - a partnership between the M.O.D. and the N.H.S. to improve the mental health provision to Service personnel, both whilst they are serving and when they leave. It is partnership of this kind which Combat Stress believes will increase their ability to make a real impact on the problem.
For instance, Combat Stress is working with the South Atlantic Medal Association 1982, of which I am Patron, and the M.O.D. to help those who served in the Falklands. Two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the War, 200 members of the Association made a pilgrimage back to the Falkland Islands. Surgeon Captain Morgan O'Connell, the Society's Chief Consultant Psychiatrist, and Leigh Skelton, Director Clinical Services, provided specialist support to the ex-Servicemen, both before, during and after the event.
Now, incredibly, they found that some 60 per cent of those who travelled were carrying some, if not all, of the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Morgan's study has just been published, (and I have read it) which clearly demonstrates the benefits of such pilgrimages for a large number of those taking part. I have lent my strong support to the proposal that there should be future pilgrimages to the South Atlantic. Interestingly, I have received a considerable number of letters from Veterans to whom I suggested a visit to the Falklands might be helpful. Let me quote from two of them.
The first says: “On behalf of us ex-Welsh Guardsmen who are victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, may I express our most sincere gratitude to yourself in enabling us to return to the Falkland Islands. This visit has been worth as much to ourselves as many hours of counselling”.
Another veteran of the Falklands Campaign wrote to me:
“I was a member of the Scots Guards who was shot in the head in the Battle for Mount Tumbledown in 1982. When I met you at Hollybush House (which as you will all well know is one of the centres run by Combat Stress in Scotland) you said to me you thought I should go back to the Falkland Islands. Combat Stress started to get the wheels in motion and I went back there in November with 200 other veterans. I went back with six Welsh Guards who were all a great bunch. This was beyond my wildest dreams and this is one task I found to be very hard. But Combat Stress gave me a lot of preparation and support. I feel that this has helped in a way that I never thought possible. “Facing the demon”, as they say, and I will always remember that it all was made possible by you Sir”.
These letters are truly humbling and speak volumes for the work Combat Stress continues to do.
I have also been looking at the problems faced by the homeless since I became aware during visits to homeless hostels around the country (confirmed by research) that up to a quarter of those who sleep rough on the streets of the United Kingdom have spent time in the Armed Forces, and many of them suffer from long term combat-related psychological injury. I have to confess that I was truly shocked by this and felt that perhaps I could help by bringing the ex-service and homeless charities together with my own organizations, most particularly Business in the Community, of which I am President of 20 years or so now, and which already ran a programme, known as ‘Ready for Work'.
From my experience with B.I.T.C., I felt that helping people to hold down a worthwhile job would be one of the keys to breaking the cycle which causes so many ex-Servicemen to sleep rough. That was about two and a half years ago and, since then, we have established a pilot scheme in London known as Project Compass, involving the B.I.T.C., M.O.D. Ex-Services organizations, Combat Stress and a number of businesses. The pilot scheme, if I may say so, has been a resounding success, helping 93 ex-Servicemen and women through a range of training and education, employment, work experience and, of course, housing.
And I'm delighted to announce this evening that Combat Stress will further engage with B.I.T.C. in the ‘Ready for Work' scheme that operates across the United Kingdom, starting with Belfast. I am pleased to see Eva Hamilton from Business in the Community and representatives from Project Compass here tonight, and want to congratulate them on their work to date. I know there is still much to be done.
Last Christmas I received a letter from a Combat Stress Veteran I had met when I witnessed some of the ex-Servicemen being trained as part of a Business in the Community/Project Compass ‘Ready for Work' programme. Amongst other things, he wrote that he was a Royal Engineer serving with 3 Commando Brigade as a Bomb Disposal soldier and diver, and had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from service in Bosnia, resulting in his becoming a client of Combat Stress and Business in the Community.
He spent a two-week placement with Marks & Spencer at their HQ in Baker Street in the Corporate Press Office where he reported that the Marks & Spencer staff were superb in understanding his problems.
He said he was now feeling much more confident about the future than he had done for many years and that his family would benefit from the confidence and hope that he had that Christmas, as they had become very affected by his P.T.S.D. as it is so poorly understood and recognized.
I am now told that this particular individual continues to make excellent progress despite the chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he continues to endure.
Meanwhile, Combat Stress has reached a strategic agreement with Crisis, that remarkable organization run by Shaks Ghosh, who is here tonight I am glad to sayl, which works so hard to provide help to homeless and rough-sleeping people in London. Under the new arrangement, Combat Stress will provide welfare and clinical support to any ex-Service personnel referred by Crisis and in need of specialist help. And this Christmas Combat Stress will provide a clinic throughout the “Crisis at Christmas” operation. If it is successful, it will become an annual commitment.
I also know that Combat Stress has been working with the War Pensions Welfare Service to provide joint welfare clinics to Veterans in Wales, the West Midlands and Glasgow. This scheme has been most successful, and work is in now in hand to take this service UK wide. Additionally, the Society is now working in partnership with the world-famous Omagh Centre for Trauma and Transformation aiming to improve the range of clinical services available to our Northern Ireland Veterans. These are two more very important initiatives which are already making a real difference.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the men and women of the Armed Forces who serve their country so selflessly, I think deserve the first class support and care which organizations such as Combat Stress and its partners provide. All I can say is that your support, and I know that so many of you have been supporting us for some time, is utterly invaluable and there are very many ex-Servicemen and their families who depend upon it. Thank you.