There are some things even a pandemic cannot stop.

Armistice Day may have looked a little different this year as Remembrance events were scaled back, but [yesterday] at 11AM the country collectively paused to reflect and to remember. It was a poignant moment of familiar calm in a turbulent year. A moment we have repeated, without fail, every year for a century.

Remembrance is personal to everyone of course. I think about my friend from training Lieutenant Dan Clack, who was killed in action; and from my own Company and Battalion, amongst others, I mourn the losses of Private Matt Haseldin and my friend Captain Rupert Bowers who was an inspiration to me. I reflect on the shared challenges and difficult experiences my soldiers and I faced that changed our lives forever.

The country came to learn after the Great War that transitioning out of military life has its own particular challenges that can be difficult for civilians to relate to. And whilst much progress has been made over the years, including by third sector organisations and the campaigns led by parliamentarians like Johnny Mercer, I want to acknowledge how the Government’s support for British veterans has stepped up a gear in 2020.

In October we celebrated a year since the Office for Veterans Affairs was established by a Conservative Government. And it has clearly been an engine for change as policy after policy has been brought forward with real and positive ramifications for former Armed Forces personnel.

Like in politics, the military can be a bit of a bubble. It houses you, clothes you, feeds you, provides easy access to medical care, schedules your life and provides you with opportunities for education and socialising. It changes your vocabulary, frame of reference, and mindset. When you leave that bubble it is not surprising that many, especially those who have spent their formative years in the forces, struggle to know what to do, where to look for help, or if help is even available.

The Army already promotes continuous professional development and career transition planning throughout a service person’s career. But the creation of the OVA, and particularly its position in the Cabinet Office, is important because it actively promotes interdepartmental collaboration and is a driving force with a single purpose, to better our support for veterans.

As President of the Conservative Friends of the Armed Forces I frequently hear the four biggest areas of concern for veterans are employment, managing finances, housing and mental health. And it is easy to understand why finding yourself having problems in any one of those areas can create pressures on the other three.

Take employment for example. A soldier does not have a CV, but a service record, and it can be difficult translating the duties you performed as soldier into civilian terms, as desirable as these skills are. And so providing job application training and incentives for employers makes a practical difference.

But this year the Government also guaranteed interviews in the civil service, provided discounted rail travel for ex-military personnel, and prioritised veterans and service families for social housing. These are simple changes that have a profoundly positive impact for somebody easing themselves into stable civilian life; getting you the interview, helping you get to the interview and making sure you have a permanent place to call home. I cannot stress how vital these elements are in setting up our transitioning veterans for success.

But to do more we need more data and unfortunately most studies are USA-focused. So I welcome the decision to include specific questions for veterans in the 2021 UK census. I also hope the new Veterans Advisory Board, another 2020 creation, comprising veterans and experts, is able to give this potentially powerful department frank and deeper insight into the needs of veterans. The APPG for Veterans chaired by Colonel James Sunderland MP is another strong voice in parliament, joining those from the tri-services and charities sector in promoting veterans affairs and raising awareness of veteran issues.

Today our service personnel are deployed throughout the world on operations and in exercises. And closer to home thousands of our soldiers are currently testing the people of Liverpool for COVID-19. It is a testament to their determination, commitment and training that they have applied themselves so readily to the task, with little fuss. But we should never take their service for granted.

One of the most powerful images of this pandemic was that of Her Majesty The Queen standing alone in quiet contemplation as she paid her own very personal respects at The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. 

A century ago, when the Unknown Warrior was buried we began to better understand the challenges faced by British troops in civilian life and this Government has made a pledge to make Britain the best country in the world to be a veteran – my peers and I will hold them to that. There is always more that can be done, but these are encouraging noises, and if the policies brought forward this year are evidence of the political determination to deliver, then we all have cause to be pleased with the significant progress that has been made.

by James Clark