The government’s broken covenant

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by Peter Thomson

The Government, my good sir, have much to answer for: in these times of sad distress, the multitude of wandering sailors, begging everyday at my door for bread, is truly lamentable; on beholding them it fills me with most poignant grief – half naked, without a shoe on their feet and starving for hunger, declaring they can neither get work on shore nor on board: what shame to the government of a nation, of first rank in civilised Europe, to turn her brave defenders adrift, to taste the bitters of misery and all for the sake of saving a few thousand pounds.

Letter to the Naval Chronicle 1817 Vol 37 p376.

Nothing much has changed in nearly 200 hundred years as far as the government and its armed forces are concerned.  There are many currently on tour in Afghanistan or in support of the Libyan Rebels who are well aware that they will be returning home to a P45.  Once again a Tory government is looking to save the modern equivalent of a ‘few thousand pounds’ by cutting back the very people they claim – until they are seeking compensation and a pension for injury – are the bravest of the brave.  Then there are the others who appear well but whose injury scars their minds, who will find it hard in the long run to take to Civvy Street and whose decent into drunkenness, criminality and homelessness is well recorded but mostly ignored, ‘what shame to the government of a nation, of first rank in civilised Europe’.

Then there are those returning servicepeople who seek to ‘keep their end up’, who work hard at being normal, ignoring the images that cross their minds, who can play well the ‘cheery chappy’ to the rest of the world but whose family bears the brunt of the untrammelled anger, violence, silence and depression.  Families resent this two faced personality which exhausts and debilitates in equal measure, ‘The Government, my good sir, have much to answer for:’

There are many excellent services charities that seek to fill the multiple gaps through which many ex-service personnel fall.  The British Legion, SAFFA , Blessma, Combat Stress are just a few.  But these organisations are reliant not on government money but rather on the good people of the UK’s nations putting their hands in their pockets to do the job when government, ‘ turns her brave defenders adrift’.

As a member of the Royal Navy who saw active service in the Falklands and, like many, returned to find a P45 on the doormat, the hollow words of successive governments about the ‘covenant with the forces’ sickens me to the core.  For me July is the month for my Falkland phantoms to appear, and now the end of my marriage of 29 years on the 31st of July this year – hence this reflective piece.

My last big breakdown in November 2009 was one too many for my wife.  She had weathered much since 1984 with my nightmares, my rages and my long depression driven silences.  There are a number of reasons that our separation is right, not the least she deserves to be allowed to have a life with out the constant worry of how I am behaving today.  

I know my phantoms will never go – that’s part of my covenant with the country I served – and I am fortunate to have a good psychiatrist and psychologist to help keep me as sane as the next man.   But like the pills I take everyday for the mental and physical pain I will never be free of them.  Nor will I ever be free from wondering what will trigger the next downswing in my mental health.

I hope that when Scotland regains its independence the SNP will keep their word on the issue of the ‘forces covenant’ to the nascent Scottish Defence Force.  But in over two hundred years, no government on these islands has ever kept its word on this, so I do not think I, for one, will be holding my breath.  This road to good intentions is strewn with broken promises.