Let down by their countrymen: how our Forces often feel unappreciated


Members of the Armed Forces are suffering abuse and discrimination on Britain’s streets just for wearing their uniforms in public.

Members of the Armed Forces are suffering abuse and discrimination on Britain’s streets just for wearing their uniforms in public.

British troops receive worse treatment at home than their American counterparts Photo: GETTY

A survey of more than 9,100 servicemen discloses that almost one in five military personnel has been refused service in pubs, hotels and shops because they were in uniform.

Six per cent have been attacked in the street, while 21 per cent have reported strangers coming up to them and shouting abuse.

In one case, a member of the Royal Navy was told by his son’s head teacher to stop wearing his uniform on the school run because it “upset the parents”.

A female RAF recruiter said that on more than one occasion members of the public have screamed “baby killer” at her as she walked to work in her uniform.

The study also discloses how servicemen and women face discrimination such as being refused mortgages and even mobile phone contracts as a result of being in the Armed Forces.

Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, conceded that there was “still more we can do” to ensure that troops are treated “with the dignity they deserve”.

The study, commissioned by Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative peer and philanthropist, appears to show that British troops receive worse treatment at home than their American counterparts.

US troops are routinely offered discounts in shops and restaurants, while a survey of the American public discloses that they often shake the hands of military personnel – while Britons are reticent and even embarrassed to do so.

Lord Ashcroft, writing in the conclusion of his report, entitled The Armed Forces & Society, called on the British public to show greater support to troops, a point he also makes on these pages.

“If you see a member of the Services in uniform and you appreciate what they do, go and tell them so,” he writes, “If you are in a position to offer discounts to military personnel, it is a gesture they will appreciate.”

With 17,000 service personnel due to be made redundant in the next three years, The Armed Forces & Society report casts new light on the complex relationship between military personnel and the public they serve.

Drawing on the responses of 9,106 service personnel, 16 focus groups from the Army, Navy, RAF and Royal Marines, as well as surveys of the general public in the US and UK, the report concludes that ­military personnel are ­generally held in higher regard than either NHS staff or the police.

But there are worrying findings, including:

* 91 per cent of the British public believe that physical, emotional and mental health problems are common for those leaving the Forces

* one quarter of personnel have been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card in the past five years, while almost a fifth say they have had trouble obtaining a mobile phone contract

* half of serving personnel feel there is not much recognition for what they do

* one third of the US public say they have approached a member of the Forces to thank them for their service, compared with just 8 per cent in Britain. The main reason for the difference is Britons being too embarrassed to do so

* almost a fifth of service personnel have found themselves at “the back of the queue” for public services when they moved to a new area. US troops say such discrimination is unthinkable in America

* some personnel express concern that charities such as Help for Heroes and the repatriation ceremonies in Royal Wootton Bassett have caused the public to feel sorry for them — which is the last thing they want

* three quarters of servicemen overseas say they have experienced difficulties getting companies to recognise British Forces Post Office addresses because they did not contain postcodes.

The experience of personnel wearing uniforms will raise considerable concern.

While 56 per cent of servicemen have had strangers thank them for their work and 29 per cent have been offered drinks or meals, 21 per cent have been abused in the street.

One RAF recruiter, a member of one of the focus groups, said: “Working in Leicester as a recruiter I make a point of walking to and from work in my uniform, and it’s mixed. I have people running up and screaming ‘baby killer’ at me. I’ve had people spit at me.

“Equally, last week this great huge bloke, shaved head, beard, earrings, tattoos, stood up and gave me a round of applause, said, ‘Well done love, I’m very proud.’”

A sailor said: “When my boy started school I would pick him up in uniform, and I was asked by the head not to go in uniform because it upset the parents.

“I do, though, and it doesn’t upset the parents. It was a school issue, and the view of the staff. The military is not universally popular.”

Mr Hammond described Lord Ashcroft’s report as helpful. “We have worked hard to ensure our Armed Forces, veterans and their families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve, “ he said.

“This report shows there is still more we can do.”

Gen Sir David Richards, the Chief of the Defence Staff, gave the go-ahead for the study, which took more than a year to come to fruition.

“They [members of the Armed Forces] deserve respect and support from the British public. So it’s great to see that the vast majority of personnel get this recognition and are even thanked by strangers,” he said.

“This report has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of what members of the Forces and the public think of each other.”

The 66-page report concludes that, in general, public support for the Armed Forces was “very high indeed”, with troops receiving more support than either NHS staff or the police.

But there is also a belief among 91 per cent of the 2,033 members of the public polled that it is either “quite common” or “very common” for former members of the Armed Forces to have “some kind of physical, emotional or mental health problem as a result of their time in the Forces”.

Military personnel, questioned for the report through specially convened focus groups, dispute the public view, pointing out that although there are clearly risks associated with serving in the military, the problems are actually “less common than many people thought”.

The report notes that some troops — although admiring the work of the charity Help for Heroes — are concerned that its “high profile meant that too often the image of service personnel in the public mind was linked to dreadful injuries”.

It notes also that the repatriation ceremonies at Royal Wootton Bassett had the effect of “allowing sympathy to play too great a part in the public attitude to the Forces”.

One former servicemen said in the report: “It’s a real shame that public perception is driven by things like Help for Heroes. It’s almost like you’ve got to wheel out a horrific picture of a soldier with no legs and things like that.”

Two thirds of service personnel think the public are badly informed about their work, while 62 per cent of the public admit that they know “very little” or “not very much” about day-to-day routine.

Half of the military personnel say British society — as distinct from Government — should “do more to recognise and support people in the Services”.

Troops speak of their own visits to the US, where they discovered that military discounts are routine. US troops note how they are frequently bought drinks and meals, while it is commonplace for strangers to approach personnel in uniform and thank them for the job they are doing.

The British public, on the other hand, is reticent about showing such largesse.

Being in the British military brings other problems, according to the study. Almost three quarters of personnel currently posted overseas say companies refuse to deliver to British Forces Post Office (BFPO) addresses.

One serviceman said: “There are large swathes of companies in the UK who refuse to send goods to BFPO addresses. It’s as good as a postcode, but because it hasn’t got a postcode, they say, ‘We’re not doing that.’ ”

One third of lower ranks in the Army, and a quarter of all personnel, say they have been refused a mortgage, loan or credit card in the past five years, while almost a fifth say they have even had trouble obtaining a mobile phone contract.

One member of the RAF said: “When you look at credit scoring, they see you are moving every 18 months to two years.”

The idea that being in the Forces could actually be a disadvantage “baffled” US servicemen.

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