The most stationary of all stationery items, scissors hate to be hurried. I learned this as a child. You did too, probably. Don't run with scissors. A clear and simple instruction. Pencils, glue, staples... no problem. For them, like us, it's a finite existence. Time is short so don't dilly dally. But don't run with scissors.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

brothers in arms - my interview with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy

A couple of months ago, I had the good fortune to be commissioned by the Victoria Business Improvement District’s magazine “inSW1” to interview Hugh Milroy, Chief Executive of the charity Veteran’s Aid.
The magazine is now out, and so I have taken the liberty of publishing my version of the article here.  Beware... this is a lengthy article.

Dr Hugh Milroy leans back in his chair and fixes his gaze upon me from the other side of the desk. His is an intense stare that accompanies a relaxed manner and a ready smile. This is not, I find myself thinking, quite what I had expected.

A former Wing Commander in the RAF, recipient of an OBE and holder of a PhD, what I had expected was that the CEO of Veterans Aid would be altogether more formidable and imposing.

The room itself also belies many of the usual preconceptions you might have of a CEO’s office. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling against one wall, full of clothes and other essentials. Another wall is dominated by a painting of a WWII Spitfire. There’s a meeting table, which I’m later told is second hand. Elsewhere there are collection tins inserted into old boots, a portrait of the Queen, and artwork produced by some of the veterans the charity has helped. But more on that later.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid
What wasn’t in evidence in his office was any trace of standing on ceremony, of self-importance or of lavish expense. It is a businesslike office with enough personality about it to feel genuine, without being over-bearing.

Little did I know at that precise moment, I had entered a world where so many of my preconceptions would lead me to nothing but a slight feeling of confusion.

Affable and amiable he may be, but Milroy is clearly a driven man, a man with a clear sense of purpose and deep understanding of the people Veterans Aid supports. And it is in regard to these people that I soon begin to realise that much of what I had considered to be received wisdom was actually nothing but misleading.

Veterans Aid works with former service personnel who, in civilian life, have hit upon hard times for one reason or another. A veteran is classified as anyone who is ex–Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or from the Merchant Services. It also covers the Reservists and in fact just one day's service qualifies any of the above to be considered veterans. The charity sees itself as very much part of the Victoria scene and has been for much of the 80 years it has been in existence.

Myth busting
Anyone paying even scant attention to the media will have read or heard that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in the capital are veterans and that they all have drink and drug problems.

This is perhaps the first myth that needs dealing with, and it’s one that Milroy dispels with the relaxed sense of focus he displays throughout our time together.

“We see veterans who are in crisis,” Milroy explains. “Real crisis – homelessness is only one aspect of that.”

Yet for all the truth of that statement, it remains inescapably true that when it comes to actually getting someone off the streets, Veterans Aid is remarkably efficient and effective. The charity provides in excess of 20,000 nights of accommodation every year, and can house between 60 and 80 people per night; in addition to its Buckingham Palace Road HQ, Veterans Aid has its own hostel in east London.

“You could look upon Veterans Aid as the accident and emergency service for the veteran community,” Milroy tells me.

“If someone needs accommodation we’ll find them somewhere, whether it’s in our hostel or in a hotel. If they need detox we’ll get them on a detox programme. If they need clothes, a suit for a job interview perhaps, we’ll do that. We try to be as pragmatic as possible in the way we handle things.”

There are no hand outs. But there is a helping hand up to those who need it and, just as importantly, are willing work hard to make the most of the help available.

I ask Milroy if this pragmatism is because the organisation, and the majority of the people working there are ex-military – do people with a military background have a particular approach to fixing things and making progress because of having served in the armed forces?

“There may be something in that, perhaps we are quite straight in our approach to things. But I think it’s important to point out that people don’t come to us because they’ve been institutionalised by the time they spent in the armed forces. If we were dealing with problems caused by institutionalisation, then it would seem strange that we rarely see people who have served for a long time.”

Common ground, common language
Milroy talks to me at length about the need to help people rediscover their resilience, something he describes as running like a thread through all service personnel. He refuses my suggestion that surely those who have served in the armed forces are predisposed toward eschewing hand outs and favouring an opportunity to stand on their own two feet, whereas – I suggest – run-of-the-mill civilians are that bit softer, lack that resilience, and will gladly take the hand out.

He is quick to correct me in a firm yet non-chiding manner that sits well with his overall demeanour of a man who is thoroughly relaxed and at home with himself, yet uncompromisingly focussed and alert. “The ‘service’ part is a very good way of getting to ground zero, where we can all talk the same language,” he tells me. “Beyond that it’s down to the individual.”

Finding a common language is clearly an important aspect of helping someone in need start to find their self respect once again. After all, few of us flourish as a result of being patronised and talked down to. Veterans Aid works to sow the seeds of a physical support network of friends and acquaintances in the lives of those it helps, addressing one of the most pernicious demons many of its clients are facing – social isolation. The downward spiral of drink and drug addictions, much like the burdens of growing mountains of debt, will ultimately push people away from their friends and family until, all too often, they have no one to turn to, no one to talk to.

The typical user of Veterans Aid’s services is male and aged somewhere between 38 and 45. It is generally the case that they joined up at an early age and served for around three years. Like many people they encounter difficulties in later life and some simply struggle to overcome these difficulties.

The younger veterans, in their 20s, encounter the same barriers to social housing that face anyone else of their age in the UK.

Far and wide
Last year, Veterans Aid received around 2,000 calls for help, it put 216 people into accommodation. But it also works hard through a network across the country to identify those needing support before they arrive in London – Victoria coach station being one of the key magnets.

Milroy talks of people graduating from the Veterans Aid service, and how they must be ready and capable individuals that can sustain themselves once they’ve received the helping hand up. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s a waste of both time and money.

“We see people from all branches of the services and all ranks. But very few are in trouble because of their military service. They’re here because of life in Britain today – which can be difficult for anyone.

“In fact, it is extremely rare (Milroy places a great deal of emphasis on the words extremely rare) for Veterans Aid to see somebody with PTSD. What we see is people with complex problems. Addictions, alcohol abuse, debt, general mental health issues – just like one-in-four of the general population might also suffer at some point,” he says, referring to a statistic often quoted by the NHS and mental health charities such as MIND.

Not just art for art’s sake
It’s not all detox and emergency housing though. There are examples of veterans going on training courses that will enable them to get regular, well-paid jobs. Some have gone to university, and in December Veterans Aid will be hosting an exhibition at the SW1 Gallery of works of art created by some of the people it has helped.

Veterans Aid is an integral part of the Victoria community and this year is its 80th anniversary. Clearly held in high regard, it was the recipient of Victoria BID’s jubilee fund raising lunch in May and has received the support of the Lord Mayor of Westminster. It is involved in training officers from the Metropolitan Police on how to identify and help veterans in need of support. It seeks to stem the flow of homeless people arriving in SW1. It rolls up its sleeves and finds practical, sustainable solutions to the problems facing many people who at some point in their past have served Queen and country.

I reflect on what I’ve learned as I leave Milroy’s office, and upon the ordinariness of it all – the lack of pretention, the absence of affectation.

On my walk up the two flights of stairs earlier that morning I had met two Veterans Aid staff who had once been on the receiving end of the charity’s help, and a third man who was clearly there in need of said help.

It is someone’s birthday at Veterans Aid, and as I leave I hear an office full of people singing “happy birthday” to their colleague, as happens in pretty much any and every office all across the country.

You can find out more about Veterans Aid by visiting their website here.
Portrait of Dr Hugh Milroy is copyright Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid

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