The Soldiers’, Sailors’ & Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA) has a long and proud history supporting soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and airwomen who serve and who have served. Returning to civilian life can be problematic and that’s why SSAFA’s work is so important.
The charity is there for the “Forces family” – men, women, veterans, regulars, reservists and their families – anyone who finds they are in need. The personalised help can be financial, practical or emotional, anything and everything from debt or addiction to PTSD and mental health problems, home refurbishment for those injured, nursing home fees, homelessness or food and groceries.
SSAFA’s support to the armed forces and their families began, albeit in a limited guise, in 1885. Throughout military campaigns and World Wars, SSAFA’s work has morphed and expanded, but always its emphasis has been on those in need, whether they have served full time, for just one day, or for a longer period.
Needs among today’s serving and retired personnel
Today SSAFA has more than 4,000 trained volunteers who work with welfare advisors. Having assessed what is required, SSAFA endeavours to help the individual or the family. This may just be someone to listen to them, but more often than not, SSAFA helps with obtaining financial assistance from statutory and military benevolent funds and foundations, and works with other charities which may be better suited to meeting the need.
In 2022, there were over 148,000 personnel serving in the British Armed Forces. The 2021 census revealed that 1,853,112 people had previously served in the UK armed forces in England and Wales. In 2022 over 16,000 personnel left the armed forces. Typically areas with the highest proportion of veterans tended to be near existing armed forces bases. East Suffolk (11,292 veterans), Huntingdonshire (8,164 veterans) and Breckland (7,510 veterans) have the largest populations in East Anglia.
Homelessness among veterans is an acute problem. In April 2023 the Office for Veterans’ Affairs announced a fund of up to £8m “to tackle veterans’ homelessness head on” which organisations could apply for. The minister, Johnny Mercer, says:
“No one, not least those who have served this country, should be homeless. That’s why we’re providing up to £8m to fund tailored support for our veterans in hundreds of housing places across the country.”
The invaluable work of SSAFA volunteers
With so much need, the challenge SSAFA faces is identifying volunteers, particularly for people to do casework. This involves interviewing veterans with a view to assessing and helping with their everyday needs.
Lt Gen (Ret.) Sir Andrew Gregory, chief executive of SSAFA, describes volunteering for SSAFA as:
“a most rewarding role: it is varied, interesting and hands-on and requires planning and problem solving, using local knowledge in order to address the difficulties facing a wide range of people – from a veteran of World War II to a recent service leaver in their twenties.”
Dan McNeil, a Royal Artillery veteran of 19 years, testifies to the invaluable work of SSAFA, its caseworkers and volunteers. He was facing chronic pain, depression, and anxiety upon return to civilian life, and it was his SSAFA caseworker who helped him through.
“In my darkest hour, my SSAFA caseworker turned up at my flat and put £20 on my electric meter and filled my fridge. This simple act of kindness somehow lifted a weight off my shoulders and allowed me to see a way out of my hopelessness. I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done.”
Fundraising is essential
In recognition of how his life was changed, McNeil is fundraising for SSAFA by walking the whole of the UK coastline. Walking around East Anglia’s coast, he says, comparing it to walking around Scotland, “The east coast has been really quick. Not so many inlets and coves!”
Fundraising for SSAFA is an essential enabler. In April, Royal Engineers Leigh Morgan (22) and Marco Turnbull (19) based at RAF Wyton, Cambridgeshire, ran the London marathon. Turnbull is the youngest runner for the charity and since then has started volunteering as a Community Connection Champion, combatting isolation and loneliness in serving troops. Speaking about living 5 hours from his family, Turnbull says:
“It can get quite lonely sometimes. I have a big family and I miss them. I am often at a loose end on a weekend. The silly thing is that I’m not the only one, but we all tend to stay in our rooms and not socialise much. So when I heard about the Community Connection Champion role I jumped at it. We get a small budget to organise activities that bring people together.”
More fundraising occurs today, Saturday 24 June, when SSAFA supporters will be walking the 13 Bridges Challenge, criss-crossing the River Thames. The supported route is entirely wheelchair accessible and open to all ages and abilities. Gregory parrtcipated las year, and says:
“SSAFA’s 13 Bridges Challenge, held on Armed Forces day each year, is the main opportunity in London to thank servicemen and women for their selfless commitment to our nation. In 2022 over 350 people had a most enjoyable walk from the Tower of London to Putney, raising much needed funds that allow SSAFA to help our armed forces, veterans and their families in their times of need. In 2023, we hope to have 1,000 participants; come and be one of them!”
Celebrating Armed Forces Day
Armed Forces Day is an annual celebration of the Royal Navy, the British Army, the Royal Airforce and the Royal Marines, remembering those who are serving and who have served. Military service places unique demands on an individual and their family, whether they are on UK soil or overseas. Gregory says:
“At SSAFA, we feel very strongly that the Armed Forces community have ‘looked after our backs’. It is now our turn, whenever and wherever necessary, to protect theirs.”
If you, your family or a colleague are in need of assistance, contact SSAFA on Forcesline. Their welfare advice and support work is free, confidential and outside the military chain of command. If you would like to support SSAFA by fundraising through Challenge Events or – if you have more time available – volunteering as a caseworker, more information is on SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity website. A military background is not required, and training and support is given.