Looking after our people is as important now as it has ever been. It is not as alluring; it is not as potentially compelling as many preparations for war. But it is as important as any other preparation.
For if we consider what compels a soldier to fight, that moral component – without which failure is almost always inevitable – family and the “home front” are chief protagonists. Get that right, and success – particularly mission success – will be far more likely than an exclusive focus on the physical component of fighting power.
For too long, looking after our people in the armed forces communities has been too far down the priority list. I cannot think of another profession that relies so heavily on the third sector to provide a wrap-around care of its employees and their families.
Often what motivates us most is our domestic environment. This week the Centre for Social Justice published a report into the difficulties the families of serving personnel face. This paper, I hope, will be another block in the wall in my efforts to ensure that our servicemen and women, and their families’ voices are heard.
There are some clear challenges. One in five families report a strain in their relationships as a result of deployment.
Strong evidence from the Unite States indicates a strong link between persistent exposure to combat and anti-social behaviour in relationships. And yet the family test that considers the impact on the individual’s family before posting, and something this government can be very proud of, is something most have not come into contact with.
I remember very clearly coming home from my third combat tour of Afghanistan in four years in 2010. It was my youngest daughter’s second birthday. I had spent just four weeks of her life with her. She barely recognised me. I was asked to deploy on another tour of Afghanistan in 2011 – it would have been my fourth in five years.
I was asked to choose between my family and the army, yet again. I made it clear that if my specific tactical and technical skill set were required in the war – I would of course deploy without question.
If however it was simply bad planning by the army, I would not. It turned out it was the latter.
I knew my family would, whilst accepting our duty, struggle to face another eight months apart. Under enormous pressure I outlined my family’s position to the army; I was summoned to make my case in person.
I made it, and to be fair to the army, once they were aware of my deployment record relented – I was already well outside my separated time limit, which turned out to be a guideline, hence no one paid attention to it.
Mental health is addressed in the report. Mental health has long been talked about in the Ministry of Defence, but in practice is still well behind the curve. Some units are working hard to address this.
There is a brilliant scheme in 30 Commando Royal Marines to “normalise” talking about mental health, and remove it from a medical chain of command to a unit chain of command. This could, if given the appropriate attention by the MoD, revolutionise the way mental health is talked about in the Royal Marines.
There also remain serious challenges around alcohol abuse and debt in our forces community, as this research demonstrates. We must do more to challenge these practices and the havoc they wreak.
The military has always been keen to look after its people but often these intentions are dwarfed with the demands of over-committing by governments.
I hope this paper gives them an opportunity to focus on some of these key issues. I hope that more and more will come to understand that looking after our people both before and after conflict is a part of the battle rhythm. It produces that moral component; it is part of operational effectiveness, as important as any other.