Salford war hero’s ‘Veterans Champion’ campaign to help ex-service men and women reaches Number 10

By Dominic Claeys-Jackson

Calls to create local authority ‘Veterans Champions’ by a Manchester Iraq war soldier are moving closer to reality after being taken to the Prime Minister.

Neil Blower, 29, who served in Kosovo and Iraq, has campaigned alongside his local MP Hazel Blears for the country’s veterans to receive increased support.

And a letter from Ms Blears to government veterans’ tsar Lord Ashcroft has now reached Number 10, requesting that the idea is considered ‘very carefully’.

Father-of-two Blower – who suffered depression and post-traumatic stress disorder upon leaving the army in 2004 – claimed the role could make a profound difference.

He said: “One of the biggest problems we face when we leave the service is not knowing where to go for things like housing and jobs.

“It’s a minefield and a very alien one that can be very hard to navigate and very frustrating.

“A Veterans’ Champion would act as one stop shop for veterans and people leaving the services, so instead of having to go to five different places and being passed from pillar to post you would only need to go to one.”

Under proposals, Veterans’ Champions would provide a focal point for ex-service men and women, offering advice on issues such as employment, housing, health and benefits.

Ms Blears, Labour MP for Salford & Eccles, last week proposed the concept to Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond in the Commons, receiving his full backing.

And with the health of ex-forces members brought into the limelight recently through a range of damning statistics, Ms Blears was delighted with the support.

She said: “You only have to look at the figures to see that more needs to be done to support our brave ex-servicemen and women who have put their lives on the line for their country.”
“Far too many veterans suffer in silence from mental health issues, and some also end up in prison or living on the streets.

“Beyond each statistic is a moving human story like Neil’s and having a Veterans’ Champion in every town hall is a realistic practical step that could be taken to help.

“It would not cost the earth but it could make a real difference to a section of our society that has been let down for too long.”

As it stands, Veterans’ Champions are the decision of each individual local authority, but it is hoped that further publicity could see more widespread embracement.

Salford Council could be the first to adapt the idea, with Salford Mayor Ian Stuart agreeing talks with Mr Blower and Ms Blears next month.

Defence minister Mark Francois MP is also set for conference with Mr Blower and Ms Blears, with talks arranged for December.

Any wider adaptation of the idea would prove hugely popular with Mr Blower, formerly of the Royal Tank Regiment.

Although his life is now fulfilling – with producers lining up to bring his book Shell Shock to film – the aftermath of war was anything but.

He said: “I was suffering sleepless nights, nightmares, extreme anger, depression – all sorts.”

“The whole business of going to war had a big impact on me.

“That included witnessing the first British fatality in Iraq when my troop sergeant Steve Roberts, who was my mentor, was shot and killed.

“I had a few close calls myself when it could have been me.

“But I was in denial and it took eight months from me getting home before I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Statistics surrounding the post-war lives of service men and women are damning, with Ministry of Defence figures showing 28,000 war injury claims since 2006.

Criminal justice campaign group No Offence allege that veterans comprise 10% of England and Wales’s prison population, though the government has this figure at 3.4%.

Meanwhile, Homeless Link – the membership body for organisations working with UK’s homeless – claim that 6% of those on the country’s streets are veterans.

Such statistics could at least in part be attributed to the mental health of those returning from combat.

A King’s College London study estimates that up to one in five British soldiers leaving the frontline this year will suffer some form of mental illness.

And forces charity Combat Stress has warned that up to 50,000 British service personnel could develop mental health problems in the future.

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