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Back on Civvy Street: Interview with former veterans’ commissioner Charlie Wallace

Back on Civvy Street: Interview with former veterans’ commissioner Charlie Wallace

We've got to understand that the military is absolutely part of the fabric of our society,” says Colonel Charlie Wallace. “If we wish to have a secure place, we need to have security infrastructure in place, from the bobby on the beat to probably so far as a nuclear deterrent, and everything in between. That is a broad scope of our matrix of security support that allows you and me to walk down the street in absolute safety, knowing that it is incredibly unlikely that anyone is going to do any harm to us. That's the issue that we've got to continue to work at.”

For the last three and a half years, Wallace has held the post of Scotland’s Veterans Commissioner. He was tasked with advising the Scottish Government and public sector to improve support available for veterans and to help them transition more smoothly back to civilian life.

It’s a journey Wallace took himself in 2018, after 35 years of military service. “It’s about reconnecting,” Wallace says. “I made a very active decision to reconnect with all my nonmilitary friends, and find out what life is like, what the challenges they faced are, and what therefore I might be able to expect.”

Having the support network, particularly his wife Fiona, was integral for Wallace’s reintegration. It also helped to have his new role as Commissioner.

On 31 March, Wallace wrapped up his time in post and he’s fairly positive about the progress made for veterans in recent years. While Covid interrupted some of his work, he also says it had the positive of bringing the skills and benefits of the military into public consciousness.

“There is definitely a matrix of veterans across Scotland, who are quite well connected, and they're quite good – and this really came to light in the pandemic – at looking after each other. And more importantly, actually, I think they've also shown how they can look after the communities in which they now live.

“That has been one of the startling things and really pleasing things that I have seen, just how many of these veterans have got out there off their own back and gone to help the more vulnerable members of their community, in a good can-do attitude that so many veterans have.

“I think as a result of that, the wider community – who may not know so much about veterans – are more aware of the fact that veterans are good people, and do a lot of good things, and they're very normal people. That's been good for us, I think.”

The challenge is how the charitable sector, the military-focused or the veterans-focus charity sector, connects with the statutory sector

Increased public awareness of who veterans are and how they can be involved in society, he believes, is vital to improving the experience of those who have served as they look to transition back to normal life. For him, a good transition was having his own home, a job to focus his energies, and time before formally leaving the military to get used to life outside. But he benefited from knowing he would have to retire from the Army at age 55 and was able to plan for it.

Most veterans do not serve for nearly as long as Wallace and so don’t necessarily benefit from the long lead-out time. But he says that shouldn’t matter, because preparing to leave the military should “almost start the day you join,” he argues.

For the 1,400-1,800 service leavers who retire to Scotland, that process is naturally complicated by devolution. The MOD has a responsibility of ensuring people are prepared to transition, but many of the public services veterans will use are in the hands of the Scottish Government.

Wallace says: “You've got a prepare-to-leave responsibility for the UK Government, and you've got a prepare-to-receive responsibility for Scottish Government. You've got to make sure that those doors are open, and you’ve got to make sure that these people are coming in and are being helped if they've not quite understood what they need to do to get a house, or to get plugged into the health system, or to get plugged into the tertiary education system, which may be slightly different from what they may have been taught by the MOD. Everyone’s got to work together here to help that individual transition well.”

Wallace at the Kajaki Dam in Helmand province of Afghanistan, 2012

That journey has “without a doubt” got better over the last few years, but it is still not without its challenges. During his time as Commissioner, Wallace produced reports focused on transition in health, housing and employment. He speaks highly of the military charities and the wider community, and the role they play in helping veterans. “The challenge is how the charitable sector, the military-focused or the veterans-focus charity sector, connects with the statutory sector.”

Again, Wallace says the solution here is to communicate with and educate service providers – for example by creating better links between health boards, local councils and the third sector. All of this can come together to make successful reintegration more likely.

This would be particularly beneficial for those who did not have a stable life before joining the military. “It might be that they have come from an environment before they joined the military which was challenging and they couldn't settle in that. Then they come into the military, settle for a period of time, maybe quite short, and then they're back out again. That presents a series of challenges. We need to bring in the social services and the wider structural infrastructure to help us look after individuals like that. The fact they spent some time in the military is but a minor part of the overall issue in making them feel like better people and making them feel confident, capable, net contributors to our society. I think the military can play a quite an important part in that journey.”

I'm very disappointed we've had to delay the census in Scotland and not anywhere else in the UK, because we will now end up with disjointed data

But Wallace is disappointed about a lack of progress in employment for veterans. This group of people, he says, would be a valuable asset to businesses around Scotland but translating and communicating their skills to people without military experience can be a real barrier. “This is about getting the qualifications mapped across to the skills [and] qualifications system that we have in Scotland. That is one thing which we haven't really progressed as much as I would have liked.”

He accepts that this work “may be quite expensive” in the short-term, but not doing so means society as a whole will “miss out” on veterans’ skills. He continues: “Any employer would recognise that having a good team that is well led, that thinks of the team first before individuals within it, tends to be more productive and tends to be more successful. And that's what the military does. It’s those soft skills, understanding that if you do a bit more for the sake of the others, you will get a personal reward out of it, you'll feel better for doing that, but also the team itself will be more successful. I'd like to see more of that as time goes on.”

Wallace also says there is a distinct lack of data on veterans and how services are working for them. As such, he has only been able to offer qualitative analysis of progress. One glimmer of hope in this area is that the 2022 census, for the first time, included a question about whether a person was a veteran. He says this is a “massive achievement”, but one that was dampened by the Scottish census being out of sync with the rest of the UK.

“I'm very disappointed, of course, that we've had to delay the census in Scotland and not anywhere else in the UK, because we will now end up with disjointed data. That will not be to the benefit of veterans who are, by nature, a much more UK-wide grouping,” he says.

More Scottish-specific research on veterans is needed to better understand what life is like for those who retire to Scotland., he adds. “If we can get that right, then we will end up in a position whereby we have a much clearer understanding of what it is we need to do to support them. And don't forget, if you get this accurate data, we could probably turn around and say, actually we don't need to dedicate so many resources to the veteran, because it can be delivered in another way. And then delivering it in another way brings them more into the community and makes them more normal.”

Wallace is also anxious about the fact that the Scottish Government has not yet appointed his replacement. “I am alarmed slightly that I finished formally on 31 March and there's still no sign of my successor, and that that message to the veterans’ community is not particularly good. It may undermine what it is the Scottish Government is trying to achieve by having a Veteran's Commissioner, by taking this time to find a successor when they've had plenty of time to prepare for it.”

But when his successor is eventually appointed, what does he think they should focus on? Wallace goes back to educating people. “I do think that it's about information, it's about educating parliamentarians, key decision makers in the private and public sectors, about the benefits of the military and making sure that they understand that they're not aliens who've been parachuted into their communities, that they are just normal people with all the normal bits that go with normal people. I think that’s where the focus has got to be.”

And as for what is next for himself? Wallace is immersed in something probably as far from military life as is possible to get. “I've become a horticultural assistant. I help my wife, who runs a business, doing flowers for weddings and events.

“I take enormous amount of pleasure in helping my wife, who spent the majority of our 30-odd years together sacrificing a lot to support me and our children. I think it's only right that the boot should be on the other foot. And so I'm her slave now, I'm making sure that I support her because she deserves it.”

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