The trouble with you, Iqbal…” is the start of many sentences friends direct at me. On one occasion I listened more attentively than usual. The friend pointed out that although I worked with ex-offenders, these were people who had committed crimes. What did I do about those who were victims of crimes?
While it’s true that the best way for former prisoners not to re-offend is for them to have a job and a home, we don’t apply that same logic or rigour in our outlook for other groups that haven’t damaged our social fabric. Polar opposite to the criminal is the armed forces veteran.
It’s often been said that you can judge how civilised a country is by the way it treats its prisoners. Perhaps a more telling barometer is how we respond to people who risk their lives to save ours. In Britain, we don’t fare well. A few months ago, I spent a morning with veterans who were supported by the Combat Stress project. They all suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and shared with me their various routes to it.
It takes up to 10 years for veterans to be diagnosed with PTSD and while its manifestations vary widely, the process of acquiring it is alarmingly similar. They are not told how to prepare for a return from front-line action to their family. Often they cannot cope with what they have witnessed. Marriages or relationships break down, or they get thrown out of their home. Some turn to drink and drugs, and then commit crimes to pay for them.
Around 10 per cent of the prison population is made up of ex-armed forces personnel. It’s in jail that many are recognised as having mental health problems and start treatment.
One of the group at Combat Stress told me I was the only person, apart from his counsellor, he had spoken to in months. He lived alone and one day visited a quiet pub. The barman started chatting and asked him his name. The veteran left quickly, so I asked him why. He had served in Northern Ireland and his best friend turned out to be an IRA informer. He could no longer trust anyone.
Another told me he had served in Afghanistan and three times a night would wake up shrieking, drenched in sweat and thinking about what he had witnessed there.
I told the group I felt awful that these experiences were so common and yet virtually unknown to the rest of us. I then asked them if they’d considered getting a job and none of them had. I suggested that if the right opportunity arose, they might have more in their lives than a weekly counselling session. I left my card and the very same day three of them called me to ask if I had any opportunities for them.
More recently, I attended the Walking with the Wounded project, which worked with younger military personnel who had become casualties in service and were being prepared for the world of work.
Unlike PTSD sufferers, they were being made ready for an active civilian life. The Invictus Games emphasises the strength and bravery of wounded military personnel and I imagine that when we offer one or two work experience we will be suitably impressed.
So here’s a suggestion for business leaders: why don’t you make a clear and honest pledge to guarantee an interview to any returning soldier applying for a job?
A common perception among veterans is that they are unemployable, but I have heard the same about ex-offenders and understand how easy it can be to change that view. One senior PTSD sufferer I met had been in charge of more than 1,000 soldiers. I told him that his leadership skills would equip him to be the CEO of a large company. He was the first one to call me after my visit.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab