Remembering the invisible impacts of war

14 November 2021

As we pay our respects this Remembrance Sunday, Richard Henderson, Partnership Manager for our Live Life programme, asks us to remember and honour veterans and their families living with the lasting impacts of their service. 

On Remembrance Day, we tend to think about the great sacrifice made by the brave men, women and animals of WW1 and WW2. At today’s Cenotaph ceremonies, we will be asked to remember those who have fallen, but we should also hold in mind those ex service members who live with the legacy of service, and the families and communities often struggling alone to support them.

The World Wars have a powerful hold on our imagination. If we were asked to imagine a ‘veteran’, most of us would think of old men in uniform with a chest full of medals, perhaps carrying the physical scars of their experiences. But this image, although it’s still relevant, doesn’t show the whole reality of the current landscape for veterans.  

Although at the time WW1 was seen as ‘the war to end all wars’, as a nation, we have been involved in conflicts almost continually since WW2. As of 2019, there are an estimated 240,000 veterans living in Scotland. An estimated 10% of the Scottish population are dealing with the legacy of military service, including veterans, their family members and their dependents.  

The wounds of service can be physical, but there are often deep-reaching invisible impacts. Returning from military service can be strange, alienating and leave people with experiences and feelings that are hard for those around them to fully understand. Veterans and their partners, children, and carers are often living with stress, difficulties readjusting to civilian life, and feelings of isolation. Unsupported, these feelings can manifest in issues like family breakdown, substance abuse, homelessness, unemployment, and criminalisation. 

Many families are left to support their ex-service loved ones alone, which can be overwhelming and traumatic in itself. Veterans are by nature resilient, and their families are too, but without support and community, experiences of service can feed into cycles of isolation and generational trauma that put both veterans and their families at risk of lasting mental health issues, homelessness and precarity.

On average it can take 10 - 15 years after leaving service before veterans look for support. But with dedicated support services for veterans developed in the decades since WW1, thankfully research shows that now the number of veterans experiencing mental health issues is at a level similar to those who have not served, although older veterans who have spent longer living with self-destructive coping mechanisms are at higher risk. 

There is, however, very little support available in Scotland providing support to whole families - most support is targeted at individuals, leaving the partners and children of veterans to support their loved one through poor mental health on their own. Handling the stresses of life after service is often a whole-family issue, and we often don’t talk about that when we think about the human costs of war. 

Our Live Life service is set up to meet the needs of Scotland’s veterans and their families, offering support with mental and physical difficulties and stress. Live Life offers services including mediation and conflict resolution, art therapy, and family activities like drama, horsemanship, cooking and days out at the Cyrenians Farm. Through both direct support and family activities, we help families build positive relationships, communication and resilience and reduce conflict and isolation. The Live Life community helps veterans and their families reconnect, reducing the negative impacts on their lives and futures. 

Set up as a partnership programme originally over the Central Belt, Live Life has expanded to meet demand, and we now work in 18 of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas. In the last 24 months we’ve been able to support over 250 people, and over 71% of these families have been involved in at least 3 of our services, which really shows the range of support needed to deal with the breadth of issues affecting veterans and their families. 

This Remembrance Sunday, it’s only right that we stop and honour those who paid the ultimate price. But we must also remember and honour those who are still here – the veterans who served their country and also their families who have sacrificed so much to support their loved ones.