Veterans are increasingly struggling in the cost of living crisis. Image: Pexels
Alice’s mental health spiralled while she was serving in the armed forces. She was deeply unhappy, drinking in excess and socialising too much. Then she was assaulted. No longer feeling safe, and needing to escape a vicious cycle of alcohol and despair, she left the air force after eight years of service.
Now 32 and a single mother, Alice is struggling desperately in the cost of living crisis. She was not eligible for a resettlement grant or immediate pension because she had not served in the armed forces long enough, and she felt she had been thrown into the outside world with little understanding of ordinary life.
One in 10 people in the ex-service community face financial difficulty, according to research from the Royal British Legion (RBL). That’s around 430,000 people. In the current crisis, the situation is only getting worse.
The charity has seen a 20 per cent increase in requests for support with food and household costs over the last year. It anticipates applications for help with urgent needs such as temporary accommodation, clothing and food will jump significantly in the coming months.
“A few months ago, I got to breaking point,” Alice said. “I just couldn’t do any more. I was raised with next to nothing anyway, so I’m good with money. But it got to a point where I bought all the essentials and I didn’t have any money left. I did my bills and the food shopping, and I had about 20 or 30p. It was devastating. I don’t know how people survive.”
Alice, whose name has been changed, joined the RAF when she was 18. When she was assaulted and her mental health deteriorated, she was left with no choice but to leave.
But life on the outside didn’t prove simple either. She found herself in an emotionally abusive relationship, which drained her mentally and financially. She escaped, but she ended up isolated away from her family in the pandemic, during which she fell pregnant.
When she found she couldn’t afford childcare, which averages at around £263.81 a week for a full-time nursery placement, Alice had to give up her job. It was the first time since she was 17 that she hadn’t worked. She and her two-year-old are surviving on universal credit and living in council accommodation, but it’s not enough for both of them.
“We don’t have anything nice,” she said. “It’s all secondhand, and we just get the basics with food.” She tried seeking help from a food bank, but her nearest one is a 25-minute drive away and the cost of petrol seemed to cancel out the money she saved on food.
Pensions are good in the armed forces, but only if you have served for long enough. There is no immediate pension if you leave before 40 and, even then, you have to have served for at least 18 years. Veterans are sometimes entitled to a resettlement grant instead, to help them adjust to ordinary life, but they need to have been in the armed forces for at least 12 years.
Alice said: “I know [the government is] trying with these cost of living payments, but the hardest thing is that the money doesn’t stretch month to month. It all goes on things for my daughter, like winter clothes and things that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford. If the price of living is increasing, then the money that’s received needs to be increased as well.”
Alice eventually reached out to SSAFA, the armed forces charity which helps veterans facing financial difficulty. She is one of many veterans pleading with charities for help in the cost of living crisis.
Bill Grant, forcesline manager at SSAFA, said he is very worried about the growing number of calls from people who need support – a third more than last year.
“While we receive requests covering a range of topics from mobility issues to debt,” he said, “we’re now also taking daily requests for help with the most basic of needs. People can no longer afford food, energy and housing. As winter comes, things sadly will only get tougher.”
It’s a similar situation at the RBL. Antony Baines, the executive director of services, added: “No one should have to worry about whether they will be able to keep the lights on, heat their homes or feed themselves and their families.”
RBL research has found 14 per cent of veterans aged 65 or over have turned the heating off to save money, even when it was too cold. The charity has launched a set of emergency top up grants which will help veterans struggling to pay their energy bills with up to £200 per month depending on their financial circumstances.
Alice still has hope, even in the bleakest of times, as she speaks about the future and her daughter. “As long as she grows up and she knows that she’s loved and that she can make a difference, that’s what’s important. Hopefully she’ll take on some qualities that I have with helping people, because she’s been through growing up poor and in a one-parent family. I want her to be happy and healthy, and I’ll support her in anything she wants to do.”