Sunday, 29 March 2020

Army veteran campaigns against cut in benefits

A PARISH councillor who served in the army is urging the Government to stop deducting injured veterans’ war pensions from their other benefits.

Jonathan Steward says former military personnel often struggle to return to everyday life so they need as much financial support as possible as they attempt to reintegrate.

The former infantryman, of Manor Road, Whitchurch, is now a sheep farmer, but couldn’t work for many years due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

He has started a petition which so far about 300 people have signed and intends to present it to Johnny Mercer, a former army officer who was appointed defence and veterans’ minister last year.

Those who have been wounded or develop psychological problems in service may apply for a war pension, a weekly or monthly compensation payment based on the severity of their injuries.

Before a change in the law, this didn’t affect civilian benefits like employment support allowance, which is for those who can’t work over a long period, or Universal Credit, which is replacing it.

However, war pensions have now been reclassified as a form of income so are subtracted pound for pound from other payments.

Mr Steward says this is unfair because the pensions are calculated by specialist doctors who understand the unique injuries suffered by those in the military.

He says some servicemen and women now received hundreds of pounds less than they used to and the stress of managing a limited budget makes it harder to take action to improve their lives in the long run.

Mr Steward, 53, who lives with his wife Lissie and has served on the parish council for about three years, worked as a chef before enlisting in the 23rd Royal Pioneer Regiment.

He served just over five years, mostly in Northern Ireland, before suddenly being made redundant in the early Nineties. He suffered a leg injury on duty, for which he claims a war pension.

He briefly worked at Asda in Lower Earley but couldn’t cope due to symptoms which weren’t then recognised as PTSD. The condition has many signs, from anger to panic or depression, and can be triggered by seemingly minor stresses or sounds.

More recently, Mr Steward was diagnosed and successfully treated and began farming several fields in and around the village with support from the Help for Heroes charity, which taught him the skills, and landowners who gave him free use of their plots. He now raises about 200 sheep on 12 acres of land, mostly for wool or pedigree breeding, and wants to teach other veterans to do the same so they don’t go years without working, as he did.

He decided to launch the petition after chatting online with somebody who was struggling on their benefits.

Mr Steward said: “With military suicides very high, we need to make sure there are no hurdles for our veterans to jump through.

“Nobody can imagine the problems they face and a war pension helps them to manage their injuries, both physical and mental.

“The last thing they need is for outside forces which they cannot control to cause them further stress. They already have enough to deal with due to having bravely served and it’s pointless having a pension if it’s going to be taken away by other means.

“We’ve had hundreds of signatures already and lots of supportive comments, both from veterans and people who haven’t served. This needs to be publicised as the Government should be ashamed.

“One commenter pointed out that it’s just numbers to the people in Whitehall. The bean-counters see it as a good thing because it saves money but they’re not thinking of the people it affects.”

Mr Steward said those of his generation had particularly struggled as there used to be far less awareness of psychological problems than there is now.

He said: “I still don’t think people get enough help but the army was a lot less sharp before about 2010 than it is now. I got no help whatsoever and it’s the same for many from that era.

“I was made redundant almost overnight — one minute I was part of the regiment, the next I was in Asda and I couldn’t adjust.

“There’s a lot of prejudice against people with PTSD because others don’t always understand — it’s an ‘invisible’ illness.

“It’s hard enough living with all sorts of things going around your head, let alone having money worries on top of that. It’s the last thing you want to have to think about.

“Help for Heroes helped me get my life back on track, as they have for so many other people, so it is possible to improve things with the right support in place.

“I’m worried about guys who are younger than me, who are maybe even just coming out and finding it’s a tough break. The army’s overstretched as it is and there will be lots of people who are getting injured.

“I don’t want people to get stuck in the same situation as me when they could be helped straight after coming out.”

To sign the petition, visit bit.ly/2wSCYW0

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