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Latest insights into public perceptions of former UK Armed Forces personnel

Despite having long been a focus of academic and government interest, readily accessible data on how former UK Armed Forces service personnel are perceived by members of the public has remained limited. Indeed, with the exception of a 2018 YouGov survey (available here), evidence of the identities, values, and attributes assigned to former Service personnel by the public has been largely anecdotal or restricted in scope. Take, for example, a 2015 study by Rachael Gribble and others, which assessed British public attitudes towards the Armed Forces community yet was limited to exploring the perceived purposes of the Iraq and Afghanistan missions. This state of affairs not only represents a significant blind-spot in our knowledge of the UK veteran community, but also hinders the development of targeted, effective policy and assistance. As noted in the UK government’s Veterans’ Strategy Action Plan: 2022-2024, ‘it is vital that we have a detailed understanding of our veteran population and their experiences to provide the right services and support’.

Recognising the need for great clarity around this issue, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA) has published research assessing how former UK Armed Forces Service personnel are understood by the public. The study’s findings (available here) were sourced from a two-stage research approach undertaken by YouGov. Conducted in March 2022, the first phase consisted of the completion of a survey by multiple sample groups, including members of the public, senior decision-makers from across UK business and/or industry, as well as public and private healthcare professionals. Vital insight was added to these initial findings through the completion of a series of focus groups and in-depth interviews.

The findings of the study include:

  • Members of the public believe that the UK government should be doing more to support and recognise former Service personnel. Only 15% of survey respondents believed that the UK government is effective in its support for former Service personnel, while 54% proposed that veterans receive too little government recognition.
  • Former Service members tend to be viewed positively by the public. Although many focus group members felt ambivalent towards the wider Armed Forces, they tended to perceive former Armed Forces personnel in a positive light. Such attitudes were found to vary geographically, however, with individuals living in England often being more appreciative of veterans than those from the devolved nations.
  • Former Service members are considered to be more vulnerable to mental health problems. Over two-thirds of those consulted thought that mental health problems affect former Service members more than members of the public. This vulnerability was attributed routinely to the alleged ‘jolt’ which former Service personnel experience upon returning to civilian life. It is important to note that this view was not shared by the majority of the former Service members who participated in the study.
  • Television news is the leading source of information about former Service personnel. 36% of survey respondents noted that television news was their main source of information about the veteran community. Television documentaries (33%) and military charities (30%) were also identified as contributing significantly to public awareness.
  • Former Service members are understood as requiring additional support when moving into civilian employment. An overwhelming majority of each survey sample group felt that additional provision needed to be made available to former service personnel seeking non-military employment. It is important to note that only 24% of the employers consulted during the study offered specific support or onboarding for veterans.
  • Former Service personnel bring valuable traits and skills to their workplace. Despite the suggestion that veterans need additional support in civilian employment, both the survey and focus group findings revealed that many consider veterans to bring a strong worth ethic and resilience to their workplaces.

The above findings present a complex and, at times, contradictory picture of how former Service personnel are viewed by the public, including potential employers. Acknowledging this fact, the OVA report offers a series of recommendations for government, businesses, and the wider community:

  • Raise awareness of existing support. To counter misconceptions and improve public perceptions of former Service personnel, the report recommends that further attention be given to the support which is currently available.
  • Provide additional information and guidance to employers. Further information should be provided to employers to highlight both the specific needs of veterans along with the diverse range of skills and benefits which they can bring.
  • Continue to challenge perceptions around mental health. The report proposes that further communications and research are required to help the public, employers, and healthcare professionals appreciate the challenges veterans may or may not experience.
  • Utilise targeted messaging and information programmes. Having identified clear geographical variations in public perceptions, it is recommended that messaging be tailored to the specific needs, outlooks, and interests of target groups. This could include tailored social media campaigns which emphasise the value which former Service personnel can bring to a business or community, as well as information packs which challenge common misconceptions concerning veteran mental health.

A full copy of the OVA’s report is available here.

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