Military veterans may now get aid they need as new study is unveiled
The announcement of the first major piece of research into the needs of military veterans in Northern Ireland has been welcomed.
Royal Irish veteran Andy Allen, who lost both his legs while serving in Afghanistan, said that even basic information - such as how many veterans live in Northern Ireland - has never been calculated, with only a guess that it is around 100,000.
Mr Allen said all of his medical treatment when he returned from Afghanistan had to take place in England, which placed a further strain on his family who had to travel back and forth from Belfast.
He is most passionate about establishing a mental health facility in Northern Ireland where veterans struggling to adapt back to civilian life can seek help without having to travel across the water.
The three-year research project announced yesterday aims to determine the size of the veteran community, believed to be proportionally bigger than any other UK region; assess the needs of those transitioning to civilian life and identify any gaps in services.
Psychologist Dr Cherie Armour, who is leading the research team at Ulster University, said: "For the first time we will be able to develop a full understanding of services available to Northern Ireland based veterans and their families and use that information to help safeguard their well-being by providing easy access to the right support now, and in the future."
The Military Covenant - a Government pledge enshrined in law in 2011 - states that the nation is morally obliged to look after members of the Army, Navy and Airforce and their families.
In some cases, former soldiers suffering serious physical or mental injuries can access priority medical treatment.
Unionists claim the Covenant has not been fully implemented in Northern Ireland and have been campaigning for a change in the law.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was among the biggest problems facing veterans in the region.
"We believe there is still a gap between the Government's stated objectives and what has actually been delivered in Northern Ireland," he said.
"The research will be very important in identifying the gaps in services, and also in highlighting just how many veterans we have in Northern Ireland because there were tens of thousands who served during Operation Banner as well as more recent conflicts. I believe we have a much higher population than any other region and yet we are not getting the support."
Funding of £355,000 has been provided by the Forces In Mind Trust. Researchers are to start their work in the autumn and have appealed for veterans and their families to make contact.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the research in confidence is asked to contact Dr Cherie Armour at the Ulster University or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, researchers at Queen's University Belfast have been awarded more than £96,000 to explore the experiences of military personnel involved in counter-insurgency operations.