Readers of the Diss Express will have seen regular stories on the Royal British Legion (RBL) – from members’ attendance at Remembrance, running competitions in local schools, and other community involvement.
However, over the years, branches in Wortham, Hoxne, and Botesdale, among others, have closed. County secretary for the Suffolk RBL, Sandra Bromley, has previously been quoted as describing the volunteer situation as “falling off the end of its perch.” Nationally, in 1999 the Royal British Legion had 600,000 members. Today it stands at 300,000.
But what work does the RBL do for war veterans?
A member of the Stradbroke and District branch of the RBL, Joyce Cooper, of Horham, has carried the standard for the past four years, and is Welfare Case Worker within Suffolk and Norfolk.
This involves visiting applicants who have either been referred for help, or are self-referred.
She visits a wide age range of people, who can be veterans, their dependents, widows or widowers, from approximately ages 19 to 99. To qualify for help, beneficiaries must have had one week’s paid service in the armed forces, either as a regular, reserve or auxiliary.
Applicants’ needs can vary, and if the RBL is unable to help, Mrs Cooper forwards the applicant to another agency who can.
The conditions some of these former servicemen and women are living in are startling.
In one case last year, an elderly ex-serviceman had fallen on hard times and was living in a cold damp houseboat with no amenities. Through the RBL, the man was re-housed in a warm bungalow, and grants were accessed to furnish the property.
Within months of this casework, the houseboat had sunk in its moorings.
In another, a military wife for more than 25 years succeeded in having her windows replaced in her small terraced home. This replaced the rolled up newspaper previously used to keep the cold out.
“Some of the veterans I visit display typical British stoicism, and can be very reserved,” explained Joyce.
“For some, their biggest achievement has just been survival with their awful memories.
“Many hate to admit their need, or ask for help. Some have health problems, either physical or mental, some may have financial concerns.
“There are also a homelessness issues, family, employment and retraining difficulties, all of which the RBL can help with through various schemes.
“In decades to come, the needs of some of our more recent serving personnel will increase greatly when their injuries, amputations, and disabilities are taken into consideration.
“However the ex-service personnel from other past conflicts must never be forgotten either. The RBL values all of them and is proud to claim that they are the custodians of Remembrance.”
Conflict is a strikingly close-to-the-heart subject for Joyce. Her father, Alan King, a Thornham Parva resident, is a Normandy veteran, Last year, he and Mrs Cooper went on a number of emotional trips to commemorate the conflict.
Many years ago, Joyce carried the brownie flag in Eye, under Brown Owl Cora Elliot, then Cora Howlett, and now a member of the Women’s RBL in Eye.
Coincidentally, it was Cora’s husband John Elliot, of the Diss RBL branch, who encouraged Joyce to carry the RBL standard some 50 years later.
Despite admitting to not liking the “outdated” uniform, Joyce says she feels “humbled” to carry the standard, recognising the fact that it represents lives lost at war, within the local area.
When asked why she does this work, Joyce said: “Looking back I find it quite incomprehensible that I received no teaching whatsoever in my school years regarding the war years.
“In truth, we never got past the ‘Four Thomases’ and the Reformation! To think that just 17 years before I started high school, in Eye, this country had pulled off what I would describe as a Pharaonic project, the D-Day landings – and no teacher ever spoke about it – neither did my own father who was part of it, because his memories were and are, just too horrific.
“I consider it abhorrent that a generation of school pupils were denied this knowledge. It would have helped us understand.
“It seems to have taken me a lifetime to comprehend and appreciate what the veterans, including my close relatives, endured in the two world wars, and of course, all veterans of more recent battles.
“If I can make a small difference, and help to improve the quality of life for a veteran, be it through the provision of an electric scooter, armchair or bed, help to claim an entitled benefit or war pension, then that is what I will do.”
Joyce urges recently retired people to utilise their life skills, and join the army of volunteers in the voluntary sector, to make a difference to the lives of those in need of support.
A wide range of services are available to support servicemen and women, including benefits and money advice, welfare and adventure breaks, and immediate needs grants, among others.
n For more information, visit www.britishlegion.org.uk or contact your local RBL branch.