William Russell is nine years old and lives in armed forces accommodation on the fringes of London. Behind the high barbed-wire fences and security checkpoints, the houses and neat green lawns makes his neighbourhood look more like Brookside than a barracks. But conflict underpins this peaceful community. William lives in fear of his father returning to serve in Afghanistan, and carries a guilt he doesn’t like to talk about.
“He thinks the war is his fault because he’s the son of a soldier,” says Gale Russell. “I was taking him to school the other day and he said, ‘Why isn’t Afghanistan over now? All my life it’s been going on – aren’t all the baddies dead yet?’ He went very quiet and my husband took him for a walk. That’s when it came around that he thinks it’s his fault.”
Russell says she doesn’t know why her son thinks this way: “I feel very proud of what my husband does but William just doesn’t feel the same. The media’s partly to blame. All children hear about is death, dying, destruction – even on Newsround. I try and explain that his father’s not just going to fight, he’s going to help, but it’s difficult to get through.”
Sitting neatly on his living room sofa, William tells me he’s looking forward to moving to boarding school in September. His dad’s job has meant that he has already had to change schools three times – boarding school will be his first chance to keep the friends he makes. He talks enthusiastically about studying to become an engineer. Doesn’t he want to be a soldier like his father? “No,” he says going quiet. “I don’t really like violence. I’m a bit too scared. It’s really nerve-racking not knowing whether he’s going to come back or not.” When I ask him what his dad is fighting for, he shrugs his shoulders: “The Queen? I know he kills people.”
With the war in Afghanistan being a hot political issue, all three main political parties promised improved welfare provision and housing for British troops and their families in their election manifestos, and the Labour government recently increased resources for personal care for members of the armed forces. But little attention has been paid to the 175,000 service children. One of the first comprehensive reports on service children, from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Children’s Fund, revealed this year that 87% of families found it difficult when a parent or partner was away. Almost half of children in service accommodation are forced to move every year; divorce rates are double the national average; and bullying of service children is prevalent, said the report. It documented children bed-wetting, nail-biting and refusing to go to school for fear of losing their remaining parent.
“It’s OK if the mother is managing well at home,” says Monique Bateman, director of the children’s fund. “But the problems often arise in the playground – ‘Your daddy is killing people’ comes up a lot. If things aren’t going well at home, then the boys try and become the man and don’t show their emotions. That can cause behavioural problems at school. We’re storing up problems for the future if we don’t deal with this – it’s a ticking time bomb.”
Many of the problems faced by service children and their families stem from being constantly on the move. Around 20,000 families follow service personnel on new deployments, but this is likely to be an underestimation as it excludes families who privately rent or own their homes. The moves separate children from their extended families and support networks, and put families at the bottom of the list for accessing public services.
According to the 2008 Army Families survey, only 30% of moving families retained their places on NHS waiting lists and only 63% of children are accessing NHS dental treatment. Meanwhile, 37% of officers’ and 25% of soldiers’ families had problems getting a place at their preferred school. With just 12 weeks’ notice before deployment, it is hard for families to prepare.
In 2008, the government did commit to doing things differently. Of 47 recommendations made in the Service Personnel Command Paper, 15 have been implemented, including a provision to allow schools to exceed student limits for armed forces’ children. Moves to retain places on NHS waiting lists are also being implemented.
But the children’s fund believes that discrimination continues, and often it is single-parent families that suffer. Six per cent of the families the fund helps have seen a parent or sibling die in the forces. Those who do return home aren’t always the same – the physical and emotional scars of life on the frontline often come with them, and households suffer from the fallout. According to the fund, 70% of service spouses say military operations have had a negative impact on their marriages, which frequently end in divorce.
“One woman came to us saying her husband had left her and her two daughters because he couldn’t face living with them after Afghanistan,” says Bateman.
“The family now faces eviction from service accommodation and we are trying to provide funding to keep them going.” She is sceptical of commitments made by politicians to service families, especially extending their rights to public services: “It’s pie in the sky. Local authorities are having trouble meeting existing obligations, let alone extending them.
“Our charity is already picking up the slack, particularly for respite funding. We used to be the icing on the cake, now we’re part of core provision.”
The children’s fund calls for more research into service children, and closer working between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to ensure schools are more sensitive to their needs. Service accommodation should be extended and improved, pay raised, and more notice given before deployment, it says.
Despite the problems, Russell is keen to point out the army saves her family from the threat of unemployment and eviction facing so many other families in the recession. Yet small clues around her house demonstrate she is worried about the impact that her husband’s job has on William’s wellbeing – the news is never on and daddy’s uniform is always out of sight. But you can’t hide everything.
“Telling them their father is going away again is difficult,” she says. “Then they start counting down the days. In some ways, it’s easier when they’re away – at least then you’re counting until they come back.”