For long, government support for veterans was lacking
For long, the government showed little empathy for military veterans with physical or psychological scars. This is what PhD research by Theo van den Doel has revealed. The Ministry of Defence looked at each case through a legal lens. Veteran support has improved enormously since, but the policy does not always match the practice. PhD defence on 26 January.
‘The government has a duty of care to its military personnel. This is based on the huge risks that they face while doing their job. Although the government has recognised this duty of care, it has regularly failed to exercise it,’ says Van den Doel. This relates not only to veterans of the Dutch East Indies but also to Lebanon veterans and Dutchbat III (Srebrenica).
The research covered the period 1945-2015. Van den Doel researched the extent to which the government fulfilled its duty of care in six missions: the Dutch East Indies, Korea, Lebanon, Srebrenica, Iraq and Uruzgan. ‘The veterans fought a battle against the bureaucracy that meant it could sometimes take up to 20 or 30 years for them to be vindicated,’ says Van den Doel. A protocol for determining psychological injury was only drawn up in 2008.
‘Lessons were not learned from previous missions.’
According to Van den Doel the political memory was short. ‘Lessons were not learned from previous missions.’ The government made the same mistake after the drama in Srebrenica as after the Dutch East Indies mission. The political and military debacle left no room for recognition of the military effort. Lack of recognition from the government and society for the veterans’ efforts blocked the recovery process of veterans with psychological scars.’
The government often presented military missions as rosier than they really were. This, says Van den Doel, gives society a skewed picture of the military effort. ‘When they return, there is a mismatch between veterans and society around them.’
Back in the 1940s the Ministry of War already possessed scientific knowledge about the ‘delayed’ psychological effects on military personnel deployed in armed conflicts. But it would take decades for the support for veterans to be considerably improved. ‘After the Second World War, the military pension act was amended for military war victims and as far as the government was concerned that was the end of the matter. There was no aftercare policy for military personnel deployed in subsequent violent conflicts, such as in the Dutch East Indies. The serious psychological wounds that military personnel could suffer as a result of being deployed was downplayed by the government.’
‘The government wanted to forget the political and military debacle in the Dutch East Indies as quickly as possible.’
‘The government wanted to forget the political and military debacle in the Dutch East Indies as quickly as possible. And society had had enough of the military establishment. During the Cold War the armed forces found themselves in an unfriendly political and social climate. The veterans who sought help at that time found themselves knocking at closed government doors.’
It was not until the end of the 1980s that the government and parliament began to pay attention to the Dutch East Indies veterans, thanks to a focus in society on immaterial support for civilian war victims. ‘Research showed that the experiences of military personnel in violent conflicts corresponded with those of the victims of prison camps and other extreme violence. In 1990 a government definition of veterans was determined, and policy was developed for the Dutch East Indies veterans.’
In the mid-1990s the Netherlands switched to a regular army. Peacekeeping operations became one of the main tasks of the armed forces. At that time the Ministry of Defence did not develop a veterans policy. ‘The Ministry of Defence did not consider the aftercare for veterans to be its responsibility but saw it instead as a societal matter. This explains why it took more than 20 years for there to be a Veterans Act.’
‘The government’s aloofness has turned into engagement’
Today’s support for veterans is considerably better. ‘The government aloofness has turned into engagement,’ says Van den Doel. ‘But the policy on paper doesn’t always match the practice. That applies to the preparation phase, the execution phase and the aftercare phase.’
According to Van den Doel politicians are not always clear about the core task of a mission. ‘With the Uruzgan mission the discussion was always about “fight or rebuild”. Then you end up with an ambiguous role for the armed forces. Research shows that this can be an important stress factor for deployed military personnel. This is why the government can do no greater service to military personnel than to deploy them on a mission with a clear and achievable goal. That is also important to morale.’
Once veterans return from a mission, society plays an important role. ‘Broad societal support for a mission is important. This is often lacking. This too is a task for government.’