Trying to get somebody to cover a shift during the last weekend in June in Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue service is not easy, so i’d resided myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get to London and make the gesture of handing back my medals to Downing Street on Armed Forces Day. (I think we can all look back to those times when we were in the forces and missed out on those special events that only happen on weekends and we were stuck on guard duty). So i’d accepted the disappointment that i’d be stuck in work but what I hadn’t counted on however was that the Fire engine i’d be riding that day had been ‘booked’ to attend an Armed Forces Day parade. It turns out that we had received a request for attendance which was happily accepted my management without question or consultation with any of the crew who would be attending. The turn of fortune from what I was originally planning to do, to what I was now having to do could not have been greater, and I wasn’t well chuffed! So I decided to write an email to the Chief Fire Officer as follows –
Dear Mr O’Reilly,
I’m writing to you due to my concerns regarding GMFRS’s presence and support for ‘Armed Forces Day’ events this coming weekend. I have many concerns as to why we should not attend, however i’ve condensed them down to three main arguments.
Firstly, Armed Forces Day is promulgated as ‘A chance to show your support for the men and women who make up the Armed Forces community’. When a phrase such ‘Support our troops’ is used, it becomes very difficult to engage in any critical discussion. It is an emotive discourse and the parameters for debate have been set purposefully narrow. There is no mention of what ‘our troops’ are being asked to do and whether or not we agree with it. If we asked members of our community those questions then it would be quite reasonable to assume that we would get many different answers with passionately opposing views on either side. Therefore, in having a presence and showing our support for Armed Forces Day, then we are not representing our community as a whole.
Secondly, Armed Forces Day events are celebrated with bands, bouncy castles, barbecues and bunting waving. They are ‘fun’ events and it is easy to see how they act as excellent recruitment tools for impressionable young people, along with the promise of sport, travel and adventure. Little mention is made of what life is actually like in the armed forces and what life may be like when people leave. The statistics are easily available and vary from study to study so I won’t quote any here, however documented evidence shows that there is a high correlation between service in the armed forces and mental health issues leading to such things as violence/domestic violence, suicide and homelessness. GMFR’s knows this as we are at times called to deal with the aftermath of these incidents.
My third and final concern is that of security and relates to the first point about passionately opposing views within the community. We have seen many times now, how people have become radicalised and committed acts of terrorism, both internationally and domestically. The armed forces are seen as a high target for such acts. It is my belief that we will be increasing our chances of being the victims of such an attack if we are present at, and show support for Armed Forces Day events. I believe the fire service should be a neutral institution and seen as such by the whole community.
I hope you can see that I have no criticisms towards members of the armed forces themselves. My concern is the fire services association with the armed forces as an institution, particularly with what functions it performs and whose interests it represents. The Iraq Inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot will report more on this on 6th July. However, it is my belief that the armed forces as an institution, firstly, do not represent the interests of the whole community, secondly, contribute to mental health issues leading to violence/domestic violence, suicide and homelessness, and finally, increases our risk of becoming a target of terrorism. For those reasons I believe it would be wrong to associate ourselves with them.
Blue Watch S21
To his credit Mr O’Reilly got back to me straight away, and to my surprise he invited me to visit him at Fire Service Head Quarters for a chat about the matter. Its not often you get invited to see the Chief, as far as i’m aware, you only see him if you’re in big trouble and about to be disciplined or you’re retiring from service and you get to chat about the good old days and how things have changed.
It was an opportunity not to be missed so I took him up on the offer and met him this morning. He was very approachable, listened and agreed with all the points that I raised. He told me of his early days as a firefighter during the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland and how the Fire Service remained neutral and was respected for that. He explained that as a ‘Community’ Fire Service we get asked to attend lots of different events such as Armed Forces Day, or Manchester Pride and he is aware that sometimes opinions are polarised but we can’t always please everybody. I conceded that its a difficult decision to tell somebody that you will not be attending their event and I can well imagine the potential for adverse publicity if there was a refusal on political grounds from the Fire Service to not attend and Armed Forces Day Parade. Although as a Veterans for Peace, I would personally welcome it so we could debate the hidden agenda that lies behind Armed Forces Day, instead of allowing them to hide behind the brass bands and bunting waving.
Steve Jefferies served in the Royal Navy and 148 Commando Bty RA between 1989 – 1998 and is a member of Veterans for Peace UK