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Empowering veterans through debating

The pioneering initiative, from Forward Assist, is helping former military personnel regain the voice they often feel has been lost



Veterans are being taught the art of British Parliamentary Debating to help in their ongoing recovery from trauma and injury during their military careers, helping many to regain the voice they feel has been lost. 

Forward Assist supports veterans with a host of issues – from unemployment and homelessness to involvement in the criminal justice system and mental health struggles – to live positive lives as part of civilian society, with the struggle to adjust often being exacerbated by the hugely traumatic experiences they have suffered during their time in service. 

The pioneering charity is the only resource in the UK to offer support with military sexual trauma – estimated to be one of the main causes of PTSD amongst veterans – and many of its thousands of clients may also experience brain injury, physical injury and mental illness. 

Frequently, Forward Assist – led by Tony Wright and Paula Edwards – find that veterans feel powerless and without a voice as a result of their trauma, having unsuccessfully sought support prior to discovering the North Tyneside-based organisation. 

But through the introduction to debating, many go on to transform their lives and confidence, rebuilding so much of the damage which is amplified over years through a lack of intervention and bespoke support. 

Having been successfully delivered to groups of male veterans, Salute Her UK – which delivers a specialist service to women veterans – has recently trained 40 women in debating skills. 

Working in partnership with Cambridge University Debating Society and Parallel Histories – which promotes the critical analysis of research about conflict – the group was taught how to make arguments for and against a range of subjects in an eloquent yet powerful way. 

The group is now set to visit the Houses of Parliament to see debating in action in the seat of British democracy. 

“Debating is a very important skill to have, and it has been absolutely superb. It can help enormously,” says Tony, chief executive of Forward Assist, a former Royal Marine and registered social worker. 

“In the military, you shout orders, there is a lot of shouting, it’s a way of life. But when you transfer into civilian life and you struggle and start shouting in the home, then the police are called and if children are present it becomes a safeguarding issue. It can spiral very quickly.

“Through debating, we teach them how to listen, how to moderate their voice, how to argue their point, how to make their voice heard in the right way. 

“We had one guy who represented himself at a pensions tribunal after he had our training and was subsequently awarded £36,000 compensation  – he puts it completely down to these new skills.”

For women, the impact has been equally powerful, says Paula.  

“We see so often that women feel invisible, like they don’t have a voice, which is why this is so important,” says Paula, a counsellor and CBT therapist. 

“While we see all the time that a lot of women have gone from the military into very good professional jobs, they hide their struggle very well, and their mental health is a big problem. 

“Through debating, which is something they may never have imagined doing, they learn a range of skills – how to argue for and against, how to structure an argument, how to make their point, how to listen, how to be heard. 

“We are now hearing about women negotiating changes to their employment contracts, standing up to the doctor when they feel they are being fobbed off. Previously, they’d be the first to admit they wouldn’t have done it. 

“It has been absolutely brilliant for them and really positive to see the impact.”


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