Inverness veterans have lodged a petition with the Royal British Legion protesting the closure of the city’s welfare centre.
Poppyscotland’s Welfare Centre on Stothers Lane closed its doors to veterans this month, sparking outrage amongst the Armed Forces community.
The facility was one of two earmarked for closure by the Royal British Legion (RBL) group in April as officials explored new dynamic ways to offer support.
The RBL has also announced plans to remove 15 of its equivalent high street pop-in centres elsewhere in the UK, with the group adopting a remote-working and regional hub model instead.
Officials say the move is part of a reorganisation of the charity’s vital, life-changing services, which will be expanded in the months ahead.
A group of Inverness veterans now say they feel like “forgotten veterans” as they fight to secure the future of the centre with the launch of a petition.
A total of 271 people have now signed a city wide petition opposing the plans to withdraw the welfare centre.
The petition has now been posted to the Royal British Legion (RBL) group for consideration.
Public disgraced by closure
Former Gordon Highlander Gordon MacMillan was the driving force behind the petition, appealing for decision makers to amend their “mistake.”
The 66-year-old has been a regular user of the welfare centre in recent years, praising the dedicated staff for helping save his life.
He said the loss of the centre would cost the charity dearly, leaving the lives of many vulnerable veterans at risk.
He said: “After two or three weeks of thinking about it wondering can we do it, everyone said yes we can get it done so get it done.
“We want them to reopen it when the offices start reopening.
“It will help people because at the moment, there is nowhere for anybody to go; there is no back-up; no face to face; nothing to help the veterans.
“I have spoken to a lot of veterans and they are not happy with it either; that’s including the legion up here.
“Everybody I have spoken to says closing the office and the welfare centre in Inverness is a disgrace and who ever thought the idea up should hang their head in shame.”
He added: “We feel like we have been kicked in the teeth. It feels like they have no interest in us and that we don’t matter.
“I hope they think again about closing the welfare centre down because it’s going to cost them more to close it down than it will cost to keep it open; not just in monetary but in lives of veterans, their mental health and social issues.”
“It’s really got me down”
Veteran Kenny Shand from Forres was left with PTSD after serving with both the Royal Engineers and Queens Own Highlanders.
The 61-year-old says the closure has left them feeling forgotten about and kicked to the curb as their lifeline services are scrapped.
He said: “It’s really got me down.
“I can’t fill in forms myself as it all just gets jumbled so I usually have a scribe from Poppyscotland.
“When you have 60 page form to fill in, I can’t do it. I have panic attacks and I have PTSD as well so it’s alright to say we are on the end of the phone, phone us any time but that’s not the same as being able to talk to somebody face-to-face.”
Mr Shand said the closure has withdrawn many vital services, previously available on their doorstep, including combat stress, face-to-face support and their weekly drop in service.
Mr Shand says they need a safe space where they can go and work through their issues.
He added: “I come from Forres so I travelled through every Wednesday. I looked forward to that drop-in centre.
“At the drop-in, you maybe had 10 to 12 veterans sitting round the table. Sometimes you would talking about good times and having a laugh about it but then you have your appointments booked. Now we have lost that completely We have meetings amongst ourselves but it’s just not the same.
“You could feel down before you went into Poppyscotland but you go into the room with everyone else there and it just gives you a boost.
“We need somewhere where we can have a room that we can have our general banter together but a couple of rooms of that where organisations can come in and assist us.
“For instance, combat stress can come in and we have another room where we can go in and talk to them. At the present moment it’s on the phone, it doesn’t work.”
49-year-old veteran Darren Reid served with the Royal Irish regiment.
He backed the petition saying without the support of his fellow veterans and the welfare centre, they would be left isolated.
He said: “I find it’s very impersonal, phone calls. You can’t really get the real feelings of someone over the phone. It’s not like seeing the person, where you can see their body language and their expression
“It’s hard to show your emotions on the phone and I find that very difficult.
“You just feel isolated.
“It’s amazing what a big boost and a big lift that gives you when it’s group of you all together having a launch and joke.
“Luckily we have been able to organise a meeting between ourselves on a Friday morning but if we didn’t have this, we would feel isolated. You feel as if you are just existing, you’re not living a life.”
“Mistakes can be made”
Figures released by the Armed forces charity confirmed since 2016, they have seen a 20% increase in people needing support with housing, financial issues, mental health and well-being and mobility.
Poppyscotland’s interim chief executive, Mark Collins said they remain committed to supporting veterans across the north, despite the decision to withdrawn operations at Inverness Welfare Centre.
He said: “Despite the closure of our Centre on Strothers Lane, Poppyscotland will continue to have an ongoing presence in the north of Scotland and indeed the rest of the country.
“The services we offer will be delivered in a different way, however our staff will still be deeply embedded in their local communities and our mission to support the Armed Forces community across Scotland remains at the forefront of everything we do now and in the future.”
Poppyscotland pledged in May that their weekly drop-in would continue; however, local veterans have been forced to organise their own gatherings since news of the closure broke.
If the centre remains closed veterans are looking into the possibility of securing their own premises to keep services readily available.
Mr MacMillin is now appealing to the charity to correct their mistakes and invest funds to secure the future of the lifeline centre.
He said: “We have been left with no-where to go and discuss the problems with other veterans, in a space where we can have a face-to-face.
“Even if they say we are still carrying on, they are not. They are doing it by phone or computer but how many over 70s have got a computer or a smartphone or even know the number.
“Mistakes can be made and they can be corrected as well and if it is financial the CEO, for what he gets paid, can pay for that place for a year.”
Highlands and Islands MP Drew Hendry has also written to Poppyscotland urging them to find a viable solution to the impending crisis.
He said: “It should concern us all if veterans find themselves unable to access support in their local area. I have written to Poppyscotland to urge them to engage further with the local community on these proposals.
“Understandably, all organisations need to review their services, but it is reasonable that those affected feel adequately consulted on proposed changes.
“I hope Poppyscotland, an otherwise terrific charity, will revisit the consultation and work with local veterans to come to a sensible outcome.”