Ladies and gentleman,
It is a great pleasure for me to address you at this first Nordic-Baltic Veterans conference. This is an excellent opportunity for us to learn from each other and to exchange experiences and best practiceses across national borders, in a field that is becoming increasingly important and where we need to make progress.
The headline of my speech is “Serving those who serve”. So let me state it clearly: It is a responsibility of our society to take care of our soldiers before, during and beyond serving in international operations. Soldiers are willing to go into dangerous and risky operations on our behalf to create safety and security for people far away. As a consequence, they increase security for us at home. It is important not to overlook this obvious fact. They are deployed on behalf of their nations. Hence, they deserve our deepest respect and recognition.
Do they receive the acknowledgement they deserve? Are we sufficiently aware of the responsibility we have as societies? I believe we are more conscious today than only a few years ago. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go before the veterans receive the respect, help and support they deserve.
I am going to introduce you to some of the achievements Norway has made along the way. We have emphasized strongly the need for an inter-sectorial approach at national, regional and local level. I will also point out some dilemmas.
But first, I will briefly describe the nature of international operations and how they affect our soldiers and their families. This is the key to comprehending the unique qualifications that our veterans have gained, and the considerable human resource they constitute in our societies.
Because that is what it is all about.
Norway in international operations
Since 1947, more than 100 000 Norwegian soldiers have participated in international operations. Norwegian women and men since Germany Brigades in 1947, have been deployed to more than 100 operations in over 40 countries. In fact, Norway has contributed to 50% of UN-peacekeeping missions since 1950.
Our soldiers Soldiers have served on the ground, in the air and on the sea. They have been in front line – and in battles; they have been in the back row, to support; they have planned and they have led. They have been instructed and they have obeyed orders. They have served under all kinds of conditions. Personal qualities and professional attitude has been set to the test. They have been under unimaginable pressure. They have had to make difficult choices. Some have sacrifized their lives. Some have had to take lives.
They have also had quiet days and quiet periods, days of calm and silence, with fond memories and valuable experience.
Operations have been conducted in many parts of the world and with different force structures. They have a wide range; From traditional peacekeeping, through peace building, to pure combat operations. While UN gives mandate, operations can be led by regional actors, such as NATO, the EU or the AU. We see a strong tendency towards more complex mandates that require an integrated approach to missions. Military means are not sufficient to build peace and stability. Such means need to be complemented by greater efforts such as reconstruction, development and a broad set of security sector reforms.
How operations affect our soldiers
Most military operations are risky and demanding, involving the use of weapons. Never more so than in Afghanistan.
7 000 Norwegian soldiers have served in Afghanistan. Many have experienced combat situations, far from Norwegian borders.
How have the experiences affected them?
Three weeks ago, an important book was published in Norway. On our behalf is a story about our military in Afghanistan, told by the soldiers. The book conveys the experience of war. We are allowed unique insight into the operations and into the minds of the men and women facing the danger. It is a story about risky and dangerous operations. About making hard decisions under severe pressure.
In this book, we get closer to the heavy strain of being far away from loved ones. We experience the nightmares and dark thoughts after returning home. Coming home can open a wealth of emotions, that can be difficult to manage alone. “My shell is frail», as one soldier puts it. They may feel emptiness and loneliness after the loss of the close ties with friends and fellow soldiers. Therefore it is important to emphasize clear and loud:
No matter how the situation in Afghanistan evolves, our troops have done the utmost and performed their tasks according to their rules of engagement, under strong pressure and harsh conditions. Hence, they deserve our respect and recognition.
But here lies a dilemma. The soldiers have been willing to risk their lives to building peace and stability in a society ravaged by war and strife. However, an increasing amount of Norwegians are questioning the impact of their efforts. A recurring question in the public debate, is whether ISAF has worsened the situation in Afghanistan? This debate is a difficult one, and may turn the soldiers into a target. Many people forget that the soldiers were sent to Afghanistan because we asked them to do so. The decision to participate in ISAF was taken by the Norwegian government and approved by the Norwegian Parliament. The soldiers undertook the task because they are loyal to political decisions.
It is hard to foresee the future. To create peace and stability in a failed state, like Afghanistan, is an extremely complex and difficult task. If the situation in Afghanistan detoriates after ISAF has withdrawn, the soldiers are not to be blamed. Even if time will show that we did not succeed in completing our mission in Afghanistan, our soldiers have earned our respect and recognition.
We shall not make them victims. They are in fact heroes.
As such, they offer experiences and competencies very few people can match. Their military skills constitute only one element. They also acquire vast cultural knowledge about their area of operations. They learn how to live, cooperate and interact with countless other people. They learn to make quick and difficult decisions under severe pressure. They learn to be persistent in demanding situations. They learn endurance. They are constantly put to the test.
Civil society should pay attention. We need to acknowledge the value of such competence. Not simply praise it, but engage it. It is therefore crucial that we help our veterans in promoting their experiences that should be made use of by society at large.
The responsibility of the society
With today’s media coverage, it is easy to assume that all veterans are more or less damaged goods, Fysically or psychologically. Let me be very clear: This is not the case. Our soldiers are selected and trained to handle extreme situation and war fighting conditions. Most emerge stronger than before, despite the strain they have gone through. They bring home valuable and positive experiences. Many choose to return to the operation for a second or third time. Why? Because they assume they can make a difference.
However, sometimes reports reach us about veterans who did not receive the support they needed. This is unacceptable. And we in this room can change it. Some veterans have complex needs, requiring the assistance of both our Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV), our health services, the pension fund manager, family assistance and others. Efficient cooperation across the services is the key. So how well did we do so far? How have we cared for our veterans?
Let me start with May 8, 1945. The war was at an end, and the soldiers returned from Europe in ruins. At the time, veterans’ needs or traumas were a non-issue. This was not considered a national or social responsibility. So we have to acknowledge that historically, veterans have been neglected in Norwegian society.
Since then a lot has happened. We have gone from zero to better focus. The ISAF operation has really put the veterans on the national agenda. It is now well understood that the veterans are our national responsibility. A national system has been designed to ensure comprehensive safeguarding of veterans’ rights and needs. There is still work to be done, but we are well under way.
It is significant that society has gradually realized that soldiers are not deployed on behalf of one sector only, be it defence, police, foreign affairs or health. They are deployed on behalf of us all. Veterans are a national responsibility.
A multidisciplinary approach
In 2008, the government introduced a white paper, a report to the Storting, proclaiming new and offensive veterans policies. This was followed by an action plan in 2011. The action plan was produced in collaboration between the six ministries involved; The Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Health and Care Services, the Ministry of Labour, and the Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion.
This combined effort demonstrates the joint and multidisciplinary approach that we have chosen, regarding health, work, compensation for injuries etc.
The action plan contains 126 measures to be implemented by 2013. It includes personnel working abroad for the Norwegian state, in international operations, or deployed in conflict areas in other capacities. Defence personnel, police and justice personnel, as well as diplomats, are included.
These ministries have established a joint forum, an Interministerial Working Group. This group monitors implementation of all the measures. It is also an arena for information sharing between the sectors. The aim is to ensure a smooth transition from the life as a soldier to a life as a civilian. Our aim is to avoid duplication of efforts and services. The first year after return from a mission, veterans support is the responsibility of the Armed Forces. After this one year period period, veterans make use of the same services as other citizens.
And here lies dilemma number two. In order for society at large to take over the responsibility for the veterans that need assistance , the Armed Forces have to let go. Many veterans disapprove in this development. They prefer to remain the responsibility of the armed forces. We do however believe, that by letting the society at large assume the responsibility, we ensure the best possible support. We cannot allow – or afford – establishing a separate system within the Armed Forces. Sensible solutions must prevail.
Regional and local level
Instead, the road to success lies with better cooperation, regionally and locally. Veterans live in a community, in a municipality. That is where they need support and help – exactly there – where they live. The focus should be on ensuring that different professional actors cooperate to secure the best assistance to the veteran. Efforts must be coordinated. Routines must be simplified.
We need to develop models for collaboration that can be implemented at both regional and local level. And we need to gain experiences and best practices that could be used nationwide.
However, the time factor is crucial. The veteran must seek first-line assistance first, for all kinds of help. Therefore, the expertise we build, must be implemented in the first-line, with the individual doctor, the local welfare office, local employment office etc. We should aim at offering such coordinated support without delay, so that the veteran receives swift assistance.
Home coming, health, family
Our national responsibility is not only to the veteran, but also to the family. Spouses, children, parents, friends. They share the burden. Also their lives are changed. Life can get tough while alone. Their anxieties can surface at work, in school, in day care.
Even the home coming phase can be challenging. Here we need more knowledge to enable us to offer support where needed.
And here is where you enter into the picture.
Nordic-Baltic cooperation is important to us. In my former job, I worked in the Department of security Policy. One of my responsibilities was Nordic-Baltic cooperation. The Nordic countries in particular have a lot in common: geography, history, social structures, culture and traditions. This facilitates cooperation. In Nordefco, we have also invited our Baltic friends to participate in certain activities, for instance on veterans. That is why we are here today. We should take advantage of the possibilities that arise for further cooperation. We have all deployed to the same operation, Afghanistan, and the Nordic countries have long tradition for serving together in UN-peacekeeping, from Lebanon to the Balkans. Our aim should be to explore future areas for joint Nordic/Baltic cooperation within this field. We have a lot to learn from each other, not least in exchange of experiences and research.
However, we should do more. I believe it is possible for us to expand our cooperation in to new areas. Let me suggest some ideas. Denmark has established a veteran’s center offering psychological assistance.Could this center be expanded to allow veterans from the other Nordic and Baltic countries to utilize it? Sweden is has done a lot in the field of families. How can we draw upon Swedish experience in this field to improve our own assistance to families? We have a lot to learn from Denmark concerning the home coming phase. Could we copy some of their initiatives? Norway has established a recreation center for veterans, Bæreia. Could this center be expanded and become a Nordic center? The list could be enlarged. These are only a few thoughts that might deserve further consideration. I suggest that NORDEFCO look into this issue. Small countries must cooperate. This is what smart defence is really about. We have different solutions to the same challenges. Let us work together for improving the lives of our veterans!
Therefore, this conference is an important one. Let us use the time well. Let us create a solid foundation to build upon. I hope you will benefit from talking to each other across sectors, professions and national borders. Let us learn from each other. This is the way to get better.
Thank you for your attention!