This year, European cities felt the impact of war again. And with the war in Ukraine, a vulnerable group that doesn’t usually get many headlines is now topical: war veterans. In 2020, the City Council in Aarhus adopted a policy to support veterans, similar to their work with the Citizen Service 2 Go project, where staff from the administration goes where vulnerable groups feel safe to help them access public services.
Meeting them where they are
The principle is similar in the veterans’ case, giving them easy – or easier – access to all processes within the municipality. As part of the new policy, in April 2021, Aarhus hired a veteran adviser who guides all veterans and their relatives through the entire public system. “It’s about creating safe and transparent access, no matter if you need help with unemployment, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or housing,” explains Rikke Kildahl Brouer, Development Consultant at the Citizen Service in Aarhus. “It’s about having one trustworthy face.”
“That’s me,” interjects Julie Hasselager, Veterans Advisor at the Citizen Service in Aarhus. “As a veteran myself, I have easier access to veterans. I try to be as visible as possible.” To build a relationship with them, Julie goes to places where veterans meet and spend time together rather than wait for them at the office. “By showing up, drinking a cup of coffee and chatting, I build a relationship with the veterans, so when they need help, it’s easier for them to reach out to me,” adds Hasselager.
One of the places where veterans and their relatives come and meet is the veteran home. “The office can be triggering for some veterans, especially those with PTSD. They need to be somewhere quiet, and we can have a conversation without them having to look over their shoulders all the time and watching all the exits and minding all the other people,” explains Hasselager. So the veteran home is handy for connecting with them and the municipality. Aarhus is lucky to have one of five such homes in Denmark.
By talking to Julie, veterans realise they might need help. For example, they might realise their driver’s license has expired or need help getting a new address. “Most of my assignments come by coincidence around a coffee and a chat,” confesses Hasselager.
Most of my assignments come by coincidence around a coffee and a chat
The randomness of Julie’s discoveries is partly due to how they are drilled. “Veterans are brought up in the military believing that they can fix anything. They’re strong, independent, and don’t need help,” explains Hasselager. However, statistics have shown that veterans returning home can have issues getting things done.
“They know what to do but cannot reach out for help. When a veteran does approach me, I need to be swift in dealing with their case because it’s most often an urgent matter; they’re often already months overdue,” adds Hasselager. So part of the advisor’s job is to try and anticipate issues.
“If it’s a veteran that I know, they will instantly call me. That’s where drinking coffee and chatting come into play. They will make contact sooner than they would have done before knowing me,” says Hasselager. The advisor also needs to know the benefits veterans might be eligible for, their obligations and any changes in legislation both at the local and national levels. “The veterans know I am here to support them with both minor and life-changing issues. And this reassures them,” adds Hasselager.
Veterans know I am here to support them with both minor and life-changing issues. And this reassures them
Julie can count on other departments and organisations to help her support the city’s veterans and their relatives. For example, the Social and Employment department looks after the most vulnerable veterans, such as those who are homeless. They collaborate with Julie, especially if she can’t reach someone.
“Most people who work with veterans know Julie, so even if the veteran doesn’t reach out, they can contact Julie and seek help,” explains Kildahl Brouer. Communication between all the people involved in helping veterans is critical to ensure each veteran gets the help they need and to avoid duplicating work as veterans who wait until their request is urgent to reach out will do so towards multiple services at once.
Feeling safe in the world
The city has also participated in projects and events involving veterans. “My work has two legs. One is to talk the veterans into getting back into the world, and one is to bring the world into the experience of the veterans,” says Hasselager.
My work has two legs. One is to talk the veterans into getting back into the world, and one is to bring the world into the experience of the veterans
For example, in collaboration with Aarhus University, the symphonic orchestra created a series of concerts and invited veterans to attend. “They had a show in the cathedral last fall. And it was amazing. There were 700 people,” recalls Hasselager. “It was a matter of collaborating with the symphonic orchestra to place veterans so they didn’t feel like they had to watch over their backs. They have many issues being out in public, but they can do a lot if you give them the right circumstances.”
The research project also wanted to see if music could help veterans with PTSD. So the university assessed the mental state of veterans before the event and, after, ran questionnaires to measure the impact on their mental health and well-being. “The veterans said that the music had a calming effect. They forgot all about their problems,” says Hasselager.
The city intends to keep organising events with veterans in mind and to invite them to enjoy them.
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The veterans said that the music had a calming effect. They forgot all about their problems
Aarhus counts around 1400 veterans, and while about 50% of Danish municipalities have a similar role to Julie’s, not all are full-time. “I would like to consolidate what we’re doing here and reach out to even more veterans who need help,” says Hasselager.
Aarhus is eager to share their experience and is looking for potential city partners to share knowledge and inspire each other in working with veterans and their relatives. “We want to inspire people with our story and way of working,” says Kildahl Brouer. “But we also need to be inspired. We want to hear from other cities because veterans are everywhere, and it would be valuable if we could help each other.”