Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him

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It is a surprising thing to hear from the person at the top of the national charity of the British Army. “When I was getting to the end of my military career, people would ask me what I was going to do when I left,” says Martin Rutledge. “I’d say: ‘Well, the one thing I’m not going to do is work in the charity sector’.”

The 60-year-old major general, who took the job as chief executive of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity almost three years ago after calling time on his 38-year Army career, adds that his time in the military taught him to treat large charitable organisations with caution.

“I had worked quite closely with big international charities overseas, mainly in the Balkans and one or two other places. I knew enough about the world of charities to know that it’s not always sweetness and light,” he says.

“Charities can be ruthless organisations in pursuit of what they regard as good deeds or important work. It’s a very political environment. It wasn’t a type of job that particularly appealed to me.”

When he first saw the job advert for the vacant post at the top of The Soldiers’ Charity, an umbrella organisation that gives grants to thousands of individuals and up to 100 other delivery organisations each year, Rutledge says he thought, “That’s not for me.” But when he learned more about the scale of its work, he became increasingly fascinated by its activities.

For 70 years, the charity – one of two benefiting from the proceeds of The Independent on Sunday’s appeal for Homeless Veterans – has been offering financial help to serving and former members of the Army and their families. Its grants pay for everything from the care home fees of an elderly veteran to the construction of an access ramp for a soldier who has lost both legs in combat.

 

It is a complex operation requiring careful judgements and particular attention to resources – which is precisely why it appealed to Rutledge, who in his youth wanted to be an investment banker. “Charities are not businesses, but they must behave in a very businesslike fashion, and that doesn’t come naturally [to some],” he says.

“Lots of people work in charities because they really, really care. If you don’t care, you shouldn’t be in a charity, but really caring is quite a dangerous emotion. You’ve got to bring a degree of dispassionate logic, because otherwise you chase the priorities that are the most emotionally attractive – which may not relate to those most in need.”

Before giving out grants to smaller projects working with soldiers, the charity checks to make sure that whatever it is funding is doing its job properly – and if it is not, either refuses the money or offers assistance. It is also able to “shape the market” by discouraging people from setting up charities that might duplicate the work of others.

Although Rutledge admits he has been “Army barmy since the age of about four”, he did not always plan for a career in the military. His father was a corporate lawyer, and “the expectation” was that he would either follow suit or work in the City. But everything changed when he spent his gap year with the Army.

After university, Rutledge’s first full-time Army appointment was in Northern Ireland during the Troubles but, among many other places, he also deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo, where he was Security Adviser to the UN’s Special Representative. Although he says he “thoroughly enjoyed” being on operations, in the main, it is clear that there were moments he would rather not dwell upon.

“The Balkans were not funny at all,” he recalls. “I was only miles away when the Bosnian Serbs massacred all those young men and boys in Srebrenica, so I remember the aftermath of that very vividly. It was an extremely difficult period.”

Later, he took part in planning the Army’s operations for a totally different conflict: the Iraq war. “It’s one step removed, but it doesn’t mean you’re not acutely conscious of what you’re involved in, what you’re planning – and to some extent authorising and participating in,” he says.

Rutledge is very aware that he is more fortunate than some of the soldiers he served alongside. Some suffered from alcoholism or depression, but were unaware of the support offered by charities like the one he now leads.

“The vast majority of individuals who serve in the Armed Forces subsequently go onto flourish in their civilian lives,” he stresses. “But of course, it doesn’t work for everybody. Some individuals get into a wide range of difficulties, because ‘stuff happens’. Homelessness is perhaps the ultimate indignity – having served your country and put your neck on the line, you can’t even find somewhere sensible to sleep.”

He is keen to dispel the myth that the majority of veterans are battle-scarred, broken individuals who require only help and sympathy, which he says is not only “factually incorrect” but also “demeans them”, which is damaging for morale and recruitment.

“Even the most hopeless soldier who proves not to be suited to that way of life will still have had the courage to step into a recruiting office, go through basic training and try his best,” he says. “They should be respected for that. It’s not the same as another job.”

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