The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity although only ten years old, has already, under the direction and stewardship of the Board and my predecessor, Robert Robson, established itself as the Navy's strategic partner and friend, making its presence felt across a huge range of areas and with a whole swathe of people.

I have been away from the Royal Navy for a few years now, working in the charity sector, so I was extremely fortunate and privileged, as part of my induction to be invited to the First Sea Lord's conference to hear the views from the top of the shop - and I was very struck by what I heard.

It is clear that the advent of the carriers has drastically changed the strategic emphasis of the Navy and indeed, a common theme at the conference was the role of the maritime in shaping the future of the nation and the genuine opportunity to move from being a state with a Navy to a global maritime power.

Underlying this very positive and upbeat rhetoric, however, was a real concern for the people of the Naval Service and the need to place them and their families at the forefront of commanders' minds.

It is important to remember just how busy the Naval Service is, with about 30% of personnel deployed on operations at any one time, not forgetting those who are preparing for operations or recovering from them. Do not underestimate the strains and stresses this puts on those who serve and, significantly, their partners, families and support networks.

As the Navy’s national charity we are acutely aware of the sacrifices Naval Families are continually making. We see first-hand the effect of long deployments. For many families, one person may join the Naval Service but the whole family, in effect, ends up serving. 

It is this belief that fuels our long-term commitment to support the wider Naval family. Societal mores and expectations have changed dramatically and the sort of long separations that personnel endure are now far from the norm in the way people lead their lives today.

The way that the military is viewed by the general public today is also shifting and that has great effect as well. In a recent discussion I had with NHS commissioners about the levels of support that serving personnel, families and veterans should expect in line with the Armed Forces Covenant, I was struck by comments that commissioners had around why the military was offered such preferment (in the eyes of some) – and why are they treated differently from, for example, police, firefighters, and farmers.

Public perception that military operations have all but finished plays into this but misses some really key issues. Naval personnel on operations do not have the ability to go home after their shift, wind down with family and friends at the end of the week or even just send or receive a quick text message. Equally what our serving personnel and veterans have experienced is not easily erased by an announcement that ‘military operations’ are over – for many, such experiences endure.

And this is where this charity has a distinct part to play. We assist the Navy in carefully addressing some of its manpower challenges, and, by working with other charity partners, we help provide support to those veterans who need it, keeping our focus on promoting independence and not creating dependence wherever we can. Too often veterans are portrayed as victims when they’re not. Most require little or no support for most of their lives and contribute fully and meaningfully to society.

Our charity vision is a world in which our sailors, marines and their families are valued and supported for life. There are about 3/4 million people who fit in this deliberately broad definition in some shape or other, although that number is set to reduce to about 350,000 over the next few decades as National Servicemen numbers diminish and a smaller fleet is reflected.

The vast majority of these potential beneficiaries need little or no help for most, if not all, of their lives. Where our work predominates is around the serving population and their families, those nearing the end of life - especially in old age - and those whose personal circumstances have become particularly challenging.

For the serving, we are engaged in a number of projects and investing jointly with partners including the Royal Navy and Argyll and Bute council in a family centre at Helensburgh to support the burgeoning Naval population, as all submarines gradually migrate to Faslane.

We have also delivered short-term accommodation for serving single-parent families in Portsmouth and are gradually spreading that model more widely across the Naval estate. We undertake refurbishment projects for mess facilities for all ranks both ashore and afloat, and, a year ago, we partnered with Relate to provide much-needed counselling services to serving personnel and their partners. We do an awful lot more as well.

In the veteran space we are working with partners on a number of initiatives designed to tackle the insidious effects of isolation and loneliness as well as working with care-providers to support older veterans’ accommodation and support needs.

We frequently find ourselves confronting the difficult conundrum of balancing crown, or state, responsibilities for both serving personnel and veterans, and the charity's beneficial operating space. The issue of state obligation is not unique to the military sector, for example many facets of healthcare delivery have significant charity involvement, but the issue is becoming increasingly prevalent in a society where such boundaries are ever less distinct. Thus we find ourselves walking a difficult tightrope at times. 

It is no secret that the Naval Service is very challenged by both recruitment and retention of personnel presently and, as I've said, in this charity we daily witness the effects of long periods of separation, the upheaval caused by changing programmes at both unit and individual level, and the perceived failure to meet expectations in terms of societal norms - a huge, huge challenge in today's world.

And so it is incumbent on this charity to look at how we best operate to deliver on our vision of valuing and supporting people for life - and not somehow being seen to shoulder those responsibilities that rightly rest with the crown, whilst remaining committed to supporting the Royal Navy in how it tackles some of its challenges. It is careful and strategic work.

But why is this all so important? Yes, we have to deliver on our vision, yes there's something in our gut that tells us this is right, but I think it is far more than that.

Since joining the RNRMC, I have found myself thinking often about my naval hero, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the architect of ‘Operation Neptune’, the invasion of France in June 1944, and also the invasion of North West Africa and Sicily. Ramsay was killed in an air crash six months after D-Day and thus never had the chance to talk or write about his achievements. I might be going out on a bit of a limb, but I doubt he has a peer in terms of maritime operational achievement in the last century or so. Yet he is largely forgotten. Few understand his contribution to the eventual Allied victory. If it is so easy to forget someone of his stature, then I think it is all too easy to lose sight of those who serve or have served and recognise the sacrifices they have and are making.

The word ‘hero’ is one with which I, and many others are very uncomfortable. It is much overused – indeed there are over 50 registered charities that use it in their name. I don’t think many serving personnel or veterans ever think of themselves as ‘heroes’ and often feel awkward with it, but the coinage is there and its roots probably lie with Lloyd George!

One hundred years ago, Lloyd George made his famous speech about a land fit for heroes, and that phrase seems to have stuck in the national psyche. But it is worth revisiting what he actually said:

“What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. I am not using the word ‘heroes’ in any spirit of boastfulness, but in the spirit of humble recognition of fact.”

That is where we strive to be, supporting our serving personnel, our veterans and all their families in that spirit of humble recognition, for all they have done and for all they continue to do. This, above all else, is at the heart of my sense of purpose as the charity matures.

Adrian Bell
Chief Executive