Veteran Games: UK wants to learn accessibility from Israel

The Veteran Games are built around the reality that the whole family often struggles when an injured veteran returns from war and they have a crucial role to play in their loved one's recovery.

 Veterans are seen ahead of the Veteran Games in Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy of The Veteran Games)
Veterans are seen ahead of the Veteran Games in Israel.
(photo credit: Courtesy of The Veteran Games)

More than 60 wounded British veterans arrived in Israel for a once-in-a-lifetime journey in an effort to aid their recovery, in order to participate in the Veteran Games (VG). The ex-servicemen and women, including those who have lost limbs in combat and others battling crippling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a direct result of serving their country have been drawn from across the British military and the country. During their stay in Israel this week, they will compete in swimming, shooting and cross-fit against their Israeli counterparts in Tel Aviv but, unlike other similar events for veterans, participants haven't had to reach a certain sporting standard to qualify.

The Games are built around the reality that the whole family often struggles when an injured veteran returns from war and they have a crucial role to play in their loved one's recovery journey. The Games, which were made possible by philanthropic donations, were organized by Beit Halochem UK, a charity which raises awareness and funds to support Israel’s wounded veterans. Beit Halochem in Israel helps 51,000 wounded soldiers and victims of terror by offering them support for the rest of their lives. 

One of the members of the UK delegation to the VG was Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday, Mercer said that “veterans care has come a long way in the UK,” Mercer said. “It's obviously been a passion of mine to get us up to speed with some of our allies,” he said of his visit to Israel. “We traditionally look at Israel and certainly the data you have and areas that you have the best practice of,” he said, adding that “I'm trying to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran and to do that we need to work with our friends and partners to understand what they're doing that works really well, so that we can replicate that in the UK.” Mercer added that “it’s amazing to be out here [in Israel]. There's nothing quite like an Israeli welcome, seeing the Veteran Games and using the power of sports as a vehicle for recovery. It's extraordinary.”

Mercer served in the Royal Artillery and retired in December 2013 with the rank of captain. He became an MP and published a memoir of his army service before stepping down from the position of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence People and Veterans in April 2021.

Mercer served in Afghanistan for a number of years and said that he, therefore, was “fed up with how the UK did veterans care, therefore I entered politics to change it and I've been lucky enough to become the first cabinet minister for Veterans Affairs. I set up the UK Office of Veterans Affairs, sort of bringing together all their statutory provisions to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran. That's why I'm here. We're making significant progress and it's great to see partners doing the same when I come abroad.”

 Phil Eaglesham is seen ahead of the Veteran Games in Israel. (credit: Courtesy of The Veteran Games)
Phil Eaglesham is seen ahead of the Veteran Games in Israel. (credit: Courtesy of The Veteran Games)

He has held various positions in the government, including Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence People and Veterans and has been an MP for Plymouth Moor View since 2015 as a member of the Conservative Party.

What can the UK learn from Israel regarding veterans and accessibility?

As per what Mercer expects to learn during his visit to Israel, he said that he admired the way Israel has been collecting data about veterans, “Israel’s collecting data in tech is pretty impressive, but to be honest, I'm a huge fan of collaboration and I like what they've done at Beit Halochem, part of where we are today. There is kind of a sense of collaboration between different groups, solely in the interests of the users who need it.” Mercer explained that “there are enough resources, there are good people doing good things and what we need to do is always make it more accessible.”

He’s interested in the areas of tech with regards to veterans, “specifically around things like bionics,” and he will be visiting a company on Tuesday “to look at what's going on in that space.” Mercer added that the UK and Israel have “a good bilateral relationship, with strong economic ties, security cooperations, historical ties.” He added that the “UK is one of the largest trading partners in Europe, so we're just building on all that dovetailing it into the veteran space.”

As minister, Mercer shared that he led the creation of “Op Courage,” which is “the first UK dedicated mental health care pathway for veterans to be commissioned by the government and delivered by partners all over the UK.” Op Courage provides specialist care for those armed forces veterans suffering from a mental health crisis. “If you're a veteran, you'll see a specialist mental health support that never existed before.” Mercer shared that they have seen huge success in veterans who started treatment “We had 19,000 referrals in our first year. There are up to 27,000 now, so there's a massive unmet need. The government is now fully doing the same around homelessness and ending veteran homelessness this year. We're revolutionizing what's going on in the veteran space. But as you can imagine, there's a lot more to do.”

Mercer said that Israel and the UK have a good relationship, which he is thankful for. “The UK government will maintain a strong and positive relationship with Israel, where we can cooperate on security matters and have strong economic ties.”

Regarding the veteran games, Mercer said that families of the veterans are the “unseen heroes,” and that “a really special thing about this place is the families coming out as well and joining the events. They've got it for life as a sacrifice, it is truly enduring.” He said that he feels as if Israel does a good job with the families of the veterans, “that’s what I like to see in the UK, have them properly cherished. I think we can learn from that back in the UK.”

“Physical activity, camaraderie and the family all play a crucial role in the successful rehabilitation of injured soldiers and the Veteran Games put both front and center,” said VG co-founders Andrew Wolfson and Spencer Gelding. “Medals are a great bonus, but our goal is to provide an environment for veterans to challenge themselves in a way that will provide lasting benefits, while building friendships with other heroes and their families with whom they have so much in common.”

VG CEO Andrew Garland, who himself served in the Royal Marines, said “It’s wonderful to again be bringing together so many inspirational people. For some who have taken part, these Games were the first time they have traveled abroad since being injured, or the first time they socialized with fellow veterans for many years, or simply the first time they’ve experienced a family holiday since their lives changed forever.” 

The Games' main sponsors are the Wolfson Family Charitable Trust, Charles Wolfson Charitable Trust, Exilarch’s Foundation, Rachel Charitable Trust, Pears Foundation, Maurice Wohl Charitable Foundation, Gerald and Gail Ronson Family Foundation, Regatta Professional and the Future Directions Foundation. A football academy for the kids of participants is backed by Patron Charitable Initiatives and Power League.

Phil Eaglesham, a former Royal Marine commando from Dungannon, Co. Tyrone who was diagnosed with Q fever after his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, is one of the participants. He has successfully sued the UK Ministry of Defence for compensation and went on to become a Paralympic sport shooter representing Ireland with the support of Help for Heroes. He is also a businessman and mental health campaigner.

“Q fever left me in a hard wheelchair with 24-hour care for about 12 years,” he told the Post. “I've recently got medication, through my own research, and found a doctor that allowed me to start walking again from January of this year. I'm learning a lot when I'm trying to walk and having to start a new life,” he said. 

Eaglesham said that he sees a huge benefit in the VG, which does not have any threshold that the participants need to qualify for, since “everyone naturally wants to compete. They just want to be involved. So we think this gives you a level playing field where you're with like-minded people from different communities who have the same goal and just want to be with their families, enjoy family life and be able to move on from the horrific things that have happened in the past.”