As South Tyneside gets set to give a virtual salute to the Armed Forces this weekend, a support group for veterans has been using its online channels to stay connected.
This Saturday (27 June) marks national Armed Forces Day with South Tyneside Council encouraging people to get involved over social media.
One of the ways the Council helps to support the armed forces is through the Navy, Army, Airforce and Families Institute (NAAFI) Break - a dedicated face-to-face drop in service, which is run by veterans, and enables serving and ex-service personnel, reservists and their families, to meet, socialise, network and get advice and support on civilian life.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that their usual twice monthly meetings have been temporarily suspended, the NAAFI Break committee has remained active in the community to ensure veterans have continued to get the support they need.
They have also turned to virtual platforms to keep connected, using methods such as ZOOM video conferencing, Whatsapp and a private 'veterans' chat on social media as well as through regular phone calls, text messages and emails. Access to support has also been provided by the Council's Covid-19 Support Hub.
Army veteran and NAAFI Break organiser, Joe Mills said: "The country has been severely tested during the Covid-19 pandemic with the need for people to isolate to reduce the risk of infection, especially those with serious underlying health conditions. This has caused real hardship and great concern to those in isolation alone and worry to their family members living elsewhere and unable to visit or support.
"The Armed Forces community has been very much at the forefront of our minds throughout this. It's been vital for us to stay connected and support each other, to help ease the hardship of isolation and to make sure our veterans are safe, well and to support them with anything they need. In-house volunteers quickly came forward as frontline workers and have also continued to support our veterans with shopping, deliveries and food bank referrals.
"As a veteran of the Armed Forces, there is a great sense of belonging to the largest family in the land. NAAFI Break allows veterans the opportunity to be back in that environment and keep up the comradeship they found in service, which has been particularly important during these difficult times."
The NAAFI Break was established in October 2016 and is usually held on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month, at Trinity House in South Shields.
The group has grown from strength to strength. Last year, the veterans formed a committee and constitution and, earlier this year, appointed Lieutenant General Robin Brims as their first Patron.
It is just one of the ways, South Tyneside Council supports the local Armed Forces community.
Through its Armed Forces Community Covenant pledge, the Council works to ensure services personnel, past and present, and their families, are not disadvantaged when accessing public services such as employment, housing and education. This is driven forward by the South Tyneside Armed Forces Forum.
Councillor Ed Malcolm, Chairman of the Forum, said: "We recognise the sacrifices made by our service men and women and are committed to helping them with the pressures they can face in adapting back to civilian life.
"The NAAFI Break is a core element of our approach providing a community base for Armed Forces personnel where they can talk to like-minded people and receive the necessary support and advice they need. It is proving to be a real success."
Joe's commitment to NAAFI Break stems from his own experience of being involved with veterans. He initially joined a veteran's branch of the Royal Irish Rangers in the Gaza Barracks but that disbanded after just two years. He later met up with colleagues of the Royal Irish Rangers and formed a second group in Catterick in 2006. He then joined the Durham Light Infantry Association South Shields branch and became involved in the NAAFI Break as a volunteer in 2016.
He added: "The Council has been steadfast in its support to Armed Forces personnel and our close relationship ensures that continued dedication across all aspects, from honouring and involving the armed forces in community events throughout the year to providing valuable support to military personnel with their transitions back to civilian life."
Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families can follow NAAFI Break South Tyneside on Facebook and on Twitter @_naafibreak.
To mark Armed Forces Day, South Tyneside Council is encouraging people to share their photos of their salutes and activity across its social media channels. Use the hashtag #SaluteOurForces on Facebook STynesideCouncil and LoveSTyneside and on Twitter @STyne_Council and @LoveSTyneside.
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