Guyana's Military Veterans: Promises, Problems, and Prospects
by David Granger

The sudden seizure of the Guyanese half of Ankoko island by Venezuelan troops in 1966 (Independence year) triggered Guyana's military build up. The attempted secession of the Rupununi by rebels abetted by Venezuela, and the occupation of New River by Surinamese soldiers, in 1969, forced the new state of Guyana to deploy troops to its three territorial borders with Venezuela, Brazil and Suriname. These unanticipated operations necessitated an increase in recruitment in the Guyana Defence Force (GDF).

Border problems continued into the 1980s when the 12-year moratorium prescribed by the Protocol of Port of Spain expired in 1982. It was not until the United Nations 'Good Officer' process was initiated in 1989 that the GDF was able to start reducing its numbers significantly.Over the past 35 years, however, thousands of men and women enlisted in the GDF and, inevitably, they retired or resigned from military service becoming veterans.

The Promised Land: From as early as October 1970, GDF veterans have been promised some form of resettlement after their military service ended. Forbes Burnham, prime minister, minister of defence and chairman of the Guyana Defence Board, was the first to pledge that all military veterans would be entitled to a grant of state land once they had retired honourably from the GDF, saying:"... I made an offer to the GDF that any long-serving GDF men, and women too, who retired or left the service honourably... would be given an opportunity, if they wish, along with others, to have control of large plots of land in the hinterland for development, agriculture particularly, though there is no objection to other forms of use of the land. This means that, if you take that offer up when you leave, you continue giving leadership at another level. You continue giving leadership even though you have joined the ranks of the civilians. It means also that, if there were any occasion where we had to defend our borders, many of the civilians will have had some military background which will be helpful to them in the defence of their border."In those days, serving soldiers seemed satisfied that some realistic scheme would be established to absorb the shock of their eventual return to civilian life. In fact, five defence ministers and three decades later, no land settlement scheme has materialised and the misplaced optimism of military veterans has turned to scepticism.The problems confronting Guyanese veterans, however, are far more serious than mere disappointment over broken political promises. There is widespread concern over the fact that, as a highly visible and clearly defined occupational sub-group, military veterans are very vulnerable and may easily lapse into impoverished living conditions characterised by low earnings, inadequate housing, failing health, under-qualification and under-employment.

Defining Veterans: The main limitation to resolving these problems is the absence of data on, or research into, the conditions of veterans in Guyana. A start has been made to register some cases which have been brought to light by personal encounters and appeals for assistance but, at best, the evidence is anecdotal. For example, in a Christmas visit to veterans, members of the Board of Trustees of the Guyana Veterans Foundation (GVF) found two blind, four partially paralysed from strokes (of whom two were living in the Dharm Shala) and one amputee out of only seven persons they met. In addition, there have been numerous undocumented cases of destitution and a disturbing pattern of deaths of veterans still in their 50s.This information is alarming not merely because it points to cases of personal tragedy but also because it suggests that a significant section of a social sub-group has been unable to cope with the reality of re-integration into civilian life.The GVF defines a veteran as "a man or woman who has grown old in, or had long experience of, military service or occupation."

In a narrow sense, such a person should have served continuously in the Guyana Defence Force or the Guyana People's Militia (GPM) for at least 14 years, and should be eligible to receive a pension. There is another type of person, however, who does not receive a pension, owing to the non-fulfilment of some service requirement, or non-completion of the period of service, but may still be classified as a veteran. In other words, a veteran need not be a pensioner. A 'soldier' may be defined as one who is a private soldier or non-commissioned officer, that is, belonging to the five lowest military ranks - private, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant and staff sergeant.The GDF came into being legally on May 22, 1966, four days before Independence, with the passage of the Defence Ordinance. At the same time, the British Guiana Volunteer Force (BGVF) and the British Guiana Special Service Unit (BGSSU) were liquidated. Some members of both forces, and new recruits and cadets, joined the GDF but, in the government's haste or ignorance, no 'conditions of service' were promulgated and administrative and personnel arrangements, to say the least, were inadequate.

Many young men and women, born in the mid-1940s, joined the new GDF without knowing what penalties or privileges they would encounter or what obligations and duties they would undertake. Indeed, it was not until 1974 that the Defence (Pensions and Gratuities) Regulations were passed, providing for a regular system of superannuation benefits. The result was that, for several years before 1974, soldiers were recruited, punished, fell ill or died, or were 'disembodied,' dismissed or otherwise discharged, without clear conditions under which they or their parents, spouses and children, could benefit. These included some soldiers whose service in the BGVF was not counted and whose service in the GDF did not fulfil the conditions of the new regulations. Since many male and female soldiers were also bread-winners, the failure to provide for veterans' benefits during the first eight years of the GDF's existence had a harmful effect on their children and spouses. Military veterans should be regarded as national assets, rather than as potential social liabilities. Apart from their extensive military training, they are usually better suited to some forms of community leadership and collective enterprise. They joined the GDF, perhaps, out of a sense of loyalty to the nation and, in addition to that innocent enthusiasm, would have inculcated the values of discipline, teamwork and endurance during their careers.

During their military service also, soldiers would have participated in exercises and operations which reinforced their ideology of placing the national interest above personal concerns. Indeed, historically, the Defence Force, has made an invaluable contribution to community life by the construction of schools, bridges and roads and by providing medical and disaster relief and casualty evacuation. Their role in preserving Guyana's territorial integrity during national crises such as the Ankoko occupation, the Rupununi rebellion, the New River intrusion and the on-going plunder of marine resources in the Atlantic is also well known. In any event, soldiers decided to forego youthful opportunities and endanger their lives for the sake of national defence; they deserve a secure and comfortable standard of living when they retire.

What seems to be necessary is that, in place of the abrupt expiration of their employment, there should be a gradual transition from military to civilian life. The provision of purposeful training and the identification of employment and business opportunities in the labour and commercial markets could both exploit the latent talents of the veterans and ensure their continued participation in the economy on the one hand and compensate them sufficiently to support themselves and their families, on the other.

Part IX of the Defence Act permits the re-engagement of soldiers in the 'Reserve' of the Guyana Defence Force. Unfortunately, the classification of reservists and the obligation of former soldiers to re-engage are not well understood and are usually not enforced. Much more could be done to encourage former soldiers and veterans to serve in the Reserve.

Defence Planning: The available evidence suggests that many of the administrative problems which impeded the development of a viable veterans' resettlement scheme may have grown up in the gap between the early notions of a national defence force and the changing reality of military service in Guyana. At the outset in 1966, the administration clearly considered establishing only a small force of about 600 young men who were to serve short contracts of three, six, nine or 12 years. For those interested in longer careers, specific limits were set making it mandatory for soldiers (i.e., privates and non-commissioned officers) to retire at age 40 years. The general idea, as stated by Burnham, was to remove soldiers while they were still relatively young, returning them to civilian life. This idea may have been influenced by the contemporary Israeli national security concepts of the Nahal and Kibbutz under which the objectives of territorial defence were combined with the construction of border settlements and economic development.

That theory was tried unsuccessfully in the Guyana Youth Corps (GYC), the Guyana National Service (GNS) and, to a lesser extent, the Guyana People's Militia (GPM). It failed mainly because, among other things, adequate infrastructure, reliable transport, and financial support were unavailable to these attempts at hinterland development and settlement. It was hoped that, while still young and fit, veterans would enter agricultural settlements in the hinterland to produce economic goods and, with their military training, continue to contribute to national defence. Thus, the Defence Act, reinforced by the Defence (Pensions and Gratuities) Regulations, still enforce the mandatory retirement ages.

It just has not worked. Soldiers continue to be discharged from active service at age 40 but no land settlement scheme has ever opened and there has never been any serious plan to assure them of reasonable employment, say for an additional ten or 20 years into their 50s or 60s. To make matters worse, the state offers soldiers one-sided 'contracts' for short periods - three, six, nine, 12 years - without any benefits. Many soldiers who accepted those contracts therefore, resigned with empty pockets after short careers. Finally, as a result of military responses to territorial threats, the increase in the number of soldiers led, of course, to many more discharges later on. This should have meant that more would have been retired as pension-earning veterans but, perhaps, due to lapses in administration, this did not happen and soldiers were discharged gratuitously, but without gratuities. In addition, by the mid-1980s, some of the early entrants started to reach the mandatory retirement age and formed the first batch of military pensioners who would earn a mere fraction of their full-time salaries. All this effectively made the soldiers into economic shipwrecks at mid-life when, in other careers, they would have been at the peak of their earning power.

Career Planning: The GDF sets out deliberately to recruit fit young men and women, from about 18 years of age, into a career that leads nowhere in the sense that, for many, there may be no measurable material improvement in their standard of living at the time of retirement. Indeed, soldiers are trained in the force, but the emphasis, naturally, is on their fitness for role, and this is done in a number of progressive professional courses. At each rank level, the soldier must attend a training course to fit him or her to hold the next higher rank; hence, a soldier who is not trained, is unlikely to be promoted and, equally, a soldier who is unfit to be promoted will, probably, not be trained.

Although most soldiers are enlisted into the infantry corps where training is done primarily in military skills such as tactics, fieldcraft, shooting and the arts of war, a NCO of any rank would have received some form of formal training in which the values of small group leadership and teamwork are inculcated. In the other corps, specialised technical-vocational training is available for several categories - cooks, musicians, nurses, seamen, storekeepers, radio operators, etc. By age 40, soldiers of average ability and good behaviour would have attended about five military courses and could have attained the rank of sergeant. But, although their military training may be high by GDF standards, their academic education may still be at the level at which they left primary school 22 years earlier. It is only then that they discover that there are few vacancies downtown for marksmen, artillerymen and parachutists. In other words, as civilians, the bulk of veterans would be unemployable in the Guyanese economy. By this time, of course, soldiers would have become parents of school-age children, tenants of apartments close to one of the main military bases, and past their prime health. They must enter the job market to compete with persons half their age and unencumbered by their commitments. At the moment of discharge, new veterans are in a state of crisis.

Terminating Servic: Superannuation, or termination of service for any other reason, is known in military officialese by the stark, acronym SOS - 'struck off strength.' There are several grounds under which the soldier's services could be terminated: at his/her own request, since military service is voluntary, soldiers normally are permitted to demit once they have no contractual obligation to fulfil; by purchase, since military service, though voluntary, is bound by contracts, soldiers are required to 'buy' their release if their contracts are unfulfilled; ceasing to fulfil medical standards, since owing to the emphasis on physical fitness, soldiers who are disabled or chronically ill could be retired compulsorily; discharge with disgrace, since military discipline is enforceable under military law embodied in the Defence Act, in addition to civil law, and some convictions could result in dismissal; on termination of engagement, at the end of contracts, or on reaching prescribed age ceilings, eg, 40 years, soldiers must retire; and, services no longer required, since soldiers may be removed when their positions become redundant or, vaguely, 'in the public interest.'Under these conditions, it may be guessed that some soldiers might have completed the minimum 14 years service requirement but may not have reached the 40 years age limit; others do not even complete the minimum of 14 years service or make it to age 40 when the payment of pensions would have to be approved by the Defence Board. It could be argued that most veterans had their services terminated prematurely, for one reason or other, and therefore, are not entitled to financial benefits.The fact that only about 1,200 military veterans receive pensions out of a possible veteran population of more than 12,000 suggests that extremely large numbers of former soldiers do not now earn any financial benefit from their military service. Further, since the basis on which pensions are computed under the Defence (Pensions and Gratuities) Regulations is similar to the Public Service where careers are longer and access to higher positions is greater, many military veterans draw small pensions on account of their short service and the low ranks they held. It is with this small pension, a discharge certificate, a clutch of certificates from army training courses and, perhaps, a couple of medals, that the military veteran must enter the job market. As a social type, therefore, the veteran is very likely to present himself to an employer as being over-aged, under-qualified and unsettled by a number of domestic obligations.

Living Conditions: The present plight of military veterans is understood best by examining the severe economic recession in Guyana during the decade of the 1980s. Although the socio-economic effects of this period were widespread, the impact on soldiers, and public employees in general, was particularly severe, inspiring trade unionist Leslie Melville to describe that group as the 'employed poor.' In Melville's view: "... those who were mostly affected by the declining level of services during the 1980s were the poor... Many of them were public employees who were faced with a situation in which their continued employment with Government meant that they would have been condemning their children to a life of poverty." As public employees, GDF soldiers ranked among the 'employed poor.' Many 'baby-boom' soldiers born in the mid-1940s reached the retirement age of 40 years during the mid-1980s but, hard as life in the Force was, entering the depressed economy was worse.

Indeed, daily life in the Force was bad enough, the problems faced by soldiers in both their homes in the open society, and in the barracks in the military community, being reflected in the high rate of absenteeism and desertion from military service. In separate studies done by two military officers - Captain Leslie Bobb (1985) and Major Christine King (1989) - it was found that there was a high level of restlessness arising from a range of social problems in the personal and professional lives of military personnel.

Personal factors - illness in the family, the need to 'make an extra dollar' by engaging in some lucrative (but illegitimate) business, marital instability, and emigration of relatives - and institutional factors - sub-standard meals, transport and accommodation; long working hours; unsuitable employment, and problems affecting pay - combined to 'push' soldiers out of the Force at a time when they were emotionally unprepared to deal with the national economic crisis, itself fraught with low wages; high prices; unemployment; widespread shortage and mal-distribution of basic consumer goods; smuggling and petty trading, and pervasive poverty.For many, the transition from regular military service as soldiers, to life on 'civvy street' as veterans, was very much like jumping 'from the frying-pan into the fire.' In these conditions, however, the annual rate of superannuation increased. In fact, about 75 per cent of military pensioners on roll in 1998 left the Force in the years 1984 to 1994; it would be reasonable to assume that a similar percentage of other veterans, who do not receive pensions, also left the Force during these years.

Seeking Solutions: Over the past 30 years, these real human problems have affected the lives and livelihood of thousands of Guyanese who dreamily entered military service with the hope of serving this newly-independent country. Now, these problems have created a groundswell of grievances and grouses. Matters have been made worse by the absence of any institutional mechanism for maintaining communication with veterans, hearing complaints, investigating claims and providing relief.

It was in response to this challenge that a NGO - the Guyana Veterans Foundation (GVF) - was established in May 1995 with the objectives of promoting the material, social, educational and economic welfare of the former members of the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana People's Militia and their dependents; proposing and supporting legislation in the interest of former servicemen and servicewomen and making representation on any matter affecting them; funding and operating any scheme or enterprise intended to promote the economic welfare of former servicemen and servicewomen; and acquiring or soliciting and managing funds from any institution or organisation for the purpose of fulfilling the objectives of the Foundation.The Foundation started to register veterans, organise them into 'companies' - in areas such as West Berbice; East, West and Upper Demerara, and Georgetown to provide relief in the form of food hampers, and to investigate veterans' problems. The GVF also served as a coordinating agency for veterans' affairs on behalf of the GDF and a communications link between various 'companies' and groups. In fulfilling its mandate, the Board of Trustees met then prime minister Janet Jagan in September 1997 to seek solutions to the problems of veterans. Discussions were held on the issues of retirement, pensions, re-training, and the establishment of a Veterans' Centre for training and welfare. The board also met with Minister of Culture Youth & Sports Gail Teixeira in June 1998 to pursue efforts to establish the Veterans' Centre for which a site has been identified and plans prepared. The board met President Bharrat Jagdeo in February 2000 to discuss the same issues. Finally, the board met Head of the Presidential Secretariat/Secretary to the Guyana Defence Board Dr Roger Luncheon in July 2000. All to no avail.

Seeking Justice: Taken as a group, veterans have rendered exemplary service to the state, helping to protect Guyana's territorial integrity in times of danger and bearing the brunt of safeguarding the national patrimony. This is a unique service and a major contribution to the post-Independence efforts at nation building from which all generations will benefit.

Veterans, however, have been ill-prepared to enter the open society and to compete successfully in the job market, largely as a result of the character of service, nature of training, structure of careers, and the absence of an efficient resettlement plan, in the GDF. This country will have much to gain, now and in the future, by encouraging a positive attitude to military service among its youth. The existence of a stable and self-reliant corps of veterans is the best advertisement to attract young Guyanese to serve their country. On the other hand, there is much to lose by displaying the image of a destitute veteran and perpetuating the impression that military service is reserved for the “employed poor.”


December 2001
© 2001