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Why British Soldiers Are Finding It Harder to Come Home

We talked to some soldiers overseas about the difficulties they face in traveling back to the UK now that their overseas wage subsidies have been slashed.

Image via Flickr.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Whenever someone you know joins the army, you'd hope they'd be able to fly home now and then. I mean, life does go on back in the UK, and naturally soldiers find solace indulging in the home comforts the UK has to offer. It seems only fair that soldiers should be able to see their families, no?

Why, then, are the Ministry of Defence cutting the Local Overseas Allowance (LOA) for soldiers currently serving in Germany, meaning that many can no longer afford to regularly come back to the UK?


I recently received this message from a soldier currently serving in Germany in the armed forces: "I've just been made aware of some substantial changes in pay for the armed forces based in Germany, and feel strongly that some attention should be brought to it as it seems to have been kept quiet." So I decided to have a chat with a few soldiers over in Germany to see how this slash to travel funding has impacted them.

"Along with our annual salary, we are paid LOA—local overseas allowance," explained one soldier, who wished to remain anonymous. "This is to cover additional costs incurred by living abroad. When I joined my battalion in May of 2013, the monthly LOA was roughly £250 [$380] a month. Twelve months on it was closer to £150 [$230]. I have now been informed it will fall to £11 [$17] a month on our next payday."

While the MOD claim that the LOA is supposed to "provide [soldiers] with the difference in day to day living costs to the overseas location compared to the UK," the soldier I talked to maintained that it was what allowed him to visit his family on a regular basis.

"I am a married father of one living in Germany right now," he said. "My family live in the Midlands. The cost of a return trip home is roughly £300 [$455]. The army will pay £220 [$330] towards that cost three times a year. The LOA pay each month helped towards travel home, but with new cuts I fear that I'm no longer going to be able to afford to see my family more than the allocated three times a year. I miss my child and wife. I mean, seeing your family just a few times a year isn't exactly ideal, or something most people would want."


Another soldier I talked to expressed confusion. "I don't really understand why our money has been cut, when it's a known fact we rely on the LOA to fly back," he said. "One other way for us to go back home is to drive back, which takes at least five hours to Calais and however long it takes you to get to your part of the UK. Not everybody has a car, and driving to and from Germany costs a fair bit in terms of petrol."

When I asked the MOD for an official statement, either confirming or denying the reduction in LOA, they responded: "We cannot issue statements as such at the moment due to pre-election purdah restrictions. Thanks." However, they shed some more light on the logistics of the Local Overseas Allocation, stating:

The Local Overseas Allowance (LOA) is in place to essentially compensate members of the military who are living overseas, providing them with the difference in day to day living costs to the overseas location compared to the UK. The net effect of recent routine updates of LOA in Germany and the impact of the relative strength of sterling against the euro under the FFR demonstrates that the cost of living in Germany is currently only marginally higher than that in the UK.

The FFR mechanism is the exchange rate at which overseas prices are converted to sterling during LOA calculation. This is a mathematical process that reflects the strength of sterling relative to the local currency. When the FFR increases, the equivalent sterling value of the overseas side of the LOA calculation reduces, in turn reducing the cost of living differential between the UK and the overseas location. This leads to a reduction in LOA. The opposite is also true, and when FFR decreases, rates of LOA go up. Service personnel are well aware of this process.


Basically, the MOD are saying the reduction from £250 ($377) to £11 ($17) in less than two years seems to be a reflection of how the strength of the euro has seemingly risen relative to the pound. The election fever saw the pound drop a fair bit last time round, with similar predictions for 2015. But that doesn't change the fact that the soldiers I talked to said they can no longer afford to fly home as much as they'd like.

Related: Watch our documentary on UK Army Cadets.

As a third soldier out in Germany put it to me: "It's hard to keep a relationship when you're away. It's not like I'll never fly home, but we will just have to pay more, and lose more money. It's difficult for me to keep in touch with my brother and mum. I don't just want to talk on the phone to them, I want to be able to see them, so right now, I definitely feel frustrated. It's depressing to know you can't afford to fly home to see your family and the people you love."

In 2012 it was announced that soldiers would receive a reduced smaller pension and would have to work for 20 years, instead of 18, as was previously the case. When the army eventually leave Germany in 2019 (as planned by the coalition), it supposedly "marks the inevitable end of the Cold War and hard economic reality." However, former head of the British army, Lord Dannatt, believes some 3,000 troops must remain in Germany in light of the recent crises in Ukraine and Syria. Imagine being in the Syrian heat, paranoid to fuck, knowing you can't afford to fly home for at least another month. Of course, the rates allocated to those in Syria will differ, but the words "army" and "cuts" are seemingly interchangeable under this coalition government.

The army do indeed occasionally get the short straw, and having your travel money cut from £250 to £11 in under two years is certainly a good example of that. When £11 just about gets you a daily travel card in London, how's it supposed to contribute to travel expenses from Germany back to the UK?

For those serving, coming home is essential to their wellbeing. "Going home is a priority for soldiers," said my first interviewee. "It's one of the most important things for us, to be able to go home and relax in the UK—in places we know, in our homes. Things definitely get tougher when we have to worry about if we can afford the flight back. Our families can help to a certain extent, but for some of us, we can't expect that help—we rely on the LOA."