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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

Our Military veterans deserve honor

It has been eight years since the Military Veterans Bill (2013) evaporated in the National Assembly. This week, a new bill was published to address the weak legal safeguards, benefits system, and public recognition for thousands of our national heroes. How different is it from its predecessor and why should we care?

Senator Judith Pareno’s new bill seeks to distinguish the rights and benefits of veterans, designate a department within the Ministry of Defence and establish measures county governments can take, to support this important but largely neglected and invisible part of our society.

Three years ago, this column called for the state to step past denialism and secrecy and accelerate ways to honour and support our military veterans. While we have seen some progress, Kenyan veterans remain unsupported by a legal and institutional framework embedded in a public culture that is supportive and understanding. This experience directly contrasts with South Africa who has a Military Veterans Act (2011) for a decade now.

Post transitional well-being care even for those who have served actively in stressful combat zones like Somalia remains elusive. The trauma carried by Garissa University students after the media headlines of the 2015 brutal terrorist attack dipped, is relatively well told. Not so well-known is the impact it left for officers like Corporal Christopher Katitu. Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, he was court martialled for desertion. For the next two years he was detained without access to family for periods of time and only got to meet a psychologist for the first time as the trial started.

Mental health is rarely discussed. It is unclear whether the army, navy and air-force have dedicated psychologists or facilities. Most of the 800 or so soldiers grappling with PSTD face denial and discipline rather than treatment while public criticism of the way the armed forces treat its veterans remains taboo.

The Pareno bill is a step in the right direction. For the first time, it seeks to guide both national government and the county governments towards honouring and establishing programmes that address the transitional housing, health and well-being needs of veterans. It empowers the Defense Cabinet Secretary to receive requests for assistance, investigate and research strategies that accompany veterans as they transition back to civilian life. It also clarifies the rights of veterans to appeal to courts where they feel they have been unfairly treated or discriminated against.

We rightly judge nations across the world by the way they treat their most vulnerable, marginalised, and defenceless. While true, the way we also treat those that put their lives on the line to defend our democracy and the nation matters also. The officers of the Kenya African Rifles were mere instruments in the establishment and maintenance of the British empire and the Kenyan colony. While much has changed since, but the absence of a legal framework, clear transitional programmes and a collective voice of veterans is glaring.

The Pareno bill offers another opportunity for veterans, officers, national government, country governments and citizens to debate and improve the bill. In passing this bill, we will demonstrate to those who have served us and their families, their efforts are seen, and they are indeed, valuable to us.

This opinion was also published in my weekly Sunday Standard column, 25 July 2010


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