For 40 years, AFF has put families at the heart of everything it does. From our early days as the Federation of Army Wives’ Clubs, which brought together groups from around the world to share common issues, to the present day, where we gather key evidence to help ensure every type of family stays at the forefront of decision making for today’s modern British Army.

In the beginning, there was very little appetite amongst the chain of command for giving wives a voice. In fact, it took a huge amount of persuasion to get it off the ground. Founder Lady Elizabeth Kitson was determined, however. Since her husband Sir Frank Kitson took command of 2 Battalion, The Royal Green Jackets in the 1960s, she’d seen first-hand how badly wives – it was almost 100 percent female partners back then – were treated when their soldiers were away. She recalls: “They were just baggage, left to fend for themselves. I started visiting wives and getting clubs going – many were lonely and frightened. A few didn’t speak much English, and children played up without dad at home. Many of us rallied round and we ended up as almost full-time unpaid social workers.”

Charity status

It wasn’t until years later, when Sir Frank was Commander-in-Chief, UK Land Forces, that Elizabeth was able to drive forward an official organisation built on the existing network of wives’ clubs. Sir Frank signed a charter in 1982 to establish a new Federation of Army Wives’ Clubs (FAWC) to foster a sense of belonging and improve communication between families and the chain of command. “Soldiers, and by this I mean all ranks from generals down to privates, need their families to be happy and well looked after, especially if they are putting their lives at risk,” adds Elizabeth. “The army’s priority was its soldiers but it needed to value the families as well. Frank backed me to make the Federation into a charity so it would be difficult to disband with the change of jobs. We were convinced it would be of huge benefit to the army and their families for years to come,” she says – and so it has proved to be.  
“Many congratulations to everyone at AFF on reaching your 40th anniversary. As patron, I should like to send a sincere thank you to all the staff who continue to work so hard with dedication and commitment to assist army families in the UK and overseas.” – HRH The Duchess of Gloucester
 

The first ‘win’

With the onset of the Falklands War, the new FAWC got straight to work: “I managed to ensure next of kin were informed before the media could release details from the front line,” explains Elizabeth. “It was the first time reporters could get their copy back almost instantaneously so if they announced a ship had gone down, every wife feared it was their husband’s.” How did she achieve it? By calling the Prime Minister, of course. “I rang Mrs Thatcher and was put through to her,” she adds. A new magazine, then called Neighbours, was created and soon contributions from army families across the world came in, sharing stories, life hacks and showcasing what the FAWC was achieving. It became the AFF Families Journal and now, 126 editions later, here we are as Army&You. Tor Coombes was editor from 1990-92: “My favourite memories are of the fun we had in the office putting the content together. It was before the days of the internet and every quarter, I would travel to the publishers in Scotland with a load of contributions on paper!” Former editor Charlotte Eadie, who oversaw the introduction of digital editions, adds: “AFF’s magazine has given families a voice to share their experiences and has helped unravel some of the complexities of army policy by putting it into language that people can understand.”

Making progress

From the outset, the Federation tackled some of the key issues, which inevitably included housing: “There were problems with quarters being substandard,” explains Elizabeth. “Colour schemes were awful, and there were many basic issues.” Wives were placed on furnishing committees, and by 1987, the FAWC was flagging up the challenges of getting on the housing ladder, lack of continuity when moving with children who have Special Educational Needs, and had also produced guides for moving overseas. Annual conferences, which continued right up to 2014, gave all families a chance to put questions directly to senior command.

Broader appeal

Barriers to spousal employment were high on the agenda from the outset. In 1986, FOCUS – FAWC Office and Computer Updating Skills – ran its first courses in Bulford. It eventually became the AFF Training Centre, which regularly ran courses on things like computer literacy and accounting up until 2010. The FAWC Register for Employment Database, known as FRED, was also established, enabling spouses to gain better access to employers when they moved around – an early version of Forces Families Jobs. The FAWC’s profile was elevated in the late 80s when the then Chief Executive, Cherry Milne, gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee on the government’s decision to sell off the married quarters estate, giving an impassioned plea on behalf of families. “This action changed the course of history for AFF. Our campaign against this decision raised our national profile and I found myself giving numerous interviews both on TV and radio,” Cherry told us in 2012.

For all the family

As the army changed to reflect society, the charity also broadened its remit, rebranding as the Army Families Federation in 1996. At the new millennium, our troops’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was at the forefront of everyone’s minds. AFF’s Op Telic report identified gaps in welfare provision, especially during deployments and for reservist families. Sammie Crane, who was Chief Executive from 2004 to 2007 says: “There was an enormous amount of publicity around the challenges of army life during active deployments.” Separation, isolation, and the pressures of repeated tours continued to be the focus under Julie McCarthy’s tenure as Chief Executive from 2007-2012: “We supported a lot of people who weren’t considered to be our traditional audience – parents, siblings and extended family. “The move away from estate wardens to contracted services had recently been implemented when I joined AFF and the impact on families was huge. The Housing Specialists and I were kept very busy.” Julie rates the relationship that was developed with the government as the biggest achievement during that time. “It meant that families were kept in mind during decision making. AFF was one of the founding members of the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group, the representation of serving families in that arena was a real step forward.”

Families in mind

In the last decade or so following the Strategic Defence Review in 2010, former Chief Executive Catherine Spencer reflects on some of the main concerns for families: “We ensured that command more carefully considered families during the four redundancy rounds and we also managed to get families based overseas essential extra flights.” Under Sara Baade’s stewardship, AFF, along with other families federations, launched Forces Families Jobs in 2019, emphasising the need for spouses to have meaningful careers and encouraging employers to better understand the nuances of service life.

Giving you a voice

Today, the tempo of deployments and exercises remains extremely high, as many of you will testify. Future Soldier, and initiatives such as the Future Accommodation Model will continue to bring change in the coming years. AFF’s current Chief Executive, Collette Musgrave, says: “Army families have changed over the last 40 years – who they are, how they live – and we have changed with them. But our founding principles are still the same – to support families by helping them to understand the policies and processes that affect their lives, and to give families a voice by challenging those policies and processes, to keep pace with how families actually live. Through our deep expertise in specialist areas, we continue to represent you.” No matter what the next 40 years bring, AFF is here for you – contact@aff.org.uk

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