Members of the Arun Veterans and Armed Forces Breakfast Club gathered outside the respite home for war veterans in Seafield Road, Rustington, which announced recently it would not be reopening as lockdown measures eased.
The message to the RAF Benevolent Fund, the charity which ran the home, was clear: please do not close it for good.
Ian Buckland, who is vice-chairman of the breakfast club, said he was ‘astonished’ and ‘dismayed’ by the news of its closure.
He wrote to Boris Johnson, Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and Johnny Mercer – the minister responsible for veterans and the armed forces and a former Army officer himself – urging them to help keep the facility open, but said he got no response.
“I understand they may have been busy with the Covid situation, but it is rather upsetting given the premises were being used for respite for veterans and here we are closing it when locally in West Sussex alone on my last count we had 48,000 veterans in the county.”
The Queen’s Regiment army veteran said he would be writing to the charity with ‘suggestions for how the facility could be used’, including as a new venue for the breakfast club, which the group would pay to use.
He also suggested the fund teamed up with the other armed forces to fund the facility – an idea echoed by Margaret Facree, from Southfields Road, Littlehampton, who had visited Princess Marina House herself and chatted with veterans about their life stories.
She said her late husband Harvey, a chief petty officer in the navy, was ‘looking forward to visiting’ before he died. She said: “We don’t mind if we have to pay a little more; we just like the company.
“When you get old, you don’t have a lot left in your life. Being with people that we can share with means everything.”
In response, Air Vice-Marshal Chris Elliot, controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund, said: “The board of trustees looked at a variety of options when it met to consider the future viability of Princess Marina House, including inviting ‘kindred guests’ to use the facilities.
“Veterans from the navy and army are already able to stay at PMH (at their own expense) but despite this, our research told us the numbers using PMH would decline.
“Princess Marina House is heavily subsidised by the RAF Benevolent Fund, which is why its future had already been considered by the board of trustees before the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As a charity which supports RAF personnel, we could not subsidise services for other veterans.
“In addition to this, the reason Princess Marina House is closing is because we cannot safely open the facility until mid-2021 at the earliest and this will not change. As a responsible organisation, we need to ensure we are spending our income effectively to support all RAF veterans and their partners.”
An online petition started on Change.org urging the RAF Benevolent Fund to keep the home open has been signed almost 5,000 times and counting.
In response, Air Vice-Marshal Elliot said they had seen the petition, adding: “We know how loved Princess Marina House is in the Littlehampton community and by those who visit, which made the decision to close such a difficult one.
“Sadly, the board of trustees’ decision is to close Princess Marina House.
“We understand this news is upsetting for our former guests and would like to reassure them we are still here to support them, albeit in a different way.
“RAF veterans and their partners still have access to a range of support services which veterans who aren’t able to travel to PMH use, including Telephone Friendship Groups and National Wellbeing breaks.
“We are also working hard to develop an alternative strategy for veterans in the Sussex area.”