Chance of a fresh start for veterans who have suffered for their country

Army veterans who have been traumatised by their experiences in Afghanistan could have the chance to start a new career. Greg Wright reports.

WHAT happens to our soldiers when the fog of war clears?

In far too many cases, they return home to alcoholism, homelessness and early death.Britain hasn’t always looked after its fighting men and women.

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Politicians lavish them with praise, but once the fighting stops their needs are frequently neglected.

The neglect has been shameful for centuries. Queen Elizabeth I’s rousing speech at Tilbury during the Armada crisis would have had an empty ring without the courage of Britain’s sailors.

After the First World War, Prime Minister David Lloyd George bragged about creating a land fit for heroes. As the writer Neil Hanson has observed, many of the men who saw off the Armada died in poverty due to Elizabeth’s meanness, while a generation returned from the First World War trenches to the dole queue and destitution.

Today, the price of serving your country is paid many years later, by servicemen who are haunted by their memories and find it had to adjust to life on civvy street.Research carried out by the national agency, Homeless Link, suggests that the proportion of ex-servicemen among the UK’s homeless population could be as high as six per cent.

An appeal has been launched to raise £92,000 to create a project in Catterick, North Yorkshire, which will help former service personnel start new lives. Each year about 20,000 people are discharged from the services. Some blossom when they return to civilian life, but others miss the security provided by the fixed routines of their time in the Army.

The fundraising is being led by Clair Challenor-Chadwick, of the marketing and event management company Cause UK, who decided to become involved after listening to a speech earlier this year delivered at Bramham Park, near Leeds, by Lord Dannatt, the former head of the army.

“He said that more veterans committed suicide after the Falklands War than died in the conflict itself,’’ Ms Challenor-Chadwick said. “Often combat stress does not manifest itself for 10 years or more after a soldier returns from battle.”

According to Ms Challenor-Chadwick, the bakery will provide training for veterans who are at risk of becoming homeless or suffering from combat stress and associated problems, such as alcoholism and drug addictions.

Homeless ex-service personnel have quite distinct needs.

For example, they have been found to have a higher rate of alcoholism. Researchers have suggested that this is due to a drinking culture within the armed forces.

Those who could benefit from the bakery project include a former soldier from the Huddersfield area, who has asked to remain anonymous. He left the army in 2007 after eight years service because he had been traumatised by things he had seen on active service.

He found it difficult to speak to his colleagues about the flashbacks because he felt they wouldn’t take him seriously. He developed an alcohol problem and drifted into crime.

Another former solder, who could take part in the project, left the Army in 1997 after 14 years service.

He struggled to cope with an unstructured world outside the services and is now unemployed and homeless. He’s also built up debts of £10,000 and is waiting to see an adviser at the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Ms Challenor-Chadwick got involved after visiting The Clervaux Trust’s bakery in Darlington earlier this summer.The trust works with troubled young people in the North, including those who have been excluded from school.

It also works with youngsters needing long-term care due to learning disabilities, mental health issues or their complex social needs.

The trust’s artisan bakery, cafe and shop in Darlington opened in September last year.

The project is working with 40 young people, and there are opportunities for shorter courses and training for 100 others.

Ms Challenor-Chadwick said: “The Clervaux Trust will be using the same model to set up the bakery at The Beacon, a new housing project for veterans at Catterick run by social housing provider Riverside, which will help up to 100 veterans a year and give them the skills and confidence to gain employment.

“It is my job to raise £92,000, £42,000 will buy the bakery equipment, the rest will kick start the revenue money for the social enterprise.”

Since 1999, Riverside ECHG, which is part of the Riverside Group, has been developing services for single homeless veterans. Its first service, the Single Person Accommodation Centre for the Ex Services (SPACES) which opened in September 2000, has helped more than 8,500 veterans find accommodation.

Its latest project – The Beacon in Catterick – helps veterans who would otherwise have become homeless or rough sleepers.

Trevor Morris, the MoD area manager for Riverside ECHG, left the Army in 1995 and knows about the painful adjustments that many soldiers face.

He said: “I changed from being a serving soldier who saw the Army as some kind of amazingly large family that would look after you, to someone who became part of a civilian organisation that may have lacked the camaraderie, but gave me a job and the opportunity to help the most vulnerable of my former military colleagues.

“It’s very humbling to be thanked by someone who has served their country and made sacrifices along the way, for just doing my job.

“The biggest lesson I have learned is never to give up on your vision and always be focused on what you want to achieve, especially when it is something that vulnerable people will benefit from,

“We plan to start moving in residents in at the start of September, with an average length of stay of five months.”

Rick McCordall, the commercial manager of The Clervaux Trust, said: “This project is vital in supporting veterans in terms of building their self-esteem and confidence.

“We will be providing a wide range of training for veterans, not just in baking bread and scones. Other aspects will include basic food hygiene, catering and kitchen skills, barista training, customer service training, marketing and accounts.

“I believe it will transform many lives – it is expected that many veterans will go on to further education, training and paid work and may even go on to set up their own bakery.”

Ms Challenor-Chadwick said the typical veteran taking part in the project could be fresh from the frontline in Afghanistan.

She added: “They will require training, won’t have a permanent address and may have experienced family breakdown and drinking, to mask a trauma-based issue.

“We have found that more than 30 per cent of the group sampled (for the project) have been medically discharged.

“A substantial number have psychological and social problems. It is expected that this figure will rise due to the conflict in Afghanistan.”

These are hard economic times, and anybody looking to raise £92,000 could face an uphill battle.

Ms Challenor-Chadwick is realistic but determined. She believes the price of failure will be too high.

“If the veterans don’t get help then we will fail them as we failed the ex-servicemen and women of the Falklands,’’ she said.