A former soldier slept rough in woods around Sheffield for a year. Now, thanks to charity Walking With the Wounded, he is getting his life back. Catherine Scott reports.
This time last year former soldier Richard was living rough in the woods around his home city of Sheffield.
He lived off the land, using his basic military training to survive and doing odd jobs to feed himself.
“It wasn’t so bad in the summer because I could catch fish in the River Don, but the winter was very hard. If it hadn’t been for my military training I don’t think I would have survived,” says Richard, whose full identity we have been asked to protect.
Even with this training, his weight plummeted to less than eight stone.
“I knew that everything wasn’t well. Sometimes I could go four or five days without eating, it was affecting my mental health as well, but I was too proud to ask family or friends for help.”
But now, thanks to the charity Walking With The Wounded, Richard is on what he calls the first rung of the ladder back up. He has a flat and a job and even though it is temporary at the moment he hopes it will become permanent.
Richard’s problems started when he left the Army to help care for his terminally-ill mother.
“I had been a miner during the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85 and it made me realise that I wanted something different.”
A chance meeting with a recruiting sergeant from Sheffield Army Recruitment made Richard determined to join the Forces.
After a difficult initial week at Catterick when he wondered what he had done, Richard soon felt part of a big family and had never been happier.
But after four years in the Army he left to help care for his mother.
“I felt guilty that my dad was at home looking after my mum. Although I really didn’t want to leave the Army I felt I couldn’t leave him to look after her by himself. He didn’t want me to leave either, he was so proud that I was a soldier, but I just couldn’t see what else I could do.”
Six months later his mother died. Looking back, Richard realises now that he should have got in contact with his regiment to see if he could return to active service, but instead he drifted from job to job, none lasting for more than six months, unable to find anything that gave him the support or camaraderie of the Army.
“I just couldn’t find anything to fill the void left by the Army,” he says.
But things took a turn for the worse when his father died in 2015.
“I was visiting my godson when my father suffered a stroke and when I found out what had happened I just couldn’t deal with it.”
He admits he ‘ran away’ from his problems. He travelled the country on foot sleeping rough or in farm buildings.
“I went from Cornwall, to Wales and Anglesey, I was looking for something but I don’t know what it was.
“Looking back I think I had probably start suffering depression after I left the Army, but I never sought any help. I thought it was just me.”
When he returned to Sheffield months later, his housing association flat had been boarded up and he had been evicted. Richard says had no choice but to live rough in the woods, making a basher, a crude military shelter to live in.
“The Army had taught me to be independent but I think I did take it a bit far.”
He even stopped keeping in contact with his old Army pals.
“I felt guilty that they were putting their lives on the line in Cyprus and then Afghanistan and some of them were killed and I wasn’t there.”
It was a chance meeting with an old friend that was to offer this very proud Yorkshireman a lifeline.
“He’d heard I was on hard times and he managed to track me down to the woods around Sheffield and saw how I was living and what a state I was in,” he recalls.
His friend took him to Sheffield City Council homeless team where he was at last registered as homeless.
After he admitted to them that he had been in the Army, the homeless team made contact with the Armed Forces Covenant Lead, Coun Tony Damms.
Within minutes he received a telephone call from Walking With The Wounded’s Steve Lowe from Project Nova,
Richard, now 51, says it was the most important phone call of his life.
“Within 24 hours of talking to Steve I had a flat to live in, food in the cupboards and a few quid in my pocket,” says Richard.
“He made me go to the doctors to get checked out for both my physically and mental health. He’s any angel of a man.”
Project Nova is a WWTW funded scheme which aims to stop ex-servicemen and women falling into a downward spiral of anti-social behaviour and crime and aims to get them back on their feet.
Having completed a pilot in Norfolk and Suffolk, Nova is expanding into the North East and North West with plans to grow across the UK. Richard is a beneficiary of that expansion.
Steve from Project Nova was able to secure funding for Richard to enable him to buy food, pay his bills and, in April this year, enrolled him on the Royal British Legion Industries Lifeworks course in Sheffield,
“On the course I was given help to write my first ever CV and I also received interview practice by having mock interviews.”
Richard now has a temporary job which he hopes will become permanent.
But is isn’t just the practical support of Steve and Project Nova that has helped Richard.
“Just to know there is someone on the end of the phone I can call and they understand what I am going through. None of my friends have been in the Army and so it is hard for them to understand what life is like without that support network the Army gives you,” says Richard.
“I can’t blame anyone else but myself. Help was out there but I was too proud to ask for it.
“If hadn’t been for that friend who tracked me down and for Steve and Project Nova I’d still be homeless, without a shadow of a doubt, or worse, I’d be in prison,” says Richard.
“Instead I am on the up. I still have a long way to go but I am definitely heading in the right direction.”
Walking With The Wounded has just launched its annual campaign, Walking Home For Christmas, which hopes to raise a quarter of a million pounds to enable the charity to change the lives of more than 400 men and women like Richard.
People are being urged to do a walk of any sort between Friday and Sunday December 8 to 17.
Richard is planning a 16 mile walk on December 16 to repay some of the debt he believes he owes WWTW.
Last year Adam Hugill, a Captain in the Yorkshire Regiment, walked more than 220 miles from Wiltshire to his hometown in Beverley. The walk took 10 days to complete and he raised a grand total of £2,363 for our wounded ex-servicemen and women.
Military charity Walking With The Wounded is asking Yorkshire people to do a walk this festive season for wounded ex-servicemen and women, those who without support could be on the streets, without a job, isolated from their family, in debt or in prison.
Walking With The Wounded hopes to raise a quarter of a million pounds which will enable the charity to change the lives of more than 400 men and women like Richard.
Walking With The Wounded is coming to Yorkshire for two evenings of informal drinks and an update on the charity where you can meet beneficiaries and fellow supporters.
The Leeds event will be held on Monday October 16 at Be At One Bar, Millennium Square, between 6pm and 8.30pm.
The Sheffield event is on Tuesday October 17 at Be At One Bar, Devonshire Street, between 6pm and 8.30pm.