Sue Jackson 19th January 2018
Working in the armed forces can take a lot of bravery — everyone knows that. But most people don’t know how much bravery it takes to leave the armed forces and live as a civilian.
Rachel was referred to charity Battling On after being medically discharged from the Army. She was suffering from severe depression, had complex medical needs which left her in a lot of pain, and was at high risk of suicide. Despite being convinced no one could help, Rachel found just the help that she needed.
She says: “For the first time since leaving the army, I have a future to look forward to. I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for their support.”
Another veteran is Lucy, who joined the Navy at 16, with no qualifications. She was trained in weapons systems but, after an injury to her knee, she was invalided out of the Navy. “The Navy was my whole world; I’d never considered any other occupation,” she says. She struggled to find work, slipped into depression and became agoraphobic.
Battling On worked with her over a six-month period helping her through her depression, and Lucy decided she would like to help others whose lives had also been changed through injury and become an occupational therapist. But without qualifications it was impossible.
The charity supported Lucy to get the qualifications to get on an Access course so she could apply for university, and last August Lucy not only passed her course with straight As, but was one of 38 out of 400 who got a place at Queen Margaret’s University to study occupational therapy.
“It’s scary, but wonderful – a dream come true,” she says. “A dream Battling On made possible.”
Nikki Markham set up the charity in 2012 to help those who had been in the armed forces adjust to civilian life. But Battling On doesn’t just help these veterans, many of whom are suffering from PTSD, poverty, and needing accommodation; it trains them to help disadvantaged young people in Cornwall.
Markham explains: “The programme has two sides to it – we offer wraparound care and support for veterans; or we can train them to become mentors and work with young people, so we employ those veterans coming through and they also earn while they’re training.”
She also runs a training centre called Transferable Skills Training (TST) in partnership with Duchy College, which provides training for students needing support and vocational based qualifications.
“In 2011 we noticed a huge influx of young men referred from the Jobcentre with a variety of highly complex needs – alcohol, homelessness, mental health issues, drugs, anger management issues, and very low levels of numeracy and literacy,” says Markham. “When we did some research, we realised that nearly all of them had come from armed forces – and most of them had served on the frontline in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
The Ministry of Defence released figures that showed 37% of frontline troops in the army had a reading age of 7-8-year-olds
Perhaps what was most shocking were the official statistics. “The Ministry of Defence released figures that showed 37% of frontline troops in the army had a reading age of 7-8-year-olds; likewise with numeracy, so when they come into the civilian world, they haven’t got the skills to fill in job application forms, sign on, or read a tenancy agreement, and this is why a lot of them end up on the streets. It’s horrifying,” she says. “The MoD are now trying to support people and make sure they have functioning numeracy and literacy when they leave, but it’s still an issue.”
Markham tried to get counselling support for these veterans but there was nothing in the mainstream education budget. There was a waiting list of 6-8 months to see a counsellor in Cornwall and a 14-month wait to see a psychiatrist. Desperate, she talked to Cornwall Community Foundation. “They advised that we should set up a community interest company — a not for profit organisation, so we set up Battling On so we could write grants and get funding for counselling, and that’s how it started.”
But it is what happened next that made the charity unique.
We were amazed at the impact the veterans had on the young people
Originally the centre was a care farm that provided training for young people who struggled at school and had problems with low self-esteem but wanted vocational training, Markham explains. “Quite a lot of the veterans saw these kids and asked if they could help them.”
She adds: “We were amazed at the impact the veterans had on the young people – there was a natural synergy between the two. A lot of the veterans had entered the army to get away from living in poverty, single parents and the care system, so they could identify with those young people with similar problems.”
Similarly, the youngsters respected them, realising that the veterans understood what was happening in their lives. “We found the veterans were very good at encouraging the young people to stay in education, and aim higher, go further,” she explains.
Markham started fundraising and got a grant for £30,000 from Comic Relief. “This allowed us to pilot a programme called Together We Can Succeed. The veterans worked with TST to train the youngsters and we trained the veterans to become instructors, and tutors, so it was a double project.”
They received funding to support eight young people, and targeted the hardest to reach in Plymouth and Cornwall. “These were the ones no one else would teach as they were too violent,” she says. “One had 200 arrests to his name and had been locked up for armed robbery.” And it had a huge impact. “By the end of the project we’d had 40 young people who’d self-referred by word of mouth and we had 100% reduction in offending.”
All of the young people completed the course and went on to apprenticeships, jobs or further education. “It was such a success, the BBC used it to launch Red Nose Day in the South West and we went on to win the Soldiering On award for innovation,” says Markham, who has since won two more awards.
Ben was a youngster in the care system, but was thrown out of his foster home after stealing from his foster parents to feed his drug and drink habit. He was brought to Battling On by his friends and with the help of his veteran mentor, he registered with a GP, and started taking his medication. His mentor took him for substance abuse counselling, and working with social services, he got into supported living. He then enrolled with an FE college to continue his vocational studies. “Without Battling On I would literally be dead or living on the streets taking crack,” he says.
Battling On is based in Callington, Cornwall, which is also Markham’s home. “My parents and uncle live here, so the whole family is behind the project and allow us to use the farm as a care farm.” They have an abundance of animals – dogs, cats, horses, donkeys, sheep, pigs as well as peacocks, turkeys, chickens and ducks, and most of them are rescue animals.
“We try and use animal-assisted intervention,” she explains. “It’s methodology used to help people relax, then we engage in counselling using the animals. We have ten alpacas, which are very good for people with emotional behavioural problems and autism.”
Markham reckons Battling On helps about 80 veterans a year. “Though between the two organisations, we support about 280-320 individuals through training programmes every year. That’s including young and unemployed people.”
The sad thing is we’re saving the public purse hundreds of thousands of pounds a year through non-reoffending, supporting those with mental health issues, and helping people get work, but it’s difficult getting money from the councils
Since its inception in 2012, Battling On now employs six full and part-time staff, “but we have 22 also working in a voluntary capacity or part-time,” she explains.
“They work for TST but also help the veterans with educational programmes, so they’re working as mentors while the veterans are learning.
“We pay the veterans and teaching people, but myself and the other directors of Battling On volunteer our time. This is very much about every penny getting to the front line.”
Achieving such excellent results means that Battling On’s resources are now highly sought after.
But like most charities, the problem is funding. “The sad thing is we’re saving the public purse hundreds of thousands of pounds a year through non-reoffending, supporting those with mental health issues, and helping people get work, but it’s difficult getting money from the councils and other people to support us,” says Markham. “We’d love to pay a fundraiser on a full-time basis. At the moment, I do it all in my spare time, but when you’re trying to fit that round other jobs, it means we don’t have the chance to grow in a sustainable way.”
It’s clear she loves this work but finds it very humbling. “There are some kids who’ve come through backgrounds with alcohol, prostitution, drug abuse, yet still want to improve their lives. You wonder if you’d have the strength and fortitude to behave as they do.”
Nikki fought cancer for many years, and feels that it is now almost an obligation to help others. “This work has taught me that you shouldn’t take no for an answer,” she says. “You need to follow your instincts and if you know something is right, quite often you can find other people who will support and help you.
“The world reports too much on the negative in life and there is a lot about the human spirit that we should be celebrating.”
Sue Jackson 19th January 2018