Veterans’ project proves its worth

More than a hundred military veterans sentenced by the courts in Hampshire have been supported by a specialist project lead by probation.

A total of 117 veterans have been helped by 28 peer mentors – all of whom have also seen military service – since the scheme was launched by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Rehabilitation Company (HIOW CRC) in 2015. During that period, only eight have been recalled to prison and four re-offended within a six-month period of finishing their sentence.

Ernie Grendall, HIOW CRC’s volunteer and veteran peer mentor coordinator, enlisted in the army in 1975 when he was 17 and served his country for more than 36 years before re-joining civvy street and eventually starting his probation career.

CRC probation case managers refer people on their caseload to the scheme. It starts with a meeting between the case manager, offender, peer mentor and Ernie. All agree how the initiative will work, which ordinarily involves the volunteer meeting the service user to support them to make positive changes to their lives.

A 44-year-old man, who was arrested for common assault and battery, is one of those to have been supported. He has a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis and committed the offences while drunk and abusing drugs.

He said: “I was suicidal and was harming myself on a regular basis. Until I met the mentor, I was really struggling.”

He worked with the mentor for 18 months. Support included referral to mental health experts and admission to a treatment programme, accommodation, arranging benefits, and help addressing addictions.

He added: “Having a mentor who has served in the military helped me a great deal. He understood me, had the same sense of humour and knew what it was like to have been in a war zone. I genuinely think that without the mentor, I’d have killed myself.”

Ernie, who spent his final two years in the army working as a welfare officer, said: “Leaving the military is tough no matter who you are or whether you’ve served two years or 22-years. The transition is always very traumatic as I know only too well from personal experience.

“The army institutionalises you. Your daily routine is governed like clockwork. You are part of a massive team, a team which you depend upon for your life and who become your extended family – and that is amplified tenfold during military operations.

“Then you leave and that’s that. Many have to re-educate themselves about what they think about civilians. PTSD can greatly exacerbate adjustment problems and lead to chronic isolation and depression. And soldiers also find it instinctively hard to ask for help.

“That’s why the service we provide is so important. We have all served, we can speak on the level with our service users and how to overcome the barriers they face. I think that’s why our success rates are so good.”

Roger Clift aged 67, from Andover, served in the army for 15-years. He became a volunteer peer mentor nearly six-years-ago after reading about the scheme in the Andover Advertiser.

He said: “It struck a chord. Leaving the military is tough for anyone. It’s hard adjusting when you lose that bond with your regiment or battalion and also when the discipline is removed from your life.

“I tell my clients at the outset that I’m working with them because I want to, likewise I expect them to participate only because they want to. I don’t represent authority, I’m unpaid and my involvement with them doesn’t reduce their sentence.

“I think that dynamic means that there’s a bond I can form with service users which compliments the work probation undertakes.”

Roger, who is also active in other veterans’ groups in Hampshire, said he meets his clients on a regular basis during the first month, and then meets as required, while also being available for telephone calls.

He said: “There’s no set approach, it’s purely focused on what the individual needs. We go through what results they want to see, the barriers stopping them doing that, and then look at ways to navigate them.

“One gentleman I worked with, even though he’d been a senior non-commissioned officer, lacked confidence, and so I attended the job centre, Citizen’s Advice Bureau and SSAFA with him to help him find his feet. He told me he wouldn’t have made that step on his own.

“I enjoy what I do. Not every case goes swimmingly, but when it works it is possible to see real progress.

“I’d urge other volunteers to get involved, and it would be especially good to get people currently serving with the military to support the scheme.”

David Moxey left the Navy in 2001 before working for Airbus. He became a volunteer four-years-ago.

He said: “I’ve learned a lot about mental health and addiction. It’s been challenging, but it’s also been exceptionally rewarding.

“What I’ve seen is that all of the clients know where they want to be, but making progress from steps A to B to C can be frustratingly difficult. My role involves meeting every week or fortnight for a coffee, to listen, and to help motivate the individual to overcome whatever barriers they face and creating those positive social networks.

“One man was a talented musician but had given it up. Over time I helped him rebuild his confidence and to join a church musical group so he could start playing again. It was humbling to see his transformation, and to have played a small role in him becoming a functioning member of society once again.

“I think 90 per cent of the people in the criminal justice system are there because of mental health issues, addiction or because circumstance has compelled them to make a bad decision. It’s good to be able to share my life experiences and to walk alongside someone to help them rebuild from that position.

“Anyone with a genuine passion for helping others, I’d encourage them to think about volunteering.”