‘Norfolk needs you!’ Walk with wounded for East Anglian veterans’ charity
- Credit: Archant
Not many charities can persuade their fundraisers to walk 15 miles with a fridge on their back.
But that's exactly what former Sergeant-Major Alasdair Ross did, for the Norfolk veterans charity Walking With The Wounded (WWTW).
Mr Ross was taking part in the 2016 fundraiser 'Walking Home for Christmas': an annual project to raise awareness of the issues faced by ex-service personnel.
According to the most recent figures from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), in 2014 there were an estimated 2.6m former service men and women living in the UK.
And WWTW has identified at least 150,000 vulnerable veterans across the country.
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Last year they helped 1,180 veterans, a 97pc increase on 2015, and supported them into work; to find housing; and access counselling. They worked with the prison service, as a high proportion of prisoners are ex-military. Their aim?
'Breaking the cycle of veterans being a disproportionately high cohort within homelessness, police custody, unemployment and mental ill-health statistics.'
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And this year, they hope to have helped almost 1,600 veterans
The charity's co-founder and CEO, Ed Parker, 52, is a former officer in the Royal Green Jackets.
He stated: 'despite a plethora of military charities, the most vulnerable do get ignored'.
However, it wasn't Mr Parker's own experience of military service that inspired him to start the charity.
Instead, WWTW was founded in 2010, after Mr Parker's nephew, Captain Harry Parker, was badly injured during Operation Panther's Claw, while serving in Afghanistan. He lost both his legs, becoming a double amputee.
His uncle described the impact his nephew's injury had on him as 'more profound than I'd expected.
'I wanted to do something.'
So he did. In 2013, WWTW ran an expedition to the North Pole with four wounded veterans.
Seven years later, the charity has offices in both London and Manchester; it works to increase awareness of the often complex mental and physical health issues facing veterans; and it has even partnered with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry on the 'Heads Together' campaign.
And while they have expanded into a national charity, walking remains at the heart of everything WWTW does; a vital part of their identity.
2017 marks the fourth year of 'Walking Home for Christmas', Both Mr Parker, and fundraiser and veteran Mr Ross, have urged the public to support the charity.
Mr Parker said he had not experienced mental ill-health after leaving the army.
He said: 'I'm very lucky - the answer is no - but I know many friends and old colleagues who have, and I have seen them for years not come forward, and not admit to it. and it has been so detrimental to their lives.
'With 'Walking Home For Christmas', however big or small a walk people do, it makes such a difference to us.
'Its a very simple premise - a sponsored walk before Christmas.
'[Volunteers] will no doubt have a home to go to, and be able to give presents. We all get so wrapped up in Christmas and who's going to get what, but [for veterans] being able to give gifts demonstrates that you're part of society again.
'Those men and women who have served on our behalf, for them not to have a home to go at Christmas, is appalling.'
Mr Ross, 55, now teaches outdoor education and runs Duke of Edinburgh at Ipswich School.
He said mental ill-health wasn't an issue for him, but added: 'Even before the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, life expectancy for ex-soldiers wasn't high.
'Many are dead before they're 40 or 50.
'In the last couple of months I've been to funerals of 40 and 50 year old guys, who have probably killed themselves.
'Its dealing with going back outside the institution. Mental health needs to be discussed more, full stop.
'I work in a school, and young people are so much more willing to talk about these things.
' While there is a stigma in the army, with thinking that you've got to be macho, if you have an issue, you are supported.
'Veterans are left to cope alone, or to use NHS services.'
He added: 'Its the guilt about coming home when others haven't made it back.'
This year Mr Ross is planning to walk from his former military base at Oaklington, north of Cambridge, to Ipswich, which will take him around 19 hours.
He plans to do the walk just before Christmas - on December 13 and 14 - and adds: 'I hope it won't be snowing.'
Royals put their 'heads together' for veterans mental health services
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Harry, have spearheaded a mental health campaign, known as 'Heads Together'.
It aims to tackle the stigma of mental health, and Walking With The Wounded (WWTW) is one of its partner charities.
Veteran and fundraiser Alasdair Ross said: 'Prince Harry spoke very eloquently about a concern that soldiers are looked upon as victims. Its about finding the balance.'
CEO Ed Parker added: 'The candour with which all three of them spoke made the issue of mental health much more accessible.
'The big issue we now need to address is capacity.'
Mr Parker dislikes the idea of waiting lists for veterans.
He said: 'If someone realises they need mental health care then you've got to give it to them fast.'
Veterans can see one of WWTW's 270 therapists within ten days. The charity offers 12-18 sessions of counselling or psychotherapy.
254 veterans were referred to this service during 2016.
Sean Cook was helped by Walking With The Wounded
Sean Cook, 25, from Norwich, formerly served in the 26 Regiment Royal Artillery.
He joined the army aged 16, but despite serving for a full four years after he turned 18, he did not qualify for a 'resettlement package'.
He found leaving the army difficult, and felt lost when he did not succeed in his goal of becoming a personal trainer.
Walking With The Wounded (WWTW) helped him begin a job in the healthcare sector, after intervening when Mr Cook began to get into trouble with the police.
He is now studying occupational therapy at the University of Nottingham.
Mr Cook said: 'I don't feel like the Ministry of Defence (MoD) does enough for veterans. Charities are the ones that pick up the pieces.
'They rely on public donations and relentlessly hard-working people.'
Mr Cook added: 'You walk out of the gate and that's it.
He said veterans should get LinkedIn and CV training before leaving the army, to give them skills to find work.
To take part in this year's Walking With The Wounded Christmas campaign, visit the Walking Home For Christmas website.