FEATURE: South Yorkshire military survey 'could help save veterans' lives'
A new project aimed at improving services for South Yorkshire's armed forces community could help to save the lives of veterans who have fallen on hard times.
That is the claim of an ex-soldier who knows all about falling on hard times having ended up homeless after leaving the army.
The former Sheffield soldier, who only wanted to give his name as Richard due to personal reasons, is urging serving and ex-military personnel and their families to take part in a study that will for the first time reveal the size of the armed forces community in South Yorkshire.
The information will then be handed over to councils and charities to better target services to help military personnel to live a good life after leaving the forces.
Richard, who endured a mental breakdown after leaving the army and ended up living in the woods, said: "The charity that saved me were my angels. I would still be in the woods had it not been for their help.
"Ex-military personnel have often been through a lot and through this survey they should end up getting more help. This will undoubtedly save lives."
He served as a tank driver in the Royal Armoured Corps in the UK, Germany, Scandinavia and Turkey, for four years until he left in 1990 to look after his ill mother.
She died months later and after losing his dad a couple of years ago, he fell into alcoholism, left his flat and - as he puts it - "went walkabout."
"I never got over the death of my mum, and then when dad went years later, I just wanted to disappear. I wanted to isolate myself from everyone because I was so low and I didn't want to hurt or upset anyone."
He hitch-hiked to Cornwall, before spending several months travelling up the coast of Wales and then returned to Sheffield, where he lived predominantly in woods dotted around the city.
He said: "I used to use snares to catch wood pigeons and fished in rivers so I could eat. I used skills perfected in the army. But I was at a low ebb."
But then in February this year an old friend and former sailor heard about his plight and tracked him down to some woods in Bamford, Derbyshire.
With the help of Sheffield Council and Project Nova, which supports veterans at risk of falling into crime, he was in his own flat within days.
After completing a course on CV writing with the Royal British Legion Institute, he is now in employment working in a factory.
Richard, now aged in his 50s, said he is a prime example of why services need to be better targeted at veterans.
"Ex-military personnel are disciplined and highly skilled but sometimes we lose our way. If the community can get more specific help, then there is literally an army of skilled people there ready to contribute to society."
The South Yorkshire Armed Forces Survey has been launched jointly by Sheffield Hallam University, South Yorkshire councils and York St John University.
Dr Katherine Albertson, who is leading the project, said it is believed there could be as many as 73, 000 veterans in Sheffield and Rotherham alone.
She said: "But the truth is we don't know. We are hoping the survey will provide the answer. Very little is known about the needs, desires, aspirations or experiences of the armed forces community.
"Without this evidence-base it is difficult for local authorities, businesses or commercial services to be as armed forces-friendly as possible."
Once the survey is closed, project leaders will go to the guardians of the Armed Forces Community Covenant, a pledge by all four councils to support the military community, and say where services can be better targeted.
Said Dr Albertson: "So we can say for example there are a lot of veterans in south Sheffield, but the services are based in north Sheffield, so we may encourage outreach or letter drops to ensure they are contacted.
"It is key that we do this because people in the military are taught to be self-sufficient, but outside of the forces if things go wrong this can sometimes lead to social isolation. The survey will help us to better get support for people before it reaches the critical stages."
Barnsley Central MP and army veteran Dan Jarvis MBE is backing the campaign and said: "This project will for the first time help us understand the size and make-up of this underrepresented community of people, many of which have made significant sacrifices through their service - and ultimately, create a fit-for-purpose system of support which is so clearly needed."
The survey is open until May 11 next year and has been funded through a Â£180, 000 grant from the Ministry of Defence’s Covenant Fund.
It is open to serving and former military personnel, volunteers and reservists, plus family members and bereaved relatives
To complete the survey visit https://tinyurl.com/y8yv8lu