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A home fit for heroes

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: October 12, 2013

Denise Harris from Afghan Heroes calls for additional support for the charity's Retreat programme, which aims to look after servicemen who are out of the forces and down on their luck

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The latest round of cutbacks in the Armed Forces will see thousands more soldiers returning from Afghanistan – to begin their search for a new career.

With forward operating bases closed down, dugouts filled in and sandbags emptied, thousands of troops will find themselves shipped back to the UK – and an unfamiliar struggle to make ends meet away from the Army. Some will make a massive success of their new life on Civvy Street. The majority will get along just fine. But a significant minority won't.

And who's going to care for them? We are. But we will need help, especially if the dozens of former service personnel needing our assistance at the moment becomes hundreds – possibly even thousands – by the end of the decade. Afghan Heroes was launched back in 2009 by a group of mothers who had lost a son while serving out in Afghanistan. We have spent the last four years trying to help former service personnel piece their lives back together after falling on hard times since leaving the forces – some have even ended up homeless and living rough.

This year we opened our first retreats in Somerset. They will become the templates for a network of up to a dozen retreats we intend to set up around the country.

Each self-sustaining and future-proofed post-services facility is intended to provide a home, a new career or further training for those who had fallen on hard times since leaving the forces.

The widespread public support we have received has enabled us to achieve miracles providing a secure family life for troubled servicemen. But we will need time to bring these plans forward, and the clock is already ticking for hundreds of servicemen who might face an uncertain future.

Unless there is a massive rethink in the provision of post-services care, military charities like Afghan Heroes will struggle to provide this lifeline to all but a tiny fraction of those who need it.

Our first retreat in Ashcott near Glastonbury is already full, with five former services personnel looked after by an ex-forces mentor. More are being allocated places at the Smuggled Retreat in Blue Anchor near Minehead – even before the necessary building work is fully complete.

If we succeed in opening a dozen retreats across the country over the next few years we will be able to boast that we have provided new starts for 50, 60, possibly even 70 former service personnel.

By the time we have appointed more mentors and employed dozens of troops-turned-tradesmen to carry out the renovations required, we might be able to trumpet the fact we have helped more than a hundred former servicemen begin a new life.

But a cursory glance at last Saturday's Daily Press report into the Government's plans to pare thousands more from Britain's Armed Forces reveals the extent of the problem the country will face over the next few years. The Government is playing the numbers game – and it's a game we simply can't win.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of former servicemen are going to need our help to some extent or another and if we are to play our part we are going to need a significant investment from the Government – alongside the continued, generous and much appreciated support of the public.

In reporting the Government's plan to cut the British Army from 102,000 to 82,000 by the end of the decade, the Western Daily Press also made reference to the planned reduction in troop numbers in theatre.

British presence in Afghanistan will be almost halved by the end of this year to just 5,200, with all combat operations in the country completed by the end of 2014.

Responding to this fact, the charity has recently been extending the use of its alternative title – True Heroes – as opposed to the original Afghan Heroes.

But wherever our troops find themselves and whatever we are calling ourselves, these former service personnel are going to need our help. We intend to be there to help provide it.

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