Why Sunderland's armed forces veterans need our support throughout the year
Graham Hall’s Army career included periods in Northern Ireland during the province’s bloody Troubles.
Yet the former sergeant admits he was still ill-prepared for a supposedly routine life back on Civvy Street after leaving the Royal Anglian Regiment.
Mr Hall, from Sunderland, recalls: “I came out with a wife and three young children and had no-one to help me find a job or home.
“Thankfully, things did work out. But I always said that if I was ever in a position to help someone who was in a similar position to me then I would.”
Now a businessman in the pub trade, Mr Hall has kept to his word following the creation of the Sunderland Armed Forces Network (SAFN) in 2011.
The voluntary group acts as an umbrella organisation for both local and national agencies in providing tailored support for the city’s 26,000 veteran community and their families.
From dealing with housing complaints to funding job training, SAFN has now assisted 900 individuals.
Success stories include helping one veteran, who was in danger of descending into “low-level criminality and anti-social behaviour”, on his journey to become a bar manager by paying for a £650-plus licensing course.
Others, however, need constant help.
With the nation coming together this weekend to mark Remembrance Sunday and millions of people proudly wearing poppies, the message Mr Hall is keen to stress is that helping veterans is a “24/7 operation throughout the year”.
“It is not uncommon for us to get a call on Christmas Day from someone who is feeling lonely,” he said.
“Then there’s birthdays, anniversaries and even Bonfire Night can cause problems with the popping of fireworks reminding people of their time in the forces.”
Among the organisations SAFN works with in Sunderland to spread a “better understanding of the unique circumstances veterans find themselves in” are Northumbria Police, Sunderland City Council and the National Health Service (NHS).
Nor is it the only group helping veterans across the city.
Ger Fowler, 49, from Southwick, founded Veterans in Crisis Sunderland (VICS) following his own battles with drink and drugs after suffering “survivor’s guilt” during his own service in Northern Ireland.
On August 20, 1988, eight servicemen died and another 28 were injured at Ballygawley when the IRA blew up a bus heading from an air base to the 1st Light Infantry’s Barracks.
Mr Fowler was supposed to be on the bus before travelling separately in a van after it filled up.
VICS has helped nearly 200 veterans since it was formed in its current guise last year and will poignantly mark Remembrance Day on November 11 by officially opening its new Emergency Rendezvous (ERV) centre, in Roker Avenue.
The four-storey building, secured with help from the city’s Springboard Sunderland Trust and Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), provides arts classes and therapy sessions with emergency accommodation also available if veterans have been referred by organisations such as the police or health services.
Widow Pam Maddocks admits that VICS, which last week received the Special Community Award at the Echo’s Portfolio Awards, has “changed and saved her life”.
Mrs Maddocks, 59, who served as a medic in the Women’s RAF (WRAF) for seven years, had suicidal thoughts after returning last year to live in her home city for the first time in nearly 40 years following the death of husband John, 68, from cancer in 2017.
She said: “I hardly knew anyone apart from my relatives, I was at a loss, I did not know where I fitted in. I had lost my soul mate, my best mate and my husband, everything, and was trying to get by day by day.”
After seeking medical help earlier this year, a nurse from the Sunderland Crisis Team suggested she contacted VICS and she was immediately invited to its Tuesday meetings at the Gunners Club, in Mary Street, Sunderland city centre.
Mrs Maddocks, who worked for the Royal Mail after leaving the WRAF in 1986 and now lives in the Leechmere Road area of the city, said: “I walked in and it just changed my life. They were so friendly, so welcoming. I felt I was part of a new family. They are my family.”
As well as its 10am-1pm meetings at the Gunners Club, veterans are invited to drop in to the ERV for a coffee and a chat from Mondays-Fridays between 9am-5pm.
With conversion work on the building costing a five-figure sum, however, Mr Fowler admits that financing VICS’s ongoing work is a “constant struggle” and adds: “The people of Sunderland have been so supportive and what’s happening over Remembrance Weekend is fantastic.
“But veterans need our support throughout the year and we will be out on Christmas Day delivering meals to veterans just as we did last year. “
The Royal British Legion, the organiser of the annual Poppy Appeal, also helps hundreds of veterans and their families throughout the Sunderland area.
From finding rehabilitation programmes to funding funerals, the Legion works with support agencies so “if there is ever a reason we can't help, our vast network will mean that we know someone who can”.
Nicola Meredith, its north area manager, said: “From D-Day veterans in their 90s to people leaving in their teens, we cover the full spectrum from helping people with employment and housing issues to those who need care.”
Pride is often one barrier support services have to overcome to help veterans – “this macho forces image”, as Mr Hall calls it – while many other former servicemen and women simply do not realise they are entitled to help.
Mr Hall added: “The definition of a veteran in our view is someone who has served one day.
“Everyone in the forces community might not agree, but why should we ignore someone, for instance, who has got injured very soon into their career through no fault of their own? We are here to help.”
Northern England (NHS): (0191) 4415974;
Veterans UK (MoD): 0808 1914218;
Veterans Gateway: 0808 802 1212;
Alcoholics Anonymous: 0800 8177 650;
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619;
Help for Heroes: (01980) 844280;
Royal British Legion: 0808 802 8080;
SSAFA The Armed Forces Charity: 080 731 4880;
Stand Easy: (01603) 666546;
ABF The Soldiers’ Charity: (0207) 9018900;
Mind (Washington): (0191) 4178043;
Mind (Sunderland): (0191) 5657218;
The Sunderland Armed Forces Network: (07711) 184444;
Veterans in Crisis Sunderland: (07398) 916590 and (0191) 5671878.