Many co-operatives and co-operators will this month be remembering those lost in war. For one Yorkshire co-operative that remembering goes on all year round.
The Solider On Project co-operative was established to support ex-service personnel and their families by husband and wife team Carl and Sue White.
Carl’s 12 years service had included the first Gulf War, spells in Northern Ireland and peacekeeping in Bosnia. After leaving the army it was not unreasonable for Carl and his wife Sue to assume that his battles were over. In reality, a whole series of new battles were about to begin.
Carl suffered a breakdown at the age of 36 which saw him sectioned, lose his post-army job with BT and left his family not knowing where to turn. Despite suffering what Sue recognised as “classic” symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, the family found it difficult to get the help and support they needed.
“I felt we’d be able to cope and get the help we needed, but we couldn’t,” explained Sue. “We needed support for the family and for someone to be able to tell Carl that what he was going through was normal.”
Sue grew more and more frustrated and angry at the lack of practical support and decided to write a book about her experiences and to help others in a similar situation.
After his breakdown, Carl found it difficult to restart his life. If it is sometimes hard for ex-service personnel to find work, it is a whole lot harder for ex-service personnel who have faced pychological issues.
Sue’s book attracted a lot of interest, which rocketed after Sue appeared on national television, on the BBC’s ‘The One Show’.
“The reaction was phenomenal,” she says, “Suddenly I was having to deal with 600 emails.”
The reaction confirmed Sue’s suspicions that lots of other people were facing the same sorts of problems as her and her family and she decided that she would form an organisation for people to share experiences and find solutions.
“Rather than register as another forces charity we decided to be a co-operative where people could work with me and share ideas.”
The Soldier On Project co-operative provides training to ex-forces personnel, working with agencies such as Job Centre Plus for referrals.
Its courses include training in first aid, security services and events management.
“We want to make the transition from the services to civilian working life as easy as possible so we concentrate on activities that can be done in teams — as in the army. The training builds on the skills and knowledge that people already have from the forces,” says Sue.
“People are also working and training alongside other people who’ve had similar experiences. However much you want to help, if you haven’t been in the services, it’s difficult to totally understand what they’ve been through.
“Isolation is a big issue for ex-service people — there’s a tendency for people to hide themselves away. Through our training we bring people together and help to normalise their experiences — help them to see that what they’re experiencing or feeling is quite normal.”
There is one element of forces life however that the co-operative doesn’t continue: “We do not run on rank. Regardless of their service history, everyone is treated as equal and the men are addressed as ‘mister’.”
The co-operative is establishing partnerships with a range of organisations. It has teamed up with security firms in Leeds and has provided stewarding services at an event for the Jane Tomlinson Foundation.
It also works closely with the police and probation services. “If an ex-serviceman is in the cells on a Friday night having caused trouble in town, we can talk to them and help them to address the issue they’re facing.”
If reaction from the general public to the co-operative has been positive, it has been no less so from the Co-operative Movement.
“I’ve really been taken aback by the support we’ve had from co-operatives,” says Sue. “The Enterprise Hub found us the funding to get incorporated and they’ve offered brilliant ongoing support. I’ve given a talk to the North Yorkshire Area Committee of the Co-operative Group and they gave us a £200 grant and sent me a lovely bunch of flowers. I’ve also been told that we can put our leaflets into some of the local stores which is great.”
Sue’s aim is for the co-operative to be fully self-sustaining and to complement the training business it is introducing two additional services — a mobile catering unit, The Solider On Sizzler and a merchandising business, Soldier On Emporium.
“You don’t need to have been to Afghanistan and have your leg blown off to suffer,” says Sue.
“Charities like Help for Heroes do great work in focusing on the physical disabilities that service people suffer, but not enough attention is given to the mental problems encountered.”
• To find out more about the work of the Soldier On Project co-operative visit: www.soldieronproject.com