Service life is fantastic. In many respects it is also a privilege. This is one instance in which the advertisements can be believed! Serving in the Armed Forces affords individuals the opportunity to do, see and achieve remarkable things. All the while forging unshakeable bonds with one's comrades in arms.

Of course, its not all roses. The pay doesn’t necessarily match the personal risk and sacrifices involved; there are prolonged periods away from one’s home and loved ones; and, service accommodation is typically sub-standard. But as a serving soldier, sailor, airman or marine, these concerns pale in comparison to getting out there and doing the 'job' with your mates.

And it is this fact, those things that draw young men and women to the Armed Forces in the first place, that makes it so difficult to leave behind. Whether it be a full 22 years’ service, a medical discharge, the lure of a new and exciting career, or simply the desire to 'settle down'; the time to enter 'civvy street' comes around for each and every one of us.

Unfortunately, amongst this veteran community there are those who have experienced extreme trauma in the line of duty. Whether officially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and associated mental health issues or not, these individuals often struggle more than most to transition into civilian life and cope with day-to-day pressures. Especially in the absence of the support network afforded by their military comrades. What is more, the number of individuals facing this battle is arguably much higher than we truly realise. Veterans simply aren’t seeking out help as much as they should. There is stigma attached to admitting that you need help and it stems from perceptions within the Armed Forces of so-called 'weakness' and the fear of letting your peers down.

Tackling this erroneous and negative connotation is absolutely critical. This will take time and effort - something that Veterans for Wildlife Ambassador Jason Fox is actively working on in his personal capacity.

And it is in line with this issue, Foxy’s work and our underlying objective of empowering service leavers that Veterans for Wildlife has launched our latest project: the Wellness Programme, centered around the fully-immersive Footprints of Hope retreat hosted at Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary in South Africa. I encourage you all to read more about the Programme here.

Indeed, experience has shown that our work is very-much a two-way process: veterans for wildlife and wildlife for veterans. But what does this mean?

Through embedding highly-skilled and experienced individuals into existing organisations and programmes, Veterans for Wildlife has been able to improve the operational effectiveness and efficiency of these ground-level initiatives. But the benefit doesn't stop there. By providing what is for many ex-service personnel a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Veterans for Wildlife aims to play a critical role in the ongoing development of these individuals as they transition out of military life. Through time spent in the African bushveld, interacting with individuals from different cultures and with different life experiences, coming face-to-face with Africa's magnificent wildlife, and ultimately committing themselves to a positive calling, our volunteers benefit too. 

And it is this recognition that provided the impetus for the Wellness Programme and Footprints of Hope more specifically. As Foxy and Veterans for Wildlife Ambassador Aldo Kane highlight, spending time amongst and caring for the animals is both humbling and emotional. Identifying the very 'human' emotions that they experience, Foxy recounted the story of Jemu the orphaned rhino calf, whose mother was poached in the Greater Kruger area:

Four days she stuck by her mother’s side, even though she was dead. Due to loneliness, trauma … God knows what else goes with that sort of experience. 

Accordingly, Veterans for Wildlife believes that Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) and working with individuals like Jemu, within a rehabilitation setting, offers a unique and insightful experience for those struggling in their own lives. By putting the needs of these animals before themselves, our veteran participants will be able to gain perspective on their own lives. And hopefully find a sense of purpose in caring for something other than themselves; similar in a sense to the brotherhood and buddy-buddy system that they would have experienced in military life. A bond that is often lacking and sorely missed by veterans in civilian life.

If you are a military veteran and feel that such a programme would be of benefit to you, or if you know of anyone who fits this description, please get in touch with us today! Veterans for Wildlife is now actively seeking prospective applicants for the first Footprints of Hope retreat due to be held in 2018.

Now, to be certain, struggling with the transition into civilian life is by no means an indicator of PTSD or any other associated mental health issue. It is, plain and simple, a difficult experience. Indeed, despite a plethora of 'veteran recruitment specialists' and 'military talent programmes' out there, the seemingly simple task of finding employment can prove anything but. And this is just the first of many hurdles veterans must overcome as they leave behind one of the most demanding yet rewarding careers going.

That is why, whatever one’s current status and current state of mind, Veterans for Wildlife is working hard to provide a variety of opportunities to former service personnel. And that is why we think there is no better role model than a vulnerable, yet courageous soul like Jemu, who has gone through the toughest transition of all.