In December last year, Veterans for Wildlife launched its ground-breaking Footprints of Hope project. Five military veterans from across the United Kingdom (UK) travelled to South Africa to participate in a unique, two-week residential programme. This programme was specifically designed in conjunction with a clinical psychologist, to assist the individuals in their struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and associated mental health challenges.

This pioneering programme built on previous successful interventions centred on the principle of animal-assisted therapy (AAT). But, instead of turning to dogs, horses or even dolphins, our veterans were paired with orphaned rhino calves.

The baby rhinos are themselves victims of extreme trauma - having witnessed their mothers being brutally killed and hacked to pieces for their horns. Thus abandoned, these calves are often found hopelessly trying to stir their dead mothers back to life, or aimlessly wandering through the bush.

Thankfully, local rangers and veterinarians are on hand to save these animals and transport them to the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary. Here they receive life-saving medical care and undergo a programme of intense physical and mental rehabilitation.

And it is to Care for Wild where our veterans deployed — tasked with the day-to-day care of the young orphans as well as conducting a series of group and individual contact sessions with the resident Veterans for Wildlife clinical psychologist.

The aim? To provide the veterans with a safe and contained environment in which the therapeutic advantages of working with animals can be explored and understood. Indeed, over the course of the two weeks, the veterans were not only taught a number of personal coping techniques but were also given the opportunity to gain a unique perspective on their own lives. Finding a sense of purpose in caring for something other than themselves and relating their personal trauma to that experienced by the baby rhinos.

The conditions for the Footprints of Hope retreat were set many weeks prior, during a number of pre-deployment contact sessions, held in London in November 2018. During these sessions, the veterans were introduced to journaling, art therapy, yoga nidra as well as yin yoga. These skills formed critical components of the overall programme and were carried through by the veterans to their time spent in South Africa.

After a highly successful start, the first Footprints of Hope project is now in its closing stages. The veterans are due to attend a number of post-deployment contact sessions throughout February and March 2019. The Veterans for Wildlife team will be assisting the veterans in rounding off their experience and ensuring that the various personal coping techniques and skills previously introduced are carried through as long-term habits.

In a hugely positive development, the mid-period assessments undertaken by our clinical psychologist already indicate a significant reduction in PTSD and related symptoms across the board. The assessments also point to a considerable increase in Post Traumatic Growth amongst the veterans.

Veterans for Wildlife are extremely excited by this progress and look forward to continuing on the journey of self-discovery and self-care with those who took part in the Footprints of Hope programme. Indeed, we hope that we can continue to offer the programme throughout 2019 and beyond. Reaching even more veterans and assisting them with their own PTSD and mental health challenges.

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the incredibly generous support of Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC, who not only supported Veterans for Wildlife in our development of this programme but also directly funded it in its entirety.

Lord Ashcroft is a renowned philanthropist, environmentalist and friend of the military and veteran communities. His passion and willingness to support those in need was pivotal in ensuring that Footprints of Hope grew from a simple idea into a successful and meaningful project.

You can read more about Footprints of Hope (Lord Ashcroft’s time on the ground at Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary) in today’s Telegraph Magazine. And why not click through to YouTube to watch the short documentary produced by the team? Meet the veterans as they discuss their backgrounds, the programme as well as the baby rhinos under their care!

- Footprints of Hope was endorsed by the Trauma and Violence Division of the Psychological Society of South Africa.

Apply to take part in Footprints of Hope 2

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