In December last year, I travelled to a secret location just outside South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park to report on a unique project.
The location was, and still is, secret because it is where dozens of young rhinos, some only weeks or months old, are brought when they are found abandoned and orphaned: in almost all cases their mothers have been brutally shot and dehorned, sometimes while they are still alive, by poachers.
So if the evil poachers knew the location of the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, they could go there in search of easy pickings: some of the older rhinos have well-established – and therefore valuable – horns.
I travelled to South Africa to report on first-ever Footprints of Hope project, which was organised by a British-based charity, Veterans for Wildlife. The intention of the programme was for humans and animals, both damaged by traumatic events in their lives, to benefit from the other’s existence through Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).
In fact, I sponsored the first Footprints of Hope programme because of my dual interests in supporting military veterans (I was the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans Transition for six years until resigning last year) and protecting wildlife.
The programme’s aims were ambitious considering the trauma that its participants had encountered: “To equip and empower veterans with the tools and support they need to make immediate and long-term changes to their mental wellbeing, allowing them to lead happy and fulfilling civilian lives.”
Five British military veterans, all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PDSD) and some suffering from physical injuries too, spent two weeks at the orphanage caring for the baby rhinos. I wrote about this in a lengthy feature for The Telegraph Magazine published on January 26 this year.
The initial indications from the project were good: that the five veterans – three men and two women – had benefitted from their AAT programme. But were these gains only short rather than long term?
The only way to find out was to interview the veterans again and to discover from the programme organiser and clinical psychologist if they felt the veterans had made significant progress to their lives in the long run.
This time the location for the interviews was less exotic: a first-floor room in Battersea, central London, where Veterans for Wildlife has its office. However, the positive feedback that the veterans recounted to me was equally encouraging to that I had received from them in South Africa many months earlier.
Pete Dunning, 34, a former Royal Marines Commando, was forced to leave the military after he lost both his legs and suffered other serious injuries when his Viking armoured vehicle was struck by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province in May 2008.
He said of Footprints of Hope: “Being in South Africa and having the experience that we had out there has given us the tools to take back into every-day situations.”
Pete observed his family and friends had commented, since his return from Africa, that he seemed to have a better and calmer approach to life. “I definitely feel more positive about the future. I have gone through peaks and troughs since South Africa but there have been more good times than bad. I feel better in myself and there are people out there [fellow veterans from the programme] that I can rely on if I need help.”
Pete, a divorced father of two, is now in a new relationship and working on a military study into the effect of battlefield injuries. He hopes one day to return to South Africa to see how the rhinos he was working with are progressing.
Chris Corbett, 32, served for eight years in the Army, becoming a corporal in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. He left the military after being injured by shrapnel during a tour of Iraq in May 2007. After suffering with aggression and depression, he was eventually diagnosed with complex PTSD. He currently works for a construction company.
Chris said of his Footprints of Hope experience: “It’s helped me absolute wonders…The main thing is how we have gelled together as a team, obviously [from] going out to Africa and doing a lot of work together and having to help each other out in physical and mental situations. We are still strong as a team, many months later. I have made friends for life.”
Chris said that speaking to two members of the group who had competed in the Invictus Games, an international event for wounded and sick military personnel and veterans, had encouraged him to get back into training with the aim of competing in power-lifting and rowing events. “It’s something I would probably never have done in the past: big crowds, a lot of people there. It’s just something that would have made me feel uncomfortable back in the past but it’s something I am really driven to go and do now,” he said.
Chris, who lives with his partner and their two daughters, has fond memories of his time working with the rhinos: “I fell in love with Africa when I went there,” he said. “It’s changed me in positive ways.”
Martin Bodley, 30, who left the Army in 2012 after seven years, was a craftsman in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and completed two tours of Afghanistan. He has since struggled with heavy drinking and depression and was diagnosed with PTSD. He currently works as a civilian investigator with Avon and Somerset Police.
“For me the long-term benefit has been the network…having such a close bond with the other veterans, being able to talk to them and realise that I am not alone,” he told me. “When first depression hits you and [then] anxiety and everything else flows into you, you very much feel isolated…Yet speaking to people [fellow programme members] who have common knowledge of what is going on is a big part of Footprints of Hope.”
Martin, who is divorced with a young daughter but now in a new relationship, said he feels more positive about the future because of his “absolutely incredible experience” in South Africa, working with the vulnerable young rhinos. “We all worked so well as a team,” he added. Footprints of Hope had introduced him to yoga and meditation, which he continues to do and which he says “helps me a lot”.
The other two veterans on the Footprints of Hope programme, Jennifer Jessey and Jennifer Yarwood, have also made significant progress as a result of being in South Africa but they find it more difficult to speak publicly about their experiences.
Wes Thomson, the London-based South African founder and chief executive of Veterans for Wildlife, and himself a veteran of the Royal Marines, said of the charity’s first Footprints of Hope programme: “It has been better than we ever anticipated. It’s been massively rewarding to see the progress of the veterans in terms of their mental health and well-being. We are delighted to have been able to play our small part in their journey towards recovery.
“Lots of lessons have been learnt – it was a hugely complicated project with many different moving parts. There are a few things that we will change going forward that will make the project better.” He said that in the future, providied the funding is in place, the charity hopes to arrange two Footprints of Hope projects each year.
Jovika Wiese, a South African-based clinical psychologist, who took the five veterans for group and individual sessions, recorded a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms for those who took part in the programme, and she noted that they related better to other people and felt better about their futures at the end of their treatment.
Her conclusion was: “It is clear from the assessment results that the FOH programme was able to achieve its aim of creating a catalyst for participants and start them on a journey where they could feel comfortable to facilitate elements of their own wellbeing and take a different path.”
All five participants in the Footprints of Hope project have told me that they would encourage other veterans with mental health and physical disabilities to apply for future programmes.
As Martin Bodley put it: “It’s done me the world of good, you [as a veteran] could be the next one to benefit. Go for it. For the five of us who went out there, it has very much changed our lives. It could change your life too.”
Pete Dunnett said that his message to other veterans was: “It’s the most unique course that you can imagine. There is nothing else out there like it. So why haven’t you applied yet?”
I feel privileged to have met all the five veterans in South Africa and to have met with most of them for a second time in London. I have found it a humbling experience to observe them at work in South Africa and then, months later, to hear them talk so enthusiastically about the benefits that their programme had given them.
Footprints of Hope has significantly improved the lives of five young veterans and I am confident that, in future, it will have a similar effect on many others who take up the challenge provided by the programme.