A PONTYPOOL-based charity is helping ex-servicemen and women into jobs in civvy street. ROB OWEN investigates.

MILITARY service leavers possess a huge range of valuable skills.

To survive in the army, navy or air force you have to be tough, physically and mentally; dedicated, determined, and extremely disciplined.

Many forces personnel are born leaders with unique management skills, while many more develop impressive technical attributes during their time in service, from logistics and I.T, to strategy and training.

But leaving the forces and returning to civilian life, and more specifically employment, is often a transition more difficult than many service veterans would have expected.

They are more than entitled to believe their skill sets will set them apart from their civilian peers, and that they will be a hot commodity for prospective employers when they decide to make the move.

But there are some stark statistics out there, and the reality is often a bucket of cold water to the face for them.

It is estimated that 220,000 service leavers live in Wales alone. Figures also suggest that for those leaving the forces up to 70 per cent will be unemployed after the first year as a civilian.

Even more shocking is the statistic is that 1 in ten of all homeless people have served their country.

But a Torfaen-based charity is lending a helping hand - Hire a Hero provides practical support for service leavers, and recognises that search for ex-military jobs and homes can be daunting and frustrating.

The charity raises awareness of the skills and qualities of service leavers, whether injured or fighting fight, and is committed to working with UK businesses, training providers and housing organisations.

Hire a Hero chief executive Major Gerry Hill MBE, QGM and Bar, who retired after 34 years in the Special Air Service, said: “It is our aim to help the transition from service to civilian life by doing whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

“When it comes to providing help for our heroes, we are committed to serving those who served us.”

Mjr Hill founded the charity near Manchester in 2012, but relocated it last year to Pontypool, when a local businessman offered to contribute towards their efforts.

“Our move to Wales last March came about as a result of a generous donation from a great supporter of the charity, Matt Smith of Studwelders,” Mjr Hill added.

“The move to the region made sense due to the large military presence and veteran community that exists in Wales.”

Hire a Hero is now based at Composite Metal Flooring (CMF) on Mamhilad Industrial Estate - thanks to Mr Smith, who said he saw his donation of office space as a way for him to “reach out and help in a small way”.

“We have all experienced challenging times,” said the Chepstow resident.

“I know I have and I remember when someone reached out to give me hand.

“I respect the service people for what they have done. And it is like a different world when they come out of the forces.

“I felt like I had the resources to make a difference. And I am proud to say I am associated to the work the charity is doing.”

And Hire a Hero has had quite a reception since it moved to Wales, according to Mjr Hill.

“It has been phenomenal,” he said. “We attended Cardiff Armed Forces Day in June, which acted as a great way to introduce ourselves to fellow organisations and supporters of the armed forces within the region.

“Representatives of the charity were present at Torfaen council signing of the Armed Forces Community Covenant, and aims to take a pro-active role in its development, sitting on the Covenant Task Force.

“We have seen overwhelming support in our fundraising efforts within Wales, varying from collections at a Cardiff Blues game to an invitation as the chosen charity of CBI Wales at its annual conference before Christmas.”

Some of Hire a Hero’s greatest successes in terms of finding meaningful and suited employment for leavers have also come since the relocation to Pontypool.

Ashley Bain Venn left the army after 17 years service with the Royal Logistics Core.

He predominantly worked as an air dispatcher and a close protection driver, capable of driving every vehicle under the sun.

But eight months after leaving the army he had received no job offers, despite applying for up to four or five jobs a day, from sales jobs, to shop assistant positions. He was even prepared to be a grocer.

“The problem is that you can be lovely and qualified but everyone wants industry experience and evidence you have been working towards a profit,” he said.

But his luck changed when his wife stumbled across the Hire a Hero stall at Cardiff Armed Forces Day.

Mr Bain Venn added: “I was a bit sceptical about what they could do for me at first, and I had never heard of them. But within two days they had set up an interview for me and two weeks after that I had a job.”

“Not just that either but it was a job which was well suited to my military experience.”

Mr Bain Venn, 40, now works for cancer charity Tenovus, organising the movement of its two mobile cancer wards around communities in Wales.

He said he “loved it”.

“I honestly could not believe how quickly it all happened once Hire a Hero was involved,” he added. “I can’t thank them enough and they are still supportive to this day.

“It does take some getting used to, going into what is a female-dominated environment, after such a male-orientated one, but people are much more appreciative of the work you do. I’m also still enjoying the fact I get to clock out and go home at the end of the day. People are really grateful you are prepared to stay on after hours, but that is second nature when you are in the army. You never clock off.”

Cwmbran man Matthew Onions has a similar story to tell.

He left the Royal Artillery after 22 years, including tours of Iraq and Afghan, in October 2012.

He said he was told he would be on the fast-track to accommodation and employment, but soon after – were it not for family, he said – he almost found himself on the streets.

“The only licence I don’t possess is that of pilot,” he said. “I thought loads of doors would open for me but they didn’t. “It wasn’t long before I was facing a desperate situation.

“I realised I was probably overqualified for most positions on offer at the job centre, but by the end I was prepared to clean toilets if I had to.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what rank you are in the forces, you start at the bottom of the ladder when you come out and you just have to climb.”

Now, Mr Onions, 46, who lives in Croesyceiliog, is employed by Mr Smith’s CMF.

“I am very grateful to Hire a Hero,” he said. “I have told them if there is ever anything I can do for them, to promote the charity or raise its profile to help others find them, I will."

Charity founder Mjr Hill said: “I’m pleased to say that in both instances service leavers Ashley and Matthew and their employers have been extremely pleased with the outcomes.”

Hire a Hero has recently embarked on a New Year recruiting drive, for 100 mentors to support ex-servicemen and women.

The charity is running training days in Pontypool and London, with mentors coming from both military and non-military backgrounds.

They receive information online and via phone, as well as through mentor conferences.

The next training date at the Mamhilad headquarters will take place on January 31, with plans for a further date in March.

Mjr Hill said: “It is my hope that going into this, the New Year, and what is soon to be our second year based in South Wales that this support for our cause will continue, with businesses, volunteers, supporters, mentors and fundraisers coming forward to help Hire a Hero fulfil its aim – serving those who served us.”

For more information on Hire a Hero, or its mentor scheme, see www.hireaherouk.org, email at info@hireaherouk.org or calling 01495 761084.