As Sale Sharks look to sign the Armed Forces Covenant* next week #RugbySaleSharks reflects on the time she was honoured to spend with Veterans attending the project.
The Sharks Forces Project is aimed at supporting veterans in gaining employment, keeping active and developing new social activities. Funded by the Royal British Legion and Armed Forces Covenant Sharks Forces project aims to support current serving and ex-armed forces personnel. The project aims to:
• Develop new social activities
• Tackle social isolation
• Improve mental health and physical well-being
• Develop employability skills
Sale Sharks, are the only Aviva Premiership club to include men and women veterans services and freely acknowledge that Rugby League and locally, Leigh Centurions have been pioneers in this field.
When I visited in September 2017 I met with Scott Briggs who developed the project. Scott came from a service family with both his Dad and Uncle serving in the Forces and he was very keen to apply that knowledge to helping Veterans make the transition back into society, having seen first hand how hard it can be. Indeed the long term vision is to develop a hub for families including Summer camps for the children of serving personnel so that they can share experiences and provide mutual support.
The project launched on 6 May 2017 and engaged with 29 current and ex-service personnel, primarily as a sign posting service and providing support through weekly meetings and indeed the popular Walking Rugby sessions hosted on a Wednesday night. At the time of my visit 7 Veterans had gained employment through the project and 9 were accessing additional support.
Two of the Veterans I was privileged to spend time with Ian and Dave had recently taken part in Bravo 22 creating life sized sculptures that represented their feelings. I later went to see the display at Stockport Town Hall that showed life sized representations of injured personnel that particularly reflected experiences of serving in Northern Ireland. For men who had never attempted anything like this the sculptures were very moving and they were rightly proud of their creations.
Dave told me of the support that Scott provided. He had moved from having no interaction with anyone and stuck indoors to joining in rugby sessions, meeting other Veterans at the weekly coffee mornings and undertaking the sculpture and an acting project as well. Ian, who had served in the Royal Navy told me the project had been massive for him, generating additional support at a time when he needed it.
Not only is there a busy timetable within the project but clear links to mental health support, which is proving vital. All the Veterans are keen to talk about the support and friendliness they receive from everyone at the club, including the players and the infamous table tennis battles! Indeed on my visit Sale Sharks Team Manager, Scott Needham is wandering around wearing his Sharks Forces t-shirt and indeed joins us for a quick coffee.
Scott is quick to praise the support they receive from the Royal British Legion and Graham Connor in particular who attends their focus groups and helps out throughout the project. The admiration is clearly mutual as Scott himself received an award from the Royal British Legion in August 2017 for the work he had done with the project. An award he was quick to tell me was as much for the Veterans as himself.
Scott himself is concerned about ensuring the project attracts the right publicity and tells the real story of those involved as well as protecting their confidentiality. The Veterans I meet share many experiences with me and tell me that it’s taken time to build up confidence and trust to be able to relate to each other and indeed to share those stories with people like me. There’s a clear element of black humour in their discussions and everyone is careful to create the right environment. Scott himself admits that it took him a while to get used to it.
Ian tells me that he got involved through a mate of his who had heard about it. At first he believed it was only for injured Veterans but that’s not the case. He tells me that on many days it’s the only reason he gets out of bed due to his depression. He had no initial enthusiasm for the sculpture project and indeed thought about leaving after the first day. However thanks to support from the project’s resident artists Sue and Al he persevered and thoroughly enjoyed the grand opening at The Lowry Hotel.
They move on to tell me about the acting project they took part in, having gone to Weston Supermare to audition! The play depicts their time in the Forces and the effect of the injuries they received. Over 2,000 people attended the opening night on Remembrance day in Newcastle.
Due to the recognition of the other project they’ve had other opportunities, VIP events and Ian was nominated for an parliamentary award as well as the project. They tell me how special it was to go to the Houses of Parliament and that as well as meeting various MPs it was ‘quite cool’ to sit and be acknowledged on the balcony.
I ask Scott how it makes him feel about the Forces and his own family experiences and am really surprised to hear that running the project inspired him to join The Royal Marines and indeed he began is basic training in November 2017. He’s received support from all the Veterans in pursuing this, despite their own issues.
The project is now run by Craig Monaghan who recently, and very bravely shared his story and his battle with mental health issues on the BBC and Radio 5 Live.
Thanks to Scott and all the Veterans who allowed me to spend time with them.
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*The Military Covenant or Armed Forces Covenant is a term introduced in 2000 to refer to the mutual obligations between the nation and its Armed Forces. Tt is an informal understanding, rather than a legally enforceable deal, but is treated with great seriousness within the services.