Jonjo Walker

Jonjo credits his SSAFA mentor and caseworker for helping him successfully transition to civilian life following an injury and medical discharge from the Royal Artillery.

Jonjo Walker

Jonjo credits his SSAFA mentor and caseworker for helping him successfully transition to civilian life following an injury and medical discharge from the Royal Artillery.

When 29-year-old Jonjo Walker was discharged from the Royal Artillery due to severe back problems, he was forced to sleep in his car and was struggling to find direction. He joined up to SSAFA’s Mentoring Programme for service leavers where he met mentor Keith, who is also a veteran. Keith worked with Jonjo to focus on his future but enlisted the help of Jonjo’s local SSAFA branch in Hampshire to help with his more immediate needs.

Thanks to exceptional teamwork, and Jonjo’s dedication to the mentoring scheme, he is now in a secure job, engaged to his partner and looking to purchase his first home.

I felt left behind

I joined in 2012 as part of the Royal Artillery and then joined 29 Commando. I was experiencing a lot of pain whilst serving, at first, I thought it was muscular and that a paracetamol or two would help. For a long time that is what I was doing. It was only when I was falling over, at times unable to walk, and unable to carry out my duties that I went for an MRI.

“Doctors told me that the discs in my back had collapsed, pushing into my spinal cord which caused the intermittent pain and lack of feeling in my legs.

“I went through multiple operations and injections, including major spinal surgery in 2018. I had 16 months recovery time, re-learning to walk, going through intensive physio all the time convinced that I was going to go back to full fitness.

“I was on sick leave for an awfully long time as they couldn’t find me any duties to do. I’d gone from an elite unit, to sitting around doing nothing. I felt incredibly isolated, not being able to do my job or be with my friends who were soon deployed. I felt left behind.

“I had several Medical Boards and tried to convince senior officers and medical officers to give me more time to recover. I was trying to fight the condition and the system, but in reality, the damage was already done. In March last year [2019], I was medically discharged.”

I spoke to SSAFA and explained what I’d gone through

Ahead of discharge, Jonjo was sent on foundation course at Tedworth House in Hampshire. He was still coming to terms with life outside of the Forces and was looking for guidance for his future. During his time on the course he attended a presentation by SSAFA.

“I was in a bit of a state,” Jonjo explained. “I was quite lost, not really knowing what I was supposed to do, still recovering from surgery and in many ways, I was just confused.

“I spoke to SSAFA and explained what I’d gone through. She said I would be perfect for SSAFA’s Mentoring Programme and she set me up a meeting with Keith.”

Keith Bartlett, a REME and Education Corps veteran, retired from the Army as a Major in 2002, and then ran a successful business until he retired in 2018. He became a SSAFA mentor that year, as he wanted to use his skills from both his military and civilian careers to support service men and women transitioning out of the Forces.

“As soon as I met Jonjo I knew that he was going to work at his transition.” Keith said, “Some people sit back and wait for things to happen for them, but that wasn’t him.

“But at the same time, he was getting ground rush. Everything was happening so fast and he was going to be discharged before he knew what he was going to do next. We met weekly in a local coffee shop and discussed priorities such as accommodation, his health, and his future job prospects. We were exploring realistic options.”

Jonjo added, “I still wanted excitement. I was a soldier and I wanted to feel a part of something, but I didn’t know what I was capable of doing. Some of my ideas like driving a lorry or taxi were unrealistic because of my injury, and Keith helped me work through the options and see what would really work. He was honest, but in a positive way.

“During our sessions, we would discuss what I’d been up to (for example what courses I’d been on) and we would agree on small manageable tasks or targets for that week. It could be anything from researching career prospects to getting my pension in order. Keith would go away and look at things for me too ready for our next session. At times I would be completely confused, but we would sit down, discuss things and put a plan together.

“He also picked me up when I was really down. At one stage I had to pull out of a transition course because I couldn’t even sit up I was in so much pain. I had never failed anything in my life. I passed the commando course and yet I couldn’t pass the transition course. All you had to do to complete it was attend! I couldn’t get my head around failing, but Keith was there to guide me through it and help me with the disappointment. He took the strain away and got me thinking ahead instead.”

I felt stuck

However, as Jonjo was trying to explore his career options and focus on his future, he also faced more pressing needs as his medical discharge left him homeless. At first, he lived in his girlfriend’s flat, but when she had to leave it and move back in with her parents, Jonjo was left sofa surfing and then sleeping in the back of his car.

“I was provided with council shared accommodation, but it was in a poor state, and my car felt like a more secure and clean environment.” Jonjo explains, “it was a difficult time and of course that didn’t do my back any good either.

“I was thinking ‘where have I come to? From the places I’d been and things I’d done to ending up here, what has happened?’

“My family live overseas so I wouldn’t have been able to take the courses I needed to get work if I went there to be with them.

“I’d gone from elite soldier, to injured soldier to hitting a brick wall. I stayed with different friends and had bags everywhere. I had everything when I was serving; a roof over my head, a gym, I could save, I could do everything I wanted to do. But at that time, I faced so much change and so rapidly, and I felt stuck.”

SSAFA gave me a fresh start

Keith, supported by his regional mentoring coordinator, connected Jonjo to his local branch in Andover to see what help was available. His caseworker, and also Hampshire Branch Secretary Clive Ward immediately secured him appropriate B&B accommodation, before addressing his wider needs.

Keith recalled he was impressed with the work the branch did for his mentee, “They responded so quickly. One phone call and it all happened. I don’t really have much contact with the local branch in my role, but it was amazing to see just how much work they do.

“Jonjo found a shared house to live in which was £450 per month, in advance and a £450 deposit. Clive secured that under a tight timescale as Jonjo was due to start a new job and he needed to secure a permanent place to stay. He also provided Jonjo with a months’ worth of food and essential shopping.

“We also worked together to encourage Jonjo to apply for job seekers allowance and personal independence payments. At first, he wasn’t keen because it felt like another blow, but we had to show him that accessing something you are entitled to isn’t a sign of weakness.

“I learnt a lot working with the branch and seeing what they do. I learnt more about the agencies that can support our mentees. Before this I knew nothing about Personal Independence Payments and universal credit, but now I have that knowledge to help others in the future. As a mentor, it isn’t about being the font of all knowledge, it’s about knowing how to signpost and empower your mentee to help themselves."

Clive said it was a team effort “There was a clear need, but it wasn’t difficult to raise funds for Jonjo from our partner organisations such as the Regimental charities, because it was evident at how engaged he was with the mentoring process that with some financial support he would be on track to a successful future. That really was down to Keith and Jonjo himself.”

The more I did the mentoring programme with Keith, the more self-worth I had

During this time, Jonjo continued his mentoring sessions with Keith and decided that he wanted to explore Health and Safety as a potential career. He had £3,000 worth of extended credit to attend relevant courses and then was able to secure a work experience placement, thanks to Keith’s contacts, at a company called KBR.

Jonjo applied for work in Nottingham and immediately got the job, but after a few weeks in the role realised the long commute was not sustainable. He was then headhunted by a company called Spire, connected to the team he carried out his work experience with.

“From the first time I met Keith I was in so much pain I couldn’t even get dressed properly. It was too much effort to put jeans and sock and shoes on.

“I started to feel a bit better, and things were looking up, and I was ecstatic to get a job offer. That job didn’t work out, but mentally it just felt good to have some employment.

“The more I did the mentoring programme with Keith, the more self-worth I had and realised that I had more doors open to me. I could get good work closer to home and being headhunted by Spire was an absolutely fantastic feeling.”

Ahead of the first day in his new job, Clive supported Jonjo again, securing money to purchase shirts and trousers appropriate for his role.

“It was just brilliant.” Jonjo said, “SSAFA gave me a fresh start, which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Everything was starting to happen for me. I’d gone from pain and physical suffering and confusion, to this point when things were really picking up. It’s strange to look back on where I once was, just a short time ago.”

SSAFA really does have the X-factor

Back on his feet and settled into his new role, Jonjo and Keith decided he no longer needed mentoring support. Jonjo proposed to his partner and the couple are now saving to buy a home of their own.

“I don’t know where I’d be without SSAFA and particularly Keith for being there and giving that extra help I needed along the way.

“Sometimes I have a good think: where would I be now? What would I be doing? Would I have found a job that maybe wasn’t suited? Would I have been pushed to do the resettlement courses if Keith hadn’t been there? Would I have gone for work experience? He changed my path for the better. I’m so glad I was part of the mentoring scheme.

“Now I have more control over my own life and I’m thinking about doing more, progressing in my new career and taking on bigger projects.

“My life has changed. I will never be in the Army again which is painful because I would have stayed in forever. But now I do my new job and I still get great job satisfaction.

“I’ve got a lot of friends that are being discharged or left the Forces and haven’t accessed this kind of support and they have really struggled. The mentoring scheme has worked so well for me that I wanted to share my story and speak up about it. They can help whatever your circumstances.

“And the financial support was also brilliant. I’ve never wanted for anything in my whole life until now, because I have a good family behind me. They did so much for me, SSAFA really does have the X-factor.

“I’ll never get over everything that has happened, but I do appreciate everything so much more than ever before. I know I’ve tried my best, and with the help of SSAFA I have become a better person. I’m just moving forwards now.”

Keith added, “I think it’s his success, it’s not really mine. I gave him some ideas and advised. In the end he made his own decisions. I feel proud, and the bottom line is, seeing someone get to such a good place is the reason I do mentoring.”