Walking the talk: How I started a charity for wounded veterans

Ed Parker, founder of Walking With The Wounded, the charity for injured members of the armed forces supported by Prince Harry tells his start-up story

When people ask me how my charity Walking With The Wounded was born they’re often surprised when I tell them it came about by accident rather than by design. I can understand their reaction because it’s still something of a surprise to me too.

We never had a well-thought out strategy or what anyone might call a business plan. The catalyst was much simpler: I wanted to help. My nephew was wounded by an IED in 2009 while serving in Afghanistan, losing both legs as a result.

Having served myself with the First Battalion Royal Green Jackets in Northern Ireland, I knew of the difficulties soldiers face when they experience such injuries. But this was different. I certainly never sustained an injury like that nor had any member of my family before. So my desire to help had a very personal motivation.

Help took the form of leading a party of eight, including four wounded soldiers, to the North Pole in 2011. That usually raises an eyebrow particularly as “experts” said it couldn’t be done! It’s not the first thing on everyone’s list when they’re thinking of ways to help.

We wanted to raise money of course but more importantly we wanted to raise awareness, showing despite injury these ordinary people were still able to do extraordinary things. With the help of Prince Harry, we were able to raise the profile of the mission and money too. The public’s support was amazing. We never expected that.

Turning a successful expedition into a charity

After the success of that expedition, I think you could say that was when I began to think seriously about taking things further. A lot of questions followed. If we were going to turn this into a charity, what should its goals be, where would the funds come from, and how could we build on the public’s initial interest?

The 200-mile trek to the North Pole clearly captured the public’s attention so another expedition seemed in order. The destination wasn’t hard to spot: Everest. Five wounded tried to summit the World’s most famous mountain in 2012. Unfortunately, despite a courageous attempt, the dangerously unpredictable weather forced us back. We didn’t give up though. We chose a new location and successfully lead 12 injured from the UK, US, Canada and Australia to the South Pole in 2013.

Founding and running a charity relies on more than choosing extreme locations for expeditions though. We’ve had to grow something from nothing, like any entrepreneurial business, and tackle the usual challenges: setting a vision, finding a healthy funding stream, putting in place process, applying management skill and experience, and setting achievable goals.

Before all of these though came the important question of clarifying which need we were going to serve. I strongly believe society has a duty to help our wounded veterans into work, finding security and leading independent lives.

My co-founder Simon Daglish and I knew this was a clear gap in the market and how we could differentiate ourselves from other charities. That was five years ago and it’s still our driving aim today. When I read the latest figures from the ONS showing there are 188,000 18 to 24-year-olds who’ve been unemployed for more than 12 months, I can’t help but think about our unemployed veterans. Have we forgotten them? We all need meaningful and gainful employment: young, old, wounded or not.

There was one other thing Simon and I realised would be fundamental to our approach: dependency must be eliminated. In the best possible way, my team and I hope never to see the people we help again. If we’ve done our job, why should they come back to us? A charity shouldn’t seek to sustain itself for its own sake. It should only exist to serve others and once that need has been met it should disband.

Facing challenges to deliver the charity’s mission

As for the wider external challenges, there are many. We are still addressing the problem with how wounded veterans are represented in the media. They are too frequently portrayed as the subjects of pity pieces or universally labelled as all having mental health issues. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is often used as a catch-all condition despite only 4% of veterans experiencing it. Not only is this perception simplistic it’s detrimental because that negativity filters down to employers, which might put them off employing a veteran.

In terms of where we are now and the future, we’ve developed four programmes that address the key issues we’re trying to resolve. Our Head Start programme for example is designed to build a mental healthcare pathway for wounded veterans to access the NHS and other service providers more quickly and easily: we hope to see the existing provision doubled. There are one or two problems we want to address within that service too. At the moment, if a veteran is alcohol dependent he will not receive treatment until this is addressed. But the provision for this doesn’t exist. At the very time they are reaching out for help, they’re being shut out.

The centrepiece of our five-year plan will remain helping wounded veterans. We’ll help improve their skills and prepare for them interview but they’ll still have to walk the last yard and win the job.

No company should employ a veteran unless they are the best person for the job but there’s plenty of evidence to support that they make excellent employees. Their “skills, experience and work ethic” as Anna Dugdale, Chief Executive of the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital says “are directly transferable”.

We’ll also focus on helping veterans who are homeless, in the criminal justice system or who are dependent on alcohol to make a success of themselves again – even if they hit rock bottom – people like Sean Percival-Scott.

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