Armed Forces Day: How a 16-year-old army recruit bounced back

Hardwick House helped “Inspirational” Nathan get back on track into a home, a job and a new life

Armed Forces Day offers the public a chance to show their support for Britain’s Armed Forces community including our currently serving troops, service families, veterans and cadets.

Hardwick House Nathan Millward Buckingham Palace.

It’s also a time to reflect on how Britain helps its 2.5m veterans to transition back to civilian life.

More than 16,000 veterans leave the services every year and returning to life on “Civvy Street” is not easy for many veterans who have spent years living a highly regimented life where they are rigorously trained to follow orders and have all their personal needs taken care of such as shelter, food, clothing and employment.

It’s even harder for those who join the forces at 16-years-old, before adulthood and before they are legally allowed to make other important life decisions such as voting, or being able to marry without parental consent.

Nathan Millward was among the 17% (one in six) of recruits who join the British Army at 16, straight from school.

He made the transition from youth to adult as a soldier.

By 2017, after six years in the forces, Nathan was unexpectedly diagnosed with a heart problem after passing out while in service.

The diagnosis and discharge from the Army on medical grounds hit Nathan hard.

Everything, from Nathan’s home life to ambitions and, most importantly, his self-perception had been shaped by the Army.

Later that year, aged just 22, Nathan, found himself at Hardwick House, in Middlesbrough, a supported housing project, run by Riverside specifically for ex-Service veterans who were homeless or at risk of becoming rough sleepers.

After being discharged Nathan struggled with mental health issues, and lost his home after the end of a long-term relationship.

“Doing your growing-up in the Army teaches you a lot about your physical and mental limits but it doesn’t equip anybody for life as an adult in the civilian world. Looking back, there may have been more help I could have had from the Army. But it was never made clear to me that any help existed, let alone where to find it,” explains Nathan.

“I’d had a job I enjoyed, and did well at, great prospects, a home with a partner and a baby, and then, suddenly, it seemed like everything was taken away from me. I was too hurt and confused to think clearly let alone make plans for the future.”

Nathan quickly concluded there wasn’t anything for him in an Army town like Bulford, Wiltshire. He felt he had no option but to return to his childhood home in Chester-le-Street, County Durham.

After a short time sofa surfing, Nathan’s step-grandparents contacted SPACES (Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the Ex Services) a housing advice and placement service for veterans operated by Riverside. Within a few days of that initial phone call, Nathan was allocated a one bedroom flat by Riverside, a not-for-profit provider supporting more than 12,000 homeless people in 2018-19, including more than 1,900 veterans.

Hardwick House provides up to 20 veterans with a combination of accommodation – in self-contained flats on-site facilities, such as an IT suite and training kitchen, and a comprehensive package of support tailored to each resident’s individual needs.

Looking back on the first few weeks at Hardwick House, Nathan says, “Although I was in a very bad place mentally, I realised that, to build the new life I wanted for myself, I had to take advantage of everything that was offered to me.”

And that’s exactly what he did. Claire Routledge, Riverside’s project assistant at Hardwick House explained, “Every veteran at Hardwick House comes to us with a unique combination of life experiences, and often complex, problems. During the time they spend with us, they’ll be offered support in three key areas: structured transition into permanent housing, health and wellbeing and training and education to help them prepare for employment.

“It’s our job to ensure residents know what kind of support exists, and to offer them easy access to services appropriate to their needs. But it’s down to the individual to dictate the pace.

“In Nathan’s case, it was obvious from the day he moved into Hardwick House that he was ready to do everything necessary to build a new life,” continued Claire. “He was in an understandably vulnerable mental state yet still managed to find the strength of will to listen, participate and learn. Whatever we offered, Nathan was up for giving it a go!”

Nathan puts his willingness to engage down to trust in the Hardwick House team.

He said: “It helped that some were ex-Army but it was obvious that every one of them knew their stuff. I trusted them to do what was best for me. When they suggested something, I did it because I knew whatever it was, counselling, for example, would help me feel better and closer to getting where I wanted to be, in my own place with a good job and a future.”

Nathan doesn’t smoke, rarely drinks and has never done drugs. His idea of enjoyment is a couple of hours in the gym. Despite his positive outlook on life Nathan was given wellbeing, mental health and relationship counselling to cope with his return to civilian life. He also took an online course on mental health issues.

Many 16-year-olds who join the services have only known one form of employment, only had one job interview and had one organisation to look after them.

“When I left the army I must have had 30 job interviews before I was offered a job with most employers saying I have no prior experience in their field.

“In being discharged from the army I went from having everything I wanted to having nothing. It felt like was life was falling to pieces and in my darkest days I contemplated on whether I wanted to keep on living. When I look back I was in a really bad place and I’m so thankful for the getting the help that I needed because if I hadn’t done I’m not sure where I’d be now.”

After just over year in Hardwick House, Nathan moved into his own flat. He’s also gainfully employed as a carer working with vulnerable young people and adults with Embracing Care across County Durham.

In recognition of his recovery Nathan was invited to attend a garden party hosted by HRH The Duchess of Gloucester at Buckingham Palace last year as part of a delegation from Hardwick House.

Hardwick House Nathan Millward Buckingham Palace.

Nathan, now 25 and living in Whiteleas in South Shields, said: “It’s thanks to Hardwick House that I’m now in a good place, mentally and in my everyday life. I have my gym instructor’s qualification which gives me options as far as a career is concerned.

“However, gyms are now closed and I’m designated as a key worker helping vulnerable people as they are locked down and being shielded from the coronavirus.

“It’s a very important work and one where we carry a huge amount of responsibility.

“It’s so important for us all to adhere to the rules to protect people from COVID-19 so the regulations are being taken very seriously in terms of PPE and avoiding any contamination.”

Claire Routledge concluded, “Nathan came to us with a lot of problems, many of which weren’t apparent from his appearance or social behaviour. But, he’s come through and, though we’d like to take the praise for his success, it’s really all down to Nathan for taking and making the most of the opportunities we offered him. He’s an inspirational young man.”