Steven Shields, a former member of the Defence Forces who is now working as a veteran support officer with the charity ONE (Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann).

'Our Defence Forces veterans are really suffering'

An ex-Army member who served in Athlone is now working to support vulnerable veterans in the Midlands and elsewhere who are struggling with homelessness, addiction, mental health, and other personal difficulties.

Steven Shields became the first national Veteran Support Officer for the Defence Forces charity ONE (Óglaigh Náisiúnta na hÉireann) two and a half years ago.

When he spoke to the Westmeath Independent recently, he explained that he was currently working to support 41 veterans living in Athlone, other parts of Westmeath, Offaly, and elsewhere.

"In the Army, you are given a mission and you always achieve it," he said. "But what happens when life throws you a curveball, and for once you can't achieve what it is that you're expected to do? That's really where our veterans are suffering."

Having started his own recruit training in 1987, Steven went on to spent 27 years in the Defence Forces. During that time he served in his native Longford, Mullingar, and then, for the final four or five years of his Army career, in Custume Barracks.

"I ended up as what's called a barracks personnel support service officer in Athlone, which involved offering social support to over 900 troops in Custume Barracks.

"That really gave me the skills I needed to do my current role, actually. It's a very similar role to what I did in the Defence Forces, but obviously it's in a civilian (capacity) now."

Since leaving the Defence Forces nine years ago, he has worked as a counsellor in the Castlerea and Loughan House prisons, ran a rehabilitation programme for drug addiction in Cavan town, and was involved with the Midlands Simon Community.

Now in his third year as veteran support officer for ONE, he said: "Most of my current work is around the Midlands, because in a 60-mile radius there were the Athlone, Longford, Mullingar and Cavan barracks. With all the people who have passed through those barracks, of course there are going to be issues."

He said the type of struggles he encounters among veterans can vary but addiction, mental health issues and problems finding housing are recurring themes.

"Our veterans are really suffering. I've noticed in the last 18 months that mental health, and particularly post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is really coming to the fore. In the Midlands, I'm seeing a lot of clients for that.

"Trauma is a lasting emotional response, which the body holds, to something that's distressing. If I work as a baker or a lorry driver, I'm not expecting to see some of the stuff that our veterans have seen.

"I've counselled, as a psychotherapist, veterans from the Congo, back in the '60s, right up to and including Lebanon in the present day, and that's both men and women.

"Addiction is also coming up, particularly to alcohol, because people are trying to self-medicate their mental health and their loneliness. They're trying to self-medicate financial issues that they might be having. And homelessness is another big one as well.

"If you look online, the average house or even apartment is now going for €1,400 or €1,500 a month. There is no veterans' pension that can pay for that."

His meetings with clients can be a mix of face-to-face encounters, calls and online meetings.

"It's very hard for people to open up. I call it a sacred space when I'm talking to a veteran, because they're sharing something vulnerable about themselves that they've never shared before," he said.

When visiting clients in Athlone, Steven works out of the IUNVA (Irish United Nations Veterans Association) office in the town, and there is also a veteran support centre in Custume Barracks .

"What I've found with Athlone people is that their sense of togetherness, and sense of humour, is amazing. It really is. I love the Athlone people - they really can take the 'Michael' out of themselves as well!

"I've been to a lot of barracks in Ireland, and Custume Barracks is the one barracks that puts a big smile on my face every time I go into it."

ONE also operates a number of residential homes nationally for former soldiers who have fallen on hard times, including the five-bedroom Custume House on the Dublin Road in Athlone.

"There is a waiting list for the house in Athlone, which is a sign of the times that we're living in, and it's sad," he said.

"A new house will be ready to open at the end of the year in Cork city, and there are going to be other houses opening in the next 3-5 years. I'm envisaging another one opening between Athlone and Galway, because one is needed in the west, and in my view there should also be another one in the Midlands."

Steven lives in Leitrim but his work takes him all over the country. This interview was conducted over Zoom on a Thursday afternoon, and he outlined his list of appointments.

"Already today I've had two phone consultations. One video, one call. Three texts sent, to support people. I've already been in Loughan House prison visiting a Defence Forces member today," he said.

"When I finish this, I'm going to Longford and seeing two clients there. And next week I'm in Galway, Letterkenny, Birr, Kinnegad, Athlone, and Dublin."

He said early intervention was a crucial aspect of his work. "If a Veteran Support Officer can get in there early, we can usually deflate some of the stuff that's coming down the line.

"What do I mean? I mean, people going into hospital maybe for attempted suicide, or addiction overdose, or issues around their addiction."

ONE has a full-time veteran support officer in Dublin, and recently employed a female support officer in south of the country, Audra Larkin. Steven said it's hoped the service can grow to a team of five or six officers in time.

He expressed his gratitude to Athlone man Paul Cooley and Paddy McManus, manager of Custume House, for the "trojan work" they do on behalf of ONE, and also wanted to acknowledge the support of Peter Phillips of the local IUNVA organisation.

"When people see the ONE Fuchsia fundraising appeal, in Athlone shopping centre, I'd ask them to please give because it's really worthwhile. And if veterans could join our organisation, that would be great," he said. "Even if they don't want to do the parades, and so on, their membership contributes to maybe providing a home or another veteran support officer."

He added that Government support for the work of ONE was essential. "From our work in early intervention, and providing housing, how much money are we saving the State?" he asked.

"There is no other organisation providing the help that the veteran support officers are providing at the moment. My message to anyone who is a veteran in Athlone and the wider area, if they are suffering, is that there is help out there.

"We will step up to the plate to support any veteran, any need, any time," he concluded.

* Steven asked for his phone number to be included in this article in case a veteran or family member wishes to make contact with him. He can be reached on: 086 1380825.