Over the last thirteen years working at First Base I have been left feeling angry and appalled too many times to count. Angry and appalled at the way people are treated. Angry and appalled at the casual cruelty of our supposedly caring State. Angry and appalled at the way faceless beaurocrats seem to think it is OK to step on vulnerable people as if they are human cockroaches.
It has become a familiar emotion.
Almost the norm.
And anyone who has read this blog of mine over the years will know where I am coming from. And at times it is easy to slip into the same kind of zone that A&E nurses probably live in. You get to thinking that you have already seen the worst of the worst. You get to thinking that nothing to come can be worse than what has already been.
But to be honest to think like that would be pretty bloody naïve. And so it was that on a cold day in December I drove up to Edinburgh to meet up with Sam. I described our encounter in a blog and there seems little point in re-writing so here is an extract.
'I have only met Sam once before and it was very brief. It was on one of the very worst of days. The day we said goodbye to James.
James, the youngest client of our Veterans Project. James, a could have been tearaway who took the King’s Shilling and signed up. James who stood tall and magnificent on a hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who left the army when his dad died because his mum needed him. James who was one of the most decent guys it has ever been my honour to meet. James whose conscience and soul could not handle what he had seen and done on that hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who took his own life at 23 years old on a bone cold January night.
His brothers in arms from the Regiment came down to carry his coffin under the cold grey January skies.
And Sam was one of the band of brothers. I can still picture him that day. Clearly. He was so tall it made carrying James awkward. Sam the six foot five Fijian with the ram rod back. A face as hard as one of those Easter Island statues. But his eyes. His eyes were windows onto a grief stricken soul.
And I remember standing at the grave side and thinking what a crazy world we live in. Sam. The warrior from a warrior tribe. So many thousands of miles from his South Sea home. Tall and like a king from a Kipling story. Still as a rock. Saying his goodbyes to a fellow warrior.
On a cold, cold day.
James’s mum Nicola called me a few weeks ago. She said she had been talking to Sam on Facebook. She said Sam is out of the Army now. Out in the cold. And things are not so good. Pretty bad in fact. Could First Base do anything? I said we would do our best.
But no promises. Other than the promise to drive up to Edinburgh to meet him.
He is waiting for me. He stands up. All the way up. And it’s a long way. He’s a six foot five version of Marvin Gaye. Hell of a hand shake.
But a very quiet voice. And a story that makes me once again wish that 45 had been 51 and we could be free of London’s bottomless nastiness.
He remembers when they got him to sign the dotted line in Fiji they said that four years served would mean guaranteed citizenship.
He served nine years.
Iraq. The Falklands. Northern Ireland. Afghanistan.
The same hard, hard Helmand Tour as James. With James. He did the hardest of hard miles. And every month his salary had income tax and National Insurance deducted. Like he was a citizen.
But when he left the army in 2012 he learned the hard way that the British Establishment tell lies.
Citizenship? Who told you that? Good lord. I very much doubt it..
Well. You’ll just have to apply along with all the rest, won’t you? But don’t hold your breath. We’re not overly keen on your type to be frank. No money? No thought not.
So Sam applied. Three years ago. And for three years they have made him sign on. But his was a different sort of sign on. Every Monday he walks six miles into Edinburgh city centre to sign his name in a police station. Like a common criminal. Like a terrorist. Like scum. And then he walks six miles home again.
And he waits.
He receives not a penny and he has been told in no uncertain terms that should he do do much as an hour’s work he will be on a plane back to Fiji before he gets the chance to blink.
His partner has left him and she doesn’t let him see his son. His son is five now. The last picture Sam has is of a three year old son.
He has another girlfriend now and she pays the bills. They share one room over a pub. They share a mattress on the floor. And Sam watches TV all day. And one by one the demons of those hard, hard Helmand days are starting crawl into his head like moggots.
Whilst he waits on the Home Office.
And I feel useless and inadequate and so completely ashamed of being British even though I fought tooth and nail not to be. What have we become?
I promise that I will try to what I can.
And I will.
But when all is said and done it is the bloody Home Office we are talking about here.
We stand and shake hands. Maybe there is a faint smile. Maybe not. He thanks me and I feel terrible.
I get in my van and drive south.
He goes back to his one room over the pub and more hours of TV.
And all the way back I remember him in that cold graveyard on that cold January day. Like a statue. Like a king. Like a warrior. So very far from home. Saying goodbye to an unlikely brother in arms.
But a brother all the same.'
That was then. I made calls. Of course I made calls. But in the end First Base is just a two bit charity in a two bit Scottish town. What chance have we of getting so much as a toe in the door of the Home Office? A Home Office where every man and his dog is tasked with keeping immigrants out at any cost. Because there is a referendum coming. Because Farage scares them. Because all over the Europe the voices of hate are getting louder with every passing hour. And because across the Atlantic a property tycoon of reality TV fame has rediscovered the same strut and rage that once upon a time propelled Benito Mussolini to absolute power. Because everyone seems to have decided that every ill in our fractured world is the fault of immigrants.
Sam's local MP Joanne Cherry has taken up his case and I hope it will turn out that Sam has got lucky with his postcode because Joanne is also a QC. I soon learned that his situation should actually be anything but hopeless. The rights of Commonwealth soldiers are carved in stone. If they serve for four years and keep their noses clean they have an automatic right to become British citizens. It is cut and dried. It is open and shut.
When Sam told the army that he was ready to hand in his kit and leave, the Army should have taken him through all the forms and made sure that all the i's were dotted and all the t's were crossed before he walked out of the gates for the last time. But they didn't. Instead they checked in his kit and let him walk. Bye, bye Same. Have a nice day. Have a nice life.
He slept walked into a beaurocratic labyrinth. Into limbo. Into the faceless desperation of being a non person in a brutal world. Efficiency and the Home Office are not words that fit together in any sentence, especially when the number one priority is to keep people out at all costs because our gallant Prime Minister promised to reduce the numbers of incomers to the tens of thousands.
So I promised to do what I could. And I did do what I could. And who knows, maybe one day things will work out. But there are no signs that day will come any time soon. And to be honest the whole thing makes me sick to the stomach.
We paid for people to fly all the way to the other side of the world. To Fiji. To a sparkling island in the Pacific Ocean we once upon a time conquered and claimed for our own. We added it to the list. Our long list. We painted Fiji red and added it to the map with all those other placed we painted red. I guess we must have hired some office space. I guess we must have taken out advertising space in the local press. I guess the guys must have blagged interview slots on the local media. And once all was in place they must have started their hard selling.
Good morning, good morning. Pleas take a seat. Coffee? Tea? Something cold? Now then. Let's get cracking shall we? I gather you are interested in joining the British Army? Wonderful. Splendid. Super. We think you will find it an absolutely smashing career. Especially for a such a big fine chap as yourself. In fact I rather think we will be able to find you a spot in the second row. In fact almost all of the Army rugger team is now Fijian. Did you know that? Extraordinary really. And of course if you serve for four years we will give you a shiny new passport and you will be a true blue Brit. Let's face it, what's there not to like? Especially for a big, fine chap like you. So here is the paperwork. You sign here, here and here. There's a good chap......
We sent people all the way to the other side of the world to get Sam to sign on the dotted line. And we did indeed put him in the second row. And for 60% of the salary of a traffic warden we put him in the front line of the our most brutal war since Korea. We made absolutely sure that he got the paperwork absolutely right so that we could get him on the plane to basic training at Catterick. But when Sam decided it was time to leave there was no-one there to make sure all the paperwork was in order for him to walk out onto Civvy St with any rights and entitlements.
It was a very different Sam who walked out into the unforgiving streets in the Olympic year of 2012. All the hard, brutal days in Helmand Province had taken a heavy toll. As the desperate reality of his situation became apparent the depression started to kick in. And then the nightmares. The heat and the dust and the fear and the loss and the blood and the the screams.
Over and over and over.
When I left him in December I made the mistake of thinking that things couldn't get any worse.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Because a few days things did indeed get worse. About a million times worse. It turned out that one of the fellow tenants in his block was a psychopath. How? Because the fellow tenant came up from behind and smashed in the back of Sam's head with a claw hammer.
Like I said. A million times worse. His girlfriend Kirsty cradled his ruined skull and couldn't comprehend how there could be so much blood. She managed to keep him from fading out. The ambulance came and got him to the emergency room. The cops came and arrested the psychopath and duly charged him with attempted murder.
Sam made it though for a while it was worse than touch and go.
And surely it couldn't get any worse. But it did. Of course it did. They let the psychopath out on bail and he returned to his landlord's office threatening more of the same if he wasn't allowed back in. And not surprisingly the landlord was scared stiff. So what did he do? He called up Kirsty and told her that she and Sam were evicted. No notice. No nothing. Just get the hell out. Now! I don't want you anywhere near the place because I don't want that maniac coming round again with his claw hammer. It would have been nice if he had shared his fears with the cops. It would have been nice if the courts hadn't granted bail. Lots of things would have been nice.
But things were not nice. And so it was that when Sam was discharged from hospital with a head full of stitches and staples he was not merely a non person, he was now a homeless non person. They walked the streets to the homeless department. They were told that a box room was going to be £100 a night because Kirtsy was working and Sam didn't officially exist. And it was only for one night anyway.
Come back in the morning and we'll see. The police had given then a piece of paper which was supposed to have earned a degree of priority. But it didn't. So they went back in the morning only to see the psychopath going through the door ahead of them. They called the cops and cops advised them to get out out of Dodge quick. And stay out of Dodge for at least two hours. So they followed the advice. They got out a and stayed out and when they returned the person behind the desk told them it was too late and all rooms were booked. No doubt a room had been found for the psychopath with a thing for claw hammers.
At about the same time James's mum Nicola called me with the news and I called Sam. He brought me up to speed. So where the hell are you going to go? Don't know. We'll just walk about I suppose. The same quiet voice. Calm. Brave as a bloody lion.
I told him it wouldn't do. I told him I would get a hotel booked and text him the details. He tried his very best to dissuade me, but I can actually be quiet determined at times. I sorted the hotel and promised to meet him there at eight thirty the next morning.
I met him. I got all the facts down in a notebook. And yet again I promised to do what I could. And yet again I told him that everything was a long shot. Because we are nothing but a two bit charity in a two bit town. And the State is huge and grey and monolithic and it doesn't seem to own a shred of compassion or decency.
But First Base isn't entirely two bit. I sent a text to my fellow 'Yes' traveler Richard who is now a Member of the mother of all Parliaments. Hi Rich. Please give me a bell. It's kind of urgent. He called back five minutes later. I asked if he could grab five minutes with Joanne Cherry and bring her up to speed regarding Sam's dire situation.
He could. He did. Joanne's team called up Sam. And they have promised to everything they can. Which let's face it is a whole lot more that I can do. After I gave Sam and Kirsty a lift across town to the homeless department, they were given a room for a week. Thank Christ. Some breathing space. A stay of execution.
And so yet again I am left with nothing to do other than to slam my keyboard with the words you are reading now. If there is anyone out there who can help in any way at all please let me know. And if there are any reporters out there who can take Sam's story to a wider audience please get in touch. I asked him if we would be willing to allow the press to tell his story. He is. He will. And I'll tell you what guys, he'll take a a hell of a photo. A six and a half foot warrior version of Marvin Gaye.
He deserves so much more than this. Now he needs a clamour. Angry voices. Justice and fairness demanded.
Because everything about this is just so very, very wrong.