A former Melton soldier who suffered psychological damage after being badly wounded says working on an animal welfare project has ‘changed her life’ and helped her cope.
Jennifer Yarwood (33) says it was difficult for her to even leave the house after leaving the army in 2017 because of the impact of having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and having to walk around on crutches.
But all that changed when she began working with orphaned baby rhinos in South Africa as part of an initiative aimed at conserving the species and acting as therapy for military veterans.
Jennifer, a single mother with a seven-year-old son, said: “I have hidden behind my front door for many years but just a week into the course, I was a different person.
“I struggled at first because I couldn’t physically help in the way that I wanted to.
“But a clinical psychologist working with our group taught me a thought process around ‘don’t look at what you can’t do, look at what you can do’.
“So I have developed a completely different attitude. It has changed my life.”
She served for 14 years in the army ending up as a corporal in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC), completing tours of Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, where she was based on three occasions.
As a dog handler, Jennifer was badly injured in an enemy attack on her third tour of Iraq in 2008 and she eventually left the army nine years later.
Her two-week trip to the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary, near the Kruger National Park in South Africa, was part of a charity project, Footprints of Hope, and was arranged by the UK-based Veterans for Wildlife charity, which seeks to combat poaching.
Jennifer was one of five veterans who worked with baby rhinos, including two-month-old Rainbow, who had been orphaned after their mothers had been killed by poachers for their valuable horn.
She said: “I cannot comprehend how anyone can damage such a vulnerable animal.
“It infuriates me so much. I wish I could save every single one of those baby rhinos.”
The project involved Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT), where humans work with animals in order to enhance and complement traditional therapy, and it was sponsored by Lord Ashcroft, the international businessman and philanthropist.
He said that he sponsored the initiative because of his interest in wildlife conservation and military veterans - he formerly served as the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition, helping those leaving the armed forces make the transition to civilian life until resigning his position last year.
Jennifer and the other veterans are still being monitored by a clinical psychologist and the early signs are that they have all benefitted from the project.
Lord Ashcroft, who travelled to South Africa to observe the exercise in action, said: “Without doubt, the veterans have benefitted enormously from the project as, of course, have the rhinos that they looked after around the clock.
“Indeed they have helped each other with their respective healing processes.
“The five veterans are a courageous and determined group and my respect for them is immense.
“I certainly hope that their experiences have left them better equipped to face whatever challenges the future holds.”
Wes Thomson, a former Royal Marine and CEO of Veterans for Wildlife, which he founded three years ago, said: “In 2016, the poaching situation was really getting bad.
“At the time, one rhino was being killed every eight hours and one elephant every 15 minutes for their horn and tusks respectively.
“I knew people who could provide their skills and knowledge that they learnt during their time in the military.
“Our Footprints of Hope project came about because I realised that veterans with PTSD could do so much good – both for the rhinos and themselves.”