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Injured at war and facing homelessness after army life ... now there's hope for our scarred veterans

Lee Aitchison will never forget the day he got the call about his new home.

Lee Aitchison and his family have suitable housing thanks to Houses for Heroes Scotland
Lee Aitchison and his family have suitable housing thanks to Houses for Heroes Scotland

The 27-year-old army mechanic, a veteran of two tours to Afghanistan, was confined to a wheelchair by nerve damage ­triggered by a training accident.

At the time, Craftsman Aitchison, whose REME attachment salvaged bombed vehicles under Taliban fire, was living with his girlfriend and their young children in a damp, insect-infested two-room flat in Kelty, Fife.

He was robbed of motor ­function in his legs when a twisted ankle sustained on a military skills exercise developed into Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, a rare, progressive and incurable condition that means a gust of wind or a drop of rainwater can trigger agonising reactions.

He said: "It was an absolute ­nightmare. There were steps to get in and out of the house so I was starting to crack up with cabin fever. The wheelchair was too big to get into the toilet. Not only that but we were being charged through the roof for rent when we had very, very little money. Linda was ­pregnant with Hope, our third daughter, and we didn't want to bring up a baby in a house riddled with mould and ants."

The offer of a purpose-built bungalow in Airdrie with new white goods and carpets was too good to be true. Aitchison's first thought was that the call was from a Radio Clyde prankster. "I thought, they have to be joking."

In fact it was from Houses for Heroes Scotland, or the Scottish Veterans Garden City Association (SVGCA) as it is formally known. The charity builds and supplies low-rent accommodation for disabled ex-service personnel, specialising in the younger, recently disabled and war-wounded. Although receiving less public attention, servicemen injured in military accidents are as equally deserving of aftercare as their war-wounded comrades.

Founded in 1915 to house some of the flood of casualties from the First World War, the SVGCA is described by Scottish Government ­Veterans Minister Keith Brown MSP as "playing a vital role in providing affordable rental housing for disabled veterans in Scotland". Priding itself on low administration costs, it is now the UK's largest provider of housing for medically discharged ex-servicemen and women.

As we reported last week, it is also one of five military charities to benefit from HM ­Treasury's Libor fund, converting fines extracted from errant bankers into support for armed forces personnel.

That £1.94 million in cash, along with the £1.3m pledged earlier this year by Brown, will go a long way to providing the 60 housing units across Scotland that Houses for Heroes has ­identified as the minimum required to service the backlog of veterans and their families who, like Lee Aitchison, are in acute need of secure, lifelong special accommodation.

But even these sums will not cover the need, heightened by Britain's involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. For our Christmas Appeal this year, the Sunday Herald is inviting readers to send in donations to support Houses for Heroes/SVGCA in its campaign to find the finance to build all its planned housing units in all of the parts of Scotland where the need is greatest. Hundreds of young ex-service people in Scotland are currently condemned to live in unsuitable temporary accommodation. Some have been on the waiting list for up to a decade. The SVGCA, along with Scotland's five other military housing charities, does what it can to allow those invalided out of the forces to enjoy a home life of convenience, dignity, and informal support from fellow ex-servicemen.

AS Lieutenant Colonel Richard Callander, SVGCA ­chairman explains, the ­charity works closely with the army's personnel recovery unit, in which injured service personnel are "transitioned" from active service through first-stage units like the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court in Surrey through personnel recovery centres around the country. They are assigned personal recovery officers, whose responsibilities include finding long-term accommodation.

The charity's vision is to create "communities within communities", clusters of housing that are themselves integrated within existing towns, villages and urban estates. SVGCA developments, the first of which was built in 1916 in Longniddry, East Lothian, allow servicemen to enjoy the best of both worlds - comradeship and the mutual support of fellow veterans, plus wider social integration.

The lead charity housing disabled ex-service personnel in Scotland, its estate includes 614 houses in 74 locations. All donations go directly to building new houses rather than to administration or marketing costs. In the past three years alone, the charity has housed 86 severely wounded soldiers from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, but according to chief executive Peter Minshall there is more to be done.

Up to 60 new houses are needed to cover demand over the next 20 years, with particular "hot spots" of need in Inverness, Argyll & Bute, Angus, Edinburgh, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire and Ayrshire. So far they have built 22.

"We have established where we think the need is most urgent," says Callander. "With the generous donations from the Libor fund and the Scottish Government we now have the funds to complete five out of seven projected developments, which have received positive support from local authorities, for example Inverness and Angus councils, which take their obligations under the Military Covenant very seriously. They have found creative ways to circumvent red-tape and to allow these units to be financed and built to meet need."

"Nevertheless, even after the public donations there remains a shortfall for two more sites - one in Ayrshire and the other either in Cardross in Argyll and Bute or one further [to Airdrie] site in North Lanarkshire, depending on planning considerations. These wheelchair-accessible houses will provide low-rented accommodation for ex-servicemen and their families for life, allowing them to integrate in to the wider community and where possible to obtain jobs."

Callander explains that the affordable rent, usually priced at 80% of council tenancy rates, means: "Soldiers, who are proud individuals, can support their ­families, without claiming housing benefit. This suits them, as well as relieving the burden on the state. Even small donations from the public are very gratefully received as they will allow us to complete this final part of the project. Extra houses will make a huge difference to the disabled servicemen and women to whom we owe a huge debt."

The charity's low profile is partly deliberate, according to Peter Minshall. "Most of our tenants just want to get on with their lives. We are not looking for marketing razzmatazz, because that's not what our guys want."

Minshall describes some of the special sensitivities of integrating ex-military men within wider society. "All of our tenants have been through severe stress at some point and are able to support each other. If you can imagine youngsters who are living in quite difficult areas in Scotland, maybe getting into ­trouble, who join the armed forces as a place of stability, and who then get blown up on patrol.

"Quite often they can't get a house, and the end up having to go back to the places they were escaping from in the first place, and with the added strain and isolation."

In Airdrie, showing the Sunday Herald around his house, with its wide doors, low-level light switches, and "wet room" bathroom, Lee Aitchison describes the place as "everything we needed".

Knowing that it is his for life allows the father-of-three to ­concentrate on his family role, managing his condition and on his competitive shooting. The former army marksman is intent on joining the UK shooting team in time for the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

He counts himself lucky that his personal recovery officers happened to get wind of its availability at exactly the right moment, a stroke of serendipity enhanced by the house's address - Aitchison Street. "The kids think it was named after us," he laughs.

Like all of the SGCVA tenants interviewed for this article, he'd like this good fortune to be shared with as many as possible of the others in similar situations. Making that happen requires more of the same public generosity that has helped SVGCA to help Scotland's heroes for nearly 100 years.

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