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Gulf veteran with the caring touch

COLONEL JO GUNNELL: "We try to find the key to open the right doors"
COLONEL JO GUNNELL: "We try to find the key to open the right doors"

AN ARMY Colonel who spent the last Gulf war as General Sir Peter de la Billiere's Chief of Staff (Operations) in Riyadh, is now wrestling with the welfare problems of soldiers from Kent fighting in the current conflict.

Colonel Jo Gunnell is also helping with the welfare of families and dependents here at home.

Colonel Gunnell, 56, a Royal Regiment of Fusiliers officer who spent 31 distinguished years in the British Army, is now the Army Welfare Service's senior Welfare Support Officer for Kent.

He manages and enthuses his teams of staff from a rambling Victorian building in the middle of Shornecliffe Garrison, near Folkestone.

Detailing "basic human difficulties," and distressing concerns - many of them highly complex - literally thousands of people telephone, fax or write to Col Gunnell and his welfare and community development teams every year asking for help. The current Gulf War is increasing the workload.

"The approach we adopt here is simply that every call, visit, letter or fax that we have is important," said Col Gunnell.

"Nothing, however apparently small, is ever regarded as trivial. I learned long ago that something which you and I might regard as trivial or unimportant, is frequently a matter of life or death to the person contacting us.

"Very recently we had a call from a mother whose son deployed to Iraq from Kent with 1 Royal Irish and had not heard from him since. She was very upset and, of course, wanted to know where he was and how he was - and to be reassured that he had not been hurt or injured in battle.

"Very pleasingly and satisfyingly, we were able to put the lady in touch with her son's unit which had up-to-date information on current deployments. She was also reassured that had her son been injured in any way, she would be the first to know about it, before any names were released to the media."

The Army Welfare Service in Kent, financed primarily by HQ Land Command at Wilton, Wiltshire, and to a slightly lesser extent (infrastructure, transport, communications, stationery etc) by 2 Infantry Brigade at Shornecliffe, deals with a wide variety of cases in the strictest confidence.

These range from marital difficulties, child protection issues, financial, social and educational problems, to legal, medical, bereavement, benefits and general welfare issues.

"The unit is the first line of support but we find that, often, people would rather talk in confidence to us than perhaps risk damaging the soldier's career, " said Col Gunnell.

"You name it and we will have to deal with it in the course of our duties. We don't have a pot of gold that we can use to help people solve their problems but, rely upon it, we can point them in the right direction towards somebody who can help and offer them invaluable guidance and support"

Kent's Army Welfare Service's highly trained and professional personal support welfare workers like Staff Sgt Gaynor Peploe, WO1 Martyn Brooker and community support workers John Vann in Chatham and Pat Perrott in Dover, Shornecliff and Folkestone, go out to visit clients and live by the AWS maxim: "We have staff with time to listen."

Welfare workers pledge guidance on a wide range of problems, explaining available options, supplying-up-to-date garrison and community information, together with available resources and facilities. They liase with civilian agencies such as schools, hospitals, doctors and social services, giving advice on childcare, benefits and special needs.

Within the community, the AWS aims to provide learning opportunities, programmes, activities and experiences for military personnel and their families - social, recreational, educational. They will be locally accessible, affordable and of good quality.

In Kent the AWS has four Ghurkha Welfare Support Workers to cope with changes in culture, customs and language.

Col Gunnell, who spent some years as a bursar at the School For Deaf Children in Margate, after taking voluntary redundancy from the Army in 1995, has been head of the Kent Army Welfare Service for 18 months.

"It is unquestionably a highly rewarding and satisfying job," he said. "At the moment the workload is coming from providing support to unit staff and being prepared to support casualty notifying and casualty visiting officers.

"These people are serving officers and warrant officers who have been trained up specifically for this operation and who have the unenviable task of knocking on the door and breaking the news. The visiting officers provide the follow on support."

He stressed: "On the personal welfare side it is a matter of trust, a lot of it, because people have got the confidence to come to us knowing that their problems will be sorted out.

"We are trying to empower them to sort their problems out rather than us solving their problem for them.

"If you solve their problem for them then you create a dependency. We try and find the key to open the right doors."

You can contact Col Gunnell and his expert team at: The Army Welfare Service, Kent, Sir John Moore Barracks, Shornecliffe, Kent, CT20 3HF. Telephone 01303 225091, or 01303 225060, fax 01303 225059.

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