Meet the ex-soldier building homes for the city’s homeless
Steve Hadaway took the long route to becoming a carpenter. The skill set which has proved so valuable in helping to construct six new modular homes for homeless people – due to be installed in Barnwell soon, current lockdown situation permitting – gestated during his time in the armed forces.
“It’s total fabrication of the design,” Steve says of the project which has been created from scratch by Jimmy’s Cambridge, Allia Future Business Centre and Bottisham-based New Meaning, which is run by John Evans.
“Start to finish, from the steel frames to the internal plaster, painting, installing the kitchen and the flooring... I suspect the homes will last 50 years. John’s done a grand job – an amazing job, especially trying to manage me!”
Steve served in the Royal Anglian Regiment from 1991 to 1998. He signed up at the shockingly young age of 16 – “just after 16,” he says, “and your bones are still growing, you’re carrying a lot of equipment around in the army and you’re damaging your growth rates”.
During his service as a private with the regiment Steve was posted to Bosnia a one of a company of 150 soldiers “in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo, not far from the Olympic site”. It was during this shockingly genocidal war that he first experienced events which were later to destabilise him.
“We had various different observation points and were set up overlooking various different factions, doing patrols and overwatch during the night,” Steve explains. “The conflict was so bizarre. You’d go into a holiday resort and drive past a bus blown apart, and it’s full of people... things like that. I remember walking back to base and we were walking through a minefield. You see the little topside plastic caps – that way they don’t get detected.”
“Oh yeah. Without a doubt. There were constant bombardments and live fire every day – pretty much they were fighting each other, but some of it was directed at us. You were always on high alert, all the time. Then, at 2am, it all stops. Everything. People go to sleep, it’s so weird. Then you get the Muslim morning prayer at dawn.
“We spoke to the locals through interpreters. My company’s main base was in Vitez, in Bosnia. It was an old school I think. Kids would come up to the base, trying to sell us things – bayonets, grenades, kids of seven or eight. Different military badges – I assume taken off dead bodies. We couldn’t buy anything of course.”
During the first of two tours of duty one firefight stands out.
“We got compromised during the day.” Steve still uses military language to describe an ambush. “The day before a French helicopter flying overhead was shot at and it went down. They were watching our positions and the next day they were doing the same thing and we were ready to retaliate. But instead of firing at the helicopter they fired at us. It was hell on earth. They had mortars which we didn’t have. We had the Warrior armoured personnel carrier with two 30mm Rarden cannons.”
So why no mortars?
“We weren’t allowed it. It was deemed too offensive.”
But I thought you were the army?
“Same. And we had limited ammunition.”
This is realpolitik gone mad – and Steve was the one bearing the brunt of it. He was literally in the firing line.
“That was a very long day, and it didn’t end for about two days. There was no way my PTSD had started at that point. After the first tour I volunteered again. I was angry when I came back to boring checkpoint duty, which I found very frustrating – I wasn’t doing what I loved, which was being out in the field.”
His experience made him valuable. “I was in the 2nd Battalion of the Anglian’s, and was transferred to the 1st Battalion, which meant being transported to the battlefield in a helicopter. The second tour was frustrating. There was lots of training, running, training very hard.”
Steve was training for a specific mission – and there would be others in other parts of the world, which he declines to discuss.
“There’s a mountain in Croatia which is basically dug up for tunnels for holding airplanes – with an airstrip outside – and we were set up to basically go and take it.”
Steve spots my incredulity: I say well taking a well-defended position in tunnels where the defending party has no exit route means that the beleaguered force will fight to the death. He nods. It sounds like the sort of mission which even in the First World War would have been dismissed as foolhardy – and he wasn’t even told who they were fighting.
“No idea,” he shrugs. “They didn’t tell us. I think it was Serbo-Croats. Three times we were sent in and three times it was called off. When we were told the Chinooks were going in I turned to my mate and said: ‘I think we’re not gonna come back.’ The people in the tunnels had nothing to lose. So we go in, with ammunition and water only, take the tunnels, and helicopter out.”
Also during this second tour Steve was in the blast area when a truck was hit by artillery.
“A British Army truck was blown up in front of me driving into the barracks – no idea what by, how or why, but I was on guard duty at the main gate and it blew me off my feet. I was not replaced, I was told to stay on guard duty. I went to the medical centre on my break.”
The suggestion that the army covenant was being bent or even cast aside is prevalent in Steve’s testimony. It happened again in Canada when he got blood poisoning in his left leg, yet was ordered to continue “carrying mortar rounds and the radio, and my left leg stopped working and I collapsed”. The medic said he needed a helicopter to get him to a hospital, but the sergeant-major said he had to carry on. “This was in peacetime, that was the bizarre thing.”
Fortunately the medic overruled the sergeant-major, otherwise Steve might have lost his leg.
“I was in a wheelchair for two weeks.”
These escapades may have been part of the soldier’s lot, but when the army discharge came Steve - along with thousands of other squaddies - was left more exposed than he’d ever been on the battlefield .
“I was diagnosed with combat PTSD in 1997 and they put me on leave, I was on full pay. After getting discharged there was no guidance. There was no offer of retraining. I mean, actually they trained me to kill people, how’s that going to help in the real world? It’s brainwashing. £47 a week on benefits, and I ended up with a lot of crap jobs – in a warehouse, a delivery driver... I was a trauma medic, a training signaller – like a first responder on the battlefield – a gunner for the Warrior, a commander of a Warrior... I was a pretty damn good soldier if I’m honest.”
But eventually, by 2003, Steve completed a carpentry course and became a self-employed carpenter.
“It was almost normal. I’d been a carpenter for quite a while and things got good for quite a while but what I wasn’t realising is that PTSD keeps creeping up on you. You can get remarkably low for long periods of time.”
Steve objected to being given anti-depressants for combat PTSD. “They made me a bit mental so I came off them.” But in 2005 “I think I had another episode” which resulted in a first period of homelessness after he moved out of the house he was sharing with a then-partner and children. The council wouldn’t house him.
“You go through these periods of being completely lost, you don’t know what to do. That went on for two and a half, three years.”
The next relationship also foundered after three years and he was once more left to his own devices – at no stage in this period of Steve’s life was the army in any way there for him. The council, “knowing I was a veteran, knowing I had PTSD”, asked him to register at Jimmy’s night shelter.
“I didn’t go. What they do is good of course, but I felt I needed to fight a little bit harder. It didn’t feel right to join the queue at Jimmy’s.”
“I just clicked straight away,” he says. “It was just what I wanted to put back. But it’s also really important, it could be a new way forward to deal with homelessness – it’s not an answer, it’s an option.”
Like others on the team, Steve is hoping there will be demand for the homes from other organisations – and perhaps more work for him.
In the meanwhile, however, his carpentry company, SyncInspire, is heading in the right direction and Steve – who has done right by his country but hasn’t always been treated with the respect he deserves in return – has found a new sense of purpose constructing modular homes for homeless people.
More by this authorMike Scialom