War veterans build their futures in Bristol

Soldier on patrol in west Belfast
Image caption John Alford and Mark Johnson saw "horrific" things while serving in Northern Ireland

Homeless ex-servicemen in Bristol are building their own apartments as part of a project to motivate and support them.

Twelve men who experienced problems after leaving the forces, will live in the two-bedroom apartments on West Street, Bedminster from April 2012 if all goes to plan.

John Alford, 57, turned to drink after three tours in Northern Ireland.

He was blinded in one eye by a nail bomb and described getting involved in the housing project as better than seeing a psychiatrist.

His homelessness eventually followed his service in the province with the First Gloucestershire Regiment.

"It was horrendous. You don't know if you're going to come home or not. It's very frightening."

Two of his colleagues were shot by snipers in front of him and the loss of his eye forced him out of the army.

"I just couldn't settle. Drink is a big problem which people turn to to suppress the thoughts.

"It ruins your life. I've had four marriages and I lost my family too."

But he said the Community Self Build Agency had provided a "big opportunity and a bit of an outlet".

"There are 12 of us and we can talk about things like you couldn't talk about in the pub or with other people."

One of those he talks to, and his soon-to-be neighbour, is Mark Johnson, 47, formerly of the 2nd battalion Royal Anglian Regiment who also served in Northern Ireland's "bandit country".

"Whilst you're there you're just doing your job and you get on with it. It's later on that you get the flashbacks.

"When I came out there really wasn't a lot of support. I was one of the chaps that came out with a young family so it wasn't as difficult for me to settle. But it did affect me.

'Complete turn around'

"Some things are quite difficult to deal with and alcohol played a major part in destroying my life. This time last year I was living on a bench and walking around the streets of Bristol drinking a lot.

"I've had suicide attempts, being in a position where you're that lost.

"I've seen psychiatrists but this project helped me more than anything else. It's hard to believe that we're doing this really."

Stella Clarke, chairman of the Agency, said it worked with homeless people "because it's hugely motivating to build and have your own home".

She added: "We're not setting people up to fail so you need to feel reasonably good that they will to stick it out."

The agency was hopeful the project would roll-out elsewhere in the country over the next few months, but it was important to do it "where we have support" from local authorities and the construction industry, said Ms Clarke.

But the project is not just about the building.

Mr Johnson said: "They make sure that there is something for you to go straight on to. I used to cook and I'm looking at opening up a café. I'm learning carpentry and joinery so we'll have qualifications.

"It's a complete turnaround."

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