Tony’s driven to help youngsters achieve

Tony West has set up Military Mentors with L-R  George Sutton 17, Emma Abraham 17 and Will Clarke 18 training on the Lee-on-the-Solent seafront.''Picture: Paul Jacobs  (131394-1)

Tony West has set up Military Mentors with L-R George Sutton 17, Emma Abraham 17 and Will Clarke 18 training on the Lee-on-the-Solent seafront.''Picture: Paul Jacobs (131394-1)

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A huge cheer goes up from the playing field. A group of teenagers, boys and girls, are bouncing energetically on what look like over-inflated balloons.

It turns out they are playing Spacehopper football and one of the lads has just scored a belter with an overhead kick while somehow managing to stay astride the thing.

About 45 minutes later the same youngster knocks nervously on Tony West’s office door.

It emerges that the lad was only trying out Military Mentors for the day. Yes, he’s had a top time and yes, please, can he come back tomorrow?

Tony glows. He’s more than happy to take him. There’s potential in this boy that might eventually turn him into a sailor, soldier or airman.

Tony epitomises the forces’ can-do attitude. Six months ago, he took possession of a run-down building tucked away behind houses in Bath Lane, Fareham. Working day and night he gutted the ground floor, installed a classroom, mess, kitchen and offices. In January he launched Military Mentors.

He now has 16 teenagers on his books, girls and boys who want to join the armed forces or, perhaps, one of the uniformed public services. They are referred by their school or college and it’s Tony’s job to inspire them to achieve a potential they probably did not know they had.

It is not a boot camp. Yes, there is a lot of physical training, exercise designed to get the youngsters fit enough to pass the qualifying fitness level for the Royal Navy, Army or RAF.

But there is also much emphasis on achieving results in the classroom by making subjects such as English and Maths, which might have seemed totally boring at school, absolutely relevant to service life.

Take map reading for example, where both subjects are essential. This week, after a visit to the coastguard station at Lee-on-the-Solent, the youngsters were given a lesson on the nearby beach about how to get to grips with the Ordnance Survey’s finest.

Tony is steeped in the services. The Royal Navy oozes from every pore, but he is ideally placed to know exactly where his charges are coming from.

He’s 54 now and left the senior service after 35 years having reached the rank of Commander.

He was Provost Marshal (Navy), the man who ran the navy’s police force around the world. He also has a BA (Hons) and MSc to his name, qualifications from the University of Portsmouth which he won at night school while doing the day job.

He left school in Littlehampton at 16. ‘I had no O-levels, was only interested in football, drinking beer and hanging out with my mates. I looked a bit like Noddy Holder from Slade,’ he says.

‘My friend had joined the navy and he came home one day and told us he’d been to America and how fantastic it all was.

‘In those days only rich people went abroad so, and I know this is a cliché, I joined the navy to see the world. I joined for two years and 35 years later I came out.

‘I was paid £1 a day, £14 a fortnight, as a Junior Seaman Operator Second Class and my first real job on board was cleaning the toilets in HMS Tiger. But, by the time I was 19 I’d been around the world.’

After four years he changed branch to the navy’s Regulating Specialisation, now known as the RN Police.

But it was while stationed in Hong Kong that his desire for self-improvement hit him, an ambition which drives him today to help the teenagers achieve theirs.

‘We had a visit from an officer who was involved in our branch and I wasn’t impressed by him.

‘He was just out there to play golf and have a good time.

‘I mentioned it to a mate and he told me I should do something about it. I didn’t think I was bright enough. I had no O-levels but he told me to go and get some.’ He did.

‘By then all I wanted was to become a naval officer. I passed the Admiralty interview board went to the Royal naval college at Dartmouth and actually did all right.’

So for the last three years of his naval career he ended up running the service’s police force, about 300 of them scattered around the globe.

Tony continues: ‘I was a big fish in a little pond. The kudos was nice, but some of the stuff I was dealing with wasn’t: deaths; suicides; the repatriation of bodies. My last job of any note was getting involved in the shooting on board the submarine in Southampton. That was horrible.’

But when his time was up with the navy he started considering his future. ‘When I left, about 18 months ago, I wondered what on earth I should do. I thought I could either retire and be bored stiff or do something useful.

‘I knew all about the navy, and a lot about the army and air force because I’ve worked with all three services extensively. I’d also got the education qualifications to teach so I decided to combine it all and launch Military Mentors.

‘I know I can put something back and if I can help these kids achieve their aim and get into the services I know I will have made the right decision.’

Tony West set up Military Mentors in January this year to help teenagers who aren’t interested in following more traditional academic routes, but are keen on a career in the armed forces.

Tony says: ‘A lot of these kids come from backgrounds where you could describe them as having issues, but they’re basically good kids.

‘The key is that they want to be here. We’ve taken on some of these kids who had very low attendance at school or college, and here they’re at more than 90 per cent attendance.

‘We are going to get lots of good sailors, soldiers and airmen, and lots of non-commissioned officers, but it’s not meant to be Sandhurst.’

Anthony Tew, a former soldier who worked in bomb disposal, is the only other full-time member of staff at the moment, and he puts the teenagers through their paces in the classroom and in daily physical training.

But their are weekly guest speakers from different aspects of the armed forces, and several volunteers who come in and help out with some of the sessions.

And with a rolling year-long programme, the youngsters don’t have to wait until the start of the year, they can join at any time.

Tony adds: ‘Our core values are honesty, respect, teamwork, courage, loyalty and humour – all the things that make up a serviceman or woman’s life.’

The whole ethos revolves around structure. ‘The moment they walk through the door at 9am they know what’s expected of them. They know the boundaries. They know that if we tell them not do something and they don’t do it they’re going to have two grumpy old blokes saying ‘‘you did badly there, come in and explain yourself’’.

‘But there’s also peer pressure. The majority of the kids really want to do well and succeed and use this course to get into the armed services. They’re not interested in having other students around who don’t share that aim.’

To find out more go to militarymentors.co.uk or call 07856 975376.

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