A pensioner from Northampton who is the daughter of an army officer, wife of a lieutenant colonel and mum to a squadron leader has been awarded the British Empire Medal after 58 years of helping soldiers and their families.
Shirley Napier, aged 80, retired last year after being first a paid employee of SSAFA then a volunteer from 1985 onwards, helping around 4,000 soldiers sailors, airmen and their families in Northampton, particularly the Eastern District where she lives.
I see myself as a listening post- very often people just want someone to talk to who understands the armed forces.Shirley Napier
Uniquely qualified for the role, her father and father-in-law were army officers, her deceased husband rose to lieutenant colonel and her sons are a squadron leader and another lietenant colonel.
Following her husband and father to Malaysia, Singapore, India, Burma, Aden, Germany and Northern Ireland - as well as Simpson Barracks in Wootton where her husband was commandant - meant she was able to talk from experience when helping veterans of many of the major British Army deployments of the 20th Century. She was also easily able to relate to those of her son’s generation and went on helping Northampton ex-soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of her BEM, part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours, she said: “I’m really quite surprised. I hadn’t thought anyone had noticed what I have been doing.
“I try not to force my personality on people, I see myself as a listening post- very often people just want someone to talk to who understands the armed forces.”
Mrs Napier said a common modern problem, particularly among Afghanistan veterans who are in the territorial army and have returned to their other civilian jobs is not being understood.
She said: “Particularly with women, they go back to work on an industrial estate and talk to their colleagues and they just can’t relate to her experience. It’s actually very isolating.”
Over almost six decades, Mrs Napier has experienced the full range of issues, from financial problems to servicemen with relationship problem.
While stationed in Asia she would deal with girlfriends trying to break up with their soldier boyfriend by letter.
In order to help keep him happy, Mrs Napier would sit down with the girlfriend and ask if she had really considered her choice.
Mrs Napier said: “We would never dream of telling her what do, we’d just make sure they had thought about it properly.
“The advantage to the army was obviously that it’s not good to have a soldier walking around with a weapon who is anxious about anything. Doing all we could in their personal lives meant they could be more effective soldiers.”
Whatever the army’s views, however, Mrs Napier has always been motivated only by passing on the good fortune of her armed forces experience.
She said: “The great thing about SSAFA is that they really care about people, we are there to understand their problems and do simple things they couldn’t do themselves.
“A good example is a man who we managed to get a wheelchair for. He said to me: ‘You’ll never know how much it means to me to be able to go out and get a newspaper.’
“I think that sums up what I’ve done.”
Two from northamptonshire also receive the royal award for 100 years of service to the community
A woman from Oundle and a man from Great Doddington have also been awarded with British Empire Medals for providing more than 100 years of services to their local communities between them.
Mrs Sheila Margaret Pick, of Clifton Drive in Oundle, has been recognised for her contributions to the scout movement after almost 50 years of work to provide young people with important life skills.
The 65-year-old first joined the movement in Leicestershire in 1968 but moved to the Oundle branch when it was on the verge of shutting down in 1987. She has since orchestrated a fundraising campaign to put a child in Africa through school, taught scouts the value of teamwork and problem-solving over countless camping trips and in 2009 she was awarded the Bar to the Silver Acorn for her good service.
“I was shocked to receive the letter about the BEM,” she said, “but I was delighted.
“I believe that the scouting movement really teaches value to children, especially these days. On my camps, mobile phones are not allowed and it encourages them to work together, to invent their own games and really enjoy themselves without spending so much money.
“It gives them a chance to actually talk to each other face-to-face and gives them a little freedom.”
A former secretary, Mrs Pick still does part-time banking work and gets involved with various initiatives within the community.
She said: “Scouting has always taken up the majority of my time and I have always enjoyed it - especially getting to meet lots of new leaders and helpers over the years.
“I always took my two daughters on camps, and now my four granddaughters have followed in our footsteps too.”
Robin Cyril Arch, a Great Doddington football club stalwart, was also delighted when he received notification of his BEM, for the number of fundamental services he has offered to his community over the last 55 years.
The 72-year-old, of Earls Barton Road in Great Doddington, said it had been his pleasure to be central figure in some of the village’s most important organisations.
He said: “Obviously I’m quite pleased with myself - I’ve always been a great one for showing off.
“But I did find it a bit strange because I never did anything that I didn’t actually want to do.”
Since 1960, Mr Arch has been secretary, player and assistant at the football club and raised funds to build a brick clubhouse and changing room for use by the whole community.
He said: “It all started with the football because, growing up, I loved playing but was never any good and it was difficult to get anyone to take charge of the admin for the junior club.
“To have all these groups, there always has to be somebody to take care of the mundane paperwork bits and I was always happy to do that.”
The former University of Northampton teacher and engineer went on to act for 16 years as governor of Great Doddington Primary School and a secondary school to “keep an eye on his kids” and acted as secretary for the Great Doddington Working Men’s Club. He also became treasurer, secretary and member of Great Doddington Food Producers Society, securing the installation of a reliable mains water supply to the group’s allotments.
But his fondest memory of community work, he says, was his position running the unofficial Little Club, which aimed to support sick workers following the Second World War.
He explained: “Everybody loved it. We had about 60 members and they would pay a trivial amount of money every week and then, if somebody was off ill from work - because sick pay was unheard of in those days - they would get the pay-out. It would be about enough for a couple of pints or some cigarettes, but that made a lot of difference.
“If somebody died, that week everybody would pay double to give to the widow or widower, and if there was anything left in the kitty by Christmas then we would split it between members.”