ON patrol in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, gun slung over his shoulder, Hutch Hutchison was trained to deal with any situation that might suddenly arise.
Whether it was hunting down members of the IRA, searching houses for weapons or being constantly on alert for bombs, snipers or just cocky teenagers armed with petrol bombs and bricks, the young squaddie had been taught to cope under pressure.
He had no idea at the time but years later those army skills he learned in the shadow of the Falls Road would help him become father to a fragile little boy in need of a loving home.
Today Hutch is a member of an exclusive band of former military men who have traded guns, khaki uniforms and parade-ground drill for caring for some of the most broken of children.
It’s skills honed on the frontline that are helping provide the foundation for a caring role that couldn’t be further removed from the old one.
“The army teaches you a lot about man-management and it also teaches you about discipline and patience,” says Hutch, who insists he’s better known by his nickname than his real name, Walter. “Northern Ireland in the 1970s was full-on, and it did give me an insight into how a lot of families live.”
Today Hutch, 60, and his wife Gina, 51, are foster parents to a 15-year-old lad. He arrived at their house just off Newcraighall Road nearly seven years ago, skinny and scared, battled-scarred himself by the break-up of his family and in dire need of a stable and caring family.
While the youngster fought to cope with the upset of being separated from his three siblings – housing them all together posed too big a challenge – and the traumas that led to the collapse of family life, Hutch gently drew on all the lessons he’d learned from his days as a Royal Scots infantryman, and set about helping to fix him.
“When these children come to you, they often have no concept of boundaries,” he explains. “Setting these boundaries takes a lot of hard work for you and for the child.”
Hutch and Gina’s own son, Robert, had grown into a confident teenager with sights set on joining the RAF when the couple decided to consider becoming foster parents. “I was 52 at that time,” recalls Hutch, “so anyone that says you have to be a certain age to do it is wrong. In fact, it keeps you young.”
The decision to do it, he recalls, was straightforward. “We saw an advert in the paper and we felt it was something we’d like to do.
“It took around 18 months to get through the process. There were checks and we attended seminars and even did role-playing – all to see if we were suitable.
“It wasn’t a case of deciding on Friday to be foster parents and having a kid through the door on Monday. While it seems a long time, it means you are better prepared.”
Within three days of being officially accepted, the phone rang. “We were told that they had a young boy that needed a foster home,” Hutch recalls. “We went to visit him at his school to see if we would be a good match.
“He was just a little mite, very thin, scared and nervous. Six and a half years later he is a typical cocky, cheeky teenager.
“There have been a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” he adds. “But seeing the transformation makes it all worth it.
“People might wonder how being in the army helps when it comes to being a foster parent,” admits Hutch, who served with the Royal Scots between 1967 and 1976. “What it gave me was a sense of responsibility.
“I saw a lot of life. I did so many tours of Northern Ireland that I was coming home with an Irish accent,” he adds with a laugh. “During one I was the chaplain’s bodyguard. I’d drive him around and it could actually be quite scary.
“I suppose that experience makes you realise how it must feel for some of these kids who are split up from their family and put into foster care.”
Ex-Royal Scot Corporal Brian Herron, 53, and wife Rosslyn, 50, became foster carers eight years ago. Like Hutch, Brian also believes armed forces life was the perfect preparation for becoming a foster carer.
“The army is essentially a family where everyone supports one another,” says the former full corporal who served nearly ten years.
“You work as a team, you support each other and look after each other’s backs. You had to be able to communicate too. I was a weapons instructor – I had to talk to everyone from privates up to colonels and communicate regardless of rank.
“Those are skills that I think have helped when it comes to fostering.”
Brian served first with 2nd Battalion 52nd (Lowland) Brigade and later in Germany with the First Battalion the Royal Scots. He left in 1991.
“The army also teaches you not just discipline,” he adds, “but self-discipline and patience, which are invaluable when you are raising children.”
Brian, and Rosslyn, a former staff nurse, have fostered dozens of children since the first pair, a brother and sister aged two and three, came into their home. The youngsters, now aged 11 and 12, still live at the family home in Bonnyrigg with their daughter Jodi, 13.
Brian, who now works with Edinburgh City Council’s criminal justice system, admits life can be hectic, but that he would not change a thing. “The best thing I ever did was to come into fostering,” he says. “It would be a lie if I said things were always great, but that’s family life.
“I would 100 per cent recommend fostering – and the army - to anyone.”