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Rachel Crow visits Shropshire's Audley Court, a centre giving hope and help to military veterans suffering trauma and stress
Healing the scars of battle
Rachel Crow visits Shropshires Audley Court, a centre giving hope and help to military veterans suffering trauma and stress
Pictures by Judy Mainwaring
They fight our wars.
We fight their battles.
The powerful motto of Combat Stress, the charity set up to treat military veterans with mental health problems, has gained greater relevance in recent times. Barely a day goes by without news of the deaths and injuries of British troops engaged in conflicts overseas. But what of those who return home without physical injuries those who are suffering in silence? A subject that has attracted increasing media attention and public concern is the complex, long-lasting and often debilitating psychological scars many service personnel are left with.
Combat Stress delivers specialist, trauma-focused treatment and support to ex-Service personnel suffering conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression and anxiety disorders as well as help and advice to their families. Last year marked the charitys 90th anniversary. It was formed at a time when very little was known about mental health but, since its inception, has helped more than 100,000 veterans. Since 2005 the numbers referred for help have increased by more than 72 per cent and signs are this is only set to rise further.
The charity currently has in the region of 4,300 veterans on its books. 180,000 veterans have recently gone through Iraq and Afghanistan and our research suggests four per cent of those will suffer mental health problems. That means there will be over 7,000 potential new veterans coming to seek out our help. You dont need to be a mathematician to work out what lies ahead of us. Demand for our services has sky-rocketed. Its a real problem, explains Mike Burrows, Operations Manager of the charitys specialist centre at Audley Court in Newport, Shropshire.
Tucked away off a quiet street, Audley Court is one of three centres around the country that provides short-stay clinical treatment to ex-service personnel, supported by a community outreach programme delivered by teams of mental health practitioners, community psychiatric nurses and regional welfare officers.
Here, veterans from World War II, the 1982 Falklands conflict and Northern Ireland rub shoulders with those barely in their 20s. Opened in 1996, the centre is in the midst of a refurbishment to improve facilities and accommodate the growing numbers needing support. It has a wide catchment area covering Shropshire, Wales and The Midlands to North Yorkshire and Lancashire. Yet with only 27 beds resources are stretched to the limits.
The services of Combat Stress are free to veterans but cost in the region of 10million a year to provide. More than half of that amount has to be raised through charitable donations and grants.
Earlier this year the charity launched The Enemy Within Appeal, aiming to raise more than 30million over the next three years to enable it to extend the reach of its support service.
In order to reach that target Combat Stress needs to increase awareness of the plight of veterans suffering from psychological injury that can lead to isolation, unemployment and relationship breakdowns. But theres also the problem of convincing the veterans themselves to seek help.
Our statistics show that it takes on average 14 years after leaving service before a veteran comes to us. The longer it takes us to reach them the more in crisis they will be and the more their lives will have fallen apart, so the earlier we can catch them the better, says Mike.
And the reason it takes so long for them to seek help?
Because of the stigma attached with admitting they have a problem, Mike says with a shrug.Its not something the MOD can resolve easily. If they are still in service they will immediately have their weapon taken off them and their career will be put on hold, so they keep their mouth shut and its still seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help when they come out. Its often the wife or partner who will eventually say right, thats enough, you get some help now.
This was the case of former Platoon Sergeant Ken Hayward. Shropshire born and bred, Ken, from Telford, served for 16 years with the 2nd Battalion Royal Green Jackets. He left the forces in 1983 but it took him nearly 20 years to seek the help of Combat Stress.
It was my wife, Helen, who finally sorted me out and took me off to the doctors to get help and thats how I got referred here. You know youve got a problem but dont want to admit it. There is a lot of macho stuff in the army because thats how it works, Ken admits.
When you think of the situations you need to go into in the army you need to be a bit gung-ho. It stops you thinking too much because otherwise you wouldnt be able to do the job. Lads in the centre here now have been under tremendous strain and trouble in Afghanistan and places but have to deal with it. I worry for them, he adds with a shake of his head.
With many overseas postings during the course of his service, it was while serving in Northern Ireland in the 1970s that Ken witnessed harrowing events that had a lasting impact leaving him suffering nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety. With great effort, visibly shaking from the effort of facing his memories he bravely recounts how he witnessed a friend and colleague shot in the head next to him while patrolling in Londonderry, another blown up by a bomb planted on a flag-pole, or the trauma of walking away from checking a suspicious deserted van, seconds before it exploded.
Its when you go back in at the end of the day and sit down that the trembles start, Ken says. Adrenalin gets you through the day because you havent got time to think about anything, you have so much in your head to do as Platoon Sergeant. It stays with you but you dont want to talk about it. I had never talked about these things before I came here to Audley Court.
Such experiences made it difficult for Ken to differentiate between a safe environment and a dangerous one, even back home and he has not slept for more than four hours a night since. With the help of Combat Stress he has been shown ways to counteract his symptoms.
It doesnt stop it but helps you to cope with it. You also have a lot of anger. Its the smallest thing that triggers you off and it tends to be the people that you love that are in the firing line.
Ken credits his wife for having the strength to stand by him where many others have seen their relationships fall apart. And coming here has given me my life back, he adds. I had contemplated suicide at times. You feel that youve failed yourself and everybody around you. Its hard to deal with.
At Audley Court, veterans such as Ken can find a supportive and understanding environment of ex-service personnel. Many who work for Combat Stress have themselves served in the forces. While the primary responsibility for the veterans care and treatment lies with the NHS, they often cant relate to NHS staff, explains Mike who was a Major with 26 years army service. All of our welfare officers are ex-military and when people come here part of the treatment is being with other veterans and speaking to those with shared experiences. In some ways they create here a military barracks room type environment and there is a lot to be gained from that.
There is no such thing as a cure. The best we can do is achieve some symptom reduction and give the guys coping mechanisms to take away, Mike explains.
Set around three wings, Audley Court has group rooms for treatment sessions and a range of facilities including games room, gym, TV room and activity centre, where clients have access to a range of artistic resources used in the course of rehabilitative therapy. There is a small kitchen where they can help veterans learn to cook.
Outside, the lovely gardens, landscaped with funds donated by Shropshire Horticultural Society are an ideal spot for moments of contemplation.
Audley Court also provides a lifeline to many like Ken who have benefited from stays at the centre, but still need the safety net of numbers they can call in times of difficulty.
We have a lifetime commitment to help these guys. Community Outreach is doing that more and more but some clients will ring up here at 2am and know that they can speak to someone who will help them through the night, explains Mike.
The need for more funding for the services of Combat Stress has never been greater. It is for the younger generation that Ken is concerned. They went through a lot more in recent campaigns than we did and if the funds arent there for them they will get sub-standard treatment.
They have fought for the country. They deserve to be looked after properly.
To find out more about Combat Stress visit www.combatstress.org.uk
To make a donation call 01372 841619.