There are many different reasons why we support our favourite charities, maybe we were affected by a news story or a friend's experience, or maybe the reason is much closer to home and deeply personal. In this blog I'll discuss how I came to support Help for Heroes nearly ten years ago, some of my experiences along the way, and why I continue to support them even though the conflicts that brought Help for Heroes into existence have long since concluded.
Back in 2008 Alison and I had just opened Alison Bradley Gallery in Betws-y-coed. Nearly every news bulletin at that time featured reports of casualties in Helmand province and we wanted to do our bit to help those affected. We phoned Help for Heroes and asked if we could have a collection tin, not realising what a long and special relationship this was going to become for us.
As time went by we gradually grew closer to H4H, and we found out more about what they did and how they did it. We expanded our support from just the collection tins to organising events like Betws-y-coed Trail Challenge and donating paintings and prints for raffle or auction, plus a few to hang in the H4H Recovery Centres. All the time, the more we learned about H4H the more we wanted to do. We visited the Recovery Centres at Tedworth House and Catterick on several occasions, and one time we had the pleasure and priviledge of delivering a workshop for some of the residents in the Art Room at Tedworth House.
UK combat operations in Afghanistan ended in 2014, and thankfully several years have passed since aircraft have been flying casualties in from theatre to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. So, job well done and the support is no longer needed? Unfortunately, this isn't the case - far from it.
I can think of a number of stories and anecdotes I could share with you - conversations with staff, volunteers, veterans, or beneficiaries - but the following experience at Tedworth House is probably the best one to illustrate why Help for Heroes is needed just as much now, and will be for many years to come...
"The story begins as we arrived in the car park at Tedworth House and saw another family getting out of their car - it was one of those odd moments where you think you recognise somebody, do a quick double-take, and realise it wasn't who you thought it was. Then you go on your way, thinking no more of it. Until...
A couple of hours later we were standing by the back door of the house and I became aware of somebody heading towards me very slowly, being assisted by two H4H staff. I wondered at first if he was perhaps blind, but as he drew closer I could see his skin was colourless, his head was down on his chest supported by one of the assistants, his breathing was very shallow, and his steps were nothing more than a series of tiny shuffles. The two assistants were talking to him all the time, looking for a response that didn't come. To see a young man in such condition was deeply shocking - he was barely functioning as a human being.
Behind him was a lady I presumed to be his wife (whom I had mistakenly recognised earlier), visibly very upset. More accurately, she was in pieces. She was pushing a young child in a pushchair.
After they had passed us and gone into the house, the staff member we were chatting with told us that the man was suffering with severe PTSD and was an occasional resident at Tedworth House as part of his treatment. He went on to explain that symptoms of PTSD take an average of about twelve years to present, so after the conflict in Afghanistan ended (it was still in progress at this time) there would still be many veterans who would need the facilities at the H4H Recovery Centres.
About an hour later I saw the family again - walking near the front of the house and you would never tell anything had happened."
There was much for me to absorb and process from this experience. Until now, my understanding of PTSD was very limited - I had thought of it as sleepless nights or nightmares. Now I had seen first hand how sufferers can be totally consumed by it, how quickly an attack can strike, and how quickly it can pass. In the environment of the Recovery Centre professional help was quickly to hand, but one can only imagine how hard it must be for this young family when an attack happens at home, late at night, with a crying child in the background. I also reflect that there are a number of veterans out there for whom the conflict may be over but their personal battle with a debilitating invisible wound is still yet to begin.
I have no idea who the man was or how he is doing now, but I do know that the staff and facilities at the H4H Recovery Centres are the very best available and they are capable of remarkable things. I wish this family and others like them the very best of luck on an incredibly difficult journey.
So that, in a nutshell, is why I support Help for Heroes and will continue to do so. Supporting H4H doesn't mean supporting a particular conflict, or even the general concept of armed conflict - that's politics. Help for Heroes is about supporting people - it's about giving a bit back to people who have already given far too much of themselves.
If you're reading this blog and think that you or somebody you know might benefit from the assistance Help for Heroes provide, please visit their Get Support page.
Help for Heroes supports Serving and Reservist Personnel and Veterans who have suffered injuries or illness as a result of their service to the Nation. The Charity also helps their close family and dependents.