Former soldier fighting his way back

REMEMBRANCE Sunday is almost upon us, and across the town the Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal is in full swing.

There are collecting tins in scores of locations and an army of volunteers ready to pin a poppy on the thousands of us who donate to the appeal.

Former soldier Wayne Lamb

Former soldier Wayne Lamb

But beyond the vague notion that our donation somehow goes to help war veterans, many of us don’t really know just where the money actually goes.

TOM YEOMAN reports.

A COMMON misconception is that the Royal British Legion is an organisation for old men, veterans of wars who have reached a grand old age and are now in need of nursing care.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

While the Legion does still look after elderly veterans who served their country in previous conflicts, it also provides much-needed help for servicemen and women who today stand on front lines in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan.

The huge numbers of British armed forces now serving in active combat zones and on peacekeeping duties around the globe puts increasing pressure on the Legion, and is seeing the charity push to raise a record total in this, its 90th year.

Nationally, the Poppy Appeal brings in around £36m each year.

But the Legion hopes the 2011 appeal will top £40m as it prepares to add the Afghanistan generation of ex-service personnel to the 9.5m people already entitled to its help as they either continue to serve or go through the process of settling down back on civvy street.

Precisely how much money ends up here in Hartlepool and where that money goes is based entirely on the needs of the servicemen and women and their eligible family members who depend on the Legion’s help.

This comes in the form of grants for anything from tackling homelessness to setting up their own business.

The Legion’s regional boss Andrew Drake said: “There’s no typical scenario. Wherever there’s a need we look to help.

“One minute we can be dealing with the family of a former soldier who is now on a low income and needs a cooker, the next we can be booking someone into respite care to help them deal with combat stress disorder.

“Serving and former soldiers and their dependants can call us, whatever their problem or need is, and we’ll try to help. We’ll send one of our volunteer case workers out to visit them to assess what their needs are and make a cash grant available to them.

“Sometimes it’s simple things like giving them a hand to get back into the jobs market.

“Some former troops need more help than others in that area and we can help with training to prepare them to start applying for jobs,

“The Legion also funds two debt advice workers in Citizen’s Advice Bureau offices in the North-East, one in Middlesbrough and another in Newcastle.

“They can help with a huge range of money-related issues such as advising them on getting the correct benefits or helping them deal with debt, sometimes by paying it off.

“We also help those with war injury cases who are entitled to compensation from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) to claim it and, if necessary, act as an advocate on their behalf and fight the MOD in cases where it disputes there is a legitimate claim.”

And Mr Drake went on to explain that the Royal British Legion also helps to fund partner charities who offer specialist help to serving and former service men and women by issuing grants to them.

Those charities include Finchale College, near Durham City, which was established as a rehabilitation centre for wounded servicemen in the Second World War.

It continues its military links to this day by means of courses aimed at resettling former military personnel into civilian life through a programme of education designed to help them find work.

“The Legion also funds care homes”, Mr Drake added.

“For North-East veterans the main ones are Lister House, in Ripon, which was named after Cpl Lister, who helped found the Legion there.

“The other is Alderston House, in Bridlington, which is a holiday centre for families which gives them a break from the stresses often felt by those who have left the services.

“In short, we’re helping all generations from all conflicts and we’re as relevant today as we’ve always been.”

Sadly, many people leaving the military are affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and need specialist help as a result.

Consequently the Legion funds a veteran’s mental health charity called Combat Stress, which gets more than 1,400 new referrals every year and has a current caseload of 4,600 former troops.

It’s a measure of the severity of the problem of PTSD that last year the charity’s patron, Prince Charles, launched a three-year fundraising campaign to combat what the charity calls the enemy within.

ONE former soldier to benefit from the Legion’s help and the expertise of the therapists at Combat Stress is Wayne Lamb from Peterlee.

From as far back as he can remember, all Wayne ever wanted was to be a soldier.

It was an ambition that saw him try to join the Army time and again – after first being turned down in 1985 at the age of 16 for being too short.

He was finally accepted the following year after the army changed the rules on height restriction and assessed applicants on their body mass index.

Yet that very ambition was to cost Wayne dearly, as the horrors of war took their toll on his mental health, eventually leaving him stressed, depressed and in need of help.

Before then he had signed up with the Royal Artillery Air Defence Unit 43, and was delighted at being able to do what he saw as his duty.

“I wanted to go to war”, said Wayne.

“I’m a patriot and I wanted to be able to fight for my country. Whenever we got told we were being deployed I wanted to be there. I couldn’t see the point in joining up and then not wanting to fight.”

Tours of duty in Northern Ireland, the Gulf and Iraq put Wayne on high alert.

In his own words he was “always on a buzz” as the constant threat from snipers and suicide bombers grew.

He saw colleagues – lads of his own age – die from injuries he says are too horrific to describe.

His stints in the Gulf, between November 1990 and April 1991, and the six months of fighting in Iraq were particularly difficult. But Wayne had felt a change in his personality as early as his Northern Ireland tour.

He said: “I started to change. It was just the experience of constantly being under threat.”

After his tour of duty in the Gulf War, Wayne knew he couldn’t face civvy street and spent his six weeks leave at his unit’s base in Germany, leaving the camp only to wander into the nearby town and “pick a fight with anyone for any reason at all”.

He added: “I knew I wasn’t right, especially in the last couple of years. I knew I’d turned into a totally different person. I was aggressive and fighting all the time. I knew I had to get out.”

Wayne left the army in 1996, but by 1997 he cracked and suffered a breakdown, and was hospitalised in Hartlepool General Hospital, suffering from stress and depression while feeling unable to face everyday life.

He was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2008 after a string of military and civilian doctors had dismissed his fears of suffering from the condition.

Now 42 and living back in his native North-East, Wayne is working hard to get his life back on track with the help of the Royal British Legion – despite going through his second major relationship breakdown in seven years and watching a second partner and child leave the family home.

Luckily, the split is amicable and Wayne will still be able to see his seven-month old daughter Tia. He has also stayed in touch with his seven-year old son Wayne from a previous relationship.

His children give him hope and purpose and a reason to pull his life back together.

The Legion is with Wayne every step of the way, and has set him up with Combat Stress.

He now visits their Hollybush House centre in Ayr, Scotland, for a week every month as their trained counsellors delve into his mind in a bid to unlock its dark places and bring him back into the light.

Ironically, Wayne often feels worse after his visits there as the therapists force him to confront a past he has done his best to bury.

“They’ve told me it’ll get worse before it gets better”, Wayne said.

“They’re basically making me relive it all and obviously that brings out all the bad feelings.

“But I’m well on the way now and they’ve told me that my last session shouldn’t be too far away.”

Wayne describes the Legion as “a fantastic organisation” which is “very much there and very much alive”, and he urged serving and former servicemen and women with problems to contact them.

“They’re always there on the end of the phone and there are lots of young people out there who have served in modern conflicts and need their help but don’t realise they can turn to them.

“The Legion is not just an organisation for old men from the two World Wars, they’re there for young people too.”