Belfast Telegraph

Centre rebuilding shattered lives

For many of the soldiers taking part in Prince Harry's Invictus Games, their recovery has been a long, hard road.

The rehabilitation facilities at Headley Court have become well known, but another piece of the puzzle is the MoD's Battle Back Centre, which helps wounded, injured and sick military personnel rebuild their lives.

The centre, part of the MoD's wider Battle Back programme, is based at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall, near Telford, and helps around 600 Army, Navy and RAF personnel every year.

Funded by Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion, it provides day courses or week-long residential multi-activity courses helping people through activities like climbing, watersports, wheelchair basketball and archery, as well as personal development coaching.

The centre's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Thomas, said the courses give servicemen and women the confidence to face up to the changes in their lives.

He said: "We have a full range of people here, from those who have been wounded on operations, those who have been injured on operations or injured in non-operational incidents, and those who are long-term sick."

With personnel ranging from triple amputees to people with terminal cancer, he said: "The big takeaway for most of them is improving their confidence.

"Many of them have had life-changing injuries, many are having to face up to leaving the service, so what we're trying to do is give them the confidence to face up to what they need to do in terms of that recovery."

Many servicemen and women hoping to take part in the Invictus Games this September will have been through the Battle Back Centre as part of their recovery, he said.

"The games is something many of them will aspire to, but it's not the be-all and end-all, particularly for most of the individuals who come through the centre or any other Battle Back activities," he added.

For Royal Engineer Corporal Richard Jobson, who was injured in Afghanistan in January 2013 when a member of the Afghan National Army (ANA) opened fire inside a patrol base, a multi-activity course at the centre helped him realise what he can still do despite his injuries.

The 33-year-old, from Alnwick, Northumberland, said: "He shot seven of us, killing one, Sapper Richard Walker, a friend of mine. I was shot six times - in the arm, the chest and the abdomen.

"I can remember lying on the floor, I looked over at my mate, he was asking 'Jobbo, what are you doing on the floor?'. I said 'I think I've been hit'. He ran over, dragged me into cover - he basically saved my life."

As his friends performed emergency medical treatment, the father-of-two said all he could think about was being told how likely he was to survive as long as he made it back to Camp Bastion.

"That's all that was going through my head - 'Make it back to Bastion'," he said.

"Once I got there I remember them cutting my clothes off and lying there naked on the table, and all I can remember doing was trying to cover up my private parts."

He next woke up in hospital in Birmingham, where he underwent a series of operations on his arm and his stomach, as well as having one kidney and 30% of his large intestine removed.

"I was in intensive care for five weeks, then went up on to a ward. I had lost loads of weight, I looked like a prisoner of war."

He later had his colostomy reversed, and then spent 10 weeks being treated at Headley Court, before taking part in the course at the Battle Back Centre.

"They're good here at adapting things, so you know you can do it where you might have thought you couldn't. It makes you realise what you can still do, and what you can't."

For Corporal Nicole Cunningham, the course helped rebuild the confidence she lost through suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cpl Cunningham, who served as a combat medical technician in the Royal Army Medical Corps, said nothing could have prepared her for the experiences during two tours in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011/12.

The 26-year-old, from Belfast, will leave the Army in September to pursue a career teaching first aid and health and safety, but PTSD left her lacking any confidence.

She said: "It's just totally changed me. I used to be quite a confident, outgoing person. I didn't have any problems going anywhere, doing anything, w hereas now I like to keep myself to myself.

"I don't like big crowds, public transport. I can't do any of that any more, just because of the anxiety and depression that comes with PTSD."

She said her first tour of Afghanistan, in the notoriously dangerous area of Sangin, was difficult, but she had "cracked on", only to face more tough experiences in her second tour.

"Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and dealt with out there," she said. "Regardless of how much training and preparation you do, you're never going to be prepared for the sights and scenes, especially when it comes to the locals and the children."

But she saw a noticeable change in just a few days on a multi-activity course at the Battle Back Centre.

"I just didn't want to do anything and talk to anybody," she said on her fourth day on the course, "whereas now I'm buzzing. It's actually brought the old Nicole out. Playing sports, being competitive - that's the type of person I am.

"Often, because you have a mental health disorder, people don't see it and they don't think it exists.

"Here, nobody questions you, why you're here, what you're doing, and why you're not doing certain things. It's just 'You're here for a reason, we'll work around that'."

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