The Belfast soldier who's battling to rebuild her life after traumatic experiences in war-torn Afghanistan
A Belfast soldier has told how she was left unable to face crowds from suffering post-traumatic stress after two tours in war-ravaged Afghanistan.
Corporal Nicole Cunningham (26) is currently undergoing rehabilitation at the MoD's Battle Back Centre, which helps wounded, injured and sick military personnel rebuild their lives.
The centre 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. 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 Belfast woman will leave the Army in September to pursue a career teaching first aid and health and safety, but post-traumatic stress disorder (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, whereas 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 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 change in just a few days on a multi-activity course at the Battle Back Centre.
"I 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 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'."
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. "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. 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."