Unique centre providing care and support for police and army veterans opens its doors
In the tranquillity of a Fermanagh hideaway, in a world far removed from the terror hotspots of Northern Ireland and the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, a ground-breaking therapy initiative has been launched to help police and Army veterans to rebuild their lives after they were injured or left traumatised by their experiences in conflicts here and abroad.
Amid the 1,000 leafy acres of unbroken rural calm of Colebrooke Park, the ancestral home of the Brooke family, the former front line servicemen and women are being given a new style of support which campaigners have long been advocating.
The Brooke House health and wellbeing centre near Brookeborough is offering bespoke treatment and care through a range of support services for former RUC and RUC Reserve officers along with their families in Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone.
The initiative is also supporting post-2008 veterans from the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force and their families who live in Northern Ireland or the Republic.
Joan Clements, the director of the centre, said yesterday that the services on offer include trauma-focused psychological therapy, physiotherapy, alternative and complementary therapies and nature-based therapy.
But she added that victims and their families are also availing of structured respite and retreat programmes at a cottage at Brooke House.
Ms Clements went on: "The focus is on the whole family because often a husband won't have told his wife what he experienced in the Troubles or overseas and a wife sometimes won't have shared her feelings with her husband.
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"So being here may give them the opportunity to talk about what they've gone through.
"Our services have already been available for a couple of months and the results have been excellent.
"I think it is making a real difference to people. And we don't forget families after they leave us.
"We keep following up."
Ms Clements said the potential clientele for centres like Brooke House was almost incalculable.
She added: "In regards to the RUC, we know that more than 300 officers were killed and thousands more sustained physical injuries.
"But there are also the hidden victims who are suffering from mental stress. And then there are the families too.
"We also recognise that many other people are reluctant to come forward and overcome their own inhibitions about mental health," she said. Members of the Wounded Police and Families Association have already had what's known as a 'relaxation day' at Brooke House.
Their chairperson Hazel McCready, a former RUC officer who was wounded in an IRA ambush, said her visit was "tremendous" but she added that help for veterans was long overdue.
"I'm 43 years injured and I just wish there had been a facility like this back then on this side of the Irish Sea," she said.
The Ely Centre, set up to help victims after the Enniskillen Poppy Day bombing in 1987, has been at the forefront of the new initiative, which has been funded by the Exchequer through the Government's Libor fines scheme established after the fraudulent banking transactions scandal.
Lee McDowell, manager of the Ely Centre, said: "The facilities here at Colebrooke are perfect and the setting is idyllic. Lord Brookeborough has been magnificent."
Falklands War veteran Simon Weston, who launched the project, said he was impressed by Brooke House.
"Many people here have given so much in their service to the community and in part they have been left to languish without the right type of support and this is a good start," he said.
"I remember after I was injured the medical help for people like me was initially wonderful.
"But psychologically, if I said we had nothing I might be being generous.
"And the testament to that was the number of people who ended their lives at their own hands."
Ely Centre chairman Jim Dixon, who was seriously injured in the Remembrance Day bomb, said he was "humbled" to support ex-soldiers and policemen.
He added: "The Ely Centre help civilians at our 12 centres and I have always felt bad that I never fought for my country and I think a lot about those who did.
"And I hope Brooke House will benefit them."
Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, a former soldier with the Royal Irish Regiment, said Brooke House would provide crucially needed support for former police and Army veterans many of whom often couldn't open up to anyone about the ordeals they survived.
The Military Cross recipient added: "Obviously it's only scratching the surface in some ways, but it is a first step and I hope Brooke House can be used as a model for similar centres throughout Northern Ireland to help the many people who need help."