Horticulture provides new shoots of hope for Army veteran
Former soldier, Gordon, left the Army after struggling with social anxiety issues and problems integrating with his peers.
When his difficulties continued out on ‘civvy street’, Gordon’s mental health started to decline. However, a chance introduction to Veterans in Communities signalled a turning point in Gordon’s life, providing him with a renewed sense of belonging and purpose.
Gordon served in the British Army with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers for four years, completing an operational tour of Afghanistan, as well as training deployments to Canada and being part of the additional military security team brought in to support G4S during the London 2012 Olympic Games.
He describes having ‘mixed feelings’ about his time in the Army and says he found it extremely hard to integrate with people, admitting that he ‘fell short with the socialising side of Army life’. Ahead of his tour to Afghanistan in 2013, Gordon submitted his terminal discharge papers, as he’d decided that he didn’t want to continue with a career in the Army. Following his six-month tour, Gordon battled through the last six months of his service and confesses to turning to alcohol to help cope with the stress and anxiety of day-to-day life during that time.
On leaving the Army, Gordon moved back to his hometown and managed to secure a few part-time jobs; working in a warehouse and behind the bar at a local pub. However, it was here that he began to discover the extent to which he suffered from severe anxiety, primarily caused by being in large groups of people he didn’t know. He explains how feelings of panic would set in when people spoke to him in a certain way and says this was the catalyst for him to seek help from mental health services: “The panic made me feel like I was being put into a corner. After my second job out of the Army, I really struggled and started looking for help from mental health services. I felt like I was losing it a bit, so I wanted to find some help.”
Unfortunately for Gordon, his experiences of the mental health system didn’t end up being wholly positive and he was at a loss as to where to turn to next. That is when he found Veterans in Communities (VIC); an East-Lancashire based charity that provides activities for ex-service personnel and their families, to help them re-integrate back in to civilian life. VIC received a grant of £8,000 from ABF The Soldiers’ Charity in November 2016 and is one of the many organisations that receives financial support from the Charity each year.
Gordon was recommended to VIC by one of his first counsellors, who had links to Bob Elliot, the manager of the scheme. He was initially engaged in a walking programme and activities at the VIC centre, which gave him the courage and impetus to go on to other things: “Ever since that first meeting, I’ve been coming here regularly and joining in on the activities. They’ve helped me take part in qualifications further afield and they’ve also given me somewhere where I don’t feel like so much of an outsider.”
At the time of Gordon’s arrival at VIC, the charity was donated a small plot of land at a site in Rossendale, which held several allotments. This was the push he needed, and he joined a team of veterans from VIC who were handed the job of turning the site back in to a usable plot: “We got a small team together in the summer of 2016, I believe it was. It was a refuse site – people had been using it to tip all sorts of rubbish in, so it was a massive clean-up job; we had to make it safe for everyone, remove all of the hazardous materials in there and then start building the allotments for the raised beds and build the shed. We’ve had one year of crops go through it, and had quite some success with the crop yield, so I can’t be any happier with that!”
Gordon says that being involved in the allotment project gave him a lot of pride, witnessing how, from the initial planting, his hard work helped their seeds to grow in to ‘actual fruit and veg’. He credits this experience with uncovering a hidden love for horticulture and has since gone on to complete a 14-week, Level 1 Horticulture Course, via the VIC. He is now seeking full-time employment and admits that finding a gardening job ‘would absolutely be my dream’.
Reflecting on the impact that VIC, and the funding from The Soldiers’ Charity, has made on his life, Gordon says: “Before I came to Veterans in Communities, I was isolated, suffering from severe depression, rage, anxiety; I’d lost a lot of my own personal friendship groups. I was willing to take my own life before I came here. Since all the help and support and nurturing that they’ve given me, they’ve made me not even consider that dark part anymore. They’ve given me belief in myself to keep going, even though sometimes with what I have going on in my head, it’s very hard. But they’ve given me confidence to keep pushing, even if it feels crud sometimes.”
Gordon now has a positive outlook on life and would encourage others who are experiencing similar feelings as he was, to go out and find their local veterans charity and get involved in any of the activities they offer: “Having that comradery again, and the safety blanket that it provides, being with people in a familiar situation, it helps save lives. Isolation is the biggest killer. When you suffer from mental health problems, you just hide in your room and it gets worse. The best thing you can do is try and get out there and talk to people at the very least.”
* Name of individual has been changed to protect their identity