I was very proud to receive my UEA community engagement award a couple of weeks ago. The pride came not because I wanted recognition for myself, but for the small charities that work tirelessly to support our Armed Forces. Getting the award has prompted colleagues to ask me, ‘Why do you do this?’
‘Why not?’ would be the flippant answer, but of course, there are reasons why I volunteer specifically with military charities. Like most people of my generation our fathers and grandfathers served. My maternal grandfather was an officer in the RAF and my father did his national service after WW2 had finished. This is nothing unusual, however, and I have hesitated to share the deeper reasons why I do this because they are very personal; but maybe my story should be told.
You might be surprised to learn that my commitment to those who have served goes back to the Vietnam War. ‘Surely you’re too young to remember that,’ I hear you cry. Well, not really. At the tender age of 19 I married a Staff Sargent in the United States Air Force and for 10 years I was a military wife. I know what it’s like to be a small cog in a mighty machine. I relocated my career on the basis of where we were posted and lived in a variety of homes (some pretty grim while waiting for a house on the base). I know what it’s like to be separated for long periods, alone to sort everything with the other half away on deployment and to have the anxious times not knowing where they are or what’s going on.
I never met my ex-husband’s oldest brother, he was killed after stepping on a mine in Vietnam. It was right at the end of the war and he was 19. I saw the lasting impact of that loss on his family and it would be fair to say that they never got over it. I became interested in that war and the ongoing struggles for those who fought in it, serving their nation. Public opinion turned against the U.S. involvement and that meant returning veterans were not treated with the care and respect they deserved. This has been echoed in UK conflicts. The poor health experienced by Vietnam veterans is staggering:
“According to a survey by the Veterans Administration, some 500,000 of the 3 million troops who served in Vietnam suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and rates of divorce, suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction were markedly higher among veterans.” (http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/vietnam-war-history accessed 30.07.15
The Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC; on my bucket list
When I was working as an occupational therapist with NHS mental health teams in Cambridgeshire I was fortunate to be trained by RAF community mental health nurses to recognise and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’m by no means an expert, but I have witnessed first-hand the devastating impact that this can have on people’s lives. I also know how transformative it can be to find an occupation or activity that is meaningful and engaging. That eventually led me to the voluntary work with charities, helping them and the people they support to reach their goals. So now I am working with veterans recovering from combat-injury involved in motorsport and surfing, bringing this blog right back to what I’m doing today. It is also why I am so passionate about The Baton charity which exists to ensure that we never forget the sacrifices that our Armed Forces make for our freedom.