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Giving veterans the support they need

Chronicle reporter Charles Gray finds out how an army veteran, who was on the front line during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, turned his life around after leaving the forces, thanks to east Cheshire based-charity the LOL Foundation

Imagine leaving a dysfunctional family to join the army at an impressionable age in search of camaraderie and fi nding yourself moulded into a fully-fl edged killing machine.

thing else to numb the pain and turning to crime and violence as a form of retaliation. For many soldiers, this is their reality.

It’s hard to imagine how one might reach a state of salvation or normality in such circumstances, but Congletonbased charity The LOL Foundation has been committed to helping veterans adapt to life on civvy street for the past six years — and has made some remarkable progress.

lor Gordon Baxendale, the charity was able to acquire its fi rst property and now has three across the borough — two in Congleton and one in Alsager.

The Chronicle sat down at the charity’s offi ces on Lawton Street, Congleton, with Andy Preece, the charity’s offending offi cer and careers advisor, and Leon Thomas, a former soldier who discovered the charity while living on the streets and now works for it fulltime.

added: “There was always a big drinking culture in the army. We drank to forget.

“It was horrible because you are trained to kill and are expected to be a hard man. You are not supposed to show emotion.”

Mr Thomas left in 2000 while stationed in Germany. He then began to increase the amount of alcohol he drank and found himself getting into fi ghts regularly.

Imagine then being stationed in a foreign, war-ravaged country on 24-hour alert in anticipation of being attacked by the same fi ghters that killed your friends.

Now imagine leaving the armed forces and trying to accommodate civilian life with a new scepticism towards the world and without the most basic of life skills or coping mechanisms.

You could probably imagine being tempted by the bottle, drugs or any

The LOL – or Listening Out Loud – Foundation was established in 2012 and has been working tirelessly to help reintegrate struggling ex servicemen by providing them shelter and support and the means of acquiring regular work.

The group was founded by mother and son Jill and Andy Dolman with the intention of helping veterans navigate through the state system and reintegrating into society.

With the help of Congleton council

Mr Preece came to the charity having worked for a number of similar organisations around the country that help soldiers navigate their way back into civilian life.

An ex-police offi cer, Mr Preece said: “The country has not done very well supporting military personnel in transferring back into life.

“What happens is that the bulk of young men and women that go into the military are going from deprived areas and from families that aren’t supportive. They have never known how to do anything for themselves.

“The army appeals to the type of person who sees themselves as a misfi t, which is terrible. They are taking cannon fodder.”

He continued: “Oftentimes they are ill disciplined and get asked to leave or they leave within a few years and they don’t have the life skills because the army took care of everything for them. All they have had to do is make sure they’re in the mess hall.

“Their ability to stand on their own two feet is severely compromised and the worst thing is that young people are coming out and are just left. It happened in the Second World War and it’s still happening now.”

Mr Thomas’s story is one that exemplifies this.

Having lost his dad at a young age and subsequently brought up by a disjointed family, he joined the army in 1991 at 16 years old. Mr Thomas went on to serve in Northern Ireland and Bosnia in the Royal Artillery and, during his eight years, also worked as a personal trainer with his fellow soldiers.

The worst of his experiences came in Armagh, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles, when he witnessed the death of his friend by a sniper. He also described rescuing bodies from the wreckage of two helicopters that had collided.

He said: “Because you are trained for it it doesn’t hit you at the time. It’s when you come home and away from it that you realise.

“You find yourself hitting the floor every time you hear a loud noise. Because I was always on alert I was hyper vigilant.”

Asked how they handled it, he said that his training meant that he still jumped up at the sound of the car ignition going off and that he was still hyper vigilant in the most mundane of situations. During the conversation he noticed that he had habitually placed himself in a point of the room where each of the entrances were within his periphery.

He said: “When I came out my partner said I wasn’t the same lad who went in. I was terrified of social situations and would make excuses not to go out with her and stay in instead.

“I just wanted to combat the stress.”

Mr Thomas’s life went into a downward trajectory and he continued to abuse alcohol and later found himself living on the streets of Gloucester.

He said: “My partner had had enough. I couldn’t hold down a job and I just missed the army life so much.”

Asked if he considered re-enrolling he emphatically replied “No”.

“I had seen too much,” he said. “I don’t hold any grudge against the army because it was my own decision. It’s just afterwards that I think they let you down.”

He was then introduced to the LOL Foundation by his local authority while in search of accommodation and managed to get a bed at its premises on Canal Street, Congleton.

He said: “I had denied having therapy for years because I didn’t think I needed it even though it was being offered to me.

“They managed to help get me back on my feet and gave me the support that I needed.”

He got work soon after as a personal trainer at WTF gym in Congleton and began volunteering for the charity by running adventure training sessions for his co-habitants. This meant taking them out on trips to the countryside and engaging them in activities such as climbing.

“It’s one of my big hobbies and after taking the lads out a few times the foundation turned around and said they wanted to start doing an adventure training scheme”, he said. “We started doing it a couple of days a week and then I became part-time employed. Now I’m full-time.

Former soldier Mr Thomas turned his life around thanks to LOL where he is now a health and wellbeing support worker. 

 

It gets them talking and opening up. It gives them two hours where they don’t have to think about bills and their army experiences.”

Now aged 43, Mr Thomas holds team-building exercises via the foundation for ex forces and other groups, such as the police.

He has also settled down in Congleton with his partner and has a two-year-old child.

Mr Thomas said: “To be honest if it wasn’t for the foundation I don’t know where I would be.

“They gave me a brilliant opportunity and they have stood by me through thick and thin. I think that’s why I’m patient about what I do now and proud to be around such a dedicated group of staff.”

The charity aims to get every veteran it takes in back on their feet and into independent accommodation within two years of their stay, and does so by finding them places at college that will benefit them.

Mr Preece said: “Everyone’s come here through a different route and every case is different, so we have to approach everyone differently.”

Mr Preece added that though some of the cases may not work out too well, others have been true success stories.

He said: “We had one lad from Liverpool who had a history of alcoholism who was constantly getting arrested.

“We got him off the drink and onto a fi ve-week charitable course at college called Building Heroes.”

The course aims to teach veterans a range of skills at entry level in fi elds such as plumbing and tiling, so they can fi nd work in construction.

Mr Preece added: “The lad went on a placement at Balfour Beatty and came through with fl ying colours. They said he was a good grafter and took him on and now he’s waiting for a job to come.

“A lot of it he has done himself but he has been pushed and prodded by us. That’s a success story in our eyes.”

Mr Thomas added: “The bottom line is that in the army everything is done for you. You don’t even know how to pay a bill.

“We want to empower people to be able to live their own lives and be a meaningful contributor to society.”

For more information on the charity, which is one of Congleton mayor Coun Suzie Akers Smith’s chosen ones during her year in

office, visit lolfoundation.co.uk.

FOUNDER HONOURED AT UNIVERSITY PRIZE GIVING

The exceptional academic and community achievements of students from the University of Chester have been celebrated at this year’s Valedictory ceremony.

Held at St Thomas of Canterbury Church, near the University’s Parkgate Road Campus, the annual University service and prize-giving saw a number of students recognised for their outstanding accomplishments academically, while others were recognised for their admirable voluntary work, sporting success, contributions to the community and University life.

Andy is a mature student and having served in the British Army between 2000 and 2010, he continues to serve in the Army Reserves. He has established a charity, the Listening Out Loud Foundation, providing accommodation for those who are or at risk of homelessness, counselling to assist with psychological problems and addiction and support towards finding employment. The charity supports offenders and Andy works with the Probation Office, attending meetings and visiting veterans in custody pre-release to assist in eliminating risks to themselves and the wider community and reduce re-offending.

He works with the veterans every day supporting with medical appointments, court appointments and children services. Families have been reunited, preventing emotional trauma, addictions and rough sleeping. This is in addition to fundraising and completing his degree course.


 

TRIBUTES PAID TO D-DAY VETERAN 

The funeral of D-Day veteran Frank Worrall was held on Tuesday 13th at the United Reform Church in Congleon.

Frank, who served during WW2 and landed on Sword Beach in Normandy, was a dearly loved husband, father, grandad, brother, and highly a respected member of the Congleton community.

Andy Dolman-Bayley of the Lol Foundation said, “We at the LOL Foundation were proud to have known Frank and honoured to call him a friend. His stories of the war were incredibly interesting. Even today in our armed forces, the spirit and emotion of the troops remains the same, united by common goals.”

Donations received in memory of Frank will be very kindly donated to The LOL Foundation to support their ongoing work with veterans.

The foundation was established in 2012 to reduce poverty, distress and suffering experienced by homeless veterans and works to help them integrate back into society.  

CHARITY PLANS NORWAY TRIP

Congleton based charity the Listening Out Loud Foundation (LOL) is stepping up efforts in 2018 to raise funds for the ex servicemen they work with and to send them on a life changing trip to Norway.

The foundation was established in 2012 to reduce poverty, distress and suffering experienced by homeless veterans and works to help them integrate back into society.  

“Our main focus is to provide a holistic approach to supporting the lads, promoting independence but at an individual pace.” Said Founder Andrew Dolman-Bayley. A veteran himself, Andrew understands first hand the reality of life after the Forces and is keen to spread the word of the invaluable work they are doing in the region. “We have received fantastic support from Cheshire East Council which has enabled us to offer a safe home to 12 ex-service personnel, and 4 more about to join us. It is almost impossible to imagine how frustrating veterans find it when trying to navigate the state system after fighting for their country. It is especially difficult if they are diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) as they have often become alienated from friends and family with no job waiting for them. This is where we come in.”

10% of the UK’s 250,000 people who find themselves homeless are ex-forces. Since opening their doors in 2012 the Foundation has given 87 ex-forces personnel a home and the offer of help they needed to regain their independence. This is achieved through counselling to assist with psychological problems & addiction, support to overcome minor offences & to re-engage with families wherever possible, training for those without a trade and advice on how to find suitable employment.  

A new scheme called Adventure Training is currently under development by the charity and will provide opportunities to experience a number of different activities within a supportive environment in the great outdoors with a beneficial impact on health and well-being.  

As part of this rehabilitation programme the LOL Foundation is planning a ten day trip to Norway in September for some of their residents. Taking in 7 countries in 2 days the team will drive across Europe to experience camping in extreme conditions and will challenge themselves to take on mountaineering, bouldering and climbing. The trip offers a unique opportunity for the ex servicemen to put the skills learnt in the forces to use and test their stamina and resilience.

Lisa Spencer - Health and Well-Being Trustee explained “Physical activity and exercise has been proven to reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety whilst improving concentration, focus, ability to sleep and boosting overall mood. Deliberate therapeutic use of natural environments including wild spaces can have both short and long term positive impact on mental health and life satisfaction. Positive social interaction and support are as critical to health as good diet and regular exercise".

The charity prides itself on fundraising via events and community activity rather than approaching members of the public on the street. With this in mind they are seeking to connect with businesses and organisations who may be able to help raise awareness of their work and funds to support their Norway trip as well as future events.