Veterans in Wyre are being urged to tell their GP if they have ever served in the armed forces – so that they can be put in touch with a dedicated support group in the borough.
Around 200 ex-forces personnel are already experiencing the social activities and practical help offered by DWS Lifeskills, a community interest company run by a fellow veteran.
Those who have so far joined up were tracked down via a project to find former servicemen and women who might be in need of support or companionship. In order to stay within data protection rules, GP practices have been contacting all of the patients on their books to ask them if they have ever served their country.
To those who reply and confirm their military background, the surgeries then send out a letter on behalf of the support group – giving veterans the chance to get in touch if they choose.
They can then get involved in anything from quiz nights to coffee mornings and museum trips to kayaking.
“Veterans are funny people – and I’m allowed to say that, because I am one,” laughs DWS director Dave Whitworth, a former instructor with the army physical training corps.
“They can get isolated in their homes and won’t go out and meet people. We get dozens of people coming to our different events, but some veterans don’t necessarily want to come out – and that’s fine,”
“However, once you’ve sent them a letter, people will usually file it away – and so if they’re ever in trouble, they know how to get in contact. They may be socially isolated or need some service – and it’s not necessarily me who can help them, but I can put them in touch with the right people.”
The numbers attracted to the group so far have been the result of a collaboration with just a handful of GP surgeries in Pilling, Thornton and Fleetwood. But now Dave is turning his attention to Garstang and St. Michael’s-on-Wyre, as he attempts to expand the project’s work.
The group had been under threat until Lancashire county councillor and armed forces champion Alf Clempson secured a one-off £5,000 grant from the authority to help keep it afloat until more sustainable sources of funding are found. Both County Hall and the local NHS are increasingly referring veterans who might benefit from the services which Dave is running.
“If somebody from social care goes to see veteran and tells them they have to do this or that, it might not be the right approach,” explains Alf, who spent 24 years in the Scots Guards.
“But when you get a veteran talking to a veteran, it often works.
“This work was originally being done under a grant from the Royal British Legion – but that wasn’t continuing and I couldn’t see it all go to the wall.”
“I’d love to see 100 Daves across Lancashire, but we’ve got to start somewhere and so we need to build it from here,” adds Alf, who has an annual £10,000 pot of money to spend on armed forces causes throughout the county.
A major part of Dave’s work is using his decade-long role putting soldiers through their paces to help veterans recover from physical setbacks later in life – and retain their mobility and independence.
Appreciation for that practical support – along with mundanities like form-filling – was in evidence at the group’s latest gathering in Thornton. But it is the creation of a new community with a special shared connection which appears to have given the veterans in this part of Lancashire the biggest boost.
Alex Gauld and Ray Bond discovered that they had both served on HMS Eagle at the same time – unbeknown to each other until over 40 years later while they were chatting during one of the group’s trips.
“We were remembering places we’d been to during our service – it was good to catch up on those times,” says Ray.
Alex adds: “It’s nice to meet people – it’s much better than being isolated.”
SUPPORT FOR YOUNG AND OLD WHEN THEY NEED IT
The veterans being helped in Wyre cover a wide spread of ages, but there is one section of the ex-forces population which appears to have gone AWOL – the under 50s.
“Younger people don’t see themselves as veterans – they don’t like the word,” explains County Cllr Alf Clempson.
“They see a veteran as somebody with a flat cap, a chest of medals and a walking stick. Also, they might just be busy getting on with life, like bringing up their children.”
But Wyre veterans group leader Dave Whitworth wants to raise awareness of the services on offer to former military personnel whatever their age – believing that, one day, they might be needed.
“There are mental health issues that don’t necessarily [develop] straight away, but can hit you when you start winding down and your kids get a bit older,” Dave warns.
If a patient makes the NHS aware of their history in the forces, they become eligible for some specialist and priority mental health services – one which helps veterans adjust to civilian life when their service ends and another which deals with mental health issues which arise as a result of that service, no matter how long ago it may have been.