I am at Brathay Hall, near Ambleside, in the Lake District, on a Friday morning. I am sitting in a room, waiting for it to fill up with people who have all served in the military or are soon to leave the military. They all have problems, in one way or another. I have absolutely no idea what kind of people to expect. The people who do file in, holding cups of tea and coffee, look pretty normal.
A charity called Future for Heroes has invited them all here. They run this course about ten times a year, with around ten participants each. I am told that only those at a mental and emotional stage where they will be able to benefit from the course are invited to attend: this weekend is something that some of these people have been working up to for many months.
Richard Wilson is the course trainer, volunteering his time for Future for Heroes. Richard grew up in Dalkeith, and at the age of 15 saw that he had two options: go down the mines, or join the military. He chose the latter, and rose through the enlisted ranks and became a commissioned officer. During this career he did a lot of things, but with a particular passion for sport and fitness he concentrated on physical and adventure training. Since retiring as a Major he has continued to work with the military as a welfare officer, currently based at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick Garrison.
After brief introductions from participants with varying levels of visible anxiety we head out for some team exercises. First of all we throw bean bags at each other, but swiftly graduate to a fairly challenging puzzle of wires and ropes where we all have to get from one end to the other without touching the ground - many bits require more than one person to cross. We achieve it first time, and Richard congratulates the team for doing a no-fuss job.
We then head over to the northern tip of lake Windermere, where the Brathay boathouse is. We take two "whaling" boats out onto the water for a paddle around the bay - we will be taking these boats out again over the weekend. People fall off the benches during testing of the emergency stop procedure. It's all quite amusing.
So we've broken the ice enough for us to go back and prepare a version of our life stories that we're willing to share with the group. This is what the day has been leading up to. You can see that some people are nervous about this.
It's a diverse group, with diverse reasons for being there, but there are some common threads running through many of the stories. Those common threads: difficult childhoods in many cases, a few with abusive parents, where often the military provided an escape route, and a surrogate family. The other nearly universal common thread was alcohol. Many of them had been suicidal.
First is John, who is the oldest of the group, but with a youthful gleam in his eye and a taste for trying new things (he recently did fire walking). He had enjoyed his time as a metal worker and welder in the Army.
Sadiq. The most colourful character of the group, probably (no probably about it). A Muslim who grew up in the Midlands, he witnessed crime and gangs in his youth, and in his future saw either that, or the Army, so in the late 1980s decided to join up. He wasn't deterred by the Army recruiter's statement that, "We don't really have many of your kind here." He joined the infantry to prove that he could, enjoyed his three years' service, and since leaving the Army had success in music, and has worked in youth protection.
And Steve, still serving in the Army, soon to leave. And Ed, a self-professed recovering alcoholic with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Both Steve and Ed say they look at their pasts and are thankful for how they have changed so far, even though the journey isn't over.
Alan. A towering giant of a man from the north west, with a crooked smile that reaches his eyes, and a gentle aura. Another recovering alcoholic who has spent time in prison, he credits his friend Ben (also on the course) with helping him stay sober, though Ben says that the achievement is all Alan’s. Ben is a support worker at a charity which helps ex-service personnel with substance abuse. Ben says that when he left the Army, he "carried on living like a soldier". Eventually something had to give, and he went through some rough times. But now, Ben talks about how he meditates to find some peace: at Brathay he enjoyed walking by the lakeside.
Finally, Danny. Danny is a career soldier who has been in the Army his entire adult life, after escaping from a difficult childhood. He has had a very successful career, and credits the Army for being a formative and positive influence on him. But Danny talks about the stresses that built up over many operational tours of Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he saw many good friends killed or injured (he talks about some tours being "kinetic", which seems a rather inadequate euphemism). This was compounded by serious family trauma at home, which Danny felt the Army could have provided more support for, and the stress overflowed and Danny had a complete breakdown. He is making progress in recovery, but is still figuring out how all the pieces of himself should fit back together. Coming to Future forHeroes was a difficult prospect: when he arrived at Brathay, he couldn't come in, and Richard had to go out and talk to him to get him to stay. Danny asks: "Are my problems worthy of me being here?"
Peter Hubble, the course facilitator from Brathay, says that there are "no sticking plasters to heal such things, but at least we can be here for each other."
After Danny's flip-chart account of such raw and painful history, the rest of the group sit rather stunned and humbled. Kevin, the mentor for the course, closes the session, telling how he directly credits his experience with Future for Heroes with saving his life. After the course finishes on Monday, he will be available as a mentor for up to twelve months, providing ongoing support and advice, and signposting to other relevant organisations, and jobs.
The next morning we go out for an early morning paddle in canoes on the lake. Danny looks happy: he loves mountain biking and kayaking, and has led expeditions on both. Windermere is grey under a moody sky. Everyone enjoys it, and we head back for breakfast, and then to the classroom. Danny admits: "I felt a bit guilty for enjoying myself out there."
In the afternoon we are led out with climbing harnesses and helmets into the woods. We are heading to the "high vee". This apparatus isn't much to look at, and you might look at it wondering how it is supposed to be used. You might be puzzling for some time, if you make the mistake of assuming that it's apparatus designed to be used by one person. Instead, the high vee turns out to be a pretty impressive demonstration of how two people can communicate and work together to achieve a goal: two strands of wire cable head out from a pole, about five metres above the ground. The strands get further apart as you get further from the pole: the aim is for two people to link hands and walk along and see how far they can get. By the end of the wire, two average height people would be almost horizontal, hands locked together.
Everyone tries it. Alan, the gentle giant from the north west, goes up with me. He has a pretty severe fear of heights. Once up (an achievement itself), he keeps looking down, and panicking. With encouragement from below, and me, we link hands and make it a fair way out along the wires before we fall, and are caught by our ropes. Maegan Whiteley, our safety supervisor, is on hand for this and all the other activities we do.
After lunch we go out on Windermere in the whaling boats again. Two boats cooperating, heading out to find clues on the map. Definite teamwork required: oarsmen, helm, and navigator. Before heading out we are asked to estimate the number of points we will come back with, and we break our estimate by several points.
We spend the rest of the afternoon talking about the depression/anger cycle, and the false friend that is alcohol. We also spend some time talking about finding work, with participants shown that they all have things to offer even when they think they don't.
On Sunday morning we get up for an early morning climb up Loughrigg fell (200m), to the north. Alan sits down on a bench at around the half way mark and tells everybody he'll wait for them while they go to the top. Nobody was very surprised though when he instead came all the way. The view looking towards the south, over Brathay Hall and Windermere, was impressive. Somebody asked John how he was doing: "Fantastic."
Back down, over breakfast, Danny says that he has slept for four hours, without his medication - the first time he has done that in months. He's smiling a lot during the day's activities, and his natural intelligence and thoughtful and reflective nature really shine through, and it's almost difficult to imagine the plainly visible pain he was suffering on Friday evening as he told his story. But we all have a past - as we are told on the course, it's learning to live in the present while accepting that past which is the trick.
We head out in the minibus to Church Beck, near Coniston. We're all suited and booted in gear for some ghyll scrambling: Maegan leads us up through the ghyll, over rocks and fallen trees (sometimes through fallen trees), and into pools of water where we scramble up the waterfalls, each person helping others make progress. It's chilly in the shadow and water under the trees, but rewarding, and when we emerge from the ghyll back into the warm sun everybody's smiling.
The celebration dinner on the Sunday evening is an emotional event. After more excellent food (Brathay's catering is extremely tasty and nutritious, thanks to chef Mark), the participants stand up one by one to talk about one of the other participants, and how they have felt they have progressed over the weekend. There are some moist eyes, and some hugs. It's clear that the weekend has been quite profound for everybody involved.
At which point we retire to the bar, where people grab a variety of types of beverages, the furniture is pushed back to expose the polished floor, and Sadiq gives us an extremely extensive introduction to break dancing. We dance and laugh.
One of the things that struck me most about the weekend was the type of masculinity on display. Without a doubt, these were the lads: there were tattoos and tit jokes. But at the same time, they were talking about their feelings, fears and hopes, showing each other photos of their children, and being entirely and unreservedly supportive of each other in a non-competitive and non-macho environment. No one was the leader of the pack, and nobody needed to fill that role. The ethos of the group and the beliefs of the individuals in fact seemed very feminist, even if at first glance that might not have been the first thing that came to mind when looking at a bunch of blokes jeering at a man dangling from a rope with his rear end protruding in a rather graceless manner. The type of masculinity on display seemed very healthy: supportive and empathetic.
The course I saw was all male, but the course does sometimes have female participants, veterans or serving military themselves, and women also often attend as the partners or carers of participants: they are encouraged to come along and work through the course, side by side.
The final event on Monday before everybody leaves is the "leap of faith", where participants climb a tall pole and leap off to hit a ball suspended in front of them, knowing that the other participants have them safely on a belay rope. Before going up they state a promise to make positive changes for themselves for their future, as well as nominating one of the other participants as an "arse kicker" to make sure that promise gets fulfilled. Everybody got up the pole, including Alan.
As I leave Brathay I know that I will in particular think of Danny and Alan and wonder how they are doing, and hope things are working out for them. Alan, because he made such an effort to push himself throughout the weekend, and clearly wants so badly to propel his life into a new and better place: he currently volunteers, and would like to travel in the future. And Danny, because his intelligence, both in the heart and head, was so evident that it seems impossible that he will not go on to do great things. Over the celebration dinner he said to me that even though he's not yet sure what he will do when he leaves the Army, he is thinking about going to work in special needs education. If anybody ever considering hiring Danny for such a job could have seen him on the Brathay course they would snap him up without a second thought.
I left Brathay on Monday afternoon feeling that weeks had passed rather than just a few days, so much had we done. I felt I had got to know a group of people who, despite all their problems, at least knew that they had problems, and were working hard to better themselves, and help others do the same. Future for Heroes' participants are very lucky people, and I feel privileged to have been able to share some of their journey.
Names of participants have been changed.