When wounded soldiers are brought home from Afghanistan, what happens next? BELINDA RYAN spoke to Sgt Alan Boyle, a sickness management officer from Chester’s local regiment, 1 Mercian, about the soldiers’ road to recovery
TO A civilian, Sgt Alan Boyle might appear to have one of the toughest jobs in the Army.
Together with his boss, the 1 Mercian Unit Welfare Officer Captain John Elms and others, he is tasked with helping the recovery and rehabilitation of soldiers injured whilst fighting in Afghanistan.
When I spoke to him, he and other 1 Mercian soldiers had already attended the funeral of a fallen comrade that week and were due to attend another the following day.
Yet, he says, morale among the young troops who are injured is excellent – and that is boosted by the support they get from the public.
“We have soldiers with injuries that will affect the rest of their lives, but their attitude is truly amazing,” says Alan.
He believes that the fact that the soldiers can remain positive in the face of such adversity is a credit not only to them but to the 1 Mercian ‘family’.
“These blokes are remarkably resilient,” says Alan, with both pride and admiration.
“Obviously they’re affected when one of their own dies – anyone who says it doesn’t affect them isn’t being honest. We don’t try to cover it up. We go through the grieving process but, because you’re with your mates, it makes it easier.”
Some soldiers can also experience moments of guilt – they may blame themselves for others getting injured, or even feel guilty they have survived when their mates have lost their lives.
“I heard a tale from two guys being helicoptered out after being injured and one of them kept saying to his mate how sorry he was and his mate was just saying, ‘it happens’,” says Alan.
“Then there was all this banter all the way back. They were seriously injured but still the banter was good.”
1 Mercian has one of the best welfare programmes in the Army - and they’re proud of it.
Operations in a war-zone are incredibly intense and it is inevitable there will be casualties.
The UK military facilities in Afghanistan are, says Alan, ‘second to none’, so much so that injured soldiers are often treated there and returned to their units in an amazingly short period of time.
Those who are more seriously injured, such as those from the battalion who took part in a recent narrowboat trip in Middlewich, are flown back to military hospitals in the UK where they receive further specialist care.
Afterwards, though, it can sometimes be difficult to reintegrate soldiers back into barrack life.
Usually, after being discharged from hospital, the soldiers will go home for a while to recuperate - but they do run the risk of operational stress through the pressure of redeployment and their possible exposure to extremely traumatic situations and events.
It is Army policy that mental health issues are properly recognised and treated - and that all efforts are made to reduce the stigma associated with them.
The Army has a Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) system in place.
It is not a medical process, or therapy, it is designed to identify service personnel at risk after traumatic incidents.
Alan says soldiers are often reluctant to talk to strangers when they are in difficulty - and will turn to their mates instead.
1 Mercian’s injured soldiers receive support through frequent visits from members of the battalion and the Army welfare services.
But these previously fit and active young men who have become accustomed to the heat, noise and intensity of battle often find this period of relative inactivity incredibly frustrating.
“That’s when they really need their mates,” says Alan. “These blokes live together and work together six days a week and more. They see more of each other than they do their families - they are like brothers to each other.”
To alleviate this problem the 1 Mercian Welfare Office organises activities for the soldiers where they can come together and once more experience the camaraderie of military life.
Much of this is done with the support, help and generosity of the people and businesses in Cheshire.
One company which is at the forefront of this scheme is Middlewich Narrowboats.
As reported previously in the Chronicle, a number of recovering injured soldiers enjoyed three days together on the boat.
Alan says by gathering the soldiers together it helps enormously in their recovery as the military culture surrounding them allows them to share their stories and experiences, which helps in coping with their own individual issues and concerns and so strengthens their remarkably positive attitudes.
“It’s a bit like a school reunion for them but much more so,” he says. “There’s a lot of emotion when these lads meet up again for the first time after being injured. They don’t know, when they’re helicoptered out, who they’ll ever see again. It’s great when they meet up again.”
The support of the public too has a terrific impact.
Recently Alan was with a group of recovering soldiers who spent the day as the guests of Lancashire Cricket Club, a day at Chester Races and then they were hosted by Warrington Wolves Rugby League Club for the Super League clash with Castleford Tigers.
“There were 11,000 people there cheering these lads and applauding them,” says Alan.
One of the I Mercian soldiers who has died in Afghanistan, Private Thomas Sephton, was from Warrington. His parents were also at the rugby match.
The club offered them a minute’s silence to show their respects but they asked not for a minute’s silence but for a minute of applause.
Alan says the response was unbelievable, incredibly moving.
Pvt Sephton died on Monday, July 5, exactly three weeks after the death of his best friend, Royal Marine Steven Birdsall – who was his classmate at Great Sankey High School in Warrington.
“All these blokes stick together and, when they’re injured or if they lose someone, that’s how they get through it,” says Alan.
“The support and generosity from the public, including people like Adam Foskett from Middlewich Narrowboats, is really appreciated.”
Anyone who thinks they can help in providing an activity or event for the benefit and welfare of the soldiers of 1 Mercian – no matter how diverse – should contact Capt John Elms or Sgt Alan Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 01748 875771.