Traumatised army medics take ski slope to recovery

A British surgeon works to help an Afghan casualty. Picture: Getty
A British surgeon works to help an Afghan casualty. Picture: Getty
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A Scottish army medic who treated battlefield casualties in a field hospital in Afghanistan has spoken of the life-saving help she received from a charity that assists those affected by conflict.

Angie (not her real name) witnessed the horrors of war during her time in the country. When she returned home, she found it hard to process her experiences and struggled with flashbacks.

“If I hear a helicopter, then it sends me back there in a second.” she said. “I instantly hear the helicopters bringing in the casualties from the battlefield where we worked on them for hour upon hour.

“I’m instantly back with all the blood, noise, confusion and smells. I’m remembering how we were making fast decisions on young men lying on tables in front of us. If he might live, he goes there. If he is beyond hope and going to die, he goes over there.

“We’re having to make that judgment under intense pressure and with the incessant requirement for speed. We were doing that for weeks – months – on end. Our battle wasn’t with the enemy, but with life and death itself, and it was exhausting. You become an automaton and the person in front of you is just a piece of meat.”

For Angie, these memories pushed her over the edge. Drugs didn’t work for her, so she used alcohol to dull the pain. She suffered despair and guilt that she didn’t even know the names of those who lived and died in front of her.

“I could barely function,” she said. “I had temper explosions, vile mood swings, rage and suicidal thoughts. The husband I loved deserted me and my son was taken into the custody of someone who neither understood nor cared.”

Salvation for Angie came from Supporting Wounded Veterans, a charity that helps those affected mentally or physically by conflict to deal with the demons.

This month the charity took a group of 20 former service personnel, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI) to the ski resort of Klosters in Switzerland to begin a rehabilitation programme that starts in the mountains.

The charity supports wounded campaign veterans from all three services, including those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are helped to rebuild their lives through a specially designed, ski-based development programme.

The week-long “skihabilitation” in Klosters helps them to regain their confidence and embark on a path to fitness and wellbeing. Once back in the UK, they join a mentoring and job-seeking programme, which has seen 90 per cent of previous cohorts re-enter meaningful employment, training or occupation. The charity has also set up pain management clinics and programmes for veterans with chronic pain.

Gilly Norton, the charity’s founder, explained: “Our aim is to bring these people back into society and, more importantly, to themselves and their loved ones.

“We need to rebuild their confidence and support them as they look to get back into work. When they do then get a job, they can feel valued and respected again.”

Angie believes the Klosters trip has made a difference to her. “It was something new – exciting and challenging – and I thrived on that.

“It was a huge step forward for me. My little boy now has a mummy he can recognise, understand and look up to.”

Gilly Norton added: “We are seeing people going from soul-tearing pain to courage, determination and hope and inspiring others with their huge determination to recover. The Royal Marines live by the ethos of ‘adapt

and overcome’ and that’s what is happening here.”