A new Vamos production takes around two years to make, and this week I began the journey into deeper research for our next show, scheduled to tour in 2018. The production is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in military veterans; the plan is that it will follow the relationship between a young man, and his mum. First, I devoured Matthew Green’s new book, Aftershock. Bear Grylls says that it is, “Compelling, humbling and hugely inspiring”, and he’s right. Matthew’s book has been my best starting place, and I absolutely recommend it as a brilliantly informative read (I have bought a couple of signed copies as Christmas presents).
The show is to be a collaboration with the Mercury Theatre and many non-arts professionals and organisations. And that's where I start - away from the art. The Mercury participation team set up meetings for me throughout Colchester, a Garrison town which can trace its roots to the early 19th Century Napoleonic Wars, and which has barracks built - in what is now New Town - to house 7,000 soldiers. The Army has been a permanent presence in Colchester since 1856 when the 11th Regiment of Foot was stationed in the town during the Crimean War. Not surprisingly, Colchester also has its own military police force and prison.
What I was surprised to discover was the amount of support and engagement in and around Colchester with soldiers after they leave the army, though I believe this is unique to the area. On Tuesday I met Shelley Horseman, Support Hub Manager at Chavasse VC House - a Recovery Centre run by Help for Heroes and supported by the Royal British Legion. Whether returning for duty or transitioning to civilian life, residents and day visitors at Chavasse VC House can take part in activities and life skills courses to help them get back out doing what they enjoy most. The Centre aims to inspire those who have been wounded, injured or become sick and enable them to lead active, independent and fulfilling lives. Shelley has lived as part of the Army all her life - her dad served for 32 years and her husband 30. She shared lots of stories from different viewpoints: the little girl, the wife and the professional.
On Wednesday, I visited Beacon House - a charity supporting the homeless in Colchester. The Mercury had set up this meeting thinking that there could be a link between homelessness and ex-service personal in Colchester...there isn’t…in Colchester. I then met with Diane Palmer, lead of the NHS Mental Health Team at Colchester General Hospital in collaboration with Veterans First, and realised just how lucky and well supported Colchester is (and perhaps Colchester's unique support has something to do with the fact that I did not find a correlation with homelessness). Diane is a driving force; passionate and ambitious to change the way that we treat veterans, particularly with hidden wounds such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We talked about the stigma attached to mental health and the difficulty young men often find to even admit they may need support.
Within half an hour she organised for me to meet with a patient the following morning. This felt like such a privilege, to sit for over two hours with him, talking through the good and bad times of military life, whilst his adoring and adored 3-year-old son clung on to his arm, gradually gaining in confidence to use his dad as a climbing frame. We talked mainly about his Army Phase One Training; his locker, his friendships, his ironing techniques and how it still influences the way he irons his older boy’s school uniform (with a neat crease down the trousers, of course).
And lastly, I met with Cheryl from The Ivicta Foundation. The two of us shared tea, tears and our stories of the special bond between a mother and a son.
The Invicta Foundation was established by Cheryl Hall and Stephen Robertson after their son, Ashley Hall, was severely injured during active service. Here is their story:
“After Ashley got injured in Afghanistan, we spent the following 10 weeks in Birmingham, sleeping in a hotel, and spending our days sat by our son’s bed side. He’d lost both legs above the knee, lost his left thumb completely, partial fingers on his left hand, as well as part of his hand, his pelvis had been shattered and he sustained some damage to his lower back. As the hours turned to days then weeks, we watched and waited as he underwent countless operations to help fix the breaks and close the wounds. We encouraged him with his physiotherapy, shed tears of happiness with every tiny achievement, we hugged him and wiped his tears on the dark days. We spent hours searching for information, countless hours on the phone trying to work out what you are entitled to, how you go about applying for what you are entitled to and what you need. The MOD had been a tremendous support to us when our son was in hospital, but now he was discharged there was a large gap in the care and support package available. As non-dependents, we were not covered by the MOD welfare program or with any of the existing service charities. We had a choice; we could sit back and let it go, knowing that other families would continue to struggle, or we could start to do something about it. The Invicta Foundation was born.”
The conclusion to all my meetings is that I want to go back (and share more tea, or even a bottle of wine with Cheryl). I’m currently organizing a Vamos Mask Making Residency with veterans - a collaboration with the Mercury Theatre, Help for Hereos, the NHS and Veterans First; ambitious, but achievable I reckon. Shelley has already said I could use Chavasse House, and both she and Diane have said they'll work together to recruit. Diane's ambition is that we get Prince Harry involved (she's met him twice and had good conversations about Post Traumatic Stress, with Harry asking, why do we have to put 'Disorder' on the end of the title when we are trying to get rid of the stigma?). If you are reading Harry, I look forward to seeing you in February!
And now, as always, I travel home on the train (where so many Vamos shows are written), and asking, why am I telling this story? I’m telling it because in 2012 more soldiers and veterans committed suicide than the amount of soldiers killed in Operation - and PTSD is on the rise.
Johnny Mercer is an ex- serviceman and MP for Plymouth, Moor View. On 1st June 2015, he spoke to Parliament;
“The past decade and a half has defined a whole generation of us in often unseen wars against enemies of the state that only seem to grow darker. We have no complaints about the duty that we have chosen. It formed many of us; indeed, it made many of us who we are today…My key point is this: there has been a fundamental misunderstanding by Governments of all colours over the years that veterans’ care is a third sector responsibility and that the great British public, in all their wonderful generosity, support our troops well enough, and any new initiative is met with the response, “Well, there must be a charity for that.” That is fundamentally and unequivocally wrong, and I make no apologies for pointing it out to anyone of any rank or position who may be offended by my candour. I am not a charity and neither were my men. We gave the best years of our lives in defending the privileges, traditions and freedoms that this House and all Members enjoy. It is therefore the duty of this House to look after them and, crucially, their families when they return. “