This is the second of a three part series on the experiences and needs of British military veterans in Northern Ireland. In this article, I interview Ranger Andy Allen, founder of local charity, Andy Allen Veterans Support. We talked about what drove him into the military, the issues facing veterans upon their arrival home, and what can be done to help veterans reintegrate.
The national media has extensively covered Andy’s story of survival after he was hit by an improvised explosive device while serving in Afghanistan. If readers are interested in learning more about the circumstances of what happened to Andy, then I would suggest watching the BBC documentary, Wounded, or searching for the many articles that have already been written.
In what follows, as promised to Andy, I chose not focus on his own personal trauma, his family, or the details of the attack in Afghanistan, but instead to focus on the work of his charity and themes that might shed light on what veterans in Northern Ireland experience every day from recruitment to reintegration.
Andy Allen Veterans Support
Andy’s charity is tucked into an industrial complex off the Crumlin Road in North Belfast. When Andy greets me at the door, I am first brought into a general meeting space where a few tables and chairs are neatly arranged.
We head back into what seems like a small classroom. A benefits clinic was held here recently, Andy tells me. Next I find myself in a medium-sized warehouse with a forklift and a military-style Land Rover.
As part of the services Andy’s charity provides, veterans can take advantage of a forklift training school that certifies them within a matter of a few days.
Parked up in front of the forklift is the Land Rover. The charity uses the Land Rover to fundraise by holding various Land Rover pulls throughout Northern Ireland.
Finally, before we head into Andy’s office, I am shown a small room that will house counselling services and yet another room where Andy keeps his screen printing materials. Andy recently taught himself screening and now prints T shirts, mugs, and other items to sell for fundraising.
The whole charity has the feel of a vibrant social enterprise. Clearly Andy has thought about how to create a self-sustaining economic model alongside ways to balance both practical and emotional support for veterans. It’s impressive.
From Belfast to Afghanistan
When Andy was in school he was constantly getting nagged about what he was going to do with his life. He wasn’t passionate about school. He didn’t like it. And he didn’t know what to tell people when they inquired about what would happen next. “A typical teenager from a Belfast area,” as Andy tells it, his response was always, “don’t know, don’t know.”
Andy wanted to avoid a life on benefits. “I knew I didn’t want to be on the brew, as we call it, I wanted to earn a living, but I just didn’t know what I wanted to do.” He flirted with the idea of being an electrician at one stage, and got some basic work experience, but it didn’t give him the kind of job satisfaction he craved. “It’s not something where I woke up in the morning and said, yeah, let’s go, let’s do it!”
“Then I was sitting one day, and it came on the TV, the recruiting advert for the Army. And do you know the way when you see something on TV or you see something…” Andy struggles for a minute to find words to capture the feeling he felt in that moment. “Whenever I watched the advert, I went, oh, I want that, I want to be a part of that. You know? That’s me. That’s my calling.”
Andy immediately went online and requested more information. A few days later a video and other materials came through the post. “Obviously, yes, you could turn around and say it’s all edited to look great, and all mesmerising, but it certainly does that, it has that effect.”
Very soon Andy was in the office of a local recruiter, someone who, Andy says, “would generally be a colour sergeant. So he’s been in the Army quite a long time. Been there, seen it, done most things. As they say, got the T shirt.”
“I spoke to him and asked him questions, and everything seemed to appeal and relate.”
“He said, ‘So, what do you want to do in the army?’ The stuff that appeals to me is the nitty-gritty. Being out there, being in the field. You know, being a soldier, that’s what I associate with being a soldier. I’m not being derogatory towards the other services, but I see being a solider, being proper, is being out there, in the nitty-gritty of it, out in the field, front line, that was me. I just didn’t see myself doing anything else.”
The Royal Irish Regiment draws a lot of its recruitment from Northern Ireland and some from the Republic, and Andy had friends that had gone into the regiment before him. “So perhaps you were going away, but you weren’t going away, if you know what I mean. You’re going to England but you’re still in amongst the people that you knew.”
“I would say that anybody joining the army in and around that time, or even slightly before I joined, who would have says, ‘Ah, I don’t think I’ll go to Afghanistan. Don’t think I’ll go to Iraq’ were kidding themselves, being naive. I had a firm understanding.”
Andy believes that the British military has made a huge difference in the lives of the Afghan people, something that makes him very proud. But he says that a lot of people who join the army do so not out of deep patriotism but because they’re looking for steady work.
“The job market out there is not booming. The army, at one stage or another, was the preferred destination, it was a job, it was there.”
“You know, it’s hard, because although you’re in the army, you’ll not always love everything about it and not always love everything that you’re asked to do. But it’s like every job, it comes with its good and it comes with its bad.”
“But I would say that everyone that eventually joins the army, although they may have joined up for different reasons, they all become connected with that common bond, that they’re there for Queen and country ultimately. You don’t go to Afghanistan just because you’re there to be paid.”
In the aftermath of the attack and hospitalisation, Andy eventually returned to Northern Ireland, and was invited onto the Nolan Show to share his experiences.
Andy shares this example as a way to describe the different attitudes he faced once back in Northern Ireland.
“I was on the Stephen Nolan Show, and you know, there’s mixed receptions. And of course people are entitled to their opinions. You’d get some people who’d say, well, he shouldn’t have been in Afghanistan in the first place. If he wasn’t there he wouldn’t have the injuries he’s got.”
“And then on the other hand you’d have people who would say, you know, that they relate to what I am going through. Because here in Northern Ireland we’ve had these struggles for thirty, forty years.”
Andy believes in freedom of speech and a culture of democratic debate. He believes that people are entitled to disagree with the British military’s presence in Afghanistan, but that they should recognise that he was over in Afghanistan fighting for other’s right to democracy and freedom of speech. “Aren’t the people of Afghanistan entitled to have that too? That’s what we were there doing.”
The journey back to civilised society brings many difficulties for a soldier who has seen combat.
Andy tells me that he feels lucky that his injuries entitled him to a compensation package that allowed his family to get settled into home and to get their lives moving on a new path. He feels bad, however, for his colleagues who don’t have such compensation packages and who are struggling to reintegrate and rebuild their lives
“Building the bridges back to reintegration to society. You know, it’s one of those bridges you need to build, and I call them bridges, because that’s the way I look at it. In life we have a massive ocean, and we have to build so many bridges across that ocean to get us to where we want to be.”
Andy talks of the need to work and support his wife and kids and how he had to change his career goals following his injuries. “Perhaps me being injured, if I hadn’t been injured, it would have been different, the army would have had a massive part in our lives. But because I had been injured, I had to now take a stand, and say, hold on a minute, stop. Let’s pause things for a moment and reflect on what’s best for me and my family.”
“So we began putting down the foundation, the bridges as I would call them, in place. And one of those was to get our own home.”
A Respite Centre for Veterans
Andy’s mission with the charity seems simple enough. To help veterans heal, reintegrate to society and gain back their independence. But long term, Andy believes greater government support is needed to achieve these goals.
According to Andy, Northern Ireland lacks adequate counselling services for military veterans. “We don’t have, in my eyes, a dedicated counselling facility. We have a number of service charities who are working day and night and doing splendid work to provide services.”
“But we don’t have an endless pot of money. If we had a facility here in Northern Ireland where we had resident counsellors who are employed to be in that building, isn’t that going to be a lot easier?”
Andy is adamant that veterans be treated away from the rest of the population in a special centre dedicated to their unique experiences, traumas, issues and injuries. “I would not be willing to be involved with AAVS or I would never ask any other veteran to be involved in a centre for everybody.”
The unique post-conflict scenario of Northern Ireland, and the threat that is still posed to members of the British military, requires that there be a solo-purpose facility exclusively for veterans and their families.
The centre would treat both veterans only recently back from duty and veterans who twenty years out of service are still dealing with similar issues. “We all go through instances where we get to the stage and go, ‘you know what, I can’t do it no more.’ And I’ve seen myself, when I’ve gone, I can’t do it no more, especially when I was injured.”
“It’s not something that’s going to say, here, we want to have something better than everybody else. We are asking for the rebalancing of the playing fields. We feel as veterans and families in Northern Ireland that the playing fields are majorly unadjusted. And a great sign of faith to rebalance those would be the establishment of a respite training and treatment centre.”
“Nice gardens, nice scenery, well can’t that be done against a nice backdrop? It makes the person feel more at home and more relaxed and themselves.”
You can learn more about Andy Allen Veterans Support by visiting, http://www.aavsni.com/
I write about faith, democracy and culture from a Christian and centre-left perspective.