‘Everyone believes we’re a ticking time bomb" - Preston model-making club is helping veterans cope with PTSD

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What makes Preston any different from the streets of Northern Ireland during the Troubles? Nothing, says one ex-soldier who served there - all streets look alike to him.

The sense that danger may be lurking everywhere is the ever present and often disabling anxiety for many ex-services personnel who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Many feel there is no refuge, no safe place in this unsought after no man’s land with no obvious exit route.

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But for one afternoon a month, at least there is an exit route and it comes from an unexpected source - model-making.

Sam Markland tackles a tricky bit at Models for Heroes at Wings CentreSam Markland tackles a tricky bit at Models for Heroes at Wings Centre
Sam Markland tackles a tricky bit at Models for Heroes at Wings Centre

The informal drop-in at the RAF Association Wings Centre on Fishergate, Preston, offers companionship, a friendly welcoming non-judgemental environment and the opportunity to get as absorbed as any ex-serviceman or woman wants in the minutiae of model making.

If they want a coffee and a chat, or a cup of tea and to just to watch, that’s fine too.The sessions have been running for some two years with the help of volunteers from the Lancashire branch of the International Plastic Modellers’ Society(IPMS).

Founder and organiser Kevin Hartley, North West coordinator for Band of Brothers and Sisters (Help for Heroes) said: “Model-making is the sort of glue that gets people here, but that’s not the main reason. It’s more about the friendship, coming together we have a bit of banter. It’s having a safer space with veterans and also with civilians and having some time using skills to focus and concentrate.

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“Our role with Band of Brothers is about fellowship and bringing people together - meeting new people and building friendships in local areas and trying new activities.”

Wings Centre volunteer Andy WoodlandWings Centre volunteer Andy Woodland
Wings Centre volunteer Andy Woodland

He says the volunteer model makers believe they are giving something back to the veterans by sharing their enthusiasm for their hobby.

The making sessions also provide an opportunity for the veterans to talk about whatever is going on in their lives, but there is no pressure about how conversations may go.

Kevin said: “It always depends how people are on the day. A lot of our guys and ladies are classed as WIS – wounded, injured or sick. We can get 10 people, we can get one. It depends how they wake up on that day.”

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Participants come from the Preston area, but some travel from further afield so important has the group become in their lives.

Models for Heroes at Wings Centre PrestonModels for Heroes at Wings Centre Preston
Models for Heroes at Wings Centre Preston

Kevin said: “It’s a safe environment and people can come just for a brew and a chat they don’t have to make models. It’s very informal. There’s no pressure.”

The steps to a better life are evident - Kevin says he has seen people grow in confidence, watched their focus improve and capacity for friendship extend: “Some of these guys don’t come out of the house. They only come to the sessions. There’s the safe environment first and the added enjoyment of making the model at the end.

“They are all on a recovery journey. It’s really about finding coping strategies on a daily basis to have more good days than bad days and everyone is on a different journey.”

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Members of the group have served in Bosnia,the Falklands, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Wings Centre volunteer Andy Woodland, who spent 22 years in the air force before working in the defence sector, points to a map on the wall where people can place a green sticky dot on the places they have served.

He said: “One of the things that’s useful is the world map. Older people, particularly with a bit of dementia, put green dots where they’ve served - it generates a lot of interest.”

There can also, he said, be a lot of humour as funny anecdotes about service life are shared.

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Sam Markland from the model society has helped organise the Wings sessions since they began. Model-making provides, he said: “a subconscious break from worry and anxieties”.

He knows from experience as a former family liaison officer with the motorway police how model making helped him with the traumas of working in the frontline with accident victims and their families.

Eddie, a 62-year-old from Merseyside, is one of the ex-service personnel attending the model making sessions. He came out of the army in 1982 and was

diagnosed with PTSD in 2012.

His wife Pat said: “It’s a distraction - it stops him from thinking about all the rubbish things. It gives him time out. We’re very isolated. We don’t go out socially any more. It’s something for him to look forward to and keep him on an even keel.”

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Eddie describes the model-making sessions as a way of “keeping connection with other people” and says they have given him a new skill, interest and outlet which helps him at home:

“When I feel stressed I do this ...I can lose many hours.”

Model club member Matthew Nightingale said: “It’s just a pleasure to be able to use my hobby. I have one particular veteran I sit with. We’re working together painting a model.”

The models are provided by a charity called Models for Heroes and are put to good use. Some are displayed in the RAF Wings Centre, some are shared with dementia patients as aids to memory.

‘I’ve had five heart attacks since leaving the forces’

It is 12 years since Dave came out of the Army.

The 39-year-old from Preston was in action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern Ireland and acknowledges he left the service broken both physically and mentally. Despite that he still views it as one of the best jobs in the world.

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He said: “Once you are a soldier you define your life round that. When you’re a broken soldier you’ve then completely failed at that.”

Dave suffers from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and says: “I got injured in service. I’m on heart attack number five - it’s all attributed to service.”

Dave can he says “take or leave” the model-making – on bad days, he will just sit and have a chat. But on the better days model making has a dramatic effect: ‘When I’m actually doing it all the BS in my head doesn’t exist, because I’m literally thinking about not messing up the models. When I’m not making, not in the mood for that, I’ll sit down with the guys who won’t look at me like I’m a weirdo, a reject.”

In particular he is sensitive to how “civilians” view him, especially when they know he has been diagnosed with PTSD: “Most think I’m probably going to go psycho or at least going to do something violent. That has no relevance to me whatsoever - violence wasn’t my thing. I’ve been suicidal and depressed.”

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He said: “Everyone believes we’re a ticking time bomb. Here you get treated like a normal human being.”

Grenades, small arms being fired and improvised electronic devices were part and parcel of Dave’s service. He recalled: “I got rocked - thrown off my feet, a few times.”

Rocket-propelled grenades targeted the convoy he was in. Throughout his dedication was unswerving: “It’s called fighting follow through - if you’re not dead you’re moving.”

The nature of some of the incidents were he says “savage and unbelievable - and then you see the stupidity and you see the hate.”

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He puts his present condition down to three things - his experiences in Iraq and Northern Ireland and the death of a friend who died after being punched in the head at a do in Preston: “It taught me nowhere was safe. You can’t tell the difference - what’s the difference between me being alert in Belfast and alert here when it looks exactly the same? “

He acknowledges that despite getting good jobs working for blue chip companies he has not been able to keep them: “You don’t feel comfortable and you start getting into arguments .Your head plays tricks on you. I’m a 39-year-old pensioner. I get a war pension - it makes you feel really, really bad.”

He says of the model-making sessions and the Wings Centre: “This feels like one of the few safe spaces in Preston where they put people at ease.”

“There’s two things when you’ve got a mental health issue - no-one can see the missing parts of you when they look at you. The other thing is you’re still alive. Sometimes it would be easier to be dead then deal with this. Places like this give you a semblance of hope.”

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Despite his problems, he is proud of his Army career: “I would go back tomorrow as the old expression goes, I was so proud of what I’d done, where I’d served. The people I helped. What

I’ve achieved can’t be taken away from me. On the flip side coming out especially being broken, physically and mentally, I’m more than useless now.”

He stresses his gratitude for the support of his wife: “My wife is my rock - there’s no two ways about it.

“We’ve been married 12 years and God knows how she’s put up with me that length of time.

“I’m not looking too much into the future. I’m just dealing with the now - and this is helping me deal with the now.”