News story

Preparing injured soldiers for life after service

Thousands of sick and injured soldiers leave the Army every year, and Exercise Roebuck Accord is helping to ease what can be a difficult transition back into civilian life. Report by Lorraine McBride.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Corporal Hari Budha Magar chats with Major Melanie Barbour

Corporal Hari Budha Magar, a double amputee from the Royal Gurkha Rifles, chats with Occupational Health Officer Major Melanie Barbour [Picture: Graham Harrison, Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]

If getting sick or injured in the Army can be an occupational hazard, the begging question for troops is, ‘what’s next if the worst happens to me?’ At Malta Barracks in Hampshire, the 145/2 Brigade Personnel Recovery Unit (PRU) laid on Exercise Roebuck Accord, to prepare potential Service Leavers early for getting back to work and for life outside the Army.

For soldiers who have devoted their career to the Army, serious illness or disability can take its toll both physically and mentally.

The problem is that some soldiers at a vulnerable time feel isolation and loneliness.

The Army knows that many struggle to adapt to life away from their units as they recover at home and the accompanying potential for frustration or slow progress, so they set up regional PRUs to manage every step of the soldier’s recovery, in every area of their lives.

Inviting troops here, makes them realise that they are not alone and that we are in this together,” said 145/2 Bde PRU Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Meldon.

He explained how they slotted into the Army’s resettlement process. In a best-case scenario, troops return to active service, including a tiny miniority who leave due to illness or injury. The Army offers leavers a resettlement package to help them start a new life.

Those leaving through the PRU process receive additional help and training in order to make them even more competitive on the jobs market.

At Malta Barracks, a one-stop-shop hosted speakers from SAAFA, the Royal British Legion, Citizens Advice, financial experts, Combat Stress, the Aldershot Pay Office and the Army Welfare Service to talk on topics ranging from stretching your army pension, healthy eating, information about new careers and simple things like CV writing.

Adapting to life on ‘Civvy Street’ can be daunting. Soldiers typically join up in their teens and live a regimented life, which disappears overnight when they leave. They are prepared for transition through the resettlement process and those with prosthetics should be getting the Seriously Injured Protcol and the Transition Protocol, with support for as long as need. Still, it can be a culture shock when they are medically discharged from the Army, but the 145/2 Bde PRU inaugural information day aimed at helping them prepare for the future.

Attendance at the event was voluntary but half of the personnel assigned to the 145/2 Bde PRU chose to go. The members of the PRU have all experienced serious injury or illness and as organiser TA officer Major Trevor Rawson, attached to 145/2 Bde PRU, explained:

If someone woke up today and felt they couldn’t face it, then there was no three line whip.

Illness can also have a dramatic effect on wives, children and other relatives. Trevor talks of the fortnightly visits from their Personnel Recovery Officer (PRO) and possibly also their former unit representatives.

Today is a friendly environment so they can feel part of something else,” he said, as we watched a group of guys chatting with ease before posing for a unit photograph.

Tthe Army set up the PRU on regional lines (there are 11 across UK and Germany) into which Wounded, Injured and Sick (WIS) soldiers are posted and are commanded by the PRU CO rather than their Cap-badge unit.

By having all these supporting organisations here, enables our recoverees to see just how many people are involved in their recovery process,” said Trevor.

The day is an eye-opener to allow soldiers to sample the wealth of support available out there.

If you’ve lived in the Army all your working life, you don’t realise the scale of the people who want to help you,” he added.

Personnel Recovery Officer Captain Frazer Keith is one of four that helps more than eighty 145/2 Bde PRU WIS soldiers to navigate the path to recovery - everything from finding a job, medical treatment, housing, rehabilitation, organising adaptive adventure training or sport, disability benefits, education, vehicles, financial advice and retraining:

Some guys might go back into their units while others will leave the Army and need help so that they’ve got a reliable individual recovery plan,” he explained.

He stresses that the nature of injuries represented in the PRU is at odds with the stereotype as many people perceive that it is mostly amputees.

In truth, the soldiers could be injured on operations, or suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis, bone disease, a car crash, sports injury or any other illness.

Perhaps surprisingly, just 30 per cent have suffered the loss of one or more limbs on operations. What is clear is that leaving the forces is not the be-all or end-all for soldiers - it is simply the start of a new phase of their lives, properly supported by the PRU.

What we don’t want is for a young soldier with everything to look forward to, ending up in a role with no prospects still in the Army,” said Frazer.

The danger is, two years down the line, he would see his mates getting promoted and posted away, so his old tour quickly becomes old news. That very quickly becomes a frustration.

It’s much better that they make a positive start into a new life. If you’re 25, most of your career is ahead of you so it is about giving people a second chance at life,” he said.

The speakers imbued troops with real optimism but did not patronise them with false hope. Their prospects are determined by their talents, interests, severity of injury, job availability - which may involve transferring to another unit - or being pensioned out of the Army.

One resettlement officer talked about finding work outside and told of specialist recruitment firms who snap up army veterans, impressed by their can-do ethic and military discipline.

Tesco is just one major supporter of Service leavers but don’t be fooled by the supermarket stereotype of shelf-stackers.

Tesco runs one of the biggest logistics and supply operations in Britain, which is ideal for soldiers,” he said.

Since 145/2 Bde PRU formed last September, Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Meldon said:

The idea is that we get guys together to share problems and solutions and learn about resettlement. Most sick or injured troops recover at home so there is a real possibility that they soldier on in isolation. Here they get together, chat and make contacts that can develop into friendships.

If he has one message, Colonel Meldon said:

I guess the future is brighter than perhaps they think.

He points out that the PRU has a wealth of contacts, providing world-class training to give them a huge step forward into employment.

Once they are posted to the PRU, soldiers are assessed to gauge their strengths, interests and what the job market is likely to offer them.

The PRU caters for soldiers who get back to a career in the Army, and prepares others for life outside. But it is the medical board that determines a soldier’s fate, and while it is impossible to predict, the CO suspects that currently most of his guys end up leaving - once the capacity of the PRU is enhanced, it will begin to see a larger proportion of WIS soldiers that will end up returning to an Army Career.

Adviser Sue Hunt from the Army Primary Healthcare Service regional occupational health team knows that after a soldier has been off sick for six months, there is a reduced chance of getting them back to work. Sue carries out workplace assessments and knows that the sooner she gets involved, the better chance they have of slotting back to work.

Long-term WIS soldiers tire easily and Sue said:

If they start back full-time on Monday, the chances are they will go sick again quickly.

So, personnel ease themselves in by working reduced hours which are gradually stepped up, in a process known as a Graduated Return to Work.

Sue knows that a medical discharge is never taken lightly:

It’s a really big thing for these guys to be told that your Army career is over,” she said.

The resettlement package involves a three-day career transition workshop, access to a career advisor for up to two years and around £600 to spend on training (plus the subsistence whilst on the courses if necessary) and access to an online job-finding service.

For those who attend PRU-led vocational assessment courses, the outcome will form part of an Individual Recovery Plan. Funding for re-training is then applied for from the Army Benevolent Fund and can be a significant source of additional funding to make the WIS soldier even more competitive.

After 15 years in the Army, Sergeant Zeb Sneddon REME knows it is likely that shortly, he will be medically discharged. He was hurt in Catterick, jumping in and out of the tanks where he suffered a back injury, which led to repeated surgery.

An armourer by trade, Zeb, 39, said:

I have loved my career, I have served nearly 16 years and this will stop in a shot. I was upset at first but life goes on so I’ll take each day as it comes. I have a lovely wife and a beautiful son.

Zeb cannot praise his PRO Conductor David Patterson highly enough who has unstintingly provided advice and contacts. Inevitably, there have been dark moments along the way, but Zeb is now looking to the future and hopes to carve a new career as a locksmith. Zeb was awarded his Long Service and Good Conduct Medal by 145 Brigade Commander, Brigadier Neil Baverstock, during Exercise Roebuck Accord.

After more than a decade in the Army, Lance Sergeant Adam Ball, Grenadier Guards, is an amputee after he was caught in an IED explosion in Afghanistan. Although his medical board is still some weeks off, you sense that Adam has already made the mental leap to leaving the forces, after an earlier board gently advised him to think about what he would want to do outside the Army.

The biggest bane in my life is finding a new career path,” Adam said who suffers from severe phantom leg pain and now needs a desk job.

Newly married to Caroline, Adam said:

I have a prosthetic leg which I’m happy to crack on with, but it’s nerve pain that is really giving me drama. Today has been very useful, talking about benefits both in and out of the Army. Thinking about what I’ll do next is the big question. I would definitely recommend this to others, especially if you haven’t got a clue about what you want do.

Published 14 June 2011