Learning to live again at the Veteran Games

Learning to live again at the Veteran Games

For Jewish News May 2022

Sixty-five British wounded, sick and injured Armed Forces veterans are heading to Israel at the end of May for this year’s Veteran Games, a week-long opportunity to compete against their Israeli counterparts who are often suffering from similar conditions.

The Games, being held this year for only the second time, will offer all the ex-military men and women the “support of sport”, which experts say goes a long way to helping those with physical or psychological problems.

All the British veterans — who are invited to travel with their families, too — are chosen by various charities which help people whose military careers have been cut short. The charities include familiar ones such as the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Jewish community’s own AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women; and less well-known ones such as Rock2Recovery or specialists like the Royal Marines Charity.

None of the participants has the same injuries or disabilities as each other; some have lost limbs, some are blind, some suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). But all have spent time rebuilding their lives and have welcomed the chance to take part in the Games, often laughing that the competitive spirit which they showed during active service has never gone away.

The Games will be held at pioneering state-of-the-art facilities run by the charity Beit Halochem, which offers rehabilitation, sports and recreation centres and lifelong care for disabled veterans and their families in Israel.

Among those eagerly looking forward to this year’s Games are Caroline Beazley, who took part in the first event in 2019 and is now returning to mentor the 2022 participants; former Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Winch, perhaps the highest-ranking former officer among the veterans; one-time Navy nurse Sue Warner, travelling with her husband, Dr Julian Warner, from Belfast; Andy Merry, now a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater at the Tower of London; and Darren Blake, once a member of the Household Cavalry, or the “Blues and Royals”, who for the past 23 years has served as a warden at the La Moye prison in Jersey.

Mr Blake, who served in the Household Cavalry for six years, told Jewish News that he had met the former special forces sergeant Jason Fox six years ago when he had come to the island for his TV programme, SAS Who Dares Wins. “He was trying to raise the profile of his charity, Rock2Recovery, and I said I would do anything I could do to help.”

Since then, he has — despite wear and tear to his back during his army service — taken part in a number of charity fundraisers and most recently has combined his Veteran Games training with raising money for Mencap, the mental health charity, by going on a 15 mile walk, while loaded with 12 kg of metal plates.
He expects to take part in the swimming and shooting events in Israel. He’s never been to Israel but is on good terms with the Jersey Jewish community and has been taking advice from its leader, Steven Rigal. “I’m really looking forward to meeting like-minded veterans and enjoying the ethos of the Games.”

Sue Warner is a former Royal Navy nurse who suffered whole body fractures while serving in Afghanistan in 2009. Now living in Belfast, she and her husband, Dr Julian Warner, are one-time members of Kingston Liberal Synagogue and were nominated to attend the Veteran Games by Ajex welfare office Colin Shieff.

Mrs Warner — who also served in the Falklands aboard the hospital ship SS Uganda, when she treated both British and Argentinian personnel — suffered severe injuries in Afghanistan which still “flare up” today, and she believes she faces yet more operations after the Games are over.

But Mrs Warner, who has also won medals at the Invictus Games and the Warrior Games in America, is undeterred. She is “really looking forward” to meeting members of the Israeli team, and is working hard at Pilates and yoga in preparation for her swimming and cross-fit events. The Warners are among the few veterans from the UK who have previously visited Israel, but, she admitted, it was a very long time ago — her husband’s last visit was between school and university, and the Warners are now in their 60s.

After her injuries she gradually moved from wheelchair to crutches, and learnt to swim in her late 50s, which she calls “a lifeline”.

Warrant Officer 2nd Class Andy Merry, who served in all three Commando Units of the Royal Marines between 1984 and 2008, was deployed on operations to Northern Ireland, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. For the past nine years he has been that delight of foreign tourists, a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London.

Mr Merry, 55, who was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis five years ago, was selected as a competitor by the Royal Marines charity. He says: “I have no idea why I was chosen, I don’t have any sporting skills”.

Like all the veterans, he is “very excited” to be going to Israel, which neither he, nor his wife Maxine, has ever visited. He has no qualms about travelling to a country with its fair share of violence. “When I meet people from Israel at work and I tell them I’m heading off there, they tell me it’s a fantastic country and I’m really looking forward to it. I watch the news, like everybody does, but stuff happens in every part of the world”. In any case, he says, as a former member of the military he understands, more than most, violent situations and locations.

He’s expecting to take part in the shooting and cross-fit events but confesses “I haven’t done as much training as I should have done”. What he’s keenest on is meeting his Israeli counterparts. “Veterans are the same the world over”, Beefeater Merry says.

He added: “It’s great to have a goal to achieve and something to aim for, despite my initial trepidation about my abilities at sport, but more particularly because of my disabilities.

“What I have come to realise, though, is that it’s not really about the sport, but more to do with sharing an incredible opportunity with others with the same backgrounds and experience, whether they are from the UK or Israel”.

Joe Winch, 43, joined the Royal Marines in 2002 and served all over the world. achieving the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. But in 2017 he was diagnosed with complex PTSD and hearing problems as a direct result of his experiences, and was medically discharged in 2021.

Mr Winch, a father-of-four who lives with his wife Amy and their children in Alverstoke, said: “One of the biggest challenges since leaving the military has been accepting and acknowledging the severity and longevity of my injuries – particularly the PTSD”.

Like Andy Merry, Joe Winch was selected for the Veterans Games by the Royal Marines charity. Before leaving the Marines he climbed both Everest and North America’s highest mountain, Denali, and then helped to set up Climb 2 Recovery, a charity that offers veterans climbing courses to help with both physical and mental recovery.

Mr Winch said: “I have really wanted to visit Israel for many years and to visit as part of such a wonderful programme, with my family, is a real privilege and honour.

“It’s also very difficult for us to go on holiday as a family now, because of my condition and our financial situation since my injuries and medical discharge, so this is a rare but very exciting opportunity.

“I am particularly looking forward to meeting the other veterans and their families, to learn about their circumstances, and – of course – to get involved with as much of the sport as possible”.

Caroline Beazley, of Newton Abbott in Devon, was a proud member of the Royal Military Police when she suffered horrific injuries in 1994 after being shot at close range by a sniper in her face, head, back and hand. She was just 22 at the time and has spent years not just physically recovering but also “struggling” to deal with the mental aspects of her attack. “I kept things locked in a box”.She stayed on in the police for a couple of years after the attack but was unable to continue with front-line work, was deployed to an administrative role and then was medically discharged.

But Ms Beazley, who was nominated by the Not Forgotten charity in 2019, was completely energised by the opportunity to take part in the Veterans Games. She said: “I was able to be part of a team again, to put on a uniform and to be proud to represent my country. It was wonderful. It gave me back myself which I think I had forgotten how to be”.

She was initially dubious about taking part in the shooting event at the first Games, but was full of praise for the Israeli coaches who talked her through and helped restore her confidence.

Now, she says, she is going to Israel for a second time as a mentor to other competitors, hoping to help them through her own experiences. She made close and lasting friendships at the 2019 event, not least with Chris Hayes who won gold in the CrossFit category and will also return as a mentor, selected by Not Forgotten.

  • 25 May, 2022