A city gym owner is offering free memberships to veterans as they try to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of service.
Touched by the stories of those who’ve been thrown a lifeline by Sunderland-based Veterans in Crisis, Les Ojugbana, who owns Fitness 2000 in Roker, has offered all of the veterans who use the service free memberships to help promote healthy wellbeing.
Although many of the former Forces Personnel who use the community interest company may not have visible scars of their vocation, scores have been left with problems such as PTSD and drug and alcohol addictions.
Set up by former soldier Ger Fowler from Southwick, who completed tours of Northern Ireland while serving with the Light Infantry, Veterans in Crisis tackles everything from employment and housing issues to social isolation and mental health problems.
Gym owner Les says he hopes the free memberships at his gym will further help veterans, both financially and mentally.
“I heard about Veterans in Crisis through volunteer Chris Batty who uses the gym and has been helped by the service himself,” explained Les. “What attracted me to it is that all the money goes directly to help people in Sunderland, no one takes a wage.
“He told me of one veteran who had lost his driving licence and couldn’t get a job, purely because he couldn’t afford to pay for a licence. Veterans in Crisis bought him a licence and he was able to get a job and get out of that rut.”
As well as the memberships, Les has offered to pay the first month’s rent for the next veteran using the service facing a housing problem, as well as donating 25% of new members fees over the festive period to the cause - and he’s thrown down a challenge for other city businesses to show their support too.
He’ll be tagging other city businesses on Facebook in posts in a bid to inspire them to take on the challenge to support the service.
Volunteer Chris said: “A lot of people who leave the military really miss the physical aspect of serving and the camaraderie that goes with that, where you help each other along. So this is a great way to help people physically, whilst also providing a place for them to get together.”
Ger, who runs the service from its base in Sunderland Civic Centre, said: “The most important thing about Veterans in Crisis is that it’s people talking to people. Sunderland is a huge recruitment ground for the military so there are a lot of people affected by these issues, whether it be veterans or their family members.
“We meet once a week in the Gunners’ Club in Mary Street, but we also do dog walking groups, trips to the Lakes and team building in Kielder, and these are all things that get donated. The people of Sunderland have been very generous and really do want to help.”
Peter Brewis is one of the many former Sunderland soldiers whose life has been turned around by Veterans in Crisis. During his time in the Household Cavalry he served as Prince Harry’s gunner, but was medically discharged with PTSD.
He said: “I felt fine when I left the military but then it hit me and I really struggled to talk about my problems. Speaking to other veterans who have been exactly where you are really helped as they understand in a way others can’t. Going to the group meetings is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Fellow service user Scott Smith, who served with 3 Rifles, was medically discharged, but struggled to adjust to civilian life leaving him on the brink of the suicide.
“I hit rock bottom and went to the doctor,” he said. “I spoke to a psychiatrist, but it was Veterans in Crisis which really made the difference because they have a real understanding of your situation.”
Ger said: “There is a significant decrease in our clients taking prescribed drugs, as well as other drugs and alcohol, all because they’ve received help.
“It’s the centenary of the end of the Great War this month and the legacy of that was that we should be supporting veterans, and we still need to do that 100 years later.”
•Veterans in Crisis meets every Tuesday at the Gunners’ Club in Mary Street, Sunderland city centre, from 10am to 1pm. All veterans and family members affected are welcome to attend. To learn more about the company visit www.veteransincrisis.co.uk of search for them on Facebook. Or, you can email Ger Fowler direct at firstname.lastname@example.org