Watch as Sunderland campaigner urges veterans to seek help they deserve
Northern Ireland veteran Ger Fowler winces as he recalls the irony of his Roman Catholic upbringing.
“I went to a Catholic school and yet ended up hating Catholics for a while because of the IRA,” he says.
Inspired by live television coverage from London of the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege, Ger left St Thomas Aquinas School, in Sunderland, at the age of 16 in 1986 and quickly joined the Light Infantry.
In 1987 he was posted to Ulster during the province’s sectaraian Troubles and just 12 months later came the “horrendous moment” which has dominated his life since.
On August 20, 1988, eight servicemen died and another 28 were injured at Ballygawley when the IRA blew up a bus heading from an air base to the 1st Light Infantry’s Barracks.
Ger, now 48, adds: “I was supposed to be on that bus but it was too full so me and my mates went in a Transit van.
“All of those who died were 21 or under. A lad who shared my room was one of them. He was from Whitley Bay.
“While I was lucky compared to the lads who died, having to experience that at the age of 18 was awful.
“I was simply told to pack his bags by my officers. Nothing more.
“Then the following morning we were taken to South Armagh and told to dig a trench for three weeks.
“Nobody said anything to anyone about what had happened. That was the way it was and the effect on your mind was terrible.
“I can understand if you are in the middle of a battlefield then you cannot go home.
“But we went off to dig a trench. Surely someone could have taken you to one side and had a word?”
Still traumatised by the incident and his “survivor’s guilt”, he left the Army in 1991 to return to Sunderland as a downward spiral of drink and drugs ensued.
Ger, from the Southwick area of the city, said: “There was a big drinking culture in the Army in the first place and that was how soldiers dealt with what they saw.
“Many people were doing Ecstasy in the late 1980s and I got caught up in the scene when I was at home.”
Relationship problems, jobless spells and court appearances followed as he struggled to cope with his military past.
Back and arm injuries from a savage dog attack by a Neapolitan mastiff only increased his growing mental health problems.
Diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he admits he attempted to end his life once by driving to the city’s Roker beach one winter.
“Quite what I was going to do I am not sure. But I was distracted by some other people who walked past and I decided it was too cold and drove home.”
While his problems did not disappear overnight, Ger began to gradually recover and began working in a bakery before working for a homeless charity.
Through this voluntary role and from talking to other ex-military personnel, he began to realise the extent of the everyday problems facing city veterans.
He says: “You get sent home from the armed forces one day and are out on Civvy Street the next without so much as an idea how to get a house or a job.
“Everything was done for you in the forces and this was part of the problem. You weren’t taught to think for yourself.”
The result was Veterans in Crisis Sunderland (VICS), formed earlier this year in its current guise, which has so far helped more than 60 ex-forces personnel facing addiction, housing and mental health issues as well problems with the police.
Holding regular surgeries in the city centre, Ger says: “It is all about getting people back into routines and talking to them so they have the courage to speak to experts about their problems.
“While it is good that people find that courage, there is going to be an epidemic in the future for society to deal with.
“You cannot spend years training soldiers to be killing machines and then expect them to switch off just like that when they leave.”l
* VICS holds weekly surgeries on Tuesdays at the Gunners Club, 10-11 Mary Street, Sunderland, from 10am-1pm.
Further information is also available from (07398) 916590 or at its Veterans in Crisis Sunderland Facebook page.