A mile in my shoes

For Freemason Mark Ormrod, the battlefield injuries he sustained proved to be a springboard to reinvent his life. But not all veterans respond the same way. Peter Watts finds out how, thanks to masonic funding, Combat Stress provides psychiatric support for ex-personnel

Christmas Eve in 2007 began with an ordinary patrol for Mark Ormrod, a Royal Marine on tour in Afghanistan. It ended with Mark in a coma and undergoing a life-saving operation after an improvised explosive device was triggered, leaving him without both legs and an arm. 

As a triple amputee, Mark found that Freemasonry provided some of the support he needed to get on with his life, having been initiated into the Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, in 2008 while in a wheelchair. Today, Mark has prosthetic limbs and is an author, mentor and motivational speaker. He credits Freemasonry with providing invaluable support at a difficult time. 

‘It’s a really important part of dealing with stuff in life, having people around you as friends and brothers,’ he says. ‘It was very reassuring to know I had people who were encouraging and empowering, and as I progressed through the lodge it helped in terms of confidence and leadership. It’s helped holistically, in all areas. I also like the fact that we work with charities. That’s very fulfilling – being able to help other people is very rewarding.’

One of those charities is Combat Stress, an organisation that supports veterans with mental health issues. With increased pressure on the NHS and more former servicemen and women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following gruelling experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Masonic Charitable Foundation (MCF) has awarded a £60,000 grant to Combat Stress to fund a community psychiatric nurse operating in the southwest of England, where Mark now lives.

For David Innes, the Chief Executive of the MCF and himself a retired British Army officer, there is a vital need for masonic support. ‘One of the core areas that the MCF supports on behalf of Freemasonry is helping as many people as we can who are suffering from social isolation and social exclusion – people who are not able to participate in society for a wide variety of reasons,’ says the former member of the Corps of Royal Engineers who reached the rank of Brigadier. 

‘If we can help those suffering from PTSD or mental health issues come to terms with the challenges they face, it gives them a chance to make something of the rest of their lives. Combat Stress does some fantastic work in this particular field.’

MENTAL HEALTH FOCUS

The MCF was particularly impressed with the focus Combat Stress gives to veterans with mental health issues, operating dedicated services from three regional hubs. ‘They are very focussed on helping those suffering from mental health issues – that is their core business. It’s what they are particularly good at, and they have a very good structure,’ says Innes. ‘The statistics they produce show that, in the vast majority of cases, they allow individuals to make significant improvements so they can get on with their lives.’

Combat Stress will celebrate its 100th birthday in 2019, having been founded after the First World War to support soldiers returning from the trenches. Today it offers clinical care so former servicemen and women have the tools and mechanisms they need to cope with their conditions. Care comes in a variety of forms, from occupational therapy and group counselling to a six-week residential course. 

The community psychiatric nurse funded by the MCF grant will provide support to around 500 ex-personnel. ‘The nurse will cover Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset and Bristol,’ explains Kirstie Tong, the trusts and foundations manager at Combat Stress. ‘In 2017, in the southwest, the community psychiatric nurse did 72 assessments for veterans with combat stress and 10 other assessments, and had 47 one-to-one appointments, 90 group contacts and 51 support-group contacts. The MCF grant will contribute towards a large part of the salary of this nurse until 2020. We are hugely grateful for the MCF and its continued support, which makes our work possible.’

Mark Ormrod didn’t require the support of Combat Stress as he recovered but recognises the importance of this type of work, particularly for former members of the armed forces, who may see mental health issues as a sign of weakness. ‘Although I’ve not worked with Combat Stress, I know it offers counselling, residential care and therapy,’ he says. ‘There’s a lot of stigma in the military with regard to mental health. People don’t always like going out and asking for support, but if it’s serious, you can point them towards the professionals at Combat Stress.’

OPENING UP

This stigma is slowly beginning to disappear. Tong says that while veterans of the Falklands War take an average of 15 years before contacting Combat Stress for support, a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan will do so in three years. That is unquestionably a positive thing, but it also means that Combat Stress faces increasing pressure on its services. ‘We have seen a 143 per cent increase in referrals in the last decade,’ says Tong. ‘We now support around 3,000 veterans across the armed forces each year and have 2,000 referrals. Around 80 per cent have PTSD and have experienced multiple traumas in their combat career.’

As Innes acknowledges from his own experience in the Corps of Royal Engineers, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were particularly traumatic: ‘Many of the men and women we are supporting now will have seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the intensity of those operations was ferocious.

‘People will have been exposed to events that, to be honest, are simply horrific,’ he says. ‘We are seeing an increase in PTSD as a result of those operations. Providing support to organisations like Combat Stress is vital. We are lucky today, because more is known about mental health than 40 years ago when I joined the army. It is discussed more widely, but soldiers still don’t tend to talk about things like that.’

Mark has found he can talk about his experiences with the Freemasons, who have provided him with an important support network after he left the friendship of the Royal Marines behind. ‘It filled that space, very much so,’ he says. ‘It’s the camaraderie, the brotherhood, the sense of belonging. Having that other family outside of your own, good people that you can rely on. I’m a little bit surprised at how important it’s become. What I love is that I have three children, I have three limbs missing, I have a full-time job, I travel a lot, and if I can’t make a meeting, I never get made to feel bad. They always say family first, then work, then lodge. That has allowed it to become a big part of my life. It’s never felt like hard work.’

A veteran’s story

David is a Royal Air Force veteran who started experiencing stress after leaving the armed services. After he had a stroke, he began to have anxiety attacks. 

Eventually, David contacted Combat Stress for advice and began to attend community group sessions. 

‘The groups are great,’ David says. ‘We are all different ages and from different walks of life, but in many ways we are all the same and experiencing the same things. ‘It’s made a huge difference to my happiness. The Combat Stress sessions help me better understand why I feel the way I do. 

‘In the military community we tend to think “just get on with it”, and unfortunately this might put people off seeking help. I’d say to others: listen to those close to you. You owe it to them to at least make that call to Combat Stress. You can be anonymous, but just talk to someone.’

Standing proud

Mark Ormrod is still feeling the effects of the landmine he stepped on 11 years ago. 

Quick action from his fellow Marines, and an innovative procedure carried out aboard a Chinook helicopter en route to the hospital, saved his life.

Mark woke up in Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, with both legs amputated above the knee and his right arm amputated above the elbow. The first triple amputee in the UK to survive the Afghanistan conflict, Mark was told by doctors he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Mark, however, decided to use his setback as a springboard for growth and reinvention.

He is now a motivational speaker, a peak performance coach and the author of the autobiographical Man Down. He has not used a wheelchair since June 2009.

Published in Features

Direction in life

After an accident left him unable to carry on with life in the military, Arthur Vaughan Williams leaned on masonic values to help him transition to a career in broadcasting

It’s clear Arthur Vaughan Williams is a man who isn’t afraid of a challenge as he reels off the many remote and wonderful places he’s visited in the past year alone. As a presenter for Channel 4, the Pershore-born Freemason has camped out in the depths of Canada’s sub-Arctic wilderness, used a helicopter to steer cattle around a ranch the size of Wales in the Australian outback and navigated the dangerous mountainside runways of Nepal. 

Arthur’s adventures have rarely been relaxing. Halfway through describing the ‘loaded march’, a notorious 30-mile trek that Royal Marines must complete before receiving their green beret, he shudders visibly at the memory of the experience.

‘You’re trekking for eight hours across Dartmoor with nearly 10kg of kit slung over your shoulders. That’s really tough,’ he recalls. ‘At the time, it felt like this huge tidal wave rearing up in front of me, and I thought if I do this, I’ll never doubt myself again.’

Fighting spirit

It’s a mantra that’s seen Arthur through the ups and downs of a pretty extraordinary life so far. As a commando, he worked in Sierra Leone establishing frontline communications for the Royal Marines. But after a car crash in 2007 left him paralysed from the waist down, his military career came to an abrupt end. At just 21 years old, Arthur had to rethink his entire life. ‘It’s such a graphic and horrendous thing to deal with,’ he says. ‘To go from peak physical fitness to somebody who can’t control two-thirds of their body – it’s unimaginable.’

Bedridden for six weeks, Arthur was incapable of showering, dressing or even sitting up without help. It took two months of painful rehabilitation before he was allowed to return to his parents’ house. ‘Probably the hardest part was realising that there was nothing [doctors] could do for me. I remember being wheeled past the operating theatre and feeling jealous of the people inside, because at least they had a chance of being fixed.’

Ultimately, it was the tenacity instilled in him through the marines that saved Arthur’s life. 

‘Suicide crosses your mind when something like this befalls you,’ he says. ‘But as far as I was concerned, I was still a marine and we never give up – we don’t know how to – so that helped a lot.’

‘I’m proud to have been a part of the Paralympics… How often can you say you helped change the way people think about disability?’ Arthur Vaughan Williams

Time for a new path

Gradually, Arthur began to rebuild his life piece by piece, starting with his initiation into White Ensign Lodge, No. 9169, in 2008. ‘My dad was a Freemason, and his father before him, so it’s always a path I’ve been interested in following,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a bit of a family tradition where the father initiates his son, so when my dad came to the chair as the Master of the lodge it seemed the right time for me to join.’

A military lodge based in Worcestershire, White Ensign’s membership all served in the Armed Forces, so Arthur was able to relive the esprit de corps of his military days. But most importantly, it helped him to gain some clarity in the aftermath of the accident.

‘In the marines they teach you to kill without a second thought, which requires a certain amount of aggression,’ explains Arthur. ‘That’s fine when you’re able to do the job because you can control and apply it when necessary. But when I was forced out of the marines, that instinct manifested itself in pure frustration and anger. I began to lash out at the people around me. It was never in a violent way, just shouting and screaming. But it wasn’t appropriate.’

Arthur learned to redefine his approach to life by using the morals of Freemasonry as a guide for his ambition and drive. ‘As a military lodge, it’s no coincidence that many of the Freemasons there are successful, but it’s not through greed or selfishness, or for material gain. It’s because we want to lead a good life, to raise a decent, good family and to play our role in society well.’

With this newfound positivity, Arthur returned to his early sporting passions to help propel himself into a new life. He immersed himself in the world of wheelchair racing, eventually progressing to the British cycling development squad for the 2012 Paralympic Games. ‘I was always the sporty type at school,’ he remembers. ‘I played rugby for Prince Henry’s High School in Evesham and competed in the Army Cadet National Athletics finals.’

However, it was television that would give Arthur his big break. After submitting a YouTube video to a national talent search, he was chosen as one of six new disabled presenters to front Channel 4’s coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games. ‘It was one of those tidal wave moments again,’ says Arthur, who was put through a five-day boot camp at the National Film & Television School to test his presenting potential. 

‘There were over 4,200 athletes from 164 different countries competing in 20 sports across 12 days, and I had to know everything about all of them. 

I probably spent months sitting in my study poring over books and interviewing people on the phone. But it was worth it. Somebody believed in me at Channel 4, and I was going to prove them right.’

In the same year, Channel 4 won a BAFTA for its coverage of the Paralympic Games. ‘The Paralympics was probably the most rewarding thing I’ll ever do in my life,’ says Arthur. ‘How often can you say you helped change the way people think about disability? It was a real watershed moment for the country, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.’

Inspired by his passion

The Channel 4 work has been just the beginning of a career in television, one that has allowed Arthur to merge his passion for flying and presenting. ‘After the accident, I thought back to what I loved as a kid, and that was flying,’ he recalls. ‘All my life I’d heard stories of Douglas Bader, the disabled pilot who through grit and guile managed to earn his pilot license and fight in the Battle of Britain. Now he’s one of our most celebrated national heroes. I thought if he could do that back then, why can’t I do it now?’

After just nine hours of training, Arthur completed his first solo flight to become a licensed pilot. A few years later, he bought a 1943 Piper Cub light aircraft. 

‘The previous owner had been flying it for 30 years, so I do wonder if I should start wearing a parachute soon,’ he laughs.

In 2015, Channel 4 commissioned Arthur for a three-part documentary, Flying to the Ends of the Earth, in which he flew to some of the most remote communities in the world to learn about their unique ways of life. Today, he spends his time travelling between London and his home in the Cotswolds, and is working on a book about the pioneers who established the Imperial Airways routes now used by the likes of British Airways. 

‘Obviously my accident completely changed my life,’ says Arthur. ‘Back then, the young boy in me wanted to blow everything up and burn it all to the ground. But now, as an adult, I want to create, to have something to show for my work that I can always be proud of. It’s the only direction my life could’ve gone if I wanted to survive.’

Letters to the Editor - No. 33 Spring 2016

Down but not out

Sir,

I read with interest, and a certain amount of admiration, the recent article on Arthur Vaughan Williams and how he has overcome the devastating life change, after his accident in 2007.

It made me draw a parallel with a brother in our lodge, Mark Ormrod, who lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan. He has written a book about his experiences, Man Down, and has overcome his injuries in an amazing fashion.

Mark joined Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, and his initiation took place while he was in a wheelchair. He has since mastered the use of prosthetic legs and is able to march into the lodge and keep in step with the rest of the officers.

Mark has progressed through all of the offices in the lodge (IG, JD, SD, JW) and is our present Senior Warden. 

He will be installed, into The Chair of King Solomon, in June 2016 and is a stunning example to all.

Brian Saunders, Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, Plymouth, Devon

Published in Features

On  an even keel

Just off Cornwall’s south coast, Freemason Roy Newport takes retired military personnel out on the open water to help them adjust to life in the ‘normal’ world. Imogen Beecroft finds out how sailing can treat the injuries you cannot see

‘There is no “normal” after Afghanistan. You come back a different person.’ 

Roy Newport was serving as a Royal Military Policeman in Afghanistan when he was thrown from his vehicle after being caught in the blast of an explosive device. Three days later, he was in his living room at home, unable to contact anyone he knew in the military. 

Keen to replace the sense of belonging he found in the army, Roy joined Fowey Lodge, No. 977, which meets in Tywardreath, a small hilltop village in southern Cornwall. ‘I found camaraderie in the masonic group,’ he says. ‘It was a massive part of my reintegration and helped with my confidence no end.’

While Freemasonry was a huge step in the right direction, Roy’s war experiences had led him to develop severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ‘It was horrendous. I’d spent days on end being shot at in the desert, and when I got home I couldn’t go out in the sunshine, so I spent most of my time inside. 

I found it very difficult to talk to people I didn’t know and would get uncontrollably angry. I almost lost my family – almost lost my life. That’s how close it came.’

‘I was desperate to engage with people like myself, and that helped me more than anything. You don’t get over PTSD, but you’ll get through it.’ Roy Newport

Like-minded people

After a year and a half of suffering, Roy heard about Turn to Starboard, a charity that uses sailing to help military personnel adjust to life after the armed forces. Based in Falmouth’s picturesque marina, the charity takes groups of ex-military individuals on sailing courses, providing them with a new hobby, a supportive community of like-minded people and, occasionally, even a new career path. 

The comradeship helped Roy battle his PTSD and begin to regain his cheerful character. ‘I was desperate to engage with people like myself,’ he says. ‘Being able to decompress and spin a few yarns with chaps who’ve been in the same boat helped me more than anything. You never get over PTSD, but you’ll get through it.’ 

Roy now works full-time at Turn to Starboard, mentoring other servicemen on the water. ‘I saw so many lads struggling with PTSD and the things I’d been through. I wanted to help them deal with those experiences and defeat our common enemy.’

Turn to Starboard is the brainchild of Shaun Pascoe, who served for 16 years in the Medical Emergency Response Team, undertaking tours in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Finding it increasingly difficult to adjust to normal life after returning from these war zones, Pascoe began teaching windsurfing. He found that his time spent with similarly active individuals – whether on the water or later in the pub – was having a pronounced effect on his morale. 

Pascoe eventually started sailing with groups of ex-military servicemen who were struggling with PTSD, physical injuries or other mental traumas. Seeing the positive impact sailing had on his students, he founded the charity in 2012 and now has groups of people on the water daily. 

Turn to Starboard runs several different programmes, from Royal Yachting Association-accredited courses for beginners to week-long family trips, as well as an extensive Zero to Hero Yachtmaster development programme, which gives participants the necessary qualifications to begin a career in sailing. The family trips are particularly important for servicemen with children, and Pascoe sees these as one of the most vital parts of the charity’s work. He vividly remembers one child saying, ‘My daddy came back from Afghanistan – but when we went sailing, he really came back.’ 

‘You’ve got to realise that you aren’t in control – that you can’t tell the wind or the weather what to do.’ Roy Newport 

Freedom on the water

Drastic transformations are not uncommon at Turn to Starboard. ‘We had one guy who had been locked inside his house for years. We picked him up and took him sailing. Since then, he’s really engaged with life and sails every day with his local club,’ says Pascoe. ‘Roy is someone else who’s really transformed his life. Before working with us, he wasn’t engaging with anyone and didn’t want to do anything. Now we wouldn’t recognise that because he moves at 100mph and is enthused about everything.’

For Roy, there is nothing like being on the water. ‘You experience complete freedom, which is a huge release. You’ve got to realise that you aren’t in control – that you can’t tell the wind or the weather what to do. You learn to control the things you can and adapt to the things you can’t. That’s completely different to being in the army, where your own and your soldiers’ lives are at risk, and giving up control is the furthest thing from your mind.’

Although 70 per cent of the people sailing with Turn to Starboard have to struggle with these kinds of mental traumas, the rest have physical injuries. 

The team refuses to allow an injury to prevent someone from sailing, says Roy, explaining that most amputees or people with physical injuries can’t bear special treatment. ‘We don’t make it any easier for them – they just crack on. If that means they take their prosthetic leg off and slide along on their bottom, then that’s what they do. We find most service people just want to be treated as normal.’

Rich Birchall had been in the marines for 14 years when he was medically discharged because of a back injury. A Freemason in the Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, Rich felt lost after being discharged and took a job in an IT company. ‘It was driving me crazy. I hated being stuck inside and was working with people who I really had nothing in common with. I thought I was going to end up with a rope around my neck.’

Rich started volunteering with Turn to Starboard in May and has never looked back. ‘I’m really enjoying it, and it’s had a massive impact on my life. I was at my lowest, having some pretty sinister thoughts about how to get out of this situation, but I had a wife and three kids I didn’t want to leave behind. Turn to Starboard helped me turn things around just in time.’

As Rich saw it, he had gone from handling firearms in war-torn countries to being ‘babied’ by people who were worried he might hurt himself. ‘But the guys at Turn to Starboard let me manage my injury myself and have allowed me to get back outdoors. My ultimate goal is to do the Zero to Hero programme, which would mean I could sail for a living and continue volunteering with Turn to Starboard in my spare time.’

‘My concern is that we’ll get to a point where we can’t afford to help all the people coming forward…’ Shaun Pascoe

Navigating the future

Rich is full of praise for his lodge and Turn to Starboard. ‘They’ve both really helped me, and I hope if I’m well behaved and continue to work as hard as I can, Turn to Starboard will keep me on for the foreseeable future.’

The charity is going from strength to strength, with backing from Help for Heroes and the Royal Air Forces Association. For it to be able to continue helping people like Rich, however, it needs continual funding, as the participants don’t pay to go out on the water. Pascoe says, ‘We’re getting a significant demand for what we’re doing so it’s about making sure we don’t have to say no to any of these people – my concern is that we’ll get to a point where we can’t afford to help all the people coming forward.’

Roy voices similar concerns: ‘There’s only a certain amount of space on the funded courses. We can’t afford to help everyone. It would be great if lodges could help a local serviceman – injured, retired, out of work or down on his luck – get to us and we can give him a career. The masonic fraternity couldn’t have been more supportive of me, so it would be fantastic if they could take that one step further.’

Sailing into 2017

Freemasons and Turn to Starboard will be working together in the 2017 festivities. A trustee of Turn to Starboard, Freemason Mike Pritchard also sits on the Province of Cornwall’s Tercentenary Celebration Committee. At the culmination of events, the charity will be sailing a commemorative banner across to the Isles of Scilly. ‘Turn to Starboard has very graciously supported our event, and to have a tall ship escort the banner should indeed be a spectacle,’ says Mike, who is a member of St Pirans Lodge, No. 7620.

Mike has been impressed by the selflessness of the Turn to Starboard team. ‘Their drive and determination is hugely impressive, as is the empathy they offer to everyone lucky enough to be supported by this exceptional charity. I can think of no better candidate for the Freemasons’ support. A charity with such values providing help to injured or retired servicemen fits in extremely well with the grand principles on which our Order is founded.’

Find out more at www.turntostarboard.co.uk 

Published in Features

Plymouth honours Royal Marines

A charity fundraising evening in support of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines saw a cheque for £5,150 presented to Jonathan Ball, chief executive of the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund, on behalf of Royal Marines Plymouth Lodge, No. 9528, Province of Devonshire. The Royal Marines have been on many peacekeeping and disaster assistance operations, as well as seeing active service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among those at the event was Mark Ormrod, who lost both legs and an arm in a Taliban bomb blast. The masonic contingent was led by Provincial Grand Master Ian Kingsbury.

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