A sanctuary for the traumatised veterans of war
The Trafalgar Inn has become a cathartic bolt-hole for returning troops. Terri Judd hears the regulars' stories
Tuesday 14 April 2009
Generations of faces stare from the pictures that cover the walls of The Trafalgar Inn. Young men in uniform glare fiercely at the camera.
Some of the photographs are more worn than others but they all present the same image: paratroopers standing shoulder to shoulder clutching their weapons, almost daring the viewer to challenge their invincibility.
Many of those captured on film are now dead. Survivors prop up the bar. The athletic fitness of youth has been replaced by the aches of injury, training and alcohol abuse. The machismo has been supplanted by despair. They peer into pints, grateful for the solace that beer brings.
"Well over 100 blokes. Yes, it must be at least 100 mates I have lost, " said Duncan "Duke" Allen. "You see there was Warrenpoint," continued the former corporal in the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, referring to the bloodiest British military loss of life in Northern Ireland, in August 1979 when 18 soldiers were blown up.
"And Goose Green (one of the Falklands' deadliest battles which cost 2 Para 17 men). My job was to pick up the bodies. It was quite nasty. And then the ones and twos we lost in Ireland and the parachute accidents and the motorbike accidents. You are losing people all the time but you don't really get used to it."
The Trafalgar in Aldershot, home to the Parachute Regiment until it moved to Colchester nine years ago, is a homing beacon to generations of airborne soldiers. This is their sanctuary. When the youngsters come back from Afghanistan and are too wired up to face their families, they turn up at the "Traf" and get a beer off their predecessors and a bed for the night.
Now 52, Mr Allen was just 16 when he first went to the pub. "I have seen some of the young lads and they are shot to pieces. I have seen it and it is bloody frightening," he explained.
"This PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] caper. I was deeply affected by Warrenpoint and picking up the stiffs at Goose Green. You have got this garbage running around your head. It is like a video tape. I was ok for years but then it started coming back."
Standing next to Mr Allen is Jim "Strasse" Street who also joined the paras as a teenager.
Mr Street did eight tours of Northern Ireland and served in the Falklands. Twenty minutes after Lieutenant Colonel H Jones VC was killed at Goose Green, he was also shot, ending his career.
"It was horrible. I joined the Army at 15. I didn't know anything else and suddenly I was medically discharged. I was on my own." It was not until years later that the nightmares, flashbacks and paranoia came to the fore.
"My business went pear-shaped. My marriage went pear-shaped. I ended up back in my second home, Aldershot, and I have been living down here ever since. This pub is therapy. If you are having a bad day, they talk you down. We have all been through the same shit. We have all seen the bodies. We have all had mates killed." He adds: "The NHS and the Government have turned their back on us. There are a lot more people coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq and they are turning their back on them too."
Gary Grant, the pub's leaseholder and a former para himself, explained that the only outlet many had was talking to his staff: "This is a Mecca for them. The history is here. They feel comfortable here."
Former para Major Milosh Stankovic MBE was so frustrated with the lack of dedicated help that he recently launched The Braveheart Programme, based out of the Trafalgar Inn. His charity will offer tailored, empowerment coaching, using a variety of advanced techniques currently available in the corporate world and private sector but out of the financial reach of most veterans. "Quite a number of people do not know where to get help in the first place. I know a lot of people who have not come forward, who are slowly suffering," he said.
At the Trafalgar, the former paras who in the pride of youth dismissed other soldiers with the derogatory term "hats", now reject such selectiveness. Any soldier who has shared their pain is a soul mate.
Harry Corbett, 55, a former Scots Guard sergeant, was 17 on his first tour of Northern Ireland when the soldier who had taken him under his wing was shot and suffered disabling spinal injuries. Another ended up "all over the back of the Land-Rover".
Years after he left the Army, his 14-year-old daughter walked into the bedroom and found him cowering in a corner, sobbing uncontrollably. He lost his job as well as his marriage and attempted suicide several times, almost joining the hundreds of other Falklands veterans who have taken their own lives, outnumbering the 258 who died on the battlefield.
"They take good care of the guys with broken limbs. But they don't see the wee guy sitting in the corner," he said.
"Worry about the ones from Afghanistan and Iraq. The older guys here, we are a lost cause. It is too late. The damage is done. They need to get those young guys before it happens, catch them before they get into such a state."
For further information www.braveheartprogramme.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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