Behind the Poppy: The power of the Legion

A paralysed former-Corporal tells how a surprise visit from the British Legion helped revitalise his life.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Dan Fagan awoke from a coma to be told that his wife was dead and he was paralysed from the chest down.

During the seven weeks he had been unconscious since the car crash, the former Royal Signals Corporal's home had been burgled and destroyed by fire so few mementos of the woman he had married as a teenager remained.

Penniless and immobile he spent the next two years in a spinal unit and nursing home before being moved into his own council flat.

"It was the end of the world. I was left with nothing. I was in a back bedroom and didn't see anybody except the nurse and carer. I was completely on my Jack Jones 24/7, staring at the walls," he explained. "I couldn't stand life like that. That's why I tried to top myself."

Then one day former Royal Marine Graham Richardson turned up on his doorstep. To Mr Fagan's surprise his visitor was from the Royal British Legion (RBL).

"Like everyone else I jut though the British Legion was for World War II veterans. I thought they gave old men a couple of hundred pounds towards their gas bill. But they do so much more.

"Graham used to come and visit me and say hello and try to cheer me up. He has become a friend. They don't get the recognition they deserve. I know everyone is wearing a poppy now but it is just once a year. They forget the rest of the year."

The famous poppy, however, is now going to be in evidence throughout the seasons as the RBL has launched a Poppy Calls home support service in seven counties, which it hopes to expand across the country. In a van emblazoned with the famous red floral symbol, workers from the charity are offering an effective handy man service to its frail and disabled members.

This week, Ian Woodhead, a Warrant Officer who recently left the Royal Navy and just started work as Cornwall's "man with a van", was measuring up Mr Fagan's hallway so they could install flooring more suited to the mechanised wheelchair the legion has provided to cope with Falmouth's hilly terrain.

"It has five speeds and lights. It was like having my legs back again. My shoulder muscles had been ripped using the other wheelchair. I was over the moon. I couldn't believe it," said Mr Fagan.

He continued: "I was embarrassed. I felt I was not entitled to it. I didn't want to ask. I couldn't understand the generosity. I think all ex forces are proud men who don't want to ask for help."

After 12 years in the army, Mr Fagan had resigned by the time of the crash that left him terribly injured and killed his wife Kornelia, 36. But he is acutely aware how many younger men, injured in the current conflicts, are now going to have to rely on the RBL.

"With Iraq and Afghanistan, it is going to be young men who are now needing help. The government is just not helping them. It is being done by the legion," he said.

In many case the RBL is plugging a gap where councils are refusing to help. Down the road in Bude, Mr Woodhead spent several hours this week building a hand rail for World War II veteran Francis Barrett, a frail widower two months short of his 90th birthday who spent six months of the war imprisoned in North Africa.

The great grandfather, who lost his wife nine years ago, was forced to move to the smaller housing after smashing his hip in a fall a few years later. Yet repeated requests to the council for a handrail to help him negotiate the slope up from his front doorstep fell on deaf ears.

This week, as Mr Woodhead packed away his tools Mr Barrett inched his way slowly up the path, clutching the new rail admiringly. "First class," he said quietly. "It will make a lot of difference. When it is icy I have an awful job getting out because the path is so slippery."

Mr Woodhead, 52, explained that no task was too menial and it provided a perfect opportunity to check for any other hazards in the home - such as smoke alarms with flat batteries - while providing a bit of company.

He explained: "Some of these people can go days without talking to someone. All they want to do is fill you with tea and cake and talk to you about their time in the military."