Harnessing the healing powers of the sea to help military personnel

Once you have worked in the charity sector, you may never want to leave.  As clichéd as it may sound, it really is true that your work feels more worthwhile when you know that it is making a difference to someone, somewhere.  I spent several years working as the PR Manager of Kidney Research UK and remember being surprised in my early days as to how much of the funding for scientific advances comes from the charity sector.  And how invaluable therefore the public’s donations really are!  Being the PR manager of a UK charity was never going to work logistically from an Air Force base in Cyprus, but luckily I was able to continue using my PR expertise by working for a local events committee.  We also lucked out with our house as we had the nicest neighbours, who I had the utmost respect and admiration for.  Not because they threw lots of fun dinner parties -which they did! – but because they endured so much: Shaun, the husband and dad, had to go on frequent operations due to his role as a casualty nurse.  Shaun’s experiences led him to set up a most-inspiring charity: here’s his story:

As Officer Commanding the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), Shaun and his team brought emergency care over the skies of Afghanistan, via the Chinook helicopter, to retrieve the casualties on the battlefield. Clearly the nature of the job often meant that the MERT team would also have been under fire as they set out to save people’s lives.   What Shaun and his team must have seen and felt is unfathomable and this was surely compounded for all the families by being separated for long and frequent periods of time.

Shaun increasingly found the transition on returning home challenging but, after completing a Royal Yachting Association Yachtsmaster Offshore course during his resettlement, he realised that the effect of the sea was hugely beneficial: “I felt in a better place: it markedly improved my interaction with others; delivering a new sense of purpose, value and belonging.”  Shaun decided to turn his harrowing experiences into an opportunity for other Armed Forces personnel and their families, by setting up the Turn to Starboard charity, which uses RYA sailing courses to support Armed Forces personnel – serving and retired – that have been affected by military operations.

Spirit of Falmouth

Spirit of Falmouth

In sailing terms when two boats are heading towards each other, the action of both of them turning to starboard [turning to the right] avoids a potential collision.  And this is how Shaun came up with the charity’s name: “We use sailing to help Service Personnel and their families make the right turn.  Sailing is known to provide elements conducive to the ethos of the Armed Forces; including team cohesion, the challenge of adventurous training and leadership skills.  We are a group of Yachtmasters and volunteers; civilian, ex-service and serving and most of us have experienced  the challenge posed upon transitioning from hostile conditions during military operations, to returning to normal life.  It can be hard to share and discuss our experiences; even with loved ones. But by grouping these individuals together, we provide them with an opportunity to share their experiences and begin their journey of re-adjustment. Our focus is on re-integration and re-engagement whilst providing something tangible in the form of an internationally-recognisable qualification, in a supportive and unique environment.”

The sea, a soothing and powerful force of nature, has long been thought to provide a welcome relief from stress, anxiety and tension and these testimonials say it all:

Aaron, aged 10: “My daddy came back from Afghanistan, but when we went sailing he really came back.” 

Ben: “I was injured in 2012… I have not had anybody to talk to properly and I have never been able to speak to anyone with post traumatic stress disorder, so it’s been a very lonely and extremely isolated journey for me.  Going on Turn to Starboard, without a doubt, turned my life around.  I have been able to talk openly for the first time…the week sailing was the first time since tour that I have been able to be me and feel like I belong somewhere and fit in as part of the team…I intend to continue sailing as much as possible and get my family involved.”  


Tall Ships Regatta, 2014

Paul: “The week on the yacht was amazing, for the first time since 2006 I haven’t had to apologise for not being able to keep up, or take part…I felt part of a team and that I had the ability to contribute..it was the first time in eight years that I have slept well..I felt safe in the presence of like-minded people..I felt excited, exhilaration, I felt like I used to feel…I could hear the noise of the sea and the sound of the water…I felt free, I felt alive.”



‘Dear diary, daddy’s home!!!I love him so much.’ Deployment from a child’s view

Dear diary

It feels like I don’t have a daddy.

This heart-wrenching statement, during my husband’s recent deployment, stopped me in my tracks as it dawned upon me how the separation of a few weeks can seem like a lifetime for a child.   Weeks of missing her dad, the ever-present niggling fear of him not coming  home and seeing her friend’s dads everywhere: parents evenings, school drop offs and pick ups, in town on a Saturday, down the park on a Sunday.  Dads; everywhere, except in her arms.

For a child living off-base, whose own friends don’t live this lifestyle, this can seem a very lonely and unjust existence:

It’s not fair: he missed my birthday this year and last year… My friend’s dads come to school pick  up and know who the teachers are… My friend’s dads are at their birthday parties.

My youngest child couldn’t comprehend the timescale and was constantly asking how many more sleeps.  Ever-hopeful:

Two sleeps?  Four sleeps mummy?

Trying not to dash hopes:

No, sweetheart just 98 to go.  How many is that mummy?  Not many more sweetheart, it’ll fly by.

The experiences during and after deployment are starkly different pre-children to during children.  Pre-children I recall feeling lonely and bored:  coming home after work to a silent house.  The ennui of cooking-for-one leading to small, simple meals until the evidence shows in your increasingly-gaunt face.  Watching the news obsessively to find out what is happening in a particular hotspot.

Bored and silent are two adjectives I would never use to describe deployment with children.  Quite simply, there is no time to be bored. Taking on two peoples roles, the adult at home doesn’t pause from dawn until the children are tucked into bed.  Exhaustion is your new adjective, as you take on every task: in the house, with the cars, with the children and keeping abreast of the school diary.  As you try to fill your own diary with events and day trips; to keep little minds occupied and to stave off any looming boredom.   And your own worry has to be contained to maintain a calm and strong presence for the children.

Yet children, for all their fears and insecurities, are amazingly resilient and the countdown calendar, they still won’t let me throw away, reminds me of this.  Although the first few weeks looked spectacularly measly: when fewer weeks had been crossed off than they had to go, in no time at all they developed a sense of achievement as they reached halfway and the end – the homecoming – was in sight.

But could the last week or two be any longer for a child?  How can such a short space of time, in comparison to what they have just done, turn into agonizingly drawn-out days?

Emotions run high:  anticipation, as family roles have changed and new routines have formed;  anxiety, will we all feel the same?  On edge; fearful there will be a delay, dashing their little hopes.

But then the day dawns.  And that beautiful moment in time is forever etched in my memory: two little children, both so vulnerable yet so very strong, in their daddy’s arms, holding on tight.  Tears of joy, sheer elation, happiness, relief and comfort shared by each of them.

The after-effects of deployment.

Experiencing the emotional cycle of deploymentWe have all seen the heart-warming pictures: husband returns home from many months away to an emotional and joyful family reunion.  And it is emotional and joyful: months of worry and unrelenting responsibility are eclipsed by anticipation, excitement, relief and sheer, complete joy! But take a moment to imagine the what-happens-after pictures:  the wife, with her freshly-gained independence,  tediously picking up clothes and coffee mugs after her husband; or maybe the wife appreciating and yet taken aback by the fact that after months of being the sole person in charge, she is suddenly superfluous to requirements as the children can’t get enough of daddy; or poignantly, the children who panic every time daddy goes away for a short period of time; ever suspicious and fearful of another 100+ sleeps without cuddling him.

Despite my husband having returned from a four-month tour, three months ago, I still find myself adjusting to his homecoming and recently wondered why I feel a sense of comfort when he goes away for the week.

Am I unusually cold, or is this a normal part of adjusting to deployment?

The answer hit me: I have become so used to doing everything alone, that it has become my normality.  When he is here, my routine is disrupted and when he is away I go back to my normal!  Notice all the I’s and my’s: clearly another effect of enforced separation!

Of course, we all experience things differently and the reason it might be taking me a while to adjust to the homecoming may be because when he was posted a year ago, we decided to not relocate as a family so that we could keep the children in the school they are happy in.  The downside: in the past year, we have only been together at weekends and then not at all for four months.

Are my current feelings here to stay: a permanent effect of so much time alone, or is this just a transition period?

Seeking answers, I sought out a copy of  the emotional cycle of deployment and was relieved to discover that my feelings are apparently normal: I am currently somewhere between stages six and seven.  I was also thrilled to discover this embellished version by Stacy, who resides over the big pond and writes The Flibbertigibbet blog:

Now, looking back, I feel so positive about the recent deployment and time apart.  It fundamentally changes you: you do things that you might have previously left for your husband,  you become more confident by having to do everything in the house and with the cars, you manage your children’s deployment-enduced fragile emotions and constant school commitments and significantly, you feel empowered by the new tasks you take on and the things you learn.   But it takes time, a lot of time, to adjust to your new role and the first few weeks were tough; emotionally and physically:

He’s going away for four months; how can I possibly explain more than 120 sleeps to the children? 

Put it to the back of my mind: don’t think about it, it’s not for a while.

Time to start planning; endless lists of things to learn:how to maintain the cars, how to mend fuses, check out the operations of the water tank, how to contact him in the event of an emergency… and lists on how to occupy the weeks ahead: places to go and people to visit.

It’s getting closer, but I feel strong!  I’ve done this before, many times! I refuse to allow it to get me down this time; or am I deluding myself?

It’s really close; I withdraw from him, I can’t hold him and I don’t want to talk about the time apart: I don’t know why – maybe some basic preservation instinct – but I find myself secretly reading the notes about his accommodation, what he can expect out there…

The day has arrived: it drags.   Just go, get it over and done with!  Daughter, who can understand the timescale, cries herself to sleep.  Tiny son, not really comprehending but still tearful.  The last hour is heart-wrenching, endless and then in the last five minutes, the transport calls to say they have been delayed by an hour.  No, no no, no, no!!!!! The last, last hour is sheer pain: tearful, holding, empty, can’t let go:knowing it will be so long, if ever…

And then the door closes: silence, a sense of utter despair and loneliness descending with the comprehension of the long, lonely nights ahead.  Not knowing when the first contact will be, or how often; but know it will be better than the eblueys-only of a few years ago.   

Routine, routine, routine is the key.  As is supportive friends, time to myself and keeping busy.  Weeks pass, slowly but surely.  Feelings constantly change:

Feeling strong, I really can do this!  

Feeling fed up: its been so long.   Everywhere I look I see children with their dads; on the school run, at the park, at parents evening, in the shops.  

Feeling tired…so very, very tired…need a break, need some help with the chores, with the children.  

Hang on in, just a couple of weeks to go…Feeling excited, relieved, apprehensive… 

You only realise how strong you are, when there is no other choice.