The £150m helpers of heroes

One of the most poignant images of last week was the CCTV picture of Drummer Lee Rigby, sauntering along a platform at Woolwich Arsenal station, southeast London, wearing a navy blue Help for Heroes sweatshirt, a backpack slung over one shoulder.

Within 15 minutes, the 25-year-old father was dead, brutally killed on a street outside his barracks. The previously unseen images were shown during the trial of his alleged murderers at the Old Bailey.

Within days of Rigby’s death in May, the charity emblazoned on his hoodie was inundated with donations. “People saw the news and they felt so powerless,” said Emma Parry, who set up the charity with her husband, Bryn, in 2007. “But they realised there was something they could do. It was extraordinary to know that out of something so horrific, there could be such an upswell of goodness.”

For legal reasons, the Parrys cannot talk about the trial of the two men accused of murdering Rigby. “But we are working closely with Lee’s regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers,” said Bryn. “And we are supporting his dependants.”

These two artists from Wiltshire — Bryn a former soldier — had run a small business for two decades, producing cartoons for tea towels and greetings cards. But their lives started to change in 2007 when Bryn was invited to join a bicycle ride to raise money for cancer research.

His journey took him past First World War battlefields in northern France and he had the idea of doing another ride, with Emma and others, to raise money for injured servicemen. After all, he had been a serviceman himself, in the infantry with the Royal Green Jackets, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. “The idea was to link the soldiers of the past with the soldiers of today,” Bryn said.

He wrote a proposal, and soon the couple found themselves in a meeting with General Richard Dannatt, then head of the British Army. “We asked, if we raise half a million quid, would that help?”

It was ambitious, but the Parrys’ plan at that stage was limited. “I would take off maybe two days a week for six months,” Bryn told me, “and then go back to normal.”

When they visited Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham and met injured soldiers who had returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, they raised their ambitions.

“I had never seen people like this before,” said Emma. “Sitting on the bed with their stumps visible. And the shrapnel wounds! We met somebody completely covered, with a kind of giraffe pattern. And there was a guy with his jaw wired up and his mother feeding him. It really shocked me. These images are really tough.” It was a struggle, she said, to stop herself crying in front of them.

At one point the person showing them around turned to one injured man and said: “This is Bryn and Emma. They’re going to help you.”

“And we thought, gosh, us?” said Bryn. “Are we ready to do that?”

On the way home, the couple stopped at Chieveley service station on the M4. “We somehow knew this was not a game,” said Bryn. “It was not about us being Mr and Mrs Bountiful. It was a mission. We thought, we’ve really got to do something.”

Like all beginners, they were a bit naive. “We planned to raise the money and give it to the head of the army. It turns out it’s a tad more complicated than that,” he said.

Dannatt had told them that the recovering servicemen would benefit from a swimming pool for cardiovascular exercise because they then had to be driven to a public pool. A pool of their own, available all hours, would be much better — and would give them more privacy.

The Parrys made it their mission to fund a new pool — and assumed they would do that through an established charity. “We went to see some [charities],” said Emma, “and they were very supportive, but this was a capital project, and they couldn’t do it. It seemed like everybody wanted to do something, but nobody was doing it.”

So they set up a charity of their own, invited people to the launch — and then everything went crazy. Their tiny office was overwhelmed with telephone calls from television and radio stations. “It was pandemonium. Our feet never touched the ground. The great British public heard the call to action and it never stopped.” The charity has so far raised more than £150m.

When Help for Heroes was set up, the Parrys’ son Tom was at university. But after graduating he joined the army and went to serve in Afghanistan. “From then on, this also became personal,” said Bryn. “We were running the charity and getting calls from Tom, literally on the front line. He might say, ‘Sorry, Dad. I’d better go,’ and the call ends, and you don’t hear from him for 24 hours and you hear on the news that somebody’s been killed.

“What these young people are facing is beyond anybody’s ken. You watch a film like Zulu — well, that is happening right now, while we are talking. One man told us he was fighting for 56 days, all day and every day. Being attacked again and again by the Taliban with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades].”

“It really hit home when we visited somebody in hospital who had been at Tom’s 21st birthday,” said Emma. “He lost his leg, and the use of his arm. And when Tom came with us for a short break in Cornwall, he had to leave to go to a funeral.”

“Now, we can look in the eye,” said Bryn, “because when Tom’s telephone cuts out we know what they’re going through.”

“A lot of our fundraisers have a child in the forces,” said Emma. “They write to me about the fears. And at least we can say truthfully that if the worst should happen we are doing something about it. I told somebody that and a few months later she got back in touch and said, ‘My son is now a triple amputee. He has benefited from the pool. So things are better than they were.’ ”

Since 2001, more than 10,000 servicemen have been admitted to field hospitals. And at least 2,000 from Afghanistan have sustained serious injuries. In partnership with the Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes has co-funded recovery centres in Tidworth in Wiltshire, Catterick in North Yorkshire, Plymouth, Colchester and Edinburgh that support key parts of rehabilitation. The Tidworth centre was opened in May by the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, two days before Rigby’s death in Woolwich.

One of the beneficiaries is Craig Preece, whose legs were badly injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Four men died, another was paralysed from the waist down. Preece spent a year struggling with his right leg before deciding to have it amputated.

“I talked to my wife and we wrote down all the positives and negatives,” he said. “I had a part of me that couldn’t work any more. I didn’t want it any more. When you are at Headley Court [the defence medical rehabilitation centre], you see lads who have lost a leg, and in six weeks they are up and about on their prosthetics — it’s amazing.

“There was a day I went to the top of Box Hill and I saw an amputee cycling, flying up and down the hill, while I was cycling very slowly, in absolute agony. I knew then that I wanted it off.”

Help for Heroes was there for him from the beginning. “You get the little things like boxer shorts and shaving kits,” said Preece. “Things you might take for granted until you can’t get them. They sort that out. Later I had to get my car adapted, with a left-foot accelerator. The care has been first rate. Help for Heroes has given me my life back.”

With his carbon-fibre prosthesis, Preece carried the Olympic torch and soon after tackled the Trois Etapes in the French Alps on his bike, and did the swimming and cycling stages of an Ironman event.

“Some of the guys will go on to be Paralympians, others will just enjoy the physical activity,” said Bryn. “We offer 300 different sports, very early on, to get the adrenaline going, and the wind on your face again. It gets the guys off the metaphorical sofa, and they start to do something with their lives.”

Earlier this year, the charity unveiled a moving ski slope at Tedworth House, just outside Tidworth, close to the Help for Heroes headquarters. In effect a 50ft moving treadmill on a slope, it replicates as close as is possible, the feeling of skiing down a gentle slope.

“Sport is a key part of the recovery process for our wounded; it enables an individual to focus on what they can achieve rather than what they can’t,” said Bryn.

The bravery and stoicism of the soldiers can be humbling. On a 400-mile bike ride, one of Bryn’s friends pulled up beside a double amputee on his hand bike and asked, “How are you getting on?” He was dumbfounded when the former soldier said, “I was just thinking how lucky we are.”

It is not only physical wounds that need to heal. Far more servicemen experience mental torments. The Parrys’ daughter Louisa came up with the idea of Help for Heroes wristbands. Whenever Bryn sees somebody wearing one he says hello.

He was standing at Salisbury railway station when he saw a sergeant in the Royal Welsh wearing one. They struck up a conversation in which Bryn truly came to understand the importance of helping young veterans who turn to alcohol — and worse.

“Every single person we have needs to see a counsellor,” said Bryn. “Not because they have seen anything especially horrific, like a mass grave. They just find it difficult to cope.” Servicemen may have come from broken homes, may have taken drugs, and for the first time in their life may feel they have a purpose — until something traumatic happens.

Help for Heroes works with other charities to cover such areas. When the Parrys first visited one counterpart, the veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress, Bryn recognised among its clients somebody he had known in the army in the late 1970s. “It was this sergeant major, making a bird table. I realised that he could only get through life with help from Combat Stress. That’s when it hit me that this is a lifetime problem.”

What worries the Parrys is how to keep public support going when the injured servicemen are older. “Those who have been affected in the line of duty may be young now but they will grow old and will need our support long after the wars are over.”

People sometimes tell Bryn he gets too emotional. “But what is wrong with being emotional? That’s why we started the charity,” he said.

“We get constant reminders from the blokes,” said Emma, “about how urgent this is. They can never get what they need quickly enough.”

“The reaction from the British public after Lee Rigby’s death showed that support for the wounded and sick is there but that people need a reminder,” said Bryn.

“It was a blip in a downward trend. People are starting to talk about the ‘end’ of the war — and we’ve got the centenary of the beginning of the First World War coming up next year too. Raising money is going to be more difficult because the horror of the war — the coffins coming back — will end. But for many former servicemen the battle is just beginning.”

1979 words. First published 8 December 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.