As part of Pathfinder’s “Most Influential People In The Military Community 2019” list, Pathfinder International Editor Mal Robinson spoke to a Community Interest Company in Sunderland that has high ambitions to expand their successful business model across the UK in a bid to help Veterans first hand with founder Ger Fowler making the 2019 list.

There are many forms someone can be influential in life. The same applies to the military community as we have seen throughout the first part of Pathfinder’s most influential list.

For some on the list it is the command of a service, others include Member of Parliament and those of celebrity status and in a position to influence. Charity CEO’s also feature, many overseeing large complex organisations all bidding to help forces personnel.

For Ger Fowler, who runs Veterans In Crisis Sunderland (VICS), being influential is all about being hands on for former military personnel and making a difference face to face, case by case. Ger’s frontline approach has seen his Community Interest Company spark from strength to strength, so much so, the former soldier is planning a long term approach to roll out his business model nationally, yet with a view to retaining its local community values.

“I joined the Army in 1986 as a 16-year old, joining The Light Infantry, doing my training in Winchester, then off to Omagh, Northern Ireland as a 17-year old. I shouldn’t have really been sent there as I was too young but I didn’t want to say anything, but as soon as the hierarchy found out, I was sent to Germany for a while” laughs Ger when telling me of his forces background.

“After Germany, and when I was 17 and a half, I joined the under 18 Platoon back in Omagh which meant I couldn’t go outside camp on patrols but I could at least stay on camp. We were there until January 1989 and returned to Germany and a stint in Berlin. To be in Berlin sounded great but in all honesty coming after Ireland it was a bit of comedown. To have done a job you had really believed in to going to Berlin and just polishing your boots, it just wasn’t for me. After that I decided to leave in 1991” Ger continues.

Our conversation moves onto why and how he formed VICS.

“When I was in Ireland I was involved in an attack that killed eight people and I went through life after that drinking and taking drugs, basically what I thought was having a good time. Unfortunately a friend who I was in the Army with, he killed himself and that sent me into depression, which saw me visit the doctors and psychiatrists who diagnosed me with suffering from PTSD, the aftermath of the attack in Ireland.

It had been untreated and had never been spoken about. In that time, I was in and out of jobs; basically I was in a mess. Bizarrely on top of this, I was attacked by a pack of dogs, which left me with bad physical injuries, after this I ended up taking a massive amount of painkillers, which made the depression worse. To cut a long story short, I realised I needed to pull myself around and I ended up attending some courses whilst I was off work, courses on how to become a counsellor and a lot of mental health stuff.

It was also at this time, I was at my parents’ house when my dad passed away. I tried doing CPR and it didn’t work and from that day on, I decided I was going to get a job that would help people because I couldn’t help him.

From the next day, I contacted a homeless charity in Sunderland and I started volunteering for them, where I paid my own wages for the first 10 months, until I got a job with them, but in that time period, I noticed there was a lot of veterans in private hostels where I was working, who weren’t getting any help. Everyone thinks you can phone and get in touch with the likes of the British Legion, but if you haven’t got a phone or the internet, or if you haven’t got the confidence to go to them you won’t go or get in touch, so I started VICS alongside my charity job at the time. The charity job wasn’t for me and so I went alone with VICS. I was lucky enough to get backing from the likes of Sunderland council. What was also great and helped was the fact I have a full time job as a research assistant with Northumbria University’s Veterans Hub working with veterans with alcohol and mental health problems so that pays my wages, which means I don’t take any money from VICS and we can build VICS up.

The Philosophy is that I would never ever take any money that has been donated to VICS which is a Community Interest Company (CIC).”

VICS has been going as a charity for six years, but transferred into its current guise of a CIC in January 2018 and since the new format of the company has exploded mainly through the help of social media as Ger explains.

“I had never been on social media before and it was a friend who suggested going online and he helped set up our Facebook page and it has gone from strength to strength with the support for the work we do, so much so I have Chris Batty as my full time volunteer now and with the amount of work we have on now, I simply wouldn’t be able to do it without Chris.”

Chris Batty another fellow former soldier is Ger Fowler’s right hand man when it comes to running VICS and Chris shares a similar story to tell.

“Like Ger, I joined the Light Infantry too, I joined in 1992 and done two tours of Northern Ireland, served in Cyprus, America, Jordan and the Middle East. I saw a lot of things whilst being in the army. On leaving the army I moved around a bit including staying in the Channel Islands and then getting into maritime security business and stayed in this sector for over ten years. Again, I saw a lot of things happen there and for a lot of years I’ve struggled. I have used drink as a coping strategy for something I didn’t have the answer to. For years and years, this has gone on. This time last year, everything started happening a little bit closer as opposed to months apart from what I now know as flashbacks.

I ended up in the care of the local crisis team and I actually asked them to section me for my own safety as I was a danger to myself and a danger to other people. I have known Ger for over thirty years and I met up with Ger as with me working away a lot we hadn’t seen much of each other. He told me about his groups he was working with and so I started going along to his groups and it has been brilliant because you are sitting talking to people who are like minded to you, they have the same issues, they have the same problems, perhaps different routes in getting those problems but in essence similar issues.

I knew I had to stop drinking and with the help of Ger I started getting help from other agencies including PTSD resolutions in County Durham and with Ger’s persuasion and help I referred myself to Combat Stress, which was quite a big step and after various stages, I managed to go away to Hollybush House for six weeks’ intensive therapy in Ayrshire. It was a beautiful place with amazing staff and I couldn’t have asked for anything better, every city should have one of those places I believe.

Whilst I was there I had a lot of time on my hands and I knew I would eventually need to go back to work and Ger suggested I do some courses and I chose to do mental health courses. I completed a Level 2 Mental Health Awareness course, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy course and also completed a Diploma in Psychology.

When you are suffering and in a dark place you find being a veteran, you find it hard to ask for and reach out for help. You also find it hard for someone who has never served in the military to sit with and hear them say “I understand this, I understand that” when they don’t.

With my experiences and this recently acquired knowledge behind me, I wanted to help people not to be in the same stage as I was in. When I came out of the clinic, Ger and I decided that when I was better, to come on board with a couple of days volunteering and this is where we are now.”

As we chat about what VICS have achieved in 12 months and what they plan to achieve, the conversation moves back to Ger.

“From January it has been massive. I started with a £10 pay as you go mobile in this office, now we are hoping in the future to have our own building with a 24 hour drop in service and maybe a couple of emergency beds, a podcast available online. We sell merchandise with the company logo on and people really like to show their support by wearing this. This helps pay for everything that we do. We are lucky that the people of Sunderland have taken to us so well. Now it is the people from around the world thanks to social media who are showing their support.

We take our clients on adventure training which is basically team building and also helps to stop social isolation. Exercise releases endorphins so we have a local gym that has given us lifetime memberships for local veterans, we have a walking club called Ramblers Anonymous, we also use dog therapy, so the veterans can take the dogs out and all be together. Anything that engages people we will look to use. You find with us all being in the military that exercise and being together is what you want. That dark military sense of humour of course always helps!

One of our clients has said that he hasn’t felt a part of anything since he left the army but now when he sees people wearing our t shirts and hoodies in support of us, he thinks that he’s part of this whole thing.

The idea was by introducing veterans to each other that they’d make friends and do their own thing outside of our events and this is happening. We hold meetings every Tuesday in the Gunners Club in Sunderland city centre, which is a great military club and very welcoming for people. You find people who come don’t just sit in one group they mingle around all of the tables and it’s great to see.

We all have a bond where you have similar experiences and once the ice is broken and you realise that you aren’t the only person to go through tough times it becomes easy to chat about problems in a group environment.”

We end our conversation with Chris providing an example of a recent case study, VICS have overseen.

“Around 13 weeks ago we were in the Gunners Club and a veteran came in who was sleeping rough and living in the park, all he had was the clothes he was in. He was stinking; he was in a bad way. He was alcohol dependant, he had been attacked, his ribs, his eyes, his cheek all sore. We took him on as a client there and then and on that day we got him into some accommodation to get a roof over his head.

Since then we have worked very hard with him, sometimes seeing him three times a day as I know what it’s like when you are in that isolated phase and you are desperate but you are trying to go forward, so it’s good to have that chat, that pat on the back from someone to help you keep going forwards.

Now he is no longer alcohol dependant, we have managed to sort out all of his medication, which he has been on for a long time, however the medication he had doesn’t work if you take alcohol. As a result, his medication is now working better, he’s getting a good sleep pattern, he is socialising a lot more, and we took him up to the Calvert Trust in Kielder. He was very nervous, but in typical squaddie fashion we got him to do an 8 metre high confidence course, which we all did, but he froze as soon as he got up there. We got him through that and as a result now, we use that to show he can overcome physical obstacles as well as mental ones and this has been a good benchmark for him.”

Ger hopes to expand the business model across the UK, maintaining that local angle throughout. “I am a big believer that you are always likely to help your own more and can also relate to them too. I am hoping this rings true when we look to go national VICS in years to come.”

Everyone at Pathfinder certainly wishes Ger and Chris all the best with fantastic work in the months and years to come, making a difference one by one.

To see the first part of the Most Influential People In The Military Community 2019 list please see: