Para’s latest challenge is celebration of success

“I was 10 years old and the Falklands War was on – it was in the papers every day, reports about the Marines and the Parachute Regiment, and I thought ‘That’s what I want to do when I get older’.
And that’s exactly what Barry did. It was his dream job –  but as time passed things started to go wrong and after leaving the Regiment he embarked on a journey of self-destruction that lasted for decades.
Now 45, upbeat and confident, he’s poised to start work at the charity Veterans Aid where he arrived as a client, worked as a volunteer and is soon to become a member of staff. His journey has been a tempestuous one, punctuated by family revelations, failed relationships and tragedy.
Soon after leaving the Parachute Regiment in 1992 his baby son became a victim of cot death. The years that followed describe a see-saw relationship with work, prison – where he was introduced to drugs – and homelessness.
Now he’s happy, healthy and enjoying life in a home of his own. He’s also undertaking a challenge to help raise funds for the charity that helped transform his life.

When Barry arrived at Veterans Aid in January 2017 he had been sleeping in winter shelters in his home town of Cambridge. He was seriously unwell and addicted to heroin. It had all gone badly wrong for the boy whose dream was ‘to jump out of planes’.

He recalls his early days of military service with enthusiasm, “We had six months training to build us up. I did P Company in week 19 – it was very hard, but it was a real achievement, being part of an airborne brotherhood. Very few people get through the training. Of the 83 who went through with me originally, only 14 passed first time. You get a lot of injures and people drop out, but it’s a very close-knit brotherhood of men who all want the same things. Also in the paras you’re continually training, I did lots of brilliant courses and I specialised in demolitions.”

For three years his unit was his family. It was a time of bonding and camaraderie, adrenaline and adventure – but it featured some stressful deployments to Northern Ireland and a singular controversial incident, the fallout of which devastated his unit’s morale. Like many of his mates Barry felt betrayed afterwards and decided to leave.

For a man who had planned to stay in the paras ‘forever’ the sudden switch to civilian life was difficult and within weeks of coming out he had committed a crime and been sent to prison. “I was convicted for armed robbery. I didn’t know what I wanted to do – I had this militant head on and I was just a really angry young man. Straight into that five-year sentence, my son died.”

That was the day 20-year-old Barry was offered heroin, by a fellow prisoner.

“I spent the next 20-odd years trying to get off it,” he recalls.

Barry’s issues were legion; disillusioned about how his comrades had been treated, bereaved, saddled with a criminal record and the memory of finding out, at 15, that he was adopted, he felt very alone.

“I did work, I got into flat roofing with a couple of military mates who were also doing it. I did that  for about 12  years, starting as a labourer then progressing to supervisor, then contracts manager. But I’ve always had these demons that I’ve never dealt with and whatever job I’ve had, I’ve always ended up losing it.  Then it got to the point where my physical health was so bad – that was Christmas 2016. I was admitted to hospital with bilateral pulmonary embolism. I had blood clots on both lungs through injecting, I was given about four weeks left to live if I didn’t stop taking drugs, I was homeless in Cambridge. . . . then somebody found me.”

Fortunately the ‘somebody’ was an ex-para whose mate worked at the Regimental Association. “He phoned them, they phoned SSAFA. The next day SSAFA came out and put me straight onto a train to Victoria . . . and Veterans Aid.

“I was absolutely in bits. I’d been on heroin, crack, steroids – whatever I took, I took in excess. It was always about changing the way I felt. I just couldn’t sit with myself. I’d reached the point where I needed someone to take over my life. That was Veterans Aid. They put me in a hotel until I was ready to go into detox.”

At this point Barry met another VA client who had already walked the path he was embarking on. It helped and the men are still friends.

The detox and rehab process took months, during which VA’s Head of Addiction Services maintained regular contact. “If ever I needed help I would contact Phil – and he’s still the first person I would go to,” reflects Barry.

Over the months that slowly reintegrated him into society Barry took courses, all funded by VA, including one in Counselling. “That might seem odd but even if you don’t want to go into that field you learn so much about yourself. Then I started volunteering here (at VA) and I love it.”

Eight years ago Barry married and although now separated he has a “great relationship” with his wife. “All she wants is for me to get better . . . looking back I thought she could fix me, but it was only when I got past the drink and the drugs that I could see it for what it was. But now I’ve been honest with her and she is still really supportive.”

Barry has other children with whom he’s trying to build bridges, but he’s treading carefully. “I know I need to sort myself out before I can be a decent dad.

“I’ve moved into my own flat now – which Veterans Aid furnished. It’s lovely. I’ve got the Grand Union Canal outside my window . . . my carpets arrived this week and I have never been so excited. It’s unbelievable, I’ve never had, like, my own place. It’s mad! I’m excited about paying bills! And it’s all due to Veterans Aid!”

Looking back on his 20-year journey of destruction Barry shakes his head. “It was horrendous. It seemed like there was no way out of it. I felt trapped. I felt suicidal at times, but I didn’t have the balls to go through with it. You’re in hell, but you don’t know how to get out of it.”

“Now, I feel like the world is my oyster. I feel I can do anything.”

THE GREAT OUTDOORS CHALLENGE – FOR VETERANS AID

*What he is doing, as a celebration of his success and to raise funds for Veterans Aid, is The Great Outdoors Challenge – a unique and very special Scottish institution.

Since 1980 thousands of people have taken up the opportunity to backpack from Scotland’s west coast to the east as part of this annual event – each following their own carefully crafted route.

The 2018 event takes place 11th – 26th May

Barry has done it before, but drawing on his military experience and restored health, he plans to tackle it again, with renewed energy.

“I trained a lot last time. It’s one of those memorable experiences – every day is hard – your back hurts, your knees hurt but here is just something special about being out there.

“You carry all your own gear. My pack was about 13 kilos, which isn’t a lot compared to what we had in the military, but when you’re up and down – I climbed 29,000ft in 12 days last time – it’s a BIG hike! I covered 204 miles.”

The TGO Challenge is about experiencing the remote parts of Scotland that can only be reached by foot.  Wild camping is a large part of the experience.

“It has to be done in a two-week window,” says Barry. ‘’You have to sign out and then put your boots on the North Sea coast on the other side.”

All 2018 routes to be submitted for approval by February 26th. Barry says, ‘’I like challenging myself – I always have done, but this is for Veterans Aid,  so the route I’ve planned will be a hard one.

Barry’s proposed route starts at Sheil Bridge at the tip of Loch Duich.

‘’Why am I doing it? If it wasn’t for Veterans Aid I would have been dead by now – it’s as simple as that. My physical and mental health was done. Veterans Aid has invested thousands of pounds in me  – on treatment, college, furnishing my flat . . .  now I want to give something back. If I can raise some money through this it will be a start.’’

You can support Barry via his JUST GIVING site by clicking HERE.

This is the audio link to Barry’s BFBS radio interview where he joined Hal Stewart and Jay James to talk about his Great Outdoors Challenge: