A SOLDIER from Belfast who lost both legs and his eyesight in an explosion in Afghanistan is leading a campaign for better services for veterans in Northern Ireland.
Andy Allen spent several months recovering in hospital from horrific injuries he sustained in the blast in the Helmand Province in July 2008.
Four years on Andy, who is continuing on his painstaking road to recovery, says former services personnel across the Province are not receiving the level of support available in other parts of the UK.
Despite his ongoing treatments, Andy has set up a dedicated charity, AA Veterans Support NI, to help all veterans – not just those injured in action.
His aim is to have a dedicated state-of-the-art building that will offer treatment, services and advice.
“At the moment I am carrying out a major survey of former soldiers and those who served in the defence services,” said Andy.
“And every single person I have spoken to says they want to see better services and a centre where they can seek help.
“For far too long this issue has been bypassed. As part my research I am benchmarking what services are available here in Northern Ireland compared with other parts of the UK.”
Andy recently travelled over to England where he completed a training course in picture-framing.
He said: “This is just one example of where you have to travel over to England to get help. Why can’t something like this be available in Northern Ireland?
“For far too long, all these services have bypassed us in Northern Ireland.
“It is well known that Northern Ireland provides a huge percentage of British forces compared with other regions in the UK, but yet we are forced to travel over there to get help.”
On Thursday, Andy – now 22 and a father to Chloe and Carter – was discharged from the Royal Irish Regiment, where he served in the 1st Battalion.
“These are harsh economic times for young men like myself coming out of the Army, especially with all the redundancies to the Army which the Government has brought in,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there are very few other jobs out there, and it is so important to get the right training so that they can at least apply for jobs. But again, this training can be very hard to find and may involve going over to the mainland.
“If we had a centre here in Northern Ireland, we could offer the right advice and maybe provide the training under the one roof. It would also be a good place for ex-servicemen and women to meet up and share experiences.”
Post-traumatic stress [PTS] is another major hurdle which Andy says is affecting many former comrades.
“More and more and soldiers who have served in Afghanistan are starting to suffer from PTS,” he said. “It is a huge problem for a large number of young men who spent time over there.
“When you have injuries like I have, yes you get well looked after by the medical staff and that is great, but when someone is suffering from the psychological effects of war, they are not sure what is happening or who to turn to for help.
“The problem with PTS is that it can kick in when a soldier has left the Army and they are left to feel isolated.”
Andy believes his ambitious plan for a veterans’ centre in Northern Ireland can be realised within five years.
“Once we have all the details of the survey and what services are needed, we will decide on where the centre should be located so that everyone can access it,” he said.
“We could be looking at a cost of several million pounds. We want to see a new state-of-the art building which will serve all these needs which we are identifying. We met politicians and some have been brilliant, and we will continue to put pressure on the rest of them.
“I am not the sort of person to take no for an answer.”
If you would like to seek advice or help Andy’s campaign visit www.aavsni.com