Ulster soldier battles back from traumatic Afghan experiences

Nicole Cunningham, 26, from Belfast, at the Battle Back centre in Telford
Nicole Cunningham, 26, from Belfast, at the Battle Back centre in Telford

An Ulster service woman has told how the MoD’s Battle Back Centre – which helps wounded, injured and sick military personnel rebuild their lives – has helped her get back on track after two difficult tours of Afghanistan.

For Corporal Nicole Cunningham, the Battle Back programme, based at the National Sports Centre in Lilleshall, near Telford, England, helped her rebuild the confidence she lost through suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cpl Cunningham, who served as a combat medical technician in the Royal Army Medical Corps, said nothing could have prepared her for the experiences during two tours in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2011/12.

The 26-year-old, from Belfast, will leave the Army in September to pursue a career teaching first aid and health and safety, but PTSD left her lacking any confidence.

She said: “It’s just totally changed me. I used to be quite a confident, outgoing person. I didn’t have any problems going anywhere, doing anything, whereas now I like to keep myself to myself.

“I don’t like big crowds, public transport. I can’t do any of that any more, just because of the anxiety and depression that comes with PTSD.”

She said her first tour of Afghanistan, in the notoriously dangerous area of Sangin, was difficult, but she had “cracked on”, only to face more tough experiences in her second tour.

“Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw and dealt with out there,” she said. “Regardless of how much training and preparation you do, you’re never going to be prepared for the sights and scenes, especially when it comes to the locals and the children.”

But she saw a noticeable change in just a few days on a multi-activity course at the Battle Back Centre.

“I just didn’t want to do anything and talk to anybody,” she said on her fourth day on the course, “whereas now I’m buzzing. It’s actually brought the old Nicole out. Playing sports, being competitive – that’s the type of person I am.

“Often, because you have a mental health disorder, people don’t see it and they don’t think it exists.

“Here, nobody questions you, why you’re here, what you’re doing, and why you’re not doing certain things. It’s just ‘You’re here for a reason, we’ll work around that’.”

Funded by Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion, the MoD’s Battle Back Centre provides day courses or week-long residential multi-activity courses helping people through activities like climbing, watersports, wheelchair basketball and archery, as well as personal development coaching.

The centre’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Thomas, said the courses give servicemen and women the confidence to face up to the changes in their lives.

Many servicemen and women hoping to take part in the Invictus Games this September will have been through the Battle Back Centre as part of their recovery, he said.

The games, launched by Prince Harry, are a Paralympic-style sporting championship for injured servicemen and women to be staged at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in east London, built for the 2012 Olympics.