Organisation wants to make veterans welcome throughout Northern Ireland

AAVS was set up in 2011AAVS was set up in 2011
AAVS was set up in 2011
GRAEME COUSINS finds out why a London-born veteran has made NI his home and wants to help other ex-military people in need

Dennis Currie first came to Northern Ireland in 1977 at the height of the Troubles.

Given his proximity to the conflict, remarkably the Londoner fell in love with the Province and its people and came to make east Belfast his home.

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He’s now involved with a charity set up by another east Belfast veteran, Andy Allen, the Ulster Unionist MLA who lost his legs and eyesight when serving with the Royal Irish Regiment in Afghanstan.

Dennis Currie is a fan of Ulster RugbyDennis Currie is a fan of Ulster Rugby
Dennis Currie is a fan of Ulster Rugby

After leaving the Army (relatively unscathed in his own words) following 44 years service, Dennis had been thinking of setting up a group to help veterans with their mental health through physical training.

What he has helped set up through AA Veterans Support is exactly that.

Dennis, 61, said: “I’m probably one of the fortunate ones. I’ve been in every conflict for the last 44 years but touch wood, I haven’t suffered mentally. I was in Iraq three times, Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland. Unfortunately I didn’t get to Afghanistan.”

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During his career transition partnership while leaving the Army Dennis saw a post advertised at AAVS.

Watersports activities have been lined up for veteransWatersports activities have been lined up for veterans
Watersports activities have been lined up for veterans

He said: “This job was ideal for me. It’s very similar to what I was going to do myself anyway.

“It would give me the expertise, the contact with veterans and also after 44 years I did want to give something back.

“It’s about going out meeting veterans, trying to get them into activities and sports for their mental health and wellbeing, including their families. It’s tri-service, no one is excluded.

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“The first year has gone well considering Covid has set everything back, but we’ve set quite a lot in place activity wise, sports club wise for when we are allowed.

Veterans taking part in a cycling activity in AntrimVeterans taking part in a cycling activity in Antrim
Veterans taking part in a cycling activity in Antrim

“The next part is getting these veterans and their families involved.”

AA Veterans Support was established in 2011 to provide help, advice and guidance to those who serve or have served in the British Armed Forces and their families throughout Northern Ireland.

It delivers many vital support services in its ‘drop-in and training centre’, which is situated just off the Crumlin Rd, Belfast. It also delivers outreach projects and welfare support to beneficiaries throughout Northern Ireland.

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The services provided by AAVS include counselling, respite, complementary therapies, employability support, support groups, benefits and housing advice and guidance, welfare assistance and more.

The organisation believe that service personnel, veterans and their families deserve lifelong support, therefore will endeavour to provide the necessary support services to enable those who serve or have served and their families to live an independent life.

Dennis said: “It was set up by Andy Allen when he got badly injured in Afghanistan. He lost both legs and his eyesight.

“He set it up because he found that it was so difficult to get the help he needed.

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“There wasn’t a lot of information about, there wasn’t a lot of help afterwards, so he decided to set it up for two reasons – one to help other soldiers so they wouldn’t have to go through what he went through, and two, to help him get over what he’d gone through.

“I think probably in the early years he used setting up the charity as a kind of therapy as well.”

Dennis said his aim with AAVS was to open up pathways of positivity for veterans to go down: “My job is to get them involved. I got in touch with every sports club or outdoor activity centre within Northern Ireland and asked them if they wanted to become forces friendly, and veterans friendly in particular.

“As you know, particularly in Northern Ireland, veterans are quite suspicious of other people for obvious reasons. To know they’re welcome is a big thing.”

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Fishing clubs and archery clubs have welcomed veterans and a new partnership has been initiated with the Irish Football Association.

Dennis has also managed to set up watersports activities for veterans through Lough Erne Yacht Club and a hub has been set up in Londonderry – offering a gym and drop in centre for all veterans.

In Banbridge veterans are welcome at an activity centre for canoeing, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, walking, camping.

He added: “We’ve got cycling clubs involved and photography with Belfast Exposed in Donegall Street.

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“Another big project that we’ve just got funding for is the veterans film club. That’s going to be starting in June, veterans will do a 12-week course in film making, editing, interview techniques.”

Another area that Dennis is exploring for veterans is the newly emerging sport of sledge hockey.

Dennis said: “There’s just so much activities that we’ve got lined up now that we’ve been given the go ahead to get veterans involved.

“It’s a massive project, the main aim is to bring all these organisations and charities together and try to work more coherently with each other, a bit of synergy, which is the hardest thing.

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“Everyone wants their own little pot of money, their own little project, it’s trying to get them all involved for the benefit of veterans and their families.”

Discussing the dark place veterans can find themselves in, Dennis said: “I’ve just got an organisation together in the last three months which is called Fusiliers vs Suicide. My battalion were Royal Regiment Fusiliers.

“We’re an organisation, we’re not a charity at the moment, but what we’ve done is recruit all over England. I’ve got five or six welfare teams who monitor social media for changes in attitude, then we send help to those people who may be feeling suicidal.

“A lot of what we’ve found when we do case studies on these people is that, yes, some of it is military-related, but what we find, especially in the infantry, it’s the background these people come from.

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“You get quite a lot of kids from horrific background who join the Army looking for a family. We find that a lot of the suicides, yes, they are related to what they’ve seen in conflict, but it’s also a mixture of when they’ve been through as children before they’ve joined the military.

“When you talk to a lot of psychiatrists and counsellors, veterans problems are usually quite complex because they’ve got that stuff from their childhood, their background before they joined the military, and then they’ve got that stuff that they’ve done whilst in the military.

“They’re not all forthcoming about what happened to them prior to the military. When you get it out of them you can see that the adverse affect that being in the military has brought on once they’ve experienced something traumatic within their service.”

He said that being in the military was like being part of a family: “I’ve got a really good stable family background, I’ve got a massive civilian friend base but when I left last year in April, after 44 years of my life in the Army, I felt lost.

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“I can only begin to imagine what these guys who haven’t had the background I have go through. They joined the Army with nothing, they’re leaving with nothing, you can imagine the effect it does have on them mentally, when their mates, their support group is all gone.

“Soldiers are used to a structured life. When they’re left to their own devices, they can’t get a job, some of them can’t even get accommodation, that just leads them down that path to self destruction.”

Small percentage of population caused conflict

Dennis is originally from London but has made east Belfast his home since he came to Northern Ireland as a soldier during the Troubles.

The 61-year-old said: “I came across first in ‘77, but I moved here probably in ‘83. I’ve had a property in Northern Ireland since 1983 but obviously with my Army career like most of them I’ve been in and out of the Province. I’ve probably been here permanently now since 2011.”

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He said the Troubles didn’t stop him falling in love with Northern Ireland: “That was 5% of the population responsible for the conflict, the rest are actually fantastic. The quality of life in Northern Ireland, the country is fantastic, it’s got even better with time.

“In the seventies to try and get off the island on a plane was impossible, now you can reach anywhere from Belfast or go down to Dublin.

“I bring all my brothers and sisters across and they always say to me if they never had grandchildren, they would live here.”

Dennis married a ‘local girl from east Belfast’ but sadly his wife passed away in 2002.

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He is a big Ulster fan who stands out from the crowd thanks to his decorated red and white blazer. He attends the matches with friends from Larne, Malone and Civil Service rugby clubs.

He also still plays the sport at the age of 61: “I retired at 46, I was away for about four years. I missed it too much. I play seconds for Civil Service in the regional league. You don’t have to travel much. It’s not a bad standard, it still takes me three days to recover.”

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