On your marks: 65 injured British vets get set for Veteran Games in Israel

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On your marks: 65 injured British vets get set for Veteran Games in Israel

After a three-year gap, wounded former military men and women to compete against Israeli counterparts and tour the Jewish state as part of event initiated by Beit Halochem UK

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

British and Israeli participants at the inaugural Veterans Games.
British and Israeli participants at the inaugural Veterans Games.

Sixty-five British wounded Armed Forces veterans head to Israel this weekend for the Veteran Games, a week-long opportunity to compete against Israeli counterparts suffering from similar conditions.

The Games, being held this year for only the second time, start on Sunday and will offer all the ex-military men and women the “support of sport”, which experts say goes a long way to helping those with physical or psychological problems.

All the British veterans – who are invited to travel with their families, too – are chosen by various charities that help people whose military careers have been cut short. The charities include familiar ones such as the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Jewish community’s own AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women; and less well-known ones such as Rock2Recovery or specialists like the Royal Marines Charity.

None of the participants has the same injuries or disabilities as each other; some have lost limbs, some are blind, some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But all have spent time rebuilding their lives and have welcomed the chance to take part in the Games, often laughing that the competitive spirit they showed during active service has never gone away.

The Games will be held at pioneering facilities run by the charity Beit Halochem, which offers rehabilitation, sports and recreation centres and lifelong care for disabled veterans and their families in Israel. The event is media partnered by Jewish News.

Among those eagerly looking forward to this year’s Games are Caroline Beazley, who took part in the first event in 2019 and is returning to mentor the 2022 participants; former Lieutenant-Colonel Joe Winch, perhaps the highest-ranking former officer among the veterans; former Navy nurse Sue Warner, travelling with her husband, Dr Julian Warner, from Belfast; Andy Merry, now a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater at the Tower of London; and Darren Blake, once a member of the Household Cavalry, or the “Blues and Royals”, who for the past 23 years has served as a warden at the La Moye prison in Jersey.

Darren Blake, who served in the Household Cavalry for six years, told Jewish News he had met the former special forces sergeant Jason Fox six years ago for his TV programme, SAS: Who Dares Wins.

“He was trying to raise the profile of his charity, Rock2Recovery, and I said I would do anything I could do to help.”

Mark Regev (right) chats with former service personell ahead of the first  Veteran Games

Since then, he has taken part in charity fundraisers and, most recently, has combined his Games training with raising money for mental health charity Mencap,  by going on a 15-mile walk, while loaded with 12kg of metal plates.

He expects to take part in the swimming and shooting events in Israel, where he has never visited.  “I’m really looking forward to meeting like-minded veterans and enjoying the ethos of the Games.”

Sue Warner, a former Royal Navy nurse who suffered severe whole body fractures while serving in Afghanistan in 2009, and her husband are one-time members of Kingston Liberal Synagogue. They were nominated to attend the Veteran Games by Ajex welfare office Colin Shieff.

Warner – who also served in the Falklands aboard the hospital ship SS Uganda, when she treated both British and Argentinian personnel – has also won medals at the Invictus Games and the Warrior Games in America.

She is “really looking forward” to meeting members of the Israeli team, and is working hard at Pilates and yoga in preparation for her swimming and CrossFit events. After her injuries she gradually moved from wheelchair to crutches, and learnt to swim in her late 50s, which she calls “a lifeline”.

Warrant Officer 2nd Class Merry, who served in all three Commando Units of the Royal Marines between 1984 and 2008, was deployed on operations to Northern Ireland, Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. For the past nine years, he has been that delight of foreign tourists, a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London.

Merry, 55, who was diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis five years ago, was selected as a competitor by the Royal Marines charity. He is “very excited” to be going to Israel, which  neither he, nor his wife Maxine, has ever visited. “When I meet people from Israel at work and I tell them I’m heading there, they tell me it’s a fantastic country and I’m really looking forward to it. I watch the news, like everybody does, but stuff happens in every part of the world”. In any case, he says, as a former member of the military he understands, more than most, violent situations and locations.

He’s expecting to take part in the shooting and CrossFit events and said: “It’s great to have something to aim for, despite my initial trepidation about my abilities at sport, but more particularly because of my disabilities.

“What I have come to realise, though, is that it’s not really about the sport, but more to do with sharing an incredible opportunity with others with the same backgrounds and experience, whether they are from the UK or Israel.”

Joe Winch, 43, joined the Royal Marines in 2002 and served all over the world. But in 2017 he was diagnosed with complex PTSD and hearing problems as a direct result of his experiences, and was medically discharged in 2021.

The father-of-four, who lives with his wife Amy and their children in Alverstoke, said: “One of the biggest challenges since leaving the military has been accepting and acknowledging the severity and longevity of my injuries – particularly the PTSD.”

Winch was selected for the Games by the Royal Marines charity. Before leaving the Marines, he climbed Everest and North America’s highest mountain, Denali, and then helped to set up Climb 2 Recovery, a charity offering veterans climbing courses to help with physical and mental recovery.

Winch said: “It’s  very difficult for us to go on holiday as a family because
of my condition and our financial situation since
my injuries and medical discharge, so this is a rare
but exciting opportunity. I am particularly looking forward to meeting the other veterans and their families, to learn about their circumstances, and to get involved with as much of the sport as possible.”

Beazley, of Newton Abbott, Devon, was a proud member of the Royal Military Police when, aged 22, she suffered horrific injuries in 1994 after being shot by a sniper at close range in her face, head, back and hand.

She has spent years not just physically recovering but also “struggling” to deal with the mental aspects of her attack. “I kept things locked in a box.” She stayed on in the police for a couple of years after the attack but was unable to continue with front-line work, was deployed to an administrative role and then was medically discharged.

But Beazley, who was nominated by the Not Forgotten charity in 2019, was completely energised by the opportunity to compete in the Veterans Games. She said: “I was able to be part of a team again, to put on a uniform and to be proud to represent my country. It gave me back myself, which I think I had forgotten how to be.”

Now, she says, she is returning with the hope of helping others through her own experiences.

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