Six ex-Armed Forces servicemen are to take part in a unique NHS-supported open water experience with rescue-trained dogs, to help them with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The men will be ‘rescued’ from Stanton Lakes on Friday ( 11 September) by specially trained Newfoundland dogs as part of the mental health support they are receiving from Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust’s Armed Forces service.
The four-hour experience, arranged by the Trust’s Armed Forces lead Brendan Daly, will see them don wetsuits and be accompanied into the water by trainer Pete Lewin with his team and emotional support swimming dogs.
They will take part in a series of ‘rescue’ experiences with Storm, Sonar and Walker, Leicester paramedic Pete’s three giant Newfoundland rescue dogs, before being towed back gently to the shore.
Pete, 62, has worked with Newfoundlands as a hobby for around 25 years as physical rescue and display dogs, and most recently as emotional support swimming dogs.. The breed is known for its size, intelligence, strength, calm disposition, and loyalty. They excel at water rescue and life-saving because of their muscular build, thick double coat, webbed paws and swimming skills.
Brendan explains: “Pete has developed a new approach to open water swimming with dogs. In the US they do a similar programme for people who are recovering from substance misuse. Pete’s devised international rescue techniques in water and I have been keen to get some sessions like these off the ground to help veterans for some time now.”
Pete says it was personal experience and feedback from other participants about the mental wellbeing impact of the water rescues that made him realise their potential for a new and unique experience to support people with mental health needs.
He says: “It’s an experience which allows you to take your mind off any issues. The dogs love it and they don’t judge o people are free to take time to relax and experience the sights and sounds around them. I’ve lost two of my dogs quite recently and it’s helped me personally.”
Friday will see this tested for the first time when the six Armed Forces veterans stride out into the water after months of coping with PTSD during Lockdown.
The six include father-of-one Darren Smith, 38, from Beaumont Leys, who served in the 2nd Batallion Royal Anglian Infantry Regiment with tours in Northern Ireland and Iraq in 2005-6.
He says: “Iraq was the most mortared and bombed place in the world at that time. I was blown up by an IED but was lucky to come out of it pretty much unscathed with hearing damage.
“When I left the Army I tried to live a normal life but I slowly realised things weren’t normal. I was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, flashbacks, poor sleep and hypervigilance which manifested itself in violence, although I tried hard to control myself. I tried to keep it to myself – in the Army you are taught to be strong. Instead I was self-medicating with drink and attempted suicide twice. I live alone in a second floor flat and my drinking went through the roof during lockdown.
“I did find a really good doctor and was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT|) and then I met Brendan. Now I’m working with him as a volunteer, supporting other veterans and that’s really helping me. “Large numbers of combat veterans who served in Afghan and Iraq have a mental health condition, and too many of them are falling through the gaps without support or coping strategies. I don’t know what to expect from the water experience but it sounds to me like a brilliant idea and I had heard about the positive effects of pets as therapy and swimming with dolphins. I am also hoping my experience will help with the support I am able to offer other veterans.”
Darren’s fellow veteran, 25-year-old Josh Payne, from Aylestone in Leicester, joined the Army at 16 and has struggled to adjust to civilian life since leaving at 22.
He was educated at an Army base where he says he was taught to fight but didn’t learn the skills needed to live in society. He is hoping the water sessions will provide respite from his usual thoughts and help give him a focus going forward.
In 2019 LPT was awarded ‘gold standard’ status by the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) in recognition of their support for the Armed Forces community
Ex-service personnel and their families from Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland can access LPT’s Armed Forces service for advice and signposting to support. Email LPTArmedForces@leicspart.nhs.uk. or tel 07920 708979
Darren Smith is pictured (left) with Josh Payne.