When you meet Nick Hendry you cannot help but feel you want to make something of your life. Infectious enthusiasm oozes out of every pore and you come away thinking that anything is possible. Turn the clock back a few years, however, and it was a very different story. Before injury, Nick was on top of his game. He had been promoted to a Sergeant and was excelling as an Army Diving Supervisor with 23 Engineer Regiment, Air Assault, based in Woodbridge, Suffolk. With 19 years’ service under the belt he was well respected amongst his peers and preparing to go on his 6th operation in Afghanistan
In May 2010, Nick visited Portsmouth to attend the annual diving symposium. Dressed in his suit, he had spent the evening with fellow colleagues in the town and was waiting for a taxi when Nick became aware of a hostile man. Nick doesn’t remember anything more. CCTV footage revealed he was violently assaulted, resulting in a brain bleed and remained in a coma for 30 days.
An exhausting recovery
The road to recovery was long and exhausting; a 30 minute walk on his zimmer frame to the hospital shop meant a 24 hour sleep afterwards just to recuperate.
It was a frustrating time for Nick and he admits his anger increased as a result:
“I didn’t realise back then how bad I was. I kept pushing myself to get better and do the things I had done before but the brain injury held me back. ”
A few months passed and although he was still struggling on the inside, Nick was allowed back to his unit where he hoped that life would return to normal. Instead he was told that due to his injuries he could never dive again. The news was a huge disappointment but, typical of Nick, he looked for a positive.
With a wry smile he said: “I thought, at least I’d be able to jump again.”
Sadly, the same reply came back. No diving and no jumping allowed. Nick could see everything that he had held dear to him disappearing through no fault of his own; his career he had worked hard for, his girlfriend, his confidence, self-esteem and pride. All had gone.
Harder still, Nick found it difficult to control some of the things he was saying which led to some awkward situations.
“I still remember my girlfriend saying to me ‘Why can’t you be like everyone else’? Her words cut like a knife. I was trying so hard to be ‘normal’ but because of the brain injury I couldn’t help the things that came out of my mouth.”
It became very hard for Nick’s girlfriend and they went their separate ways soon after. Life was getting harder to cope with and after being diagnosed with an Adjustment Disorder, Nick began smoking and finally he reached rock bottom.
“I lit a cigarette and looked at the trees in the distance and thought about hanging myself because I just didn’t know who I was anymore.”
Art in recovery
For many people struggling with mental injuries Nick also encountered isolation, as friends and colleagues kept their distance and some even ridiculed him with hurtful comments. So in these times of isolation Nick picked up a paint brush and began painting and with the support of Help for Heroes, who had recognised the importance of art in his recovery and funded his art equipment, Nick was able to pursue his passion relentlessly.
“One of the side effects of the brain injury is that when I have an idea I don’t stop. So with my painting I went out and bought all the equipment and spent hours upon hours on my pieces. I just couldn’t stop. I painted my heart out.”
It was during this time that Nick came to stay at the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre, Chavasse VC House in Colchester and remained there for a year painting in his room or in the social lounge. In 2011, Nick exhibited his painting Soldier and Boy for the Army Art Society and won Serving War Artist of the Year two years in a row.
“Winning that award was the turning point for me. My flame was re-ignited and all 50 copies of my winning piece were sold. I began researching possible creative careers for when I left the army and that’s when I heard about Help for Heroes’ Pathfinder programme, so I signed up. ”
A sense of direction
The Pathfinder Experience is Help for Heroes’ flagship employability programme; a holistic 3 phase course that brings together all elements of a veteran’s life, equipping them with the knowledge and skills to progress into a meaningful vocation beyond the military. For Nick, the Pathfinder Experience helped him find direction and he loved every minute of it.
“What I loved about the week was that it considered me as an individual. I wasn’t in a good place to make decisions about my future whilst I was still serving. The Pathfinder Experience, which is delivered by The Help for Heroes Career Recovery team, came at a time when I was ready.”
Uniquely, The Pathfinder Experience matches each individual with a mentor who can share their experience within the civilian world as well as support and guide.
Nick’s partnership with William Hamilton, who works for Deloitte, was a perfect match and when William heard Nick’s interest in graphic design and art managed to secure a two week’s work experience in Deloitte’s London Offices in the graphic design department.
“I was like a sponge just wanting to soak up every nugget of information I could. Not only did I learn work related skills like Indesign and got the opportunity to work on a publication, I picked up valuable social skills too. For example, for the first couple of days I kept reporting to my colleagues I was going to lunch and they looked at me slightly strangely. Apparently you don’t have to do this in civvy street!”
For William, the mentoring experience was worthwhile and he has been touched by Nick’s positive attitude:
“Since meeting Nick, he has been nothing less than an inspiration. He is a source of constant enthusiasm, and testament to the fact that opportunities can be seized in any situation. Over the year he has thrived in the 'civvy' world, successfully balancing his past skills and experiences with need to adapt. I can say nothing less than that it has been a privilege to have worked with Nick, and that I'm sure we will continue to be good friends for years to come.”
For Nick the future is full of possibilities and an impressive CV packed with awards, achievements and a portfolio of work any artist would be proud of:
“Thanks to the Help for Heroes Pathfinder Experience I would never have been paired with William, never had gone to Deloitte and never have had the confidence to kick start my own business into graphic design and art. I hope anyone who reads this and is feeling anxious of the future will take something from my story and reach out.”
If you are wounded, injured or sick and Serving or a Veteran, Help for Heroes can support you. To find out how contact our Support Hub on 01206 815838 or visit www.helpforheroes.org.uk/get-support
You can see more of Nick’s art work by visiting his website www.nickhendryart.com