For Tommy Lowther, the idea of one day launching his own business for injured veterans was a dream far out of his reach. For more than 15 years he battled PTSD demons which brought him to the brink of suicide. Yet those closest to him now describe him as “an inspiring character with a massive heart”. So it is hard to fathom, why, for so long, he felt worthless and thought his destiny was to end up in a wooden box six feet under the ground.
To understand why Tommy, an Army veteran, felt so desperate as to seriously consider suicide, one only needs to hear an account of his time serving in Northern Ireland when he was just 18 years old. Having grown up in a small town in County Durham, he described how he felt like “a boy in a man’s world”.
“It was very scary,” said Tommy, who served with the Fifth Battalion Light Infantry. “I was really anxious at first, I didn’t know what to expect. When I got there, I certainly had my eyes opened.”
Tommy described how every day he would be running on adrenalin and lived in relentless fear for his life and what could happen. He faced a constant stream of petrol bombs, bottles and bricks being thrown and burning tyres being rolled towards him.
One moment still lives with him vividly; the day he was set on fire.
“I was leaning against a crowd control obstacle with my armadillo shield and a petrol bomb came towards me and I was dowsed. I was terrified. I remember opening my eyes and seeing flames lick up underneath my visor. I got pulled into the crowd, stamped on, kicked and punched. It was frightening, it felt like an eternity.
“At 18 years old it puts a lot of things in perspective. The hostility, that alone is frightening, without all the obstacles as well.”
Little did Tommy realise, his worst experience was still to come. After Northern Ireland, he was sent on an exercise in Gibraltar. Here, he suffered an event which had a devastating lasting effect; he was sexually assaulted.
“When it first happened, I was really, really embarrassed about it. I was disgusted in myself and didn’t want to tell anyone. That is when the PTSD wheels started moving.”
Tommy quickly went from being an outgoing, bubbly character to somebody who became aggressive, moody, suffered flashbacks and contemplated suicide.
“I just went into a shell,” he explained. “I knew what I was doing, saying and how I was acting was wrong but couldn’t do anything about it.”
Things became so bleak that Tommy felt suicide was his only option.
“PTSD is a way of life and it’s a dark, dark place. A scary one as well. You genuinely feel like the world would be a better place without you. I couldn’t see how I was going to get past it. I thought I’d do the world a favour.”
With his PTSD all consuming and his mind trapped in his past horrors, Tommy lost his first job after leaving the military. However, they persuaded him to get in touch with Help for Heroes which is when things started to change.
He visited Phoenix House Recovery Centre in Catterick and was put in contact with a Support Hub Keyworker. Talking to her, he broke down in tears which he said was a “relief”. The real turning point is when she explained about The Pathfinder Experience.
“Pathfinder literally saved my life,” he said. “If it wasn’t for Pathfinder, without a shadow of a doubt I would have taken my own life.
“It didn’t pull me out of the hole. It gave me the tools to pull myself out of the hole.
“It flipped from PTSD having a hold of me to me having a hold of PTSD. I wasn’t going to let it control me anymore.”
Tommy, like all Pathfinders, was matched with a civilian mentor, Martin Dewhurst, who he can confide in and turn to for advice. Martin explained: “Tommy is an inspiring character with a massive heart. Knowing I have made a difference in his life is massive for me. We are on this path together and I am very proud to be walking alongside him.”
It was because of Pathfinder that Tommy’s own business, Sporting Force, was born. Working in partnership with professional sport clubs, it offers work placements to the wounded, injured and sick serving and ex-serving men and women of the armed forces. This could be in hospitality, marketing, ticketing, coaching, physio and more. Sporting Force already has links with Premiership Clubs including Liverpool and Everton, as well as other Championship and league One clubs such as MK Dons, QPR, Reading and Leeds.
Tommy said: “If it hadn’t been for Help for Heroes and Pathfinder, Sporting Force would never have taken off. It has changed me for the better and brought me much closer to the man I used to be.
“I never thought I’d be where I am now. I thought my destiny was a wooden box six feet under. Now, for the first time in a long time, I’m proud of myself.”