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Spencer was a respected officer who loved Army life. He was surrounded by a loving family, and his wife was expecting their third child.

It all appeared picture perfect.

But Spencer had a serious health condition, which was making life for him and his family increasingly difficult.

“I’d just been promoted, and was happy about that, but at the same time I was at my lowest point. Having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis eight years before, I was in a very dark place.

Spencer in full uniform during his service in the army
Spencer served on operational tours of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kuwait. - Credit: Help for Heroes

Brought down to earth with a bump

One day Spencer was on a staff course with 300 people, and a group photo was arranged.

A stage was set up, approximately 30 metres wide, and 10 rows high. Spencer was told to head to the middle of the top row. His condition was making walking increasingly difficult.

He walked carefully ‘like a crab, with one foot over the other sideways to the top’. There he hung tightly onto the rail, as his legs shook. The photo was taken. But the next challenge was getting down.

“I hopped off each row of chairs and got to the bottom with a bump. I landed on two feet, but I seriously scared myself. That’s when all the emotions hit.

“I hobbled back to my room, looked at myself in the mirror, and said, ‘Spencer, you need to sort yourself out. This isn’t workable.’

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m making it difficult for the family. I haven’t accepted this. It’s here to stay and I’ve got to do something positive to take back ownership of my life.”

Spencer with his wife and three sons
Spencer's family have been able to watch and get involved in our sporting activities too. - Credit: Help for Heroes

‘I needed a plan’

“The hardest thing was working out who to speak to. I didn’t want to speak to anyone in the military, because I was terrified about a medical discharge, and losing the support network, the job, and the house. I didn’t want to speak to family, because I didn’t want to put them through all that. I didn’t think friends would really understand.

“I needed a plan. Having found a good colleague in the military I could talk to, I then reached out to Help for Heroes. They were able to fund a mobility scooter, along with my regiment and the Soldier’s charity. That allowed me to get out with my wife Sally, the kids and the dog for walks.

“For two years, I’d been stuck at home every time they went out and had been missing out on special time with them.

“Then as an inpatient at Headley Court, supported by the Charity, I saw three people who really understood me and my situation. A physiotherapist, a psychologist and an occupational therapist. Together they helped me unpick what I needed - the relationship between me, MS and my future.

“I realised I had to sort the mental challenge out before I dealt with the physical challenge. That’s when I was introduced to the Charity’s sport recovery.

“The sporting activities and competitions were great, but the brew and the chat afterwards with like-minded people was just as important.

“It’s great that families can get involved. My family is living with my multiple sclerosis too.”

On the crest of a wave

“Because of my condition I wasn’t able to kick a ball around with the kids. As a father of three young boys that was tough. For too long I’d been sat on the side-lines. If you’re in a chair, you need to do things differently, and I hadn’t got my head around that.

“I’d been sporty all my life and once my mobility was declining, I feared I wouldn’t be able to do any sport again.

“Through Help for Heroes I did a swimming course, where they taught me how to adapt my swimming so that it worked for my condition. That was brilliant. I now swim at my local pool three times a week. The lifeguards help me in and out of the pool and there’s a lovely community there, we have a chat and they’re supportive.

“Through the Charity I’ve also done archery and water skiing. I’ve been out on a canal boat. They helped me exercise at a gym.

spencer swimming in a pool
Spencer took part in a course that helped him continue swimming after he developed multiple sclerosis. - Credit: Help for Heroes

“Because of all their support, they made it possible for me to compete at the Invictus Games, and that was huge for me. But my ultimate goal, which I achieved, was to carry on taking part in sport with my family beyond the games.

“One of the best experiences was when I took my son out sailing.  Although it had been incredible sailing around Sydney harbour, by the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge, equal to this was sailing with one of my sons in the waters around Portland in Weymouth. Both were special moments.

“I would never have achieved that without the Charity’s support.”

spencer sailing on Sydney
Staying active with his sons is one of the biggest legacies of all the sport Spencer has taken part in. - Credit: Help for Heroes

Highs and lows

Spencer is in a much better place in many ways, but living with multiple sclerosis remains incredibly tough.

“When I was diagnosed, I was on two feet, and I could run five miles. Eighteen years later I’m a full-time wheelchair user. It was almost like a slow-motion car crash. You can see it coming, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent it, which is scary.

“There are highs and lows. Every day is different. Each morning, I’m never sure when I get out of bed how responsive my body is going to be, how my fatigue will be, and all the other symptoms that come with it.

“Sometimes I forget and throw my legs out the side of the bed, and it all goes horribly wrong, and I collapse.

“Fatigue is frustrating and a serious irritation. It can hit me hard if I’ve done a lot the previous day.

“And a lack of accessibility is tough. Not being able to have that spontaneity and think ‘right, I’ll just jump in the car with the family and have a day out’. Everything has to be carefully planned.”

Spencer sat outside in his wheelchair
Spencer has found that society is still not as accessible as it should be for people who use wheelchairs. - Credit: Help for Heroes

‘It’s about the community’

“People at the Charity listen, and they don’t judge. It’s about the community. It’s about trust and being safe.

“It’s had a hugely positive impact on my recovery and has helped my family so much too.

“I’m happy to be able to give back to the Charity now. I’m a veteran ambassador, which means I go out to talk about my story and the difference it has made to my life.

“I’m a peer support trainer with their Recovery College. I use my lived experience to help write and facilitate courses that help veterans and families gain skills to live independently.

“In the eight years before I asked for help, I didn’t talk about what I was going through. I’d rather sit in the corner, upset and angry at life.

“Values I've learned through the military and reinforced by Help for Heroes activities – moral and physical courage, teamwork, integrity, trust and humility – act as a handrail to guide me and my family through my multiple sclerosis.

“I’ve become a better person because of the support I’ve had.”

This is the Veterans War. A war forgotten by many. But not by us.

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