“It was the best thing I ever did.” This is how AJ Pingram describes his decision to follow his father’s footsteps and join the Royal Navy. Enjoying his career as a Marine Engineer and captain of the Royal Navy hockey team, his life took a sudden turn whilst playing hockey in 1998 – pulling the bilateral ligaments in both ankles AJ spent nine weeks having them reconstructed. The injury led to medical discharge and his four-and-a-half-year career being cut short: “It felt like the bottom had fallen out of my world.
“I’d gone from a perfect life, being active and healthy, to not being part of anything and feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere.”
The sudden changes led to AJ suffering with depression and drinking heavily. Then in 2014, Prince Harry announced the launch of the first Invictus Games and AJ and his wife decided it would be a good idea to apply for tickets. It was at this point that AJ first had contact with Help for Heroes. The Charity got in touch with him to see if he’d like to come to trials to be part of the British Armed Forces team. He agreed and had his first taste of wheelchair basketball: “They put me in a chair and I moved fast again for the first time in over 15 years.
“We were beasted by the coach, but it was brilliant. To feel that alive again was amazing. I started going to the gym every day. I lost weight and felt better about myself. I had purpose again.”
Picked for the inaugural Invictus Games in London that year, AJ and the team won a gold medal.
He now captains the Wales wheelchair tennis team and has set his sights on the Paralympics. AJ is also a volunteer coach for his local women’s hockey team and is proud to say they haven’t lost a game since he took on the role. For AJ, the benefits of being involved in these different areas of sport is far-reaching: “Since I have been taking part in sports again, I have stopped taking my anti-depressant medication.
“I now have a focus in life, goals I want to achieve and the belief in myself that I can achieve them.”
Now based on a farm with his family in North Wales, AJ is surrounded by rolling hills and a menagerie of animals. The therapeutic benefit of working with animals has inspired him to set up a Care Farm where Veterans can aid their ongoing recovery surrounded by nature, and learning agricultural skills to help launch new careers: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a good day or a bad day, the animals don’t care. They aid recovery because they’re non-judgemental and calm.
“I get a great feeling from helping others. I can pay forward some of the support Help for Heroes has given me. I’ve been on my recovery journey for quite a while and I’ve now found myself in a position where I can start making a difference in other people’s lives. I can now help them on their own recovery journey.