I didn’t think there was any light at the end of the tunnel. But Help for Heroes turned out to be somebody with a torch looking for me.
Brian Kilgannon joined the Royal Marines in an attempt to escape his turbulent home life. His career saw him deploy to Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Norway as well as travelling the world on board a warship.
Brian worked hard to escape a difficult childhood, and his future in the Marines looked bright. However, things started to deteriorate for Brian as years of service led to psychological demons creeping in, he explains: “Not necessarily war demons but events horrific enough to bring on PTSD.”
Brian turned to alcohol to fight his demons. It was an easy escape. “That’s peace” Brian said. “Alcohol will numb and put you in a dark place for hours.” But when Brian sobered up, he was once again plagued by the hellish things he’d seen on tour.
Brian carries his emotional trauma wherever he goes: “When you’ve lost your mind, the doctors can’t replace that. It’s up to you to replace the bit that’s missing. My PTSD works like this: it’s a tape recorder. It starts when you hit the play button and it runs all the way through. When it gets to the end, it stops, rewinds and starts again.”
Brian’s injuries aren’t just confined to his mind. On a tour in Norway he was involved in a skiing accident where his left kneecap was impaled by a ski pole and he is partially deaf in his left ear from an explosion in Northern Ireland. The memory of Northern Ireland still haunts him and is one of the mental demons he has to live with: “I came under contact four times in one day. The first time I ever came under fire I actually wet myself.” His experiences there instilled fear in his mind because he couldn’t always tell who the enemy was: “They’re offering you tea but putting salt and ground up glass in it.”
Eventually Brian reached a point in his life where he was ready for the end: “I just wanted to switch the light off.” For months Brian considered suicide on a daily basis. Had he succeeded he would have left behind a wife and family of four children, ten grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. Life, now, for Brian, is delicate, the voice of temptation very much active inside his mind: “It’s still an option, the option is still there.”
It was at this point, when Brian was very much in the wilderness, that a friend encouraged him to take the brave step of visiting the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre in Plymouth, with the added appeal of Hero Ride sparking Brian’s interest.
Brian took on the Plymouth to London Hero Ride where he found himself helping fellow riders along the way. Speaking about this Brian said: “I find being able to help others makes me forget what my problems are.”
For Brian, one particular highlight – and one that reflects the upward turn Brian’s life was taking – was riding with the baton from a disassembled stretcher used to carry real life wounded soldiers in battle. Brian carried his baton the farthest: “I ended up giving one of the lads the baton when we got to Runnymede. They put the stretcher back together again, put wreaths on, and marched the stretcher off.”
During Hero Ride, not only did Brian discover the benefits of helping others, he also reignited friendships, especially at Plymouth. Upon arrival at the Recovery Centre, Brian was reunited with an old friend: “Larry was an old face, a friendly face, someone I knew.” It was at this point where help was finally at hand for Brian. Just being able to talk about his problems with Help for Heroes helped Brian realise what a world of pain he was in. As emotions and the realisation took over, Brian broke down in front of Larry and cried his eyes out, something which the former Colour Sergeant says that you just don’t do in front of your peers.
Encouraged by his experience of Hero Ride, Brian applied to be part of a trip to the Ginsters of Cornwall factory for a Product Development Day. Excited to take his wife, Carol, along for the day in an industrial-sized kitchen, Brian was nervous when he was told his wife couldn’t attend so he soldiered on himself.
Brian and the others were there to help create a new pasty to go on sale. Their prep room was like a pasty-lover’s playground. “When I started using carrots, I really did get a look at because you’re not supposed to put carrots in a pasty” joked Brian. Nonetheless he thought the whole thing was “one hell of an experience. I believe Ginsters are doing a phenomenal job. Their support is going to help, and change someone else’s life, just like mine has been.”
Brian’s journey from signing up for the Marines, going on active service, and leaving the military behind has been traumatic. But in Help for Heroes and the support it can provide, Brian is hopeful for the future. He said: “There is life after service and that’s what I tell everybody now. I didn’t think there was any light at the end of the tunnel. But Help for Heroes turned out to be somebody with a torch looking for me.”