The damage to the soldier is obvious, but the damage to the family isn’t. I think it’s massively important support is available to them.
When it comes to serving your country, people choose to do so for many different reasons. For Toni-Sue White’s husband, Alan, being part of the military runs in the family. His uncle was in the Army so ever since he was a boy scout he’d dreamed of signing up.
In 1992 Alan joined the Royal Marines, touring the world on active duty, until a routine march changed everything for him and his family; a disc came out of his back, leaving him paralysed all down his right leg.
It left Alan barely able to walk and Toni-Sue vividly remembers when things came to a head one morning: “Alan went to get up to go to the bathroom and collapsed in front of me. It was incredibly frightening.”
What followed was month after month of unsuccessful physiotherapy and hospital visits, which Toni-Sue had to take him to while having to support their children.
The medication, excruciating pain and deteriorating mental health Alan was experiencing only distanced him further from Toni-Sue and the kids: “He didn’t know who I was most days. The children would come home from school and try and chat with him. An hour later he’d say ‘they aren’t home, where are they?’”
Surgery for Alan could’ve offered him and Toni-Sue a chance to move on from his injury. Instead, it only realised their worst fears; a disc in Alan’s back had to be removed to stop it damaging the spinal cord and nervous system. It would leave him with no sensory feeling in his leg.
With a medical discharge from the Marines now a formality, Toni-Sue could see Alan’s life starting to slip away in front of her eyes. Turning to alcohol, he would get aggressive, lie and provoke arguments.
“For years I felt like his carer and not his wife. That was really hard and I withdrew from our relationship. I still wanted to look after him because he was my husband but I couldn’t even kiss him goodnight.”
Alan was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder but, combined with his military mindset, didn’t want to ask for help. As a result, Toni-Sue found herself walking on a tightrope, scared of saying anything that might trigger a reaction from him: “Alan had got to a point where he felt he was useless and a terrible father. I knew it wasn’t really him but he’d snap at the children. I was trying to protect them from this man they didn’t really know. I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I said to him you need help or we’re not going to be here anymore.”
It was a staff member at the Royal Marine rehabilitation unit, Hasler Company, who recommended Alan and Toni-Sue sign up to Help for Heroes’ Band of Brothers and Band of Sisters fellowships. Providing support to wounded Service Personnel and their families respectively, it proved to be the turning point they desperately needed.
“Alan’s done a lot with the Band of Brothers, including some flying, and has been given funding from Help for Heroes for a recumbent bike. Best of all, the fellowships put on events for all the family. One was a day of flying aeroplanes, an excuse for Alan to show off in front of his kids. He was so proud. He was Daddy again.
“The people at the Band of Sisters are an amazing bunch. The fellowship has put us back together, provided stability and shown us that we can enjoy things as a family.”
Whenever she visits Tedworth House Recovery Centre with Alan, Toni-Sue is always sure to bring their five children with them too: “The kids love it up there because they see their real Daddy. They know he feels safe there. We did a Halloween night as well one year and that was amazing.”
Thanks to her family getting the support they urgently needed, Toni-Sue believes they are through the worst of the storm that’s been swirling around their lives for years. With Alan focusing on getting a pilot’s licence and able to be a dad to their children again, they can finally get back to being a family.
“Alan’s got ongoing medical issues so we’re not out of the woods but I now know there’s someone I can ring if we need help.
“The damage to the soldier is obvious, but the damage to the family isn’t. I think it’s massively important support is available to them. It’s not just helped me but our next generation too. To all the Charity’s supporters, ‘thank you’ doesn’t seem a big enough word. It’s a bit of a cliché but the money you raise and donate is changing lives.”