ARMY veteran Chris Morgan takes a deep breath before describing the darkest period of his life, when his mental health problems took him to brink of suicide.
Twice, he had to be talked down from Newhaven Cliffs, near his childhood home on the south coast. “I’d reached the point where there seemed no way out,” he says.
Years have passed but Chris continues his daily battle against depression, anxiety, and hypertension. He takes seven tablets a day and is still unable to talk about the experiences that left him mentally scarred after 24 years in the Royal Artillery.
But Chris has not only discovered a way to manage his own problems, but to support other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress – and it is built on a foundation of wood.
Three years ago, Chris became one of the founders of Veterans Woodcraft, a pioneering community interest company, delivering carpentry courses to help those striving to overcome mental health issues and physical disabilities, mainly caused by military service.
The belief is that by working with wood, and learning new skills, lives can be rebuilt – and Chris is proof that it works.
Originally from Brighton, he joined The Army as a 17-year-old, in 1968. When he returned to civvy street in 1992, he found work in Post Office Telecommunications, but increasingly struggled with his mental health. When his wife, Sylvia, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2000, and died two years later, he “hit rock bottom”.
It was a desperate time, but Chris found sanctuary in his garden shed. “That was my safe place – pottering around with bits of wood,” Chris recalls. It took his mind off his problems and helped him to relax.
He moved up to North Yorkshire to stay with a friend, Heather, whose husband had been in the same Army unit as Chris and, like Sylvia, had passed away.
As Chris and Heather drew closer and became partners, Chris volunteered as a project worker with the British Conservation Trust, developing new skills. That led to him getting involved with the Foxglove Covert nature reserve at Catterick Garrison, and it was there that he saw the potential for woodcrafts to help in the recovery of veterans.
Six soldiers from the Personnel Recovery Unit took part in a woodworking session, and found it so rewarding that it developed into a weekly activity. When Help For Heroes established the Phoenix House rehabilitation centre at Catterick, Veterans Woodcraft was a natural fit – becoming part of a range of therapeutic activities.
Chris raised £37,000 for a purpose-built workshop, and donations of equipment poured in from wood traders, and families who had been left with collections of tools following the deaths of loved-ones.
As demand grew for the product range – including tables, chairs, clocks, pens, and toys – the time came to move to a new site on an industrial estate at Richmond.
Two years on, Veterans Woodcraft is branching out again, this time into a new, more spacious, home in the IES Centre, at Newton Aycliffe, with development plans being shaped by a familiar face to many veterans. Mo Usman, formerly Help For Heroes’ Head of Recovery in the North, has become volunteer Director of Strategic Management.
After six years as centre manager at Phoenix House, Mo moved to Dubai to set up a new branch of an international trade finance bank in 2016, but he is now back in the North-East with a new mission – to help Veterans Woodcraft to fulfil its potential.
“I believe we can develop this into something really important for veterans in the North-East,” he says. “We know there is an urgent need and, in the worst cases, we will avert suicides.”
Two veterans, who were close to the charity, have taken their lives since the start of lockdown, so the urgency is clear.
“Our purpose is to help veterans going through very difficult times,” adds Mo, who served for 24 years in the Royal Logistics Corps. “They deserve our support, and woodcraft enables them to make something tangible with their own hands, as well as helping them to forget about everything else.”
Like many others, Mo is saddened by the recent announcement that Phoenix House is to close for the foreseeable future, due to the financial impact of Covid-19.
“We all want Phoenix House to stay open because it’s a fantastic facility,” he says, revealing that he’s written to Help For Heroes, outlining how the centre could remain open through collaborations with other charities.
But, in the meantime, his focus is on expanding the reach of Veterans Woodcraft by forging partnerships with welfare agencies, charities, and the NHS. As well as the woodcraft workshops, plans include a facility for the restoration of vintage vehicles, an arts and crafts department, a bakery, and café.
A route to employment will also be offered through formal qualifications in woodcraft, and schoolchildren will also benefit from the facilities and expertise.
“This is just the beginning of something really special,” says Mo.
And no one appreciates the value of what’s happening, more than Chris Morgan, now 69, a father-of-two, and doting grandad to Grace, seven, and Emily, five.
“There’s no doubt that woodcraft – along with my family and meeting Heather – saved my life,” he says. “There’s no miracle cure for mental illness but we can help manage it, and our only profit is someone leaving here with a smile on their face.”
As he looks around the new workshops, and takes in the fresh smell of wood, he adds: “This is my big shed now.”
• If you want to know more about Veterans Woodcraft, contact Mo Usman at email@example.com
AMONG the highlights of my time as editor of The Northern Echo was compering annual fashion shows at Phoenix House.
Veterans strutted their stuff, alongside professional models, on the catwalk, as a way of boosting their confidence. They were inspirational occasions that, more than once, brought a tear to my eye.
I treasure a beautiful clock, lovingly made by veterans in the woodcrafts workshop, that was presented to me as a gift.
Perhaps, the veterans’ fashion shows might return – this time on a catwalk proudly built by Veterans Woodcraft.
Watch this space.
FINALLY, children have a way of putting the world into perspective… Chris Morgan’s granddaughter, Grace, recently went against the grain by issuing him with a strict instruction: “No more wooden Christmas presents, please, Grandad!”