A former soldier who worked alongside Prince William and Prince Harry in Nick Knowles’ DIY SOS challenge is helping others with mental health problems.
Ronnie Devlin lived with post-traumatic stress disorder, a twisted spine and balance problems after surviving a blast from a suicide bomber in the first Gulf War.
The former Royal Artillery sergeant is now mentoring other North Wales service veterans, who are revamping gardens around the Ablett Psychiatric Unit at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd, Bodelwyddan.
The team includes a Medical Corps soldier from Wrexham who developed PTSD and had a heart attack following service in the first Gulf War, and a Catering Corps servicewoman from Prestatyn who dealt with alcohol addiction after leaving the army on health grounds, and the death of her baby son.
They are working with the Change Step programme, based in Colwyn Bay, which is led by CAIS and delivered throughout the country by Drug and Alcohol Charities Wales (DACW).
CAIS aims to empower positive changes in the lives of people affected by addiction, adverse mental health, unemployment, offending and other life challenges.
The Change Step service, delivered by forces veterans, is for former servicemen and women with PTSD and other psychosocial problems who want to make positive changes to their lives.
At the Ablett unit the volunteers have spruced up the patients’ garden, renovated and stained garden benches and chairs and planted flowers and shrubs.
It means patients at the unit, run by Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, can enjoy fresh air and relaxation.
Stephen McCabe, assistant business manager and divisional health and safety lead for BCUHB’s Mental Health and Learning Disability Division, says he is delighted Change Step agreed to help improve the garden and outside area.
He said: “For some time now we have struggled to get some of our gardens in a reasonable order to enable patients to sit out and utilise their surroundings.
“We are delighted with the work the Change Step volunteers have done, which will benefit all our patients.
“They will now have a pleasant area where they can sit and enjoy the fresh air, somewhere they can sit and talk or, if they prefer, have time to sit alone.”
He added: “I hope we can utilise the Change Step team further by improving other ward gardens around the Ysbyty Glan Clwyd site as well as at other BCUHB hospitals and units across North Wales.”
Ronnie, who now lives in Pwllheli, served for 25 years as a Royal Artillery sergeant and saw tours in Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq.
He said: “I saw everything I didn’t want to see in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. I lost colleagues and suffered a twisted spine and a balance disorder after a suicide bomber blew himself up right next to the vehicle I was in. I’m still affected by that today.”
He added: “You don’t think about it while you are there and as a sergeant I had to be everyone’s mum and dad.
“I was supporting kids of 19 or 20 who were walking around with machine guns and carrying thousands of rounds of ammunition.
“The responsibility was immense and it was only when I came out I realised I had problems of my own to deal with.
“I left the army suffering from PTSD and was treated by Veterans NHS Wales through BCUHB. I had great treatment from the professionals and support from talking to peers who have the same problems or have gone through the same experiences.
“At Change Step, we rely on and help each other. Someone who was there and saw and did what you did gives it you straight, and that’s a massive help.”
Ronnie was involved in the BBC’s Big Build SOS in Manchester where he saw Princes William and Harry when they visited the street and houses being renovating for injured veterans in a project led by presenter Nick Knowles.
While there Ronnie mentored Gaynor Thomas from Prestatyn, who has now has been volunteering with Change Step for 12 months.
Ronnie added: “It’s all about helping veterans once they leave the armed services.
“Initially it was thought we would become a one-stop shop where people could come and talk and we could direct them to other agencies. We now deal with former military personnel who have drug and alcohol, mental health, employment, housing and other issues.
“The thing is we recognise, if they have issues, then they almost certainly have deeper underlying problems.
“We are enjoying sorting out the garden here at the Ablett Unit just as much as the project in Manchester – it means a lot to us to have something positive to do.
“The main thing is we have a laugh and talk as we work. Gaynor for example has improved massively over the past few months.”
Gaynor, 53, said: “I was in the catering corps for 10 years and worked in Aldershot and Germany. I left when I became pregnant with my first daughter and also had a bad reaction to a yellow fever injection, so I left on health grounds.
“I’ve got two daughters and had a son, who died 17 years ago from cot death. I was living in Ellesmere Port then and began drinking too much. I blamed myself for my son’s death even though I wasn’t in any way to blame.
“I thought people were pointing the finger at me so I moved to Chester, then Rhyl for six years and then Prestatyn where I have been ever since.
“My drinking was out of control and I was in trouble with the police all the time. I knew I had to change.
“I began to volunteer with Change Step and got Ronnie as my mentor – he keeps me in check. I can talk to him and he gives me honest answers I can accept, even if I don’t want to hear them.
“He can be really firm and lays it on the line, I like that and everyone has been as good as gold to me.
“I’m given space and if I do fall down I know Ronnie will be there to catch me. I’ve been sober now for 11 months and sorted out most of my problems.
“I enjoy volunteering and working at stuff like the garden at the Ablett Unit, it makes me feel really good and I feel I have achieved something. I want to carry on sorting out my problems and stay sober.”
Former Royal Army Medical Corp soldier Jason Samuels of Wrexham, was also mentored by Ronnie Devlin.
Now a Change Step mentor himself, the 44-year-old said: “I served in the first Gulf War and was also based for a while in Germany. I left in 1993 suffering from PTSD and had no idea I was suffering from anything.
“But the simple truth is I just didn’t care about myself, or anything else for that matter.
“I ended up drinking heavily and self-medicating by smoking silly amounts of cannabis because I didn’t realise I had a problem.”
He added: “Change Step has been brilliant and helped get me sorted out. I was working as a security officer at Wrexham Maelor Hospital when I suffered a heart attack in June 2013. I had fantastic treatment at Wrexham and Broadgreen Hospital in Liverpool.
“The hospital team at Wrexham put me in touch with Change Step and I ended up being mentored by Ronnie. It was so important this was someone who has been there seen it and done it.
“This was a guy who knew what I was going through because he’d been through it himself. That was massively important.
“I now mentor others in the Wrexham and Flintshire area for Change Step. I really enjoy what we do and we always make sure we have a laugh. It’s been great sorting out the garden here at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd’s Ablett Unit.
“We certainly get a sense of pride and feel good about what we are doing. If we can make this garden area a pleasant place where patients can come and enjoy the surroundings then that has to be a good thing.”
Heather Evans, 29, of Connah’s Quay began volunteering with Change Step in February 2015.
She said: “I haven’t been in the services although I have always wanted to join up but can’t on medical grounds. My aim was always to be a Logistical Corp driver.
“I volunteer with Change Step as it means I’m around former military personnel and can learn about army life. I still hope to join up one day.
“I enjoy the camaraderie and listen carefully when they talk about their problems. I have experience of mental health issues myself, not me personally but through family members.
“Not all Change Step volunteers have mental health issues – some just lack confidence.”
She added: “I’ve really enjoyed working on the garden and patient outdoor area at the Ablett Unit. We have stained and varnished the garden furniture and worked to make the garden so it’s as low maintenance as possible.”
Linzi Jones, Change Step fundraising manager, said: “Change Step has recently secured government funding so we can continue working with former servicemen and women.
“It was important to the team to ensure we completed the garden and outdoor patients’ area at the Ablett Unit and hopefully we will be able to look at other BCUHB sites in the coming months.”
Chancellor George Osborne awarded Change Step £500,000 from Libor fines in his March budget, an endorsement which will help support the service’s vital work with veterans and their families throughout Wales.