Veterans In Action (VIA) started as an idea in early 2008 by three ex Royal Engineer friends, two of whom had been injured physically and one who suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) who wanted to raise funds for injured troops both physically and psychologically.
The idea they came up with was based around their own experiences in the Royal Engineers and was to take a group of veterans on an overland expedition driving from Headley Court to South Africa and back. The aim of the expedition was to carry out small tasks on the way, giving aid to locals with the aim being that they would ‘help themselves by helping others’. This was based around the many tasks that the Royal Engineers do throughout the world and the great feeling and sense of achievement you get from completing the task.
This expedition was called Head 4 Africa and was taken to a leading charity as an idea. We had several meetings with them about this, although ultimately nothing happened with it so it was suggested to the team that they start their own charity, an idea which was never in their original plans.
It was decided to move forward and charity status was granted in January 2009 under the name Veterans International Aid (VIA) which would help veterans through the expeditions they organised, based around the original ideas. On receiving this it was down to Billy MacLeod to move things forward on his own.
“The idea for me was for me to get involved with being in a team once more as it was something I really missed from being in the services and was my reason for wanting to start the charity. I had worked in a fairly solitary job since leaving the army and this had impacted on my life and was the reason for me wanting to do something and ultimately starting the charity. Once again I felt I was on my own which was not where I wanted to be, so the first thing to do was start building a team”. Billy MacLeod
Billy MacLeod then contacted others he had served with in the Royal Engineers to see if they were interested in helping out and during 2009, still mainly on his own, Billy MacLeod attended more events spreading the word about the charity’s aims.
This took Veterans International Aid through until early 2010 where Billy MacLeod planned a long distance walk of 1200 miles from John O’Groats to Land’s End, which would be manned by veterans who either suffered from PTSD or who found the transition to civilian life difficult.
The walk started in May 2010 from the Army v Navy rugby match where the 10 man team of veterans who had been diagnosed with PTSD, plus support team were presented with the match ball by the captain of the Navy team.
It was during this walk that the true value of being in the outdoors showed and that by doing such an expedition how it could really change how individuals looked at themselves through personal achievement. Confidence levels were raised, which in turn helped raise self-esteem and self- belief.
After lots of study about the merits of using the Outdoors as a means to help people move forward, a plan was put together to do a series of 8 walks that would be called the Union Flag Walks, that when completed would form the Union Flag over mainland UK.
Once the plans were put together, Veterans International Aid set about organising the next walk, the second in the series which was completed during August 2010 and was a 600 mile walk from Land’s End to Dover along the south coast of England. Again this was manned by a 10 man team plus support crew of veterans who suffered the effects of war and had been diagnosed with PTSD.
In September 2010 another walk was put together, the third in the series which was an 84 mile walk along Hadrian’s Wall. This event was different in many respects, as veterans who had taken part on the previous walks were invited to become Team Leaders for the walk, as it was going to be carried out as a 3 team event over a weekend with each team walking 14 miles per day.
VIA invited members of the public to take part on this walk and the veterans led them over the weekend along the route, which was a huge achievement for the individuals and for VIA. After the walk finished, VIA worked on the plans for future walks and developing the VIA Team.
Billy MacLeod and Darren (Daz) Hennessy were also invited by VIA Patron Robert Lawrence MC to take part on an incredible expedition with Global Adventure Plus to the Himal-Praresh region of India to drive to the highest point of the Himalayas using Enfield Motor Cycles and small Indian Jeeps.
This was an amazing expedition travelling along small mountain tracks next to 1,000 metre drops and those taking part included former military personell who had been injured either physically or psychologically alongside civilians who had experienced the same kind of injuries.
“I learned so much about the dynamics of running an expedition on this trip and also how the military and civilian personnel mixed and helped each other and how this would fit in with how I was developing what was to become the ALIVE Program”. Billy MacLeod
Billy MacLeod then went through a period of study into what was being done in other countries to help veterans who suffer the effects of war and found that in Australia there was a programme that was designed for young people called Wilderness and Adventure Therapy that was designed by a Doctor Simon Crisp.
A new program was developed with the help of an ex Royal Tank Regiment contact called Paul Boag who has now become our Trainer for the courses he has developed for our Team Leaders.
Much of what these young people were going through in fact mirrored what veterans were experiencing on leaving the services and together with Paul Boag, Billy MacLeod developed VIA’s own unique ALIVE Program which is a three stage process that veterans who suffer the effects of war or who find the transition to civilian life can take part on.
It had been mentioned to VIA several times during 2010 that people couldn’t understand the name Veterans International Aid.
Through contacts at Cardiff University (University Veterans Institute), it was decided to put the name to a group of sociology students and ask them using the name alone what they believed the purpose of the charity was.
As a result of this it was decided to change the name of the charity from Veterans International Aid to Veterans In Action and this was completed with the Charity Commission in March 2011.
Since the first walk in 2010, VIA have now completed the Union Flag Walks series that covered a distance of 6,400 miles over the UK with many veterans from all different Corps and Regiments that participated.
In 2014 VIA set off on its largest challenge to date called World War 1 – 100, which was to walk 4,000 miles around the coastline of the UK to commemorate the start of World War 1. Unfortunately the walk was stopped after 2,500 miles due to an injury to expedition leader Billy MacLeod.
In true VIA style planning started immediately to do the walk again to start on May 04th 2015 with the aim of inviting people to join the team throughout the walk. These walkers would walk alongside those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in this newly named ‘Walk 4 PTSD’ to help stop the stigma of those suffering from mental health issues.
VIA also run smaller weekend events that those who have taken part on previous expeditions have been encouraged to lead which has shown them how far they have moved forward and also shows those taking part for the first time what can be achieved.
In July 2013, VIA took possession of its first Regional ALIVE Centre which is situated on the Hampshire/Wiltshire border close to Tidworth Garrison and Andover.
The first year saw veterans developing the centre to the way we wanted it with a workshop and separate office in two different buildings. Our first project was started from the centre called Veterans In Focus, a photography and film project, due to a grant from the Big Lottery which ended with an exhibition of veterans photography at an Open Day held in April 2014.
To enable the TEAM to set off on the World War 1 – 100 expedition an ambitious project started with VIA purchasing an old library truck and over 4 months of hard work this was developed into a 10 berth fully liveried tour bus complete with kitchen and wet room/toilet.
This was done as part of the newest project called Built by Veterans and was a very worthwhile project which the veterans are extremely proud of achieving. This bus will always be worked on to make it more luxurious in time.
VIA began to develop more projects during 2015 to be run from the VIA ALIVE Centre and through funding from the National Lottery Awards for All Scheme funds were secured to fund some veterans through yearlong Bushcraft Instructor Courses for a new project that will be launched in 2017 called Veterans In Wilderness.
In November 2015 after an online appeal to raise funds to build a new structure at the VIA ALIVE Centre a Troop from 33 Armoured Engineer Squadron from 26 Engineer Regiment began work to build a project room, wet room and kitchen as part of pre-deployment training and they worked alongside veterans who were former Royal Engineer soldiers who were skilled in construction trades and helped the serving personnel develop their trade skills.
The work was carried out over a 6 week period and it was then down to the VIA Team to fit out the kitchen with all appliances supplied by Curry’s (Know How) and this took the Team into the new year. This task worked on so many levels with veterans donating funds to purchase materials to help serving personnel carry out a construction task as part of pre-deployment training with veterans working alongside them helping them with the skills they had learned during their time in the army and also in civilian life.
It was during this construction task that the VIA Team were approached by the Troop Staff Sergeant, Chris Milligan, with an idea of starting a boxing gym to be run from the VIA ALIVE Centre. This was something that hadn’t been thought of by the VIA Team and after working out how this would in fact help veterans a plan was put together. The aim was to bring three communities together who normally would not mix with each other in serving personnel, veterans and the local community.
The VIA Team worked on a grant application to Sports England to help fund the gym and together with a grant from St. James’s Place and a donation from Working Environments funds were secured to fund all the equipment needed to set up the gym and to affiliate to England Boxing. The name of the Boxing Club would be ALIVE Amateur Boxing Club and began in July 2016.
During this same period another new project was started at the VIA ALIVE Centre called Made by Veterans http://www.madeby veterans.org.uk. This was started due to a donation from Target Engraving that enabled VIA to purchase some machinery to make printed mugs. The aim of the project was to have veterans making items of merchandise as a form of Occupational Therapy and to be involved on a more day to day basis at the VIA ALIVE Centre.
During 2016 VIA received a huge donation of £20,000 to enable the Team to purchase more equipment for the Made by Veterans Project and a Direct to Garment printer, Oki printer and Heat Press was purchased to print on textiles and a new website was developed to help sell the items to the public. All funds raised from the project would be used directly to buy more machinery so that more veterans can take part and to help those in need. It is hoped that in the future the project will grow and employ some veterans.
Taking part on the day to day projects run from the VIA ALIVE Centre will make the transition to doing VIA’s larger outdoor events and projects much easier for veterans to take part on and will give veterans an interest which will keep them involved for however long they want to be.
VIA have now settled into our new Headquarters and ALIVE Centre and will develop a series of projects that will be run from the centre with veterans input as to which projects they would like to be run. The Centre is set in a fantastic rural setting of a working farm surrounded by some of the best countryside Hampshire/Wiltshire has to offer and will allow VIA to grow over the coming years.
VIA will continue to develop the Centre over the coming years and the projects that we run always looking at fresh ideas on how we can help those who suffer.