How a former soldier is helping others take to civilian life
PUBLISHED: 14:26 29 January 2016 | UPDATED: 14:26 29 January 2016
Gemma Gardner uses the holistic approach to help soldiers transition to life outside the forces, writes Paul Mackenzie
Former soldier Gemma Gardner is determined that no-one should go through what she did. She was preparing to take her own life when she was discovered by her husband on the bathroom floor of their house at Weeton Barracks.
‘He dragged me out and told me I had a choice to make – between being with my family or leaving,’ she said. ‘I chose my family.’
After a career in the Army, which included spells in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Afghanistan, she was medically discharged earlier this year. And she is now using her experience to help others – both members of the forces and civilians.
‘I broke down when the officer asked for my ID card. I had lost my identity. I went from having a rank to being a no-one and I spent three months doing nothing. I wanted to help people and to restore the self worth I had when I was a sergeant. I thought there was no point being here.’ Gemma has launched an online business designed to boost mental and physical wellbeing and she added: ‘I don’t want anyone else to close the curtains, hide themselves away and have a mental breakdown.
‘The website gives people somewhere to turn to because I don’t want my friends and colleagues to go through what I went through.
‘I can’t stand by and watch that happen and if they need someone to give them a voice that will be me.’
Gemma, who now has three children of her own, aged from 11 to three and an eight-year-old step daughter, signed up for the Army as a teenager after dropping out of her business studies course in Wigan.
‘The college was near two pubs and a chippy, so I didn’t spend long in college,’ she said. ‘I saw the Army Careers Centre and I thought that could get me out of trouble so I waited for my dad to have a drink, then got him to sign the forms. I was only 17.
‘My mum didn’t believe me when I told her, but come June 26, which is her birthday, I passed out on the parade ground. She wasn’t best impressed at first but she was proud in the end.
‘I realised I could do qualifications, have a life and not rely on my parents. It gave me freedom but it’s like a prison and a lot of people don’t realise that. You have got to account to someone all day, every day.
‘I had a fantastic career but I always had problems with my knee. My legs swell and I was told I couldn’t be rehabilitated and it had gone too far to have an operation.
‘I have tried working but sometimes I am housebound so I had no other option but to run my own business. After what I went through, I had to look at ways of getting off my medication and that’s why I took the holistic route.’ Her Holistic Dreams website now carries details of therapists, charities and other agencies which offer help.
She also hosts wellness events bringing holistic practitioners together and all the profits go to her charity Direct Transitioning Support which helps soldiers make the move to civilian life.
The Career Transition Programme is the Ministry of Defence’s own scheme to help soldiers cope with the switch and Gemma’s work gives additional help.
‘The CTP helps people find employment but no-one sets soldiers up to survive outside. Leaving brings its own anxiety and things aren’t as straightforward as they seem,’ she said. ‘I think a lot of people really care what happens to troops when they leave the Army but what we have here can help so many people, not just the military.
‘A lot of people go through a bereavement process when they leave the military and that causes transitional anxiety. You have nothing when the security of the Army is taken away but the soldiers don’t always see that. Everything has been done for us and when they leave they won’t have that any more.’
And the 34-year-old added: ‘The Army gave me a career and a lifestyle and it’s good for me to be able to give something back.
‘I have thrown myself into this and it is keeping me busy so I don’t have chance to feel sorry for myself. I can see I am accomplishing something. I have put myself under more pressure so I don’t have chance to think about me.
‘I’m putting everything they need in one place. It’s not just a directory. There are charities, holistic therapists on there and people are using the site to create an online community. As we grow it’s getting bigger and better.’