Supporting veterans through therapeutic retreats

Supporting veterans through therapeutic retreats

Way back in 2011, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship and travelled to the USA to compare and contrast services available to military veterans that had struggled to adjust to civilian life.

"Our campaign work, and privileged access to hidden populations, has allowed us to design ‘needs led’ services and make positive recommendations to government for institutional and policy change."
Photograph of Churchill Fellow Tony Wright

To describe my Fellowship as life changing for me would be an understatement. As a medically discharged early service leaver, I could identify with a transition process that left one isolated, depressed, lonely and disenfranchised from both the military community one had left, and the civilian community one had re-joined. In hindsight, the support on offer in the early 80s was at best one dimensional, at its worst, non-existent. It was no surprise to me that many veterans felt abandoned misunderstood and disillusioned or didn’t know where to go for help. Training and qualifying as a registered social worker opened up many new opportunities for me to be of service to others - especially former service personnel.

In 2013, I established Forward Assist as a registered charity in England and Wales, prior to that I had been running peer led ‘drop in’ groups for veterans since 2007. Forward Assist’s emphasis on post-service citizenship and desire to facilitate opportunities that enabled veterans to reconnect with their authentic selves and communities, was, and still is, paramount to everything we do. We celebrated our tenth year in January 2023 and our ethnographic style of research, ensuring we are fully inclusive, has helped to identify key gaps in services for minority veteran groups. By listening to the lived experience of invisible populations including women veterans, LGBTQ+ veterans and others, we have been able to open up a new front of support for marginalised veterans and their families. Our campaign work, and privileged access to hidden populations, has allowed us to design ‘needs led’ services and make positive recommendations to government for institutional and policy change. Since 2007, there has been a proliferation of veteran centric support groups established across the country to support veterans and their families. There are now over 160 registered ‘Drop In’ centres for veterans currently in existence and this is a very good outcome for all veterans and the wider community.

It was during my Churchill Fellowship learning travels to the USA that I first heard about residential therapeutic retreats for veterans. On return to the UK I organised our first retreat by facilitating a group visit to the USA. Since then, we have facilitated numerous residential breaks, both in the UK and abroad, that offer the benefit of physical, emotional and psychological withdrawal from the stresses and strains of everyday life. On retreat, life is simple, every aspect of our retreats let veterans relax in a peaceful environment with time always available for quiet contemplation and reflection. Many participants take time to enjoy self-directed exercise, join in educational group visits or just take the opportunity to catch up with friends by embracing, for example, the wonderful café culture of France.

A group from a retreat, visiting Saint-Junien near Limoges, France Download 'Picture1'

We keep things simple, shopping at local food markets, cooking and enjoying three healthy nutritious meals a day is incredibly therapeutic and promotes, heathy eating habits, improved sleep patterns and a sense of well-being. Interestingly, it is the retired combat veterans that have enjoyed rewarding second careers that appear to benefit the most from the retreats. This could be because it creates a unique opportunity to reconnect with comrades and share memories whilst simultaneously updating each other on their lives after service.

One of our retreat participants said :“It occurred to me recently, that although inwardly, I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the positive impact the trip had on me, I had not really shared it outwardly with anyone, and I had not really expressed my gratitude with you and everyone at Forward Assist at the time, for what you all had done for me and for that I apologise. I understand that this was due to where I was in my healing journey however, I wish that when returning I had contacted you and thanked you, and given more feedback about the course. I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity of healing, and all the effort and consideration that yourself and those at Forward Assist went to, to support me. I would not be where I am now without it. Thank you."

In summary, it’s been an honour to be of service to others via Forward Assist and I’m looking forward to further research trips to Canada and America in 2024.


The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.


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