Kirkcaldy veteran turns life around to help others

Ben Donnachie. Picture: George McLuskie.
Ben Donnachie. Picture: George McLuskie.

A former soldier from Kirkcaldy has turned his life around and is helping other veterans battle mental illness after being diagnosed with PTSD.

Ben Donnachie (33), has set up the Warrior Academy for Rehabilitation (WAR) to help develop and improve the lives of veterans by offering fitness and nutritional advice that promotes health and wellbeing.

Cllr Rod Kavanagh. Picture: George McLuskie.

Cllr Rod Kavanagh. Picture: George McLuskie.

The Academy is a veteran owned social enterprise designed to provide a therapeutic environment for rehabilitation using sports and outdoor pursuits for veterans,

WAR was developed to address many of the issues military personnel face when dealing with injuries and mental health issues sustained during military service and leads up to five veterans per session through a six month program designed to improve their physical and mental health.

Ben will be running military style bootcamps to help veterans look and feel better, the academy is supported by Veteran’s 1st Point which was established to assist ex-service personnel with welfare and mental health concerns.

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Ben served tours in Iraq, 2005 and Afghanistan, 2010 before returning to Northern Iraq in 2015 to support Kurdish fighters in the battle against ISIS.

Ben showing us how it is done. Picture: George McLuskie.

Ben showing us how it is done. Picture: George McLuskie.

He had joined the Territorial Army while studying Interactive Multimedia at college and served with the TA for the next 13 years.

When Ben was only 19 he volunteered for Operation Telic 6 in Iraq as a rifleman and helped to train the Iraqi police force.

While out on patrol in the Iraqi city of Basra, the vehicle Ben and his squad mates were travelling in was blown up by a roadside bomb.

Ben’s comrade, who was providing top cover in the Snatch Land Rover they were in was hit in the neck by a ball bearing from the bomb.

Ben’s quick reaction to administer aid saved his friend’s life and won him a commendation for bravery.

He said: “When the explosion happened, I could smell the cordite from the bomb and the vehicle was filled with dust and smoke, everything was quiet for a few seconds, and then the shouting started.

“Everyone was shouting that they were okay, but the guy that was on top cover didn’t respond, it felt like minutes passed but it must have only been seconds, the guy on top slid down into the vehicle and looked straight at me, then a spurt of blood came from his neck and hit me in the face.

“I knew right away it was an arterial bleed, so as soon as it happened I hit pause for a second to take in what I was seeing, I stuck my finger in his neck and grabbed the artery, put my other hand into my pocket and pulled out a field dressing, ripped it open with my teeth then tried to put it on while still holding on to his artery.”

When asked how he coped with the trauma of seeing his friend injured, Ben said: “When we got back to base, I broke down, but I never had time to dwell on it, you just have to put it to the back of your mind and get your gear back on and go out again the next day.”

Ben returned home to Kirkcaldy after seven months in Iraq and after working in several different jobs and taking part in specialist training with the TA as a forward observer, he was called up to prepare for service in Afghanistan.

Ben said: “I went to Afghanistan at the end of 2009, and was sent to the Sangin Valley, it is a very dangerous place, it is the Taliban heartland.

“I was attached to a reconnaissance platoon, our job was to go out and antagonise the Taliban to come out and fight.”

Ben suffered further trauma when two of his friends were killed by a suicide bomber on a motorbike.

He said: “When our friends were killed, you can see afterwards how it changed people, some guys were really broken, but you don’t have a chance to think about it or you wouldn’t be able to effectively do your job.”

When Ben returned home in 2010 he secured an apprenticeship with Fife Council as a plumber and gas engineer and despite excelling in the role, he struggled to find motivation to get out of bed in the mornings.

Things came to a head for him one day when he was working on a client’s boiler, he said: “It was Remembrance Day and I had asked the client if it would be okay to go and sit in the van for the minute’s silence at 11am.

“She was fine with that and I got on with my work, when I work I zone out, I looked at my watch and realised that I had missed the minute silence.

“I went crazy, I went out to the van and pulled everything out of the back on to the road, then I just sat in the van and broke down.

“I got an appointment at the Lothian Veterans Centre and they referred me to the Combat Stress charity and that is when I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety from combat stress.”

Ben had been closely following the rise of ISIS and felt that the Government was not doing enough to help, so after helping other volunteers to travel to the Middle East, he decided to go himself.

Ben said: “I travelled from Edinburgh to Turkey and then to Northern Iraq, I already had contacts there and met up with one of them, he had learned English from listening to rappers like Tupac and Dr Dre, so you can imagine the language.

“I bought a weapon at a market and took a taxi to Kirkuk to join the fighting.”

When Ben returned home several months later he found it hard to cope with everything that he had been through.

He said: “I turned to drink and drugs and split from my partner, that was when I was made homeless.

“I ended up in a scatter flat on the prom in Kirkcaldy, I was sat there without my girlfriend and my daughter and thought to myself, what’s the point.

Ben attempted to take his own life, but thankfully a close friend intervened.

He said: “The next day is when I decided to get my act together. I had always been thinking about doing something like the Warrior Academy to help other veterans that have been through the same experiences as me, that’s when I decided to go for it and turn my life around.”

His story should inspire us all...

Kirkcaldy Councillor Rod Cavanagh is a former Royal Marine and is the Armed Forces & Veterans Community Champion for Fife and has commended Ben on his sacrifices. He said: “I don’t think that anyone would fail to be moved by Ben’s story, Ben has certainly been through some of the worst situations that anyone can possibly go through. Everyone is different and everyone reacts in different ways, and people that live through these situations cope in different ways, that’s why Ben has done so well because it has affected him so deeply, that it has sent him on a sharp downward spiral of drink and drugs and he has managed to turn all this around, that takes some doing.

“Ben is the epitome of the courage and tenacity that can be achieved and his story should inspire all of us.”