Spindogs
15 February 2022 | Comment | Article by Paul Spiteri

Rebuilding my life after service: Building a castle

Hugh James meets Mikey J Allen - Mikey was crowned ‘Welsh Veteran of the Year’ and ‘Inspiration of the Year’ - at the 2021 Welsh Veterans Awards, which Hugh James proudly sponsors.

Now a Director with Endex Support Services, Mikey shares his inspirational story.

Here, in the second part of our series, Mikey talks to Paul Spiteri, an Associate in our Military Department, about his experiences losing his hand-built cabin and the subsequent rebuilding of both his home and his life.

I had been living in the cabin on and off for two years when it was taken down as I’d had no planning permission. It was a terrible blow seeing it demolished after all the work I’d put into it. The officials were sympathetic to me, but they were just doing their job. 

The press got hold of the story at the time and I was portrayed as a real-life Rambo who had been living rough in the woods.

Needless to say, this was a difficult time for me. Fortunately, although I’d lost the cabin, I wasn’t homeless. I had renewed relationships with friends and my family and so I stayed with my father for a few weeks, reflecting on how my life had taken so many upward and downward turns. 

Just when I was at this low ebb, the kindness of strangers came to my rescue. A local farming family contacted me with an offer to live in a caravan on their land, where I could also rebuild the cabin.

Apparently, they had seen the fires from my cabin for the past couple of years, heard my story and understood what I had been through.

So, I moved into the caravan. It was lovely and comfortable and they had two horses who would look into my window from time to time, not to mention donkeys, chickens, and ducks in the surrounding land.

I went from a feeling of complete isolation to being surrounded by a menagerie of animals!

One of the dogs even moved into the caravan with me, which was great company. Whenever I set foot outside the caravan, there was always a queue of animals outside waiting for me. This gave me a great feeling of being at one with nature.

The caravan, the animals, they all helped guide me through some dark memories and thoughts I’d brought back from my military life. In terms of coping, I call it “falling forward”. When troubles hit hard, it’s common to hear the phrase “falling back on hard times”, going backward, not progressing. I have a lot of energy and adrenaline going through my system when I have flashback episodes, but I’ve learned to make the best use of the emotions, being positive, not falling backward, but forward. 

When I moved onto the new land, I did a lot of stone collecting. I would take a military basha, (a waterproof canvas sheet) walk up and down the mountain and fill it up with stones. I would walk up and down all day, just working away my intrusive thoughts, focusing on the task at hand. I found it incredibly beneficial.

 

Before I knew it, I’d built about a third of the walls of a new structure to replace the cabin. I was then visited by two gentlemen from the Welsh Dry Stone Walling Association. They were both veterans themselves, who taught people how to build dry stone walls. Despite my efforts, which they appreciated, they told me that I hadn’t done it properly. If I took it down, they said they would come back in a fortnight and teach me how to build it properly. True to their word, they came back two weeks later accompanied by some other veterans and demonstrated where I had gone wrong and how to do build it better, to last. We’ve remained friends ever since.

 

I have nothing but happy memories from my time in the first cabin. Frankly, the experience was affirmative and life changing for me. I hoped that by building a second cabin, other people would be able to share in these memories and, at the very least, just have somewhere to go to let off steam and get away from it all.

I built the cabin structure itself over the first nine months of 2019 and then in 2020 I made flat platforms, a person-sized chessboard, seating area and outdoor gym.

The lockdowns during 2020 and 2021 have been a terrible time for people’s mental health - not just veterans, but anyone who has felt the loss of loved ones, loss of liberty and their zest for living.

During the 2021 lockdown, I started collecting more stones and one day had a brainwave to transform the second cabin into a much larger, completely stone built structure, that has since become known as the Castle. Even at an early stage I fantasised that people would come to the Castle to marvel at its magnificence.

As I built the Castle, over time, I was introduced to a lot of really good people who I talked to openly about some of my experiences. We discussed what might be appropriate forms of help for other veterans. 

As a result of these discussions, a small team came together, with a view to working towards a bigger goal aside from the Castle build, along the lines of what I had envisaged.

We immediately launched a GoFundMe page and have, to date, raised more than £5000. These funds have put 48 people through accredited mental health training courses, including veterans, NHS staff, bereaved families, volunteers, and charity workers. We have also been able to put seven veterans through a forestry first aid course.

From these initial discussions and initiatives, Endex Support Services was born - a Community Interest company, working toward charity status, with whom I am a director. 

The sheer number of people who came up to the Castle has been phenomenal and I’m very humbled that people have so much interest and enthusiasm for it. Some days there would be 30 to 40 people, some in family groups. 

Even to this day, people travel there from far afield to visit. I’m immensely patriotic, having served my country proudly, so it seemed only apt to erect a flagpole at the castle site, flying the Welsh dragon.

Today I no longer live in the caravan, rather in a little house at the bottom of the valley. From my window I can see the castle on the hillside. It’s become a major talking point in the local community, many of whom can also see the Castle from the village, the Welsh flag flying high. 

 

They absolutely love it and if I go for a run down the street, the villagers will regularly pat me on the back or stop me to thank me – just like Rocky Balboa in the movies. From Rambo to Rocky!

The Castle will continue to grow. The intention is for Endex to host people suffering with their mental health to undertake dry-stone walling training and help with the build. This will not only assist their therapy, but give them a purpose, a goal to aim for and reward them with qualifications at the end of the course.

With every stone laid, someone will be on the path to recovery.

 

Join us for the third part of Mikey’s story, where Endex go from strength to strength and Mikey’s achievements are recognised by his peers.

In case you missed it, you can also read the first part of Mikey’s story here.

For more information about Endex, the charity Mikey set up to help rehabilitate veterans and support their mental health, please visit:

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline UK. Call 0800 689 5652. The line is open 24 hours every day.

Legal services:

As well as treatment for the condition, victims of PTSD may be entitled to make a claim for compensation. This can be by way of a Government payment under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme or War Pension Scheme, or via a civil claim for compensation. For further information on the AFCS and War Pension claim visit the gov.uk website.

Many veterans may not be aware that they are entitled to bring both types of claim.  If one claim is turned down, this doesn't mean the other claim is bound to fail. Veterans should ensure they seek expert advice about their entitlement to bring a claim.

If you think you may be entitled to civil compensation, please contact our specialist military team on 029 2078 5691. You can also find out more about our military legal services on our website.

Disclaimer: The information on the Hugh James website is for general information only and reflects the position at the date of publication. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be treated as such. If you would like to ensure the commentary reflects current legislation, case law or best practice, please contact the blog author.

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