The bond between military personnel who have seen conflict firsthand knows no bounds. But it’s not just on the battlefield where this camaraderie can bloom – as D-Day veteran George Skipper knows only too well.
As the country gathers together this month to honour those who have served, Mr Skipper was able to shake hands with the former tank crewman who helped him back to his feet at one of his lowest points.
Having been affected by extreme loneliness after the death of his second wife, Mr Skipper was able to get support from the Veterans Wellbeing and Assessment and Liaison Service (VWLAS), which is run jointly by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW) and Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust (TEWV).
Mr Skipper was put in touch with support worker Dave Findlay, who helped Mr Skipper overcome his isolation and then support and encourage him in becoming a Chelsea Pensioner.
Now settled comfortably into the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Mr Skipper – a Légion d’Honneur winner – invited Dave to down to London so he could thank him in person for the work he had done, and show him how happy he was in his new home.
The 93-year-old, who previously lived in Amble and Whitley Bay, said: “In my mind, the day Dave first came to see me was the best day’s work he’s ever done.
“That was the first time that being a Cheslea Pensioner was put in my head, and I have to say how pleased I am with how the VWALS team works so well together.
“Inviting him down to see me settled was the least I could do. It has changed my life coming here and I can spend what time I have left enjoying it.”
Until early 2015, Mr Skipper had lived in Amble with his wife Mary, who herself had flown Spitfires from factories to airfields during the Second World War. But after she died in February last year, Mr Skipper moved to Whitley Bay and had become increasingly lonely.
The great-grandfather-of-eight got in touch with Royal British Legion, who were able to refer him to VWALS and thus get him the specialist support he needed. The VWALS team helped Mr Skipper get out and about in his local community, attending social groups and coffee meetings for people of his age, before helping him apply to the Royal Hospital.
Dave, a former tank crewman with the Queen’s Royal Hussars, said: “When I first met Mr Skipper he was on his chin straps and feeling very low. But by working with him, we were able to get him in touch with local groups and eventually encourage him to apply to the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
“Heading down to London to see Mr Skipper was one of the best things I’ve ever done. It was pretty amazing. I’d been there before in my Army days, but to go down and have a one-to-one with a Chelsea Pensioner – it was so inspiring.
“He’s now happy as anything and that’s wonderful to see. That’s what our team is here for.”
The pair were able to enjoy lunch together and Mr Skipper was proud to give Dave a tour of his new home.
VWALS offers a single point of access for veterans and the team, many of whom are ex-Forces themselves, can direct ex-military personnel to appropriate mental health services, as well as offer practical help, such as with housing or pensions.
Dave said: “For the VWALS team, we’re there to help any veteran and their family with their wellbeing. It’s about the holistic approach and making sure these incredible people who have served get the right support for them.
“This was a gentleman who was never getting out, but now he’s heading to Ascot, West Ham United. He’s been lauded at the French Embassy and he’s out and about all the time. It’s been an honour and a privilege working with him.”
Mr Skipper served as Acting Sergeant with the Royal Army Service Corps. Just a teenager, he headed to El Alamein and in total spent 14 months in the desert as a Bren gunner.
He was awarded the French Government’s highest military honour for his role in the D-Day campaign. He landed at Gold Beach, again as a Bren gunner, aged only 21 on June 6, 1944.
Later that year, he served in the Ardennes with the 11-man 43rd Field Security Unit, acting as a sharp shooter. After the liberation, he ended up in Germany, where he was tasked with transporting people who had been imprisoned in concentration camps.
Once back in the UK, Mr Skipper worked as a fuel tank driver for Redline and Esso, and became active in his local Conservative Party, before taking on the role of president of Warkworth and Amble District Royal British Legion Branch.
For more information about VWALS, which is provided by NTW working alongside Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with Combat Stress and the Royal British Legion, phone 0191 441 5974 or visit www.ntw.nhs.uk/vwals.Veterans can contact VWALS direct – or you can get a relative, someone who supports you, or your GP to get in touch on your behalf.