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Friday, 25 April 2014

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‘We have to get away from the idea the poppy appeal is just to help old people’

It’s a small thing with a huge significance. Think poppies and the image for most of us is of old men with stiff moustaches squaring shoulders stooped by their years and marching to their memories as they lay a wreath of remembrance.

Tony Parrini photo
Tony Parrini, branch secretary of the Carlisle and Stanwix branch of The Royal British Legion

For some, Remembrance Day doesn’t belong to modern life.

It is a date for our grandads and grannies to remember long-dead old friends, old times and old wars.

It all seems so distant, a faraway time of black and white photos and John Wayne movies.

A part of history, not of our day-to-day mobile phone app-happy, social networking existence.

That has changed in recent years.

Over the past decade or so, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought the full, grim horror of warfare, its effects and its life-changing legacy crashing into our modern, safe, comfortable lives.

The modern wars have prompted the creation of a new organisation that encourages us to show our support for our service men and women who risk life and limb in the name of the country.

Help for Heroes was founded by Bryn and Emma Parry in October 2007 out of a desire to help the wounded Servicemen and women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

In a short time it has raised millions and even added a touch of glamour not normally associated to fundraising for servicemen and women.

Sexy soprano Katherine Jenkins updated the old British Legion image of Vera Lynn, but even the Welsh singer can’t compare to the celebrities such as David Beckham, Robbie Williams, Alesha Dixon and Pixie Lott.

Instead of rattling a tin once a year and hoping someone will drop a coin, Help for Heroes has wristbands and social networking, while supporters organise sponsored walks, cycle rides the length of the country, foreign mountain treks and other events all year round.

Retired Squadron Leader Tony Parrini, secretary of the Carlisle and Stanwix branch of the Royal British Legion, dismisses any thoughts of his organisation being old and out-of-touch.

He says: “While there are charities like Help for Heroes and others who are helping out the immediate problems of servicemen from Afghanistan and Iraq, the question you have to ask is who is going to be looking after these people and their dependents 20, 30, 40 years down the line? It is likely to be the British Legion and SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association).

“The huge work that the British Legion is doing at the moment is with people under the age of 40.”

He explains that an increasing area of work for his charity is financial as ex-armed forces personnel fall into debt after being discharged.

“There is a lot more debt consultation going on than ever before, and there is a problem of petty crime and of homelessness for some of them,” he says.

“It is today’s ex-servicemen that the British Legion is concentrating on more than ever.

“Most of the World War Two heroes and their families have been taken care of and sorted out with what they need, it is the servicemen today that we’re dealing with.”

Roger Burge, chairman of the Workington Royal British Legion branch welcomes the added attention Help for Heroes has brought to the work done on behalf of our armed forces.

But he too discounts any idea of competition between charities raising funds for ex-servicemen and women and their families.

“We are all doing the same thing,” he insists.

“Help for Heroes is not competition, they have got a good publicity organisation and they have raised the profile of the needs of service people.

“It has not had any effect on our fundraising, people are still very generous.”

As a nation we have been shaped by wars. They are part of our history and the sacrifices they involved should not be forgotten. Almost every village, town and city in the UK has a cenotaph or war memorial.

But there are other, more modern reminders of our wars that can be seen anywhere, any day. They walk around our streets – ex-servicemen and women and their families.

Roger, 66, a former corporal with the Royal Engineers admits it is a struggle to get younger people involved with the British Legion and in the poppy appeal, even though it is helping more and more people their own age.

“Last year, the national organisation helped about 16,000 people who came back from Afghanistan.

“People have got to get it out of their heads that the British Legion is just for the first and second world war veterans.

“We are helping people from all the conflicts since then.”

He points out that while some charities are focused on taking care of those who have just returned from conflicts, the Royal British Legion provides long term and long-lasting help and welfare to ex-servicemen and women and their families.

But you don’t necessarily have to have seen conflict to be helped by the charity. Thanks to the Legion, Paula Stead-Reid has had tens of thousands of pounds worth of work carried out on her house to help her cope with her disability.

The 36-year-old was commanding officer of 1862 Air Cadets from Carlisle until an accident at work four years ago severed a nerve and left her with lower left leg paralysis.

Now she can’t walk very far and when she does, she has to use sticks.

Husband Fred spent 15 years in the RAF Regiment and was a veteran of the Falklands and the first Gulf War campaign before he joined the Cadets.

When she was assessed for work that was needed on her house in Harraby, Carlisle, she was advised to appeal to service charities for funding.

“We thought the help should be for those injured at war, not for us,” she says.

“The amount of fundraising Fred and I had done through the cadets, you assume the money goes to people who need it through combat.

“We’ve never been on benefits or needed help from charity before.

“We are very proud people that would prefer to do things on our own.

“When I first had my accident we paid for a shower to be fitted in the bathroom.

“But the British Legion at Kendal HQ were brilliant.

“As soon as they were involved, there were wheels in motion.”

Although the British Legion did not provide any money for the work needed on Paula’s house, it contacted different charities, including the RAF Benevolent Fund and the Officers Association, and co-ordinated the financing of the adaptations to her home.

As well as having her bathroom converted to a wet room, she has also had a stairlift installed and this summer a special step lift was fitted in her front yard to allow her easier access up to street level.

“I was very surprised to get the help that I did.

“The British Legion is there for these things.

“My first point of call through all this was the Legion in Kendal.

“I was not in full service, but they respected what I had done.”

Some £410,000 was raised by Cumbria for the charity in the year to September 30, while the HQ in Kendal co-ordinated the spending of £1.3m on needy members across the county from a range of government and charity organisations.

While Tony Parrini and Roger Burge say Cumbrian folk are as generous as ever in giving for the poppy appeal, they both admit they’d like to see more youngsters involved in the British Legion.

“I’m trying to get more new young blood, whether ex-service people or not,” says Tony Parrini.

“You don’t have to be an ex-serviceman to be in the British Legion, just people who are interested in helping.

“We have to get the image sorted out and get away from the idea that it is just for old people.”

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