Stamford Hill police officer launches breakfast club for Hackney veterans
PUBLISHED: 13:55 09 September 2019 | UPDATED: 15:19 09 September 2019
A Stamford Hill police officer has launched a breakfast club for fellow veterans after realising there was a lack of support available in Hackney.
Pc James Higgins spent eight years in the army, and four in the Irish Defence Force before that.
Like most soldiers, he struggled when he returned home from Afghanistan, and credits his "incredibly supportive" wife Louise with turning his life around.
But it was an encounter at a police cordon in Hackney that planted the seed for the breakfast club.
He told the Gazette: "I had to ask a homeless guy to move at a crime scene. He went into an angry rant about being a veteran, saying: 'There's no support for us' and that there was nowhere for him to go.
"Since then it has played on my mind and recently I started thinking: 'What is there for veterans in Hackney?'.
"I looked online, and there are the main charities but nothing specific. There's no Royal British Legion. I put myself in a homeless guy's shoes.
"I went to the council front desk where they have leaflets and information, but couldn't see anything for veterans. Same in the libraries.
"Maybe there is somewhere, but if I couldn't find it with a phone and the internet, someone worse off won't find it either."
Louise, a Tower of London warden, encouraged him to do something about it, and he turned to members of a veterans Facebook group called Warriors RV.
"It's a lifeline for people like me," said James. "Veterans can post if they are struggling and need someone to talk to. If another veteran lives nearby they will go and help them."
Minutes after asking for help in Hackney, James had been referred to Dereck Hardman, who founded the Armed Forces Veterans Breakfast Club in 2007. There are now dozens across the country.
James continued: "It's not a charity, you buy your own breakfast, but you're in the company of other veterans who have gone through some traumatic experiences and you can maybe relate to them a bit more.
"Just by them being there and having a chat and a bit of banter, that might be all the help they need. They might just need to share their story.
"As supportive as some families are, sometimes we can't just share out stories with them, but we do need to get them off or chest every now and again."
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Within the hour Dereck had created the Hackney group and handed the keys to James.
"It's not just veterans," he added. "If you're a mum, dad, brother, sister who lost loved ones, you might just want to be around fellow veterans. It's for anyone with strong links to the veteran community."
James joined the Irish Defence Force straight out of school in 2004, and it was after a terrifying experience in Lebanon two years later that he realised he wanted to join the British Army.
He explained: "We were in Beirut and my job was to collect containers in the dockyard three hours away for the camp. One day we were in a truck and there were road blocks set up - burning cars and tyres.
"There were people everywhere with sticks and stones ready to not let anyone leave. Beirut was a neutral zone, so we dependent on the Lebanese army and police for protection.
"A car crashed into the front of the truck. I got out to tend to the driver and as that happened a Jeep came driving up beside me.
"A shotgun appeared out of the window and was pointed at my head. I was a rabbit in headlights. Then the gun was pointed in the area and they drove off laughing.
"After that I wanted to develop more as a soldier and I knew the British Army was all over the world and doing a lot more than we were."
In 2008 James joined the Royal Irish Regiment and was posted to Afghanistan.
He continued: "I'd heard all the stories. Usually over a pint, and you can't help but think they were exaggerated. But they weren't.
"We were shot at, we shot the enemy, there were explosions and four or five fire fights a day. I was absolutely exhausted.
"You hear on the radio that soldiers were getting hurt and sometimes killed. It does take its toll on you. Anyone who comes back from somewhere like that and says they are fine, it doesn't seem possible.
"I thought I was, but my wife saw through that and saw I was struggling in a way. I'm so lucky I met her.
"What I'm doing in Hackney, being humorous and the local bobby, that's down to her. Before I met her three years ago I was quiet, I just came in and did my job.
"She is incredibly supportive. She's spends all her time in the barracks [at work] and she's very understanding as the wife of a veteran struggling with personal experiences of Afghanistan."
James says the breakfast club is just the start, and plans to do more to raise awareness of support for veterans. He is also looking for a pub in Hackney that would be willing to provide a space once a month to the group.
Anyone who wants to find out more can email email@example.com or check out the Facebook group here.