Neil Francis

When Able Rate Neil was in an accident on shore leave that left him tetraplegic, his life changed forever. SSAFA stepped in as a lifeline, to make sure he didn’t lose himself.

Neil Francis

When Able Rate Neil was in an accident on shore leave that left him tetraplegic, his life changed forever. SSAFA stepped in as a lifeline, to make sure he didn’t lose himself.

Neil Francis always believed he was invincible. Indestructible. He’d joined the Royal Navy as a radio operator at 16, but a year later while on shore leave in the Gulf, a night out with friends went horribly wrong. The group came across a swimming pool and decided to go for a late-night dip.

“We all lined up in a line. I can remember running, and apparently, we dived in. That’s when I hit my head on the bottom of the pool and rolled into the deep end.

“One of the guys noticed me in the pool and realised something was wrong. They shouted at me to stop mucking about, but then they saw the blood and that I wasn’t moving. They got me out and tried walking me to the gate, but they noticed I was limp, and it was serious.”

Neil was rushed to hospital in Dubai. He had no idea it would be the end of his career, or that he would never walk again. 

“They didn’t really tell me anything. I didn’t understand the language, they didn’t understand me. They were just doing lots of procedures to get the water off my lungs.

“I can remember the halo being put on and the screws going into my head. I think most of the other people on the ward were dying so I could hear lots of groans and moans. It was just a matter of surviving at the time.

“I thought I would go back on duty.”

Back in the UK Neil was told he was paralysed with only very limited movement in his arms. He had broken his neck.

“I said: ‘Yeah...of course’. It made sense. I had a little bit more movement before my second operation, but after that I couldn’t move. That was the ultimate realisation that I knew I was going to be in a wheelchair.

“In that moment, it was a new life. I left that invincible child behind and I was someone else now.”

“SSAFA came to my rescue”

Neil’s mind and worries quickly turned to his family. At the time of his accident his mother had a younger daughter and was heavily pregnant with her third child. The family had very little money, and Neil was the ‘breadwinner’. His income was supporting them all, but his injuries meant he had to leave the Navy. That’s when SSAFA stepped in ‘to rescue them’.

“I’d joined to see the world and to support my family. For me they were the two most important things.

“SSAFA were there before I came out of hospital. They were there for my mum when she had my baby brother– it was the most important thing at the time to make sure they were taken care of. They bought nappies and baby stuff, they helped with the heating. That was my first experience of SSAFA support.”

Neil was determined to make the most of life. He eventually left hospital and took up a college course. SSAFA stood by him.

“When I left the Navy, I went back to college. The only thing that had a level playing field for someone who is paralysed was IT. I got to the point where I could teach and moved into teaching the teachers. SSAFA helped with things like software for my computer. I also went on to work as a college counsellor, helping the students with various difficulties.”

“It’s given me the freedom to be me.”

Recently SSAFA helped Neil raise money for a new 4x4 wheelchair.

Neil was in a lot of pain from his old chair, and his freedom was restricted. He had to stick to travelling on paths and had to lift his legs every 30 minutes because of the discomfort. He found a chair that would help him live a better life, but it was £20,000. He was able to secure £4,000 from NHS wheelchair services but knew he could never raise the rest on his own. Then he contacted his local SSAFA branch in Gloucestershire.

“Before I knew it, someone was round and I explained what I needed. They helped me get in touch with RBL and other charities and they all gave small amounts. That together came to £9,000.”

“Then I was encouraged to work with my friends to raise the rest. Before I looked at it as a mountain to climb.

“My caseworker immediately understood me, I didn’t have to justify myself. I didn’t have to go through a check-list to explain I was in pain. It was like having a family member coming around and saying, yes, I can see you are in pain. I can see you aren’t happy. We’ll sort it out.”

Now Neil uses his new chair to explore. 

“It has helped me to escape a lot of pain, and I can explore my childhood rambles, where I used to go with my bike or my horse as a child. I used to have to stick to the roads. Now I can explore.

“SSAFA have enabled me to expand my living environment.

“I feel a lot more free. I go off track. A little bit crazy sometimes. But that is the freedom. Being able to be yourself, be a daredevil again. It’s given me the freedom to be me.

“Sometimes when you are restricted with pain, living arrangement or transportation, you can’t always be yourself. When you have the conditions to truly relax and do what you want, you can be your true self.

“My family can see the difference. I will go off the beaten track for 20km journeys. If I see a slope or hill that looks iffy, or there is an off-road route then I want to try it!”

“The money is going somewhere…to people who need it.”

Now Neil, 44, is now a SSAFA volunteer, helping his local branch in IT. He wants others to consider helping the charity too.

“To be able to help SSAFA after they have helped me…it’s a privilege and a duty. In the Navy, I had a role and I had a duty to carry out orders. As the man of the house I had a duty. To give back to SSAFA is an honour and my duty.

“Anybody can help people through SSAFA. Those who have been in the service and know what it is like to come out or know what people in the military have been through are a real support.

And for those who donate. It isn’t just raising money for a charity so they can have a nice building or something. The money is going somewhere…to people who need it. Anything anyone can do to raise money for SSAFA it is so important.”