antony cotton at raf marham

Antony Cotton suprises families at RAF Marham's Christmas Party

18 December 2015

Antony Cotton joins in at RAF Marham's Family Christmas Party

Our ambassador, Antony Cotton, made a surprise appearance at a Christmas party hosted by SSAFA for military families at RAF Marham in Norfolk. Antony handed out presents to the children, who will be without one of their parents this Christmas and spent time talking to the families. In this blog he speaks about the day.

I was having lunch last week, when I received a text from SSAFA head office – ‘Sorry for the short notice Antony, but as our ambassador, we would love you to attend the Christmas party for deployed families at RAF Marham this Sunday.’

I turned to my partner Peter, and said: ‘We have to do this, it’s really important’. So that Sunday morning, we set-off on the 400-mile round-trip from Lancashire.

We arrived at a rather cold and rainy Marham in rural Norfolk, but as soon as we entered the children’s centre, the atmosphere couldn’t have been warmer or brighter.  Mine was a surprise visit, so I think some of the mums were slightly surprised to see “Sean”, The Coronation Street barman, popping up at the party.   

While the children were entertained by games and a magician, I got chatting to a number of mums, whose partners and husbands would be deployed overseas for Christmas. Of course, it’s not just men who are on deployment; there are a number of women currently serving abroad in The RAF. However the group I met were all mums, whose male partners would be away for Christmas.

There’s no doubt in my mind, that this will be an incredibly tricky time for these families, knowing that dads, husbands, sons and grandsons will be thousands of miles away during the festive period, doing difficult and often dangerous work, serving their country.  I hope that in some small way, my visit helped to spread a bit of Christmas cheer and take their minds off things for a while.

Technology such as Skype and Whatsapp has made keeping in contact easier, but connection is sporadic and the women I met weren’t sure if their children will actually get to speak to their Daddy on Christmas Day – an extremely difficult thing to have to explain to a young child.

I was so proud to have been made an ambassador of SSAFA recently, and visits such as these are an intrinsic part of my role. I feel honoured to be able to meet these people and find out what life is like for serving personnel and their families.  I have to say that I am constantly impressed by just how much SSAFA does to support them.

The charity looks after all the welfare needs of serving personnel and their families on the base.  SSAFA social workers and volunteers assist in anything and everything they can do to make life a little easier, when things get difficult. This might involve providing mediation for marital problems to support with mental health issues, helping to alleviate financial hardship or providing emergency child-care when one of the parents is on deployment.

Because SSAFA is independent of The RAF and The Ministry of Defence, the charity’s beneficiaries often find it easier to confide in them and seek help.  They know that SSAFA is impartial and will keep things totally confidential and outside the chain of command.  This is incredibly important as I know from first-hand experience, that those in the serving community often find it really difficult to come forward and ask for help.

Many of my closest friends are currently serving in The Army and that sparked my initial interest in SSAFA and my involvement in the charity. Through these lads, I’ve come to know quite a bit about military life and have some experience of the worry and dread you feel, when someone close to you is deployed on tour.

My knowledge of The RAF however is more limited, so this visit gave me the opportunity to go ‘behind the wire’ and discover just how things operate on an airbase. Peter and I, were given a personal tour of the base and I have to say that seeing the Tornados and fighter-jets up close, was a pretty amazing experience. We also got to visit the Officers’ Mess and find out more about the history of The RAF, which was really interesting – although I’m sure to get some stick from my Army pals about my visit to ‘the Crabs.’

This was my second service visit for SSAFA (my first was visiting injured personnel at Headley Court and families at the charity’s Norton Home).  I feel like I’m constantly learning about the vital work that the charity does and I’m meeting some fantastic people in the process; I feel truly honoured to be the charity’s first ambassador.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wish everyone at SSAFA and all its beneficiaries a very Merry Christmas and a happy and safe 2016.

Antony Cotton, SSAFA Ambassador