A passion for motor racing is helping former RAF Chinook engineer Ben Norfolk come to terms with a diagnosis of complex PTSD and an abrupt end to his military career.
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Ben completed two tours of Iraq and six of Afghanistan during his 18-year service career but is now adjusting to life as a civilian following his medical discharge in November 2017. Supported by military charities including SSAFA, he is getting his life back on track with Invictus Games Racing and planning for a new career.
“It all relates back to an incident I was part of in 2008,” he said. “The role the Chinooks were doing was a lot of casualty recovery with the MERT Teams. I think my core beliefs, my understanding of people and of life, were challenged by what I saw, particularly because I was not expecting it.”
Despite undergoing therapy to help him deal with the problems he was having in both 2012 and 2014/15 Ben, a married father-of-one, returned to Afghanistan on several occasions. He said: “I felt like when I was out there I was doing something positive. It was all trying to make something good out of a bad situation. Going back to Afghanistan was trying to help people who needed help.”
Ben’s mental health deteriorated to the point where he was signed off work in the summer of 2016. “It was my over analysis of it all that meant that I could not deal with it through the usual channels,” he said. “And one of the biggest things for me was admitting to myself that I had a problem. I love racing minis at weekends but I found I was becoming more and more anxious. I was doing really well but my anxiety was so much of a problem I almost wanted to stop. It was hard focusing with everything going on in my brain.”
As things got progressively worse Ben shut his family out and began a downwards spiral. “I had detached myself from everything which was scary for my wife. I remember my friend coming to see me and he said, ‘have you reached the bottom yet?’”
A medical discharge followed and it was while he was struggling to deal with his transition that Ben first called on SSAFA for support, contacting SSAFA’s Personal Support & Social Work Service RAF. He said: “I spoke to the SSAFA rep and she went into a welfare meeting and fought my corner for me. I didn’t feel I could confront them directly. From that point onwards it was a bit easier because she had kickstarted the process for me.”
Ben started working a couple of days a week fixing vintage cars and found the work placement and “being around people again really useful”. Then in August 2017 he took part in the selection process for Invictus Games Racing, a collaboration between the co-founder of clothing brand Superdry and the Invictus Games Foundation which will see two specially commissioned Jaguar GT4 race cars compete in the British GT championships 2018 season.
“Mission Motorsport were great during the process and still continue to provide life support to me throughout the training and build up to the start of the season. It’s given me a pathway to follow. I started doing races to get experience and managed to qualify and get my licence at the last race – the Race of Remembrance in Anglesey. Getting back out on the track helped me to work things out. It allows me to focus on just that one thing and that was me taking back control of the situation.”
Ben is now looking ahead to a season of racing around the country and also planning for a career beyond the military. “If I want to work as an engineer I need to have all my own tools. I was borrowing other people’s but it’s not a long-term solution. Usually you would gradually build up your kit because quality tools are so expensive - they really make a difference to the quality of the work you can produce – but I was coming to it with twenty plus years to catch up on.
“I had an opportunity to buy some tools at cost price which is when I approached SSAFA for help. I was referred to Meyrick Aylward at SSAFA’s East Hampshire Division. He was brilliant. He wouldn’t take no for an answer so now I have got a set of tools and I can start straight away when a job comes along.”
Meyrick was able to secure funding totalling £5,400 for the tool kit from the RAFBF, Help for Heroes and SSAFA’s East Hampshire Division. “The tools are a long-term legacy which will enable me to have another career,” Ben said. “Because of what has happened something positive has come into my life and I have not only outperformed my motorsports potential but also learned a lot about who I am and how I react to things, how I work.”