If there is one man who can speak with authority on the desperate need for the services provided by Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI) it is Steve Hammond.
Some 41 years ago the Falklands veteran was playing cards with a group of men below deck aboard the support ship RFA Sir Galahad, when it was struck by Argentine bombers.
The guardsman suffered permanent injuries following the lethal air assault in which 48 soldiers and crew were killed in 1982.
Now the new deputy mayor of Tonbridge and Malling council, Mr Hammond lives on the RBLI village in Aylesford, and says he owes his life to the charity which supports veterans, people with disabilities and the unemployed.
Mr Hammond was just 20 when he signed up to the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards in 1977. His father told him it would be the making of him. It was, but not quite in the way anticipated.
He said: ”I never really imagined I would be going off to war…”
But a scant five years later, he found himself aboard the RFA Sir Galahad moored off Port Pleasant on the Falkland Islands awaiting orders to disembark.
He told KentOnline: “There were four of us playing cards at a table below deck. We had been stood to, then stood down, stood to, then stood down, several times.
“I dont know why, but I suddenly felt I had to move away. I picked up my webbing and moved as far away as possible from the side of the ship.”
Moments later there was a tremendous explosion. The Sir Galahad had been attacked without warning by three Argentinian aircraft.
Mr Hammond added: “There was a gigantic explosion and flash of lights and that was it.
“All the lads I was playing cards with were never found again.”
With the ship on fire, there was a heroic effort by the Royal Marines to rescue as many of the 602 personnel aboard as possible. Mr Hammond himself was seriously injured.
He said: ”How they ever got us off, I don’t know.”
“That was it. The war was over for me, before I had even set foot on Falkland soil.”
Carried back to England in a hospital ship, Mr Hammond began a long series of operations that were to see him spend a total of three years and six months in Army rehabilitation centres.
He said: “That day changed my life completely. I had shrapnel in my right leg and I had lost the kneecap.
“The doctors had to rebuild my leg.
“They weren’t able to do so much with my left leg. Even today, 41 year later, I can’t bend it properly.”
His spine was also damaged and he had to have the vertebrae in his lower back surgically fused together, which means that now he walks with a permanent stoop.
He attempted to continue with his Army career, moving after the war with his battalion to Germany, and hoping to return to full fitness.
The veteran even married, and had two children, but it became too much.
Mr Hammond said: “In 1989, I was medically discharged. I left the forces with a wife, two children and a suitcase.”
He returned to Shropshire, where he had grown up and for a time found work at Aga Rayburn, the heating company, but after a while was made redundant.
Things were different then…you were just given a part on the back and sent on your way
“Things were different then,” he explained. “There was no support when you left the service. No training for civilian life.
“You were just given a pat on the back and sent on your way. In fact, mostly you didn’t even get a pat on the back.”
He said: “It all became too much. My marriage broke down.
At a low ebb, one morning Mr Hammond woke up and decided to take his own life.
He jumped off the iron bridge in Telford.
Mr Hammond said: “Stupidly, I had forgotten to check the tides. The water level was low, and I survived.
“That’s when someone told RBLI about me.
“They swept me up and brought me to Aylesford to be assessed and they put me in a house, me and my family.
“And they arranged an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon.”
He said: “They saved my life. I would not still me here today without the RBLI. They put me on the road to recovery.”
RBLI also found Mr Hammond employment; first as a painter and decorator, then in the sign manufacturing factory.
He said: “I started in the fulfilment division, then moved into the metal shop as a supervisor.
“I was going to retire this year, but the new chief executive, Lisa Farmer, said she wanted me to become an ambassador for RBLI.”
Now his life consists of visiting firms to explain the charity’s work and drum up sponsorship, showing guests around the RBLI village, and helping veterans who find themselves in a similar situation to the one he was in.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” he said.
“If I can help get 20 veterans off the streets and into work while in this role, I will feel I’ve done my job.”
Mr Hammond said: “We’ve five Gurkhas here on the shop floor. They were on their last tour in Afghanistan when one stood on an IED. Now he has no legs. The others have amputations too.
“They started work here 10 years ago.They started in the fulfilments section, then moved to assembly, and now have even gained an NVQ Level 2. They’ve never looked back.
“My role at the moment is seeking out veterans across the UK who need our help.”
“That is why phase 3 of our centenary village project is so important. We are looking to expand our veterans’ accommodation, create an IT suite for veterans to use and an accessible gym for everyone in the village.”
One of the veterans at Aylesford was in the Falklands at the same time as Mr Hammond.
He was on shore at the time of the attack on the Sir Galahad and saw the Argentinian planes circling in.
Mr Hammond said: “Before I came to RBLI, my self esteem had gone.
“It felt like every time I tried to climb the ladder out, there was someone pushing me down again. Coming here was wonderful.”
And yet things have not gone enitrely smoothly since his move to Kent.
Relations with his wife soured and they divorced with her returning to Shropshire with the children.
On the other hand, he has found a new relationship, married again and has a new family – two in fact.
“I also regard RBLI as my family now,” Mr Hammond said.
“Everything I’ve been through, I now use to try to help other veterans.
“Veterans who are low enough to be contemplating suicide, I can say, yes I’ve been there and try to put them on the right path.”
Each year for the past six years, Mr Hammond has taken part in the RBLI cycle ride from Aylesford to Ypres – a distance of 150 miles.
The journey takes two days. As he can’t use his left leg, he rides a specially adapted bike that enables him to do all the work with his right.
Mr Hammond has also found a new way to help others.
In 2014, he was elected as a Conservative borough councillor.
And at the start of May he was re-elected for the third time, and now is also proud to be deputy Mayor – something he says is a “a great honour”.
Mr Hammond praised the work of the KM Group’s Homes for Heroes campaign to help raise £100,000 for the new RBLI Centenary Village.
He said: “It’s very important. The more money is raised, the more veterans we can help.
“Help them find somewhere they can finally call home.
“I would encourage everyone to please give as generously as they can.”
You can make a donation to our Homes For Heroes Campaign, by clicking here.
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