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RBLI veterans in Aylesford are ready to welcome the Queen

One of the nation's most loved charities, helping former military personnel and their families, is ready to welcome the Queen.

Royal British Legion Industries, (RBLI) in Aylesford, recently celebrated it's 100th birthday with hundreds of veterans coming together for the celebrations and many will meet the Queen later today.

RBLI chairman Stephen Kingsman and Veteran George Bradford at the RBLI 100 birhtday celebrations
RBLI chairman Stephen Kingsman and Veteran George Bradford at the RBLI 100 birhtday celebrations

As soldiers they lived through wars, malnourishment, horrific accidents and being without a permanent home, now veterans have spoken of the camaraderie they enjoy at the RBLI Village in Aylesford, but here are some who will see the Queen during her visit to the site today.

John Riggs, a veteran of the Second World War, was born in 1920 - a year after the founding of the organisation which would later become the RBLI. He joined the forces in 1939.

He now lives at Gavin Astor House and is one of the last remaining Chindits - a special operations unit, 1943-44, formed to protect Burma, then part of British India, from the advancing Japanese army.

John courageously battled through monsoons, travelling up to 180 miles a month on foot, to destroy transport lines and stop the onslaught of attacks.

He returned malnourished and with malaria, but went on to recover.

John Riggs
John Riggs

As a former Royal Marine, learning magic perhaps wasn’t on George Bradford’s radar. But that is exactly what the 88-year-old is getting to grips with - and encouraging his fellow veterans to keep fit.

Fitness comes naturally to Mr Bradford, who has served in China, Northern Ireland and the Middle East, in a career spanning from 1948 to 1973.

It was the death of his wife which brought the decorated soldier to the charity and he built on his passion by becoming a fully qualified fitness instructor.

He said: “I like to do things and am learning magic. I take the residents to armchair fitness, organise a games afternoon, and fish and chip evenings. I have also started taking them to brain training.”

George was the proud recipient of last year’s RBLI Volunteer of the Year Award.

George Bradford. Picture: John Westhrop
George Bradford. Picture: John Westhrop

The charity has long offered many work programmes and it was one of these which brought 79-year-old Frank Haynes to Aylesford. He worked in the sign printing department of the social enterprise called Britain’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, which continues today.

A former member of the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy he has travelled the world, but was invalided out when a gun turret rotated out of control on HMS Cambridge, injuring him.

Understanding ex military personnel is what Roger Wollam, 65, likes about village life. He added: “If you are in the military your mate next door to you might die in seconds and you have to get up and live with it and civilians just don’t understand that.”

He has served in Europe, Pakistan and Iraq, but was made redundant in 1996 when regiments amalgamated and his Hampshire Regiment disbanded. Before he found the RBLI he was sleeping in a hostel.

When Andy Mayes, 54, was medically discharged due to a knee injury, he could have given up. The former Junior Para, who served in Northern Europe still needs to walk with a cane.

"He has also battled through post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The RBLI offered him a home when he couldn’t be near his family.

A year after arriving he sailed an adapted tall ship from London to Edinburgh as part of the Lord Dannatt Round Britain Challenge.

The military work ethic often stays strong with those who were part of our forces and several have found the perfect outlet in working for the Royal British Legion Industries.

Steve Parrot, 45, now oversees the STEP-IN programme for veterans which gives them a personal plan to meet their needs and works out how they will overcome challenges.

He joined the Junior Paratroopers in 1990, before joining the 2nd battalion Paratroopers in 1991, and saw tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan before leaving in 2015.

Steve Parrott. cture: John Westhrop
Steve Parrott. cture: John Westhrop

The military work ethic often stays strong with those who were part of our forces and several have found the perfect outlet in working for the Royal British Legion Industries.

Steve Parrot, 45, now oversees the STEP-IN programme for veterans which gives them a personal plan to meet their needs and works out how they will overcome challenges.

He joined the Junior Paratroopers in 1990, before joining the 2nd battalion Paratroopers in 1991, and saw tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan before leaving in 2015.

A car accident while training in Cyprus in 2014 left John Ahben, 42, with a severe head injury.

He was unconscious for two weeks. But after developing a love of plants and horticulture while going through rehabilitation, he continued this when he moved into village accommodation.

John Ahben. Picture: John Westhrop
John Ahben. Picture: John Westhrop

The former King’s Own Royal Borders soldier worked on the RBLI’s garden and he has recently able to move back into a family home.

Illness can always strike at just the worst time, as 39-year-old Syrene Bryan can attest.

A former Royal Engineer, she always expected to go on tour, but her caring nature drew her to welfare work and supporting families.

After contracting a mystery virus in 2017, she was medically discharged and now battles vertigo and fibromyalgia and needs a cane to walk.

However, in the RBLI she has found sanctuary for her family.

Syrene Bryan. Picture: John Westhrop
Syrene Bryan. Picture: John Westhrop

She said: “Life in the village is good, I have met some wonderful people and they are truly amazing.

“There is so much going on all the time, they will drop leaflets through the door to let us know what is happening, it is like still being in the army.”

She has two daughters, Lynelle, six, and Lynsha, 11.

Another Royal Engineer, from 2000 to 2005, is Ian Packer, 36, lives at the village and is now Commanding Officer of D Company for the Kent Army Cadet Force (KACF), working with children aged 12-18.

And work is also on the horizon, again, for Nathen Gadney. The 22-year-old was ready to dedicate his life to the army, but after 18 months of training his world fell apart.

He tore two tendons in his ankle, which caused irreparable nerve damage, during his phase two training. He was aged 18. The accident happened on one of his final training exercises before becoming a fully-fledged soldier.

A series of issues saw him sleeping on a mate’s sofa. But things turned around after being assessed by the RBLI and moving in.

He said: “I was able to settle as it is a quiet place. I had a few mental health issues, so bringing the barriers down was hard. "However it is so relaxed here, and I didn’t know what relaxed was before.”

After completing the charity’s LifeWorks programme he has just been offered a job.

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