"We encourage ex-soldiers to get outside, because we know it will help save lives."
Trail magazine speaks to the founder of The Guards Veterans Mountaineering and Climbing club, which aims to improve the mental health of its members by organising group trips to the mountains.
Wayne Diffin is a former soldier from The Guards, and believes spending time outdoors can have a hugely positive impact on the wellbeing of British Army veterans suffering from depression or PTSD.
Where did the idea for the The Guards Veterans Mountaineering and Climbing club come from?
It came about with myself and a desire to climb mountains with my old friends from when I served. I quickly realised that the activity works a treat on the mind, and and as a result I want to introduce others to hillwalking by learning and training as a Mountain Leader. As ex-soldiers we’ve all undergone a certain amount of training in a number of fields, including fieldcraft navigation and basic survival, so we’re already conditioned to the mountains. We just lack a few fundamentals like knowing the weather systems and winter days, but everything else is the same-old same-old to us. So I had a lightbulb moment. Why not use our training as Royal Guards to draw attention to mental health awareness and hopefully not just inspire soldiers, but civilians too? We want to encourage anyone who’s experiencing hard times to get outside, join clubs and climb mountains. The outdoors is amazing therapy for the mind.
How big an issue are PTSD and depression with Army veterans?
I'm no expert on the matter but statistics suggest that as many as 80 veterans took their own life in 2018 alone. Other sources claim 22 per week. What I do know is there are an awful lot of guys and girls out there having serious issues because of these problems. There are ex-service run groups on Facebook such as Leave No Man Behind, where veterans go from all over to discuss their issues and get things out into the open. But unfortunately many don't say anything and we often witness final messages from people, then that's it. No more communication at all from them. I read a post from one lady saying her husband, an ex-soldier, plunged a knife into his own chest in front of her. Just to read about that is shocking, let alone see it happen, so what must be going through these guys’ heads to drive them to those extents? I have down days but it doesn't get anywhere near that bad for me. So I would say it’s a very, very serious issue, as it’s claimed 309 lives between 1998 and 2017. Here’s a link to those statistics.
What do you hope members will take away from joining the club?
The main motivation for the club is unity and teamwork, and to do things that are out of this world together with like-minded people from similar backgrounds. We want to open people’s eyes and minds and encourage them to get outside because we know it will help save lives. We have one or two chaps in the club who struggle, and I see amazing changes in them when we’re out and about. They get fit healthy and have a chance to go through things in their heads. It also gives you clarity and a little peace, knowing the man beside you is also an ex-soldier and he has your back.
What have been the biggest obstacles in terms of motivating people to get out in the hills?
It has to be the mind set. It’s incredibly difficult to get people to commit to a day in the hills. It doesn't matter how much warning you give them, they always find a reason why they can’t, or even worse just ignore you until it’s passed. That puts me on a down vibe. No amount of inspiration sorts that, because once they’ve made the choice that's it. I think money plays a big part too as some of the guys don't earn much at all. Some don't work, so can't afford the fuel or even transport. We don't charge membership fees either, so we have no funds to help them out or kit them out. It’s Catch-22. I only earn so much but am very willing to buy gear for the guys that show me they are going to be regular participants. There is a small mental health aspect too. I mean seriously, these guys are all Guards Veterans, the most senior troops in The Army, and utterly capable of climbing the biggest mountains around. They just need the means, and to be willing and motivated to want to do it. I’m relying heavily on these guys to help me drive the club and get our name out there, and to tell people what we are all about. But it’s a very, very tough process. Without them there’s no club, and our efforts to help others will cease.
What are the most memorable trips you’ve organised so far?
Every trip and meet-up is memorable differently to each of us. For me it’s about seeing them together bonding under the club banner, contributing to the growth and exposure of the club. It’s only photos and videos, but I can bring those alive on Instagram with short stories and a little fun and the right hashtags. I can't name a single trip that hasn't been totally amazing. All the hills have been equal to each other. They just offer different things, and it’s an amazingly diverse activity.
Why do you think spending time in the mountains has such a positive impact on mental health?
Every time I climb, my mind opens up and my drive and motivation spills out. I feel invigorated and my determination temporarily returns. That’s why I go out so often. The more I go out, the more ideas and drive I have, and I think all of our guys will tell you very similar things. After a weekend in the hill, work seems more enjoyable as now I'm earning to buy gear to pay for trips and instruction. I'm training to be a Mountain Leader, and from there hopefully it will be Winter Mountain Leader and then my Mountaineering Instructor Award. The long haul one day is to be a British Mountain Guide. The mountains give you clarity, and time to plan and think and go over stuff in your mind. It makes thinking easier.
Where does your love of the outdoors come from?
As a kid I always loved the countryside – the smell, the scenic views, camping. I didn't even know we had mountains like this in Britain until 2016, when I saw a young lady's Facebook post of the West Highland Way. She was a serving member of the Royal Artillery and that's when my mountain obsession began. Her photos were like nothing I’d ever seen before, so I planned a trip to climb Ben Nevis with my brother and a friend. I haven't stopped since.
What’s the next step for the The Guards Veterans Mountaineering and Climbing club?
We’re essentially looking for sponsorship and funding, so I can increase the size of the carrot on the stick for my guys, and any other ex-guardsmen or serving guardsmen that want to join the cause to help their fellow brothers from other units around the world to potentially save lives and change lives. I lost two cousins last year to drug and drink-related suicides, and I’m always seeing and hearing of guys from my old regiment taking their own lives. It’s heart-wrenching stuff... their poor families and friends. As we do get more organised, we plan on setting up expeditions and putting our guys through training courses so they can get the skills needed to climb the good stuff. We want to do it entirely to raise awareness and enjoy ourselves while doing it. We just want to try and become a positive aspect in the lives of people who can’t see a way out.
For more information about The Guards Veterans Mountaineering and Climbing club, follow them on Instagram.