A centre designed to be ‘a beacon of hope to veterans across the United Kingdom’ has opened in Portavogie.

    Harbour House provides shelter to ex-service personnel who may be homeless or suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The project has seen the transformation of a once derelict building into a dedicated veterans centre by Beyond the Battlefield – a charity which helps serving and retired members of the ex-service community.

    They provide practical help and advice surrounding issues such as PTSD, war pensions, benefits, housing, medals and funerals. Annemarie Hastings, chief executive officer of Beyond the Battlefield, explained the centre was a natural extension of the work the charity already carried out. It was, she said, a place where veterans, who needed respite or who were suffering from PTSD, could come and stay with their families. Entering Harbour House veterans come into a welcoming reception area with tea and coffee making facilities beyond which are 10 bedroom suites.

    Equipment for the River Search Project, funded by the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust, is also stored at the centre and will be used for outward bound activities for the veterans while they are staying at Harbour House. There is also space for Portavogie based community organisations who have welcomed the veterans centre in the heart of the village. The Rendevous cafe will be open to the public throughout the day and evenings.

    Ms Hastings explained the charity felt if it was vital that veterans, many of whom were suffering from PTSD, had respite. “Unfortunately there have been so many young veterans committing suicide in the last few years – hopefully this will be a shelter for them and a place to offer them support,” she said. “I feel there is nothing quite like this centre in the whole of the United Kingdom,” Ms Hastings continued. “I believe the Veterans Support Office, the Veterans Commissioner and the government should look at ways of providing sustainable funding for this project as a pilot which will be rolled out across the rest of the United Kingdom.”

    Since Beyond the Battlefield announced it was beginning to work on this project, veterans and their families and friends have rallied round to raise funds towards the realisation of the centre and Ms Hastings thanked them for their support. Among them was Ards Rangers Supporters Club who raised over £3,000 to celebrate Rangers’ historic 55th title triumph.

    The centre was opened last week by peninsula councillor Robert Adair who paid tribute to the vision of Beyond the Battlefield. When he was elected as mayor, Mr Adair explained, he had wanted to support a military charity and had been steered towards Beyond the Battlefield. “During my mayoral year I saw first hand the work and dedication of Beyond the Battlefield in providing support and care for our local veterans and I was delighted to work with them from day one in turning a derelict disused building into this veterans centre – the first of its kind in Northern Ireland,” he said.

    The building, Mr Adair continued, had been vacant for many years and had become a magnet for anti-social behaviour. “I am delighted we have turned a negative into a positive and put Portavogie on the map,” he said. “Veterans are men and women who have served our country and defended our freedoms – we owe them so much and their care should be our priority,” he said. “It is my hope Portavogie will be a beacon of hope to veterans across the United Kingdom and be an encouragement for more such centres to open.”

    At the opening was a young veteran from Bangor who had served with the 1st Royal Irish Regiment. The man, who did not wish to be named, described the veterans centre as ‘amazing’, adding it was ‘brilliant to see it up and running’. “When a veteran is suffering from PTSD their marriage and relationships can go up in the air very quickly – often they have nowhere to go and they become homeless,” he continued.

    They may become suicidal, he said, and to have a place like Harbour House available for them was great as it ‘takes a lot of the pressure off them’. “To have a place like this and to know that someone cares about them will maybe stop them from doing something like that,” the veteran felt. Irish Rangers’ veteran, Dougie Parker described what Beyond the Battlefield has done in Portavogie as ‘outstanding’. “It will be a great help to all veterans,” he said. “It is in an excellent location beside the beach and harbour and is a great place for veterans and their families to come.”