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A HUGELY successful centre in Portavogie which helps veterans suffering mental health problems, is to be expanded.

The Harbour House complex was opened by the Beyond the Battlefield charity to help volunteers who were struggling as a result of their military service.

The veterans centre was first opened in November 2022 to provide a haven for battled scared soldiers to assist them on the road to recovery. However, the eight bedrooms at Harbour House are not enough to meet demand, and the charity has been forced to turn away up to four veterans every week.

A lot of veterans presenting themselves to the charity suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and mental health problems.

The chairman of Beyond the Battlefield, Robert McCartney, explained many of them also had comorbidity issues such as self medication, alcoholism, drug use and a lot of veterans had domestic problems.

“Some of them just need to clear their heads,” said Mr McCartney, who said Portavogie is the ideal place for the centre.

“It is very tranquil, they love the peace and quiet,” he said. “A lot of veterans who appear here are already homeless and don’t know how to access the benefit system”.

The first thing the charity does is an assessment to ascertain the person’s needs, what benefits they may be entitled to and what other issues they may have. “Once we get them settled and relaxed we contact their families and see what issues they may have left behind,” Mr McCartney explained.

“We often find that families are suffering from secondary PTSD because of the problems the veterans have brought into the house”. If a veteran is,for instance, abusing alcohol or gambling, they are taking money out of the house which can cause problems within their family unit.

The veterans work through their issues with the charity’s trained counsellors, and often stay at the centre for several months. “A lot of them come down here after having been told their marriage and family life was over, yet three months later their family comes here to take them home,” Mr McCartney said. 

The chief executive with Beyond the Battlefield, Annemarie Hastings, said the work the charity did in Portavogie was ‘very rewarding’.

“Someone could turn up without a coat on their back or a brown penny in their pocket and that can be turned around into something wonderful when they get their life back on track and are back with their families,” she said.

Mr McCartney spoke of a veteran in his thirties who had been sleeping on the streets of Belfast and London. “He is now living in a cottage in County Fermanagh,” he related. “He says we saved his life”.

Word of the good work being carried out in Portavogie has spread, and veterans are arriving at the centre from all over Northern Ireland. Interest in respite at the centre has also been expressed from veterans in England. “Everyone agrees this place is 100% needed,” Mr McCartney said.

Along with the counselling, veterans can take part in outdoor activities such as fishing or canoeing at Ballyhalbert harbour, and aids have been donated for use by disabled veterans such as off-road mobility scooters which can take them onto the beach. 

The charity is trying to access funding so it can have staff at the centre during the night. “If a veteran with problems is made known to the police at night and it is not an arrestable offence it would be ideal if the police brought them to us,” Mr McCartney said. “If we had funding for a 2- hour service we would be able to look after our veterans even more effectively”.

At the moment Harbour House has eight en-suite bedrooms, each with two double beds, and can accommodate 16 veterans staying with them at a time – if families are visiting this can increase to 30 people. Some veterans stay for a short period, but others who are receiving counselling will stay with the charity long term until Beyond the Battlefield deems they are ready to leave. 

“We turn away three or four people every week as we are full, and we need to provide more rooms,” Mr McCartney said. “If we put in a staircase we can put another eight bedrooms upstairs”. 

The veterans centre is supported by Rendezvous, a very successful cafe, which the charity hopes can help the long term sustainability of the bedrooms. There are plans to open a carvery in the restaurant which was used by a previous tenant of the premises.

Mr McCartney would also like the centre to become a tourism hub for visitors to the Ards peninsula and has applied for funding to install electric vehicle charging points. 

The chief executive said Beyond the Battlefield is ‘very grateful’ for the support of the ‘good people of Portavogie’. “Without them we couldn’t have a veterans centre in this community,” Ms Hastings said. “They have been absolutely fantastic in terms of accepting and supporting us and that is the key”.

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