St Athan is 'unsung' rehab centre for injured soldiers

By Neil Prior
BBC News, Wales


Soldiers who have suffered life-changing injuries in Afghanistan and Iraq are being helped back to fitness by a state-of-the-art rehabilitation centre at the Ministry of Defence's St Athan base in the Vale of Glamorgan.

Noel Godfrey has been in charge of the facility since 1998, but has seen his work-load increase dramatically since the start of the Second Gulf War in 2003.

Until now he and his team have been content to work away behind the scenes, avoiding publicity.

But he wants to speak out against the perception sometimes that little is being done to help wounded soldiers in Wales.

"I don't want a pat on the back for doing my job, the same way that the soldiers who come here aren't seeking publicity.

"We've been here doing our thing quite happily for 12 years, and would have carried on quietly, if it hadn't been for these stories about wounded servicemen struggling without rehab services in Wales."

"Eleven per cent of Britain's armed forces are recruited in Wales, and it's not fair on soldiers and their families to hear that sort of thing.

"When they've just got injured, the most important thing is for them to concentrate on getting better, without worrying about whether they'll be cared for properly.

"So I wanted to get the message out that the services are here in St Athan, and we'll be behind them every step of the way."

Mr Godfrey, himself a former soldier, has spent 40 years working in physical training and rehabilitation.

Acute care

When the centre opened he was the only full-time staff member, but today his team includes eight physiotherapists and two consultant doctors.

He has access to specialist cardio-vascular training equipment, swimming and hydro-therapy pools, a gym and indoor running track.

Patients are referred to St Athan for on-going treatment, after being discharged from acute care at Selly Oak in Birmingham or Surrey's Headley Court.

Image caption,
Injured service personnel are treated in Birmingham before being referred to the rehabilitation centre at St Athan

At any one time there are up to 20 men and women on residential placements and over 100 out-patients, with their stays ranging from a couple of weeks to a year.

While every case he sees is different, Mr Godfrey believes there are things which unite all of them.

"Soldiers are renowned for their black humour, and there's a lot of mickey-taking amongst the boys here - it helps them to come to terms with their injuries around people who know what they're going through."


"A lot of people think it must be depressing work, and it can be, but you only have to spend one day with them to be inspired.

"The determination every one of them shows is incredible, and if someone is a bit down in the dumps, then the other men help to bring them on as much as I can."

Mr Godfrey's brief from the MoD is to get his charges well enough to return to their units, or if that's never going to be possible, to make them as fit as they can be, in readiness for civilian life.

He has to plan their recoveries, emotionally as well as physically, as often the two are inextricably linked.

"It can be hard, painstakingly slow work when people first come to us, and if we didn't handle it correctly at that stage then it would be so easy for them to become despondent.


"A lot of the men just want to be able to run again, or jump in the pool for a swim, but often the journey to that stage of recovery seems depressingly long."

"That's why we have measurable, verifiable targets which every person can aim for each week.

"For one man on one day standing up unaided might represent a real breakthrough, for another it's the first time he's able to wear a pack and tab around the base."

"But for all of them, the real breakthrough is when they start to believe that things will get better, once their emotional state begins improving, the physical side of things comes on in leaps and bounds."

"We've just got back from Cornwall where men with one arm were canoeing, while others with no legs were pulling themselves up ropes on rock faces, not one of them believed they were going to be able to do that when they arrived here."

The centre's work also focuses on preparing people to return to work, whether that's providing supported placements in civilian jobs, or gradually easing them back into military routines and disciplines.


Mr Godfrey believes that is just one of the ways his team help pay for themselves, a point he hopes is taken on board in the forthcoming strategic defence review.

"Everyone's having to tighten their belt, and it's only right that everyone shares a bit of the hardship.

"But by helping injured soldiers help themselves, we're not only doing the right thing by the men and women who risked their lives to protect us, we're also helping to save the government billions in future benefit payments and on-going care costs."

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