Knocked off her bike in a hit and run, Gina found herself in A&E injured, her bike destroyed. She had been using the bike to support her mental health, as she was caring for her brother Spencer through his terminal cancer. The day after the crash, Spencer sadly died.
Having served in the Army, Gina asked SSAFA for help. She didn’t really expect anything to happen, so was shocked when they raised the funds for a new bike for her. She’s now using it to help her cope with her grief and fundraise in honour of her brother.
“Wherever there was a conflict or a crisis, we would be one of the first out there”
“I’ve been uniform since I was 13. I joined the Army Cadets which was the root of it all. From there I became an adult instructor, and then joined up officially aged 19 after my A-levels. I did 11 years, mainly in the Royal Signals. I left in 2006.
“My first few years I was in the 30 Signal Regiment, the ‘globetrotters’. It was a dream job. Wherever there was a conflict or a crisis, we would be one of the first out there because we were state of the art communications at the time, doing satellite communications as early as the mid-‘90s.
“We were in places like Bosnia and Kosovo when the conflicts began. We were the first in, setting up comms so HQ could talk to commanders in the UK so they knew what was going on, including via television conferencing. It was unheard of elsewhere at the time. Now everyone does it!
“It was a really interesting time. In my first five years, I went to 36 different countries. It was unbelievable. I was really lucky, it is what you join to do.
“Every time I went to a place I wanted to make a difference. I was lucky because I was a communications engineer, so I got to go everywhere. I’d go round the whole of theatre (conflict zones), fixing broken communications equipment.
“In Bosnia, I used to help out with the orphanages. I remember going to one orphanage and we’d been given a big box of Twixes to hand out to the kids. The kids were all running up to grab the chocolate and running off again to eat it. One particular kid came back, he was probably six or seven. He was adamant he hadn’t had one yet, but he had chocolate all over his face already. It was so funny, I gave him another bar and he ran off.
“When we were in Kosovo, my detachment got moved to Albania, where all the displaced people had been moved to, and we set up a refugee site there. We found out that one of the guys was former Kosovan national football player. We found a flat area and made a football pitch. We made some posts out of wood and cleared it of rocks, and then tried to paint on lines. We had football matches between the refugees and the Army. They totally annihilated us, and some of them didn’t even have shoes.
“The refugees in Kosovo decided to put a concert on for us to say thank you. The kids were all dancing. There were people singing. I remember there were two relatives who were displaced and hadn’t seen each other for a long time. They assumed each other had died. I witnessed the reunion, the shock and joy. It was amazing really, but it just brought home how real the war was to them. They were thankful that they were in a makeshift site of tents with holes in the floor for toilets and running water to wash in, it was basic but they were safe.
“There were quite moving experiences when you were in those places. I was in East Timor, with about 10 other Brits and a unit of Gurkhas. It was a brutal place, the militia were executing and beheading people because they didn’t want them to vote for independence from Indonesia. We were there from the very start. The UN left because it was getting really violent and Australia was lead nation on this operation, we were there to guide and help them through operations.
“A Gurkha patrol found a load of displaced people in the middle of the jungle, who had fled from the violence. HQ asked for volunteers, I jumped at the chance to help. We got a load of trucks and went into the jungle to bring them to safety. It was an hours journey and I went as the backup driver, if we attacked from the militia, we had extra people to protect the convoy. We drove up through thick jungle and came to the top and there was an opening. Hundreds of civilians, all stood there around this old church. They were so thankful we’d come to help them. A lot of them hadn’t had food, so we were giving out bits of food and water. I remember there was a kid there, and I had nothing on me, so I ended up giving him a pencil out of my pocket. He was so made up, he was running to his mum and showing his mum he had a pencil. We drove them back and dropped them off with the Australian Army and they put them back into safe places in the town. That was a really successful mission.
“The ones that made me feel proud still sometimes haunt me. There were horrible things that were happening when we were out there too. In East Timor, at the start there were bodies hanging around everywhere, which we hadn’t had chance to clear up. We had blood spatters against white wash walls were civilians had been brutally killed.
“Of course, there were times when we were in danger going into these conflict zones. I remember standing on-guard in Macedonia before I went to Kosovo. Scud missiles were getting fired across and that makes it real. We were a target, but my training put that out of your head. I had a few civilian cars stop near the sentry point and hurl stones and bricks at me, that was a bit scary.
“I remember, it was my 25th birthday when we went into East Timor. That day, when we landed, it was like a scene from a war film. We got into a Land Rover and drove through empty streets with bombed-out and burnt buildings. It was pretty dramatic. As we pulled into where we were going to make our base, we got shot at, but our training just kicked in. We jumped out and returned fire. It was instinct.
“At the time, the equipment was terrible. We didn’t have any armoured jackets or anything like that. I remember being behind a wall, which probably wouldn’t have stopped much, putting my helmet on, and then taking it off, thinking, ‘There’s no point because I haven’t got a flak jacket on.’
“Later on that day, the building opposite us was blown up 15m away from where I was standing on-guard. The few civilians that were there were all running towards me and I had to get them safe behind a wall. What seemed liked minutes later back up arrived, an officer asking me for a sitrep (report on the situation). I found it amusing how quickly the BBC turned up. They were there before one of my commanding officers. Anything for a news scoop! When things settled down and it looked safe I let the civilians go, they where thankful of my help and actions, I think!”
“I walked out the gates and that was it”
Gina left the military in 2006. She had been asked to go to Kandahar, Afghanistan, but as she was due to leave the operation was optional. She had her sights on a new career so respectfully declined.
Sadly, the Royal Air Force Hawker Siddeley Nimrod she was due to be on suffered an in-flight fire and crashed. All fourteen crew members died.
“It was made easy to say no, and I think that was the first time I ever had said no to task or a mission that had been offered to me.
“If I hadn’t decided to leave the Army, I’d be dead. It was fate. If I’d stayed in, I wouldn’t be here. Sadly I did know the guy from my unit who went on that flight.
“After 11 years in, I was quite injured with a bad back and knees. I knew that if I continued, I was going to end up totally broken, and not be able to have another life or career.
“They did ask me to stay. But I was quite determined to go. I walked out the gates and that was it.
“I was 30, and I went into close protection and surveillance.
“At the height of my new career, I was working in America with a really high-profile person, doing close protection in Chicago and LA. I struck it lucky with that side of things. Then I ended up coming back to the UK to get married and started doing different bits of security here.
“I was once asked to work as Britney Spears’ body guard, but I decided that if I did then my face would be too recognizable, and I wouldn’t be able to do undercover work again so I had to turn it down.”
“We were told he had weeks to live, just as COVID hit”
“Despite my spine, knee and ankle injuries, difficulty hearing and asthma linked to my time in the Forces, I still had my arms and legs intact, so I didn’t think I was eligible for help. A friend of mine got involved with the Invictus Games and told me about a Help for Heroes sports recovery programme, so I started to get involved with that.
“In the meantime, I was diagnosed with PTSD and I was due to get some support, but my brother got diagnosed with cancer. I lived in Sussex, but he was in the Wirral, so I went up and be there for him and to help with his care. That’s when I started cycling. I needed something to help me and take my mind off things.
“We were told he had weeks to live, just as COVID hit. All his treatment stopped.
“I’d go and see him for an hour and then I’d go for a cycle. I needed to.
“The day before he died, I was knocked off my bike in a hit and run with another cyclist. I was on a cycle path and two guys on bikes came towards me fast, travelling on the wrong side. They smashed into me, at about a 30 mile-per-hour impact. The handlebars hit my harm and catapulted me off the bike. I was lucky I wasn’t thrown into the road.
“I was bleeding and in a lot of pain. My mum came and got me and took me to A&E, but thankfully I was only badly bruised and cut, narrowly avoiding some dislocated and broken bones. I was alright, but the bike wasn’t. It was completely trashed.
“Then the next day my amazing brother died. I was completely consumed with that, nothing else mattered.
“He was one of directors of Cammell Laird shipyard. He used to split ships in parts and put them back together. He’d been in the Navy Reserves for a long time too. He loved life and was always loud and happy. Even the day before he died, he was being positive saying, ‘I’ll be living until Christmas at this rate,’ but he clearly wasn’t going to. He did a lot of sports. It was probably his fault I joined the Army because he used to shoot at me with a toy gun from the window when I was a kid. If he hit me, he said it was because I wasn’t running fast enough! He inspired a lot of people. He was so young when he died and from his diagnosis to him dying was less than six months. It shocked our family, his friends and the whole yard.
“We could only have 10 at the funeral but we drove the cars through the shipyard. The workers and the Navy were all lined up. They stopped production for half a day and 3,000 people all stood there in honour of him. We were worried that everyone would turn up for the funeral, which you weren’t allowed to do. But people still did. There were probably a couple of hundred at the funeral, outside.”
“Getting in touch with SSAFA is the best thing that’s happened to me this year”
“My contacts at Help for Heroes got in touch to ask how I was doing, and I mentioned the bike in passing and they told me to get in touch with SSAFA.
“A guy called Graham called me, he was a caseworker for SSAFA where I live in Brighton. I didn’t meet him, because of the Covid restrictions, but he was brilliant and so helpful. He went through some forms with me and then wrote to my different regiments asking if they would fund a new bike, and kept pushing. I just didn’t expect much, but together the regiments donated the full amount of £1,750 to buy me a fabulous new bike! And they gave it so quickly.
“I’ve never had anything from a charity. I normally raise money for charity. It’s different, to be on the other side. Graham didn’t make me feel like I was begging for it. It was like I deserved it which was touching. He was very personable and put me at ease.
“That was my first involvement with SSAFA as a client, which was amazing. It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me this year, in fact in a long time. It’s good for my mental health and getting out there. It’s the only thing that takes my mind off the grief. Exercise is my coping method. If you’re not concentrating when you’re cycling, you’re going to get knocked off.
“My family are military, so I had heard of SSAFA through my childhood and when I was a cadet. A few years ago my partner and I ran a team-building day in Brighton for teenagers that had lost their brothers and sisters in the Army, sponsored by the charity. But I didn’t realise the extent of what they did. I thought it was more for families than service personnel.
“Now I would say getting in touch with SSAFA is the best thing that’s happened to me this year. I’ve never been given anything like that, ever, if I’m honest. It’s something that happens to other people really.
“Now I am paying it forward and using the bike to fundraise for the cancer unit that helped my brother, 100 miles for each 52 weeks of the year, as he died when he was 52. In future I also plan to fundraise for SSAFA too.
“The bike’s beautiful. I’m actually scared to ride it sometimes in case I hurt it. It’s only on a dry, clear day that I’ll go out on it. It’s the best thing I own.”
Graham Fowler, Gina’s caseworker added,
“I was delighted to be able to help Gina. Because of Covid of course, our only contact was by telephone, but I think we still built up quite a rapport. Gina is a Scouser and my family come from Liverpool, so I loved her sense of humour. And knowing the job she did in the Army, I knew a bit about what she went through in service.
“Gina had been in a dreadful situation with the hit and run and then the death of her brother, and it was my pleasure to be able to help her in some way. I’m so glad to hear it’s made such an impact and I hope to continue to help other people like her in the future too.
“Gina, and veterans like her, have done a lot for our country. It’s great that generous people donate and volunteer, so that they may receive help in return when they need it.”