Millions of people across the globe turn to video games for entertainment, to socialise or simply to pass time, but for Paul Colling and many other veterans, it has proved a life-saving tool.
Paul was just 16 years old and straight out of school when he joined the army in 2001, following in the footsteps of both his brother and father.
Though the career was a ‘family thing’, Paul wasn’t sure what he wanted to do in the army until he began training and found interest in becoming a physical trainer and teaching recruits. He completed his physical trainer course, though still often continued to do ‘whatever’ was asked of him, whether it be keeping ‘everybody up to speed with their shooting or their weapon handling, stuff like that.’
Throughout his career, Paul spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan and regularly took part in endurance marches and fitness training. He sustained a traumatic ankle injury early on in his service, damaging the ligaments, tendons and cartilage, but he strove to continue through frequent bouts of pain until another training exercise caused more damage.
Paul underwent surgery and physiotherapy, and while at first it seemed he may be able to recover, it later became apparent that would not be the case. A doctor told him his career was over, and after appearing in front of a Full Colonel and a board of five people, he had little choice but to leave.
Speaking to UNILAD, Paul explained that ‘some people get to stay in’ after getting injured, but he knew he ‘need[ed] to go’ as staying would not have been good for his mental health. He explained: ‘I couldn’t have done it, it just broke me mentally I think… but it’d have broken me a lot more [if I’d stayed]. I’d have been bitter and twisted by the end of it.’
After leaving the army, Paul was able to secure a house and a job, everything he needed ‘on paper’, but he acknowledged there ‘wasn’t something right inside’. At one point he considered taking his own life, considering the thoughts ‘normal’ because he just didn’t ‘want to be around anymore’, however later ‘something clicked’ for Paul, and he realised he needed to seek help.
The veteran turned to Help For Heroes, which put him on a life coaching course through which he learned how to help others who were struggling. In doing the course, Paul began to ‘dissect [his] life’ and was able to use the tricks and traits he picked up on the course to better his own wellbeing.
Following his leg injuries, Paul has undergone eight surgeries, some of which left him unable to move for months on end.
He commented: ‘I wouldn’t like to guess how long I’ve spent not being able to do anything.’
It was during these long periods of physical inactivity that Paul found solace in video games, which he had played since he was a child. He plays a variety of games, from FIFA to Call of Duty to God of War, using the entertainment to keep his brain busy and avoid ‘pulling [himself] apart.’
Remembering the weeks he spent gaming, Paul said:
I couldn’t go out and work – there was nothing I could do because I couldn’t walk. By playing games, it filled up that space and I could communicate with people and still be in a line of contact with people which I wouldn’t have been able to do without it. So it was a massive tool.
It started at a young age, but got really powerful and really potent when all the surgery started happening and life started going on a downward spiral. It offered a support network and it helps; you can just forget everything and just live the moment of the game.
The 34-year-old praised gaming as an ‘easy way of communicating’, explaining that the focus on the game allows players to ‘naturally end up chatting and airing out all the stresses, all the problems, all the issues without even realising you’re doing it.’
He continued: ‘That’s why it’s so powerful; I could be sat here on my own but then I could be online chatting to hundreds of people [online].’
As well as offering an outlet for Paul to share his thoughts and feelings, gaming allowed Paul to improve his motor skills after finding out through his numerous hospital visits that he had also suffered a minor brain injury.
The veteran was advised to learn to play the guitar in a bid to practise telling his hands what to do, but Paul ‘hated’ trying to learn the instrument and ended up smashing it up. As it turned out, however, he’d been practising telling his hands what to do while ‘sat playing games for months on end.’
No one ever explained it to me or told me about it, but I just realised myself, actually, my brain’s thinking about it, and my hands are doing two times, three times as much as they’d ever been doing on the guitar – I couldn’t get past the D chord on guitar.
On the game I was talking to people, and while I was talking to them I was also making things happen on the screen, it was just naturally happening and progressing, it was a very powerful tool to get through a lot of surgery.
Through his work with Help For Heroes and in line with their Hero Up campaign, Paul helped establish a gaming group which brought together wounded soldiers through the coronavirus outbreak and helped raise some money for the charity as their way of ‘saying thank you’.
Paul was far from the only one to benefit from the group, as he recalled how one of the members was ‘ready’ to take his own life during coronavirus lockdowns, but thankfully another veteran spotted that he was struggling through their interactions, after which ‘everyone got on the phone and sorted it out’.
He commented: ‘I know plenty of people for who games have given them a positive reason to get through a rough time. It’ll have played different parts in people’s recoveries and journeys and life itself, but there are so many people I know it’s helped in one way or another.’
The benefits of gaming aren’t limited to those in the military, Paul stressed, as he noted that people ‘probably don’t even realise they’re using it and that it’s helping them and aiding them, unless you digest it. A lot of people just play and see it as a social [thing], but they don’t realise the positives they’re getting from it sometimes.’
Through the Hero Up campaign, Paul believes he and his group have raised more than £7,000 for the charity by streaming games and taking part in 24-hour, 36-hour and even 10-day gaming marathons.
Paul is also involved in a beneficiary gaming team, where the charity’s beneficiaries come together and play games with eSports teams formed of players from the army, the RAF and the navy, allowing veterans to play with their former service and ‘feel part of it still’.
Discussing the good Hero Up does, Sarah Jones, Head of Psychological Wellbeing at Help for Heroes, explained it fundraises for wounded veterans and their families and ‘provides a space where veterans can game together for mutual support.’
People can simply sign up, create a fundraising page, set a target and then play their favourite games to drive donations for Help for Heroes. These donations help us to support our veterans affected by injury or illness, and their families, with everything from their mental health to clinical support.
Many of our veterans find gaming to be a really helpful tool to manage daily stresses including chronic pain, mental health issues and social isolation. It’s something that’s available in their own homes at any time, night or day, so it’s accessible and provides a sense of community and camaraderie that they often miss when they leave the military.
This Remembrance Sunday, Paul will be marching at the cenotaph in London; an event he described as an ‘honour’ to be part of. As well as joining other veterans at the event, Paul will take part this weekend in a gaming event organised with teams from the Royal Navy to raise both money and awareness for the support that is available, to help people realise it’s there ‘before they need it’.
He explained: ‘It’s alright knowing it’s there when you need it, or after you need it, but ideally people need to know it’s there before they need it, and that’s why I really want to be working with them.’
Paul noted he ‘can’t think of a situation where [Help For Heroes] wouldn’t be able to help’ him, and through the support he has received he made the promise to himself ‘that from now on [he’s] going to try and make a difference’, saying: ‘If I can help one or two more people along the way then that’s worthwhile being around.’
With that in mind, Paul noted that ‘we all go through battles; we all have our issues and have our good days and bad days’, but we must ‘understand that it’s alright not to be alright.’ He urged those struggling to ‘speak to somebody’, because ‘the minute you do is the minute things start turning for the better.’
The veteran added: ‘Find something that really makes you feel good about yourself, and whenever you feel low just find that positivity that will get you through it one step at a time, one day at a time.’
Through Hero Up initiatives, including direct donations, fundraising livestreams, and support from World of Warships, Help For Heroes has raised more than £80,000. If you’d like to get involved with Help For Heroes’ Hero Up campaign, you can find more information here.
If you’re experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They’re open from 5pm–midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you’re not comfortable talking on the phone