I learnt a new word last week: hoofing. It’s Royal Marines slang to describe anything beyond amazing – and it couldn’t be more fitting to describe the inaugural Veteran Games.
Beit Halochem UK and the Israeli Embassy were always on to a winner in bringing injured British soldiers and their families to Israel to meet and compete with IDF counterparts as part of their rehabilitation; it is after all a tried and tested formula at the Invictus Games. Based on the Tel Aviv beach front, five days of fun in the Mediterranean sun was similarly guaranteed.
But for many the trip’s impact has been profound, even life-changing, and will be felt long after they’ve returned to their daily lives and struggles. For James Stobbs, who tried to take his own life amid crippling PTSD, the Games gave him a goal to aim for. Having previously been all but house-bound, attending the event was part of his exposure treatment and the father-of-four said he returns to the UK with far greater confidence. On the last night, he confided in me that he had suffered a panic attack in the crowded alleyways of the Old City during that day’s tour but, unusually, his young son came up to comfort him.
And there were countless other stories of families being brought closer. Matt Tomlinson, one of the country’s most decorated Royal Marines who recently retired, told me how much it meant to spend the first nights ever with his two teenage boys after travelling the world for the last 28 years.
Though inspired by Prince Harry’s triumphant Invictus, the greatest success of the Veteran Games was in what set it apart. In focusing on camaraderie over competition, friendships bloomed. In making sport only part of the official schedule, there was plenty of time to relax and open up about experiences, sometimes for the first time. In fully involving spouses and kids in half-term, whole families affected by war and rehabilitation enjoyed quality time together.
And yes, in being immersed in the sites, culture and food of Israel, participants’ preconceptions of a country so often linked in public discourse with conflict was utterly transformed. As one participant said: “This has been the trip of a lifetime. We have made friends who will remain so for life. These Games have not only changed you lives but changed us for life.” Caroline Beazley, who was shot four times by the IRA while serving with the Royal Military Police 25 years ago, said: “Trips like this are good for the soul and make you feel proud to have served.” Throughout this week, participants have continued to excitedly post photos of the trip online.
It took considerable resources to bring the Games to reality – participants were rightly treated like kings and queens throughout – but to see the immediate impact made it one of the most important, emotional and uplifting initiatives I’ve had the privilege to cover. Huge kudos to BHUK’s Andrew Wolfson, the Embassy’s Michael Freeman and the rest of the organisers for making it a reality.
As a proud British Jew, you couldn’t help but feel pride in Israel for being such a wonderful host and in the Jewish community for the vision and philanthropy that brought the first Games to life. This must become a fixture in the calendar.