True heroes: How motorcycle team came to aid of military veterans

Swanley (United Kingdom) (AFP) –


John Footitt, a veteran of the 1982 Falklands War diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, admits "sudden noises out of the blue" still terrify him.

Fortunately, the ear-splitting sounds of high-performance motorcycles do not.

The former Royal Navy seaman told AFP he found the best form of counselling was being part of the True Heroes Racing team, who compete in the British Superbike Championships.

True Heroes Racing was set up in 2012, the brainchild of Royal Navy Warrant Officer Phil Spencer.

Unlike other ex-servicemen who enjoy the thrill of racing with the team, Footitt, a self-employed gardener, is happy just fetching fuel or polishing the bikes.

As he cleans up one of the machines at the historic Brands Hatch circuit in south-west England, it is the solace he finds within the team that is pivotal to his life.

"I was diagnosed with PTSD about 25 years ago. Before that I thought I was just normal," the quietly-spoken Footitt told AFP.

"I didn't take any notice when they said what it was I was in denial. 'I was alright Jack', I thought it was just depression."

Footitt served on the troop ship SS Canberra in the Falklands War in 1982, a conflict which cost the lives of over 250 British servicemen and 600 Argentinians. Seven ships were sunk.

"Even now I still have a thing about aircraft," he said. "It still terrifies me, sudden noises out of the blue.

"This thing (True Heroes Racing) is, apart from family, the best thing that happened.

"Being part of this team is unbelievable, better by far than counselling or therapy."

Footitt says being amongst fellow ex-servicemen has given him a new lease of life.

"The camaraderie and banter is fantastic," he said.

"It doesn't matter if you were Army, RAF or Navy it is just fantastic, just like the old days being back in.

"Of course there is a very serious side of it for obvious reasons.

"But it is very, very enjoyable. I would highly recommend it to anybody who has gone through a bad patch."

- 'Banter and humour fits' -

Spencer said the idea of a racing team came to him after he had completed several tours of duty in Afghanistan, feeling fortunate he had come back unscathed while others had not.

"The nature of the Afghanistan conflict and the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) generated a lot of amputees," he said.

"Now operations have died down the demographics have changed and there are less obvious injuries among team members.

"It seemed logical to aid rehab and adjustment to make the transition for those going back out into 'civvy street'."

Spencer runs the team on a tight £125,000 budget while still serving full-time in the Royal Navy. All the team members are volunteers.

"The motorcycle racing world's dark humour fits nicely with us," he said.

"Being back amongst that environment, having been out in civvy street, the banter and humour fits."

Spencer, who hosts around 70 people, either linked to sponsors or injured military personnel, on race weekends, did question himself and the team's purpose when a young amputee rider was killed in 2017.

Mark Fincham, a former Marine, died in a crash in a race at the Thruxton circuit in southern England.

"Motor sport is dangerous, we know the risks involved," he said.

"We put bikes out there properly prepared. We are military people -- table tennis would not have had same impact."

Spencer says it is not a results-driven business.

"Seeing every single member come and go and go on to do amazing things is rewarding," he said.

"They have adjusted into civilian life, providing for their families.

"It is not about results on the track, finishing is as good as winning."

One of the riders Dave Mackay, who was in the Army for 22 years, including tours of Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, admits he has undergone a change of outlook with the team.

"I had a selfish mindset to be honest to start with," he said. "As time went on, I realised it was about helping others -- that is what it is about."