BLISTERS, torn muscles, sprains and bleeding feet – just some of the side effects experienced by Staff Sergeant Marie Gorstridge and her Welfare Wanderers following their recent 100km in 24 hours challenge.
The team, based at Dalton Barracks, Abingdon, walked from London to Brighton to raise money for Blind Veterans UK.
Although the original sentiments behind doing the walk did not change, it was to be cathartic for Marie, who is due to leave the Army next month after 22 years, which have seen her serve in Bosnia and Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
From left, Private Steve Reeve, Lance Corporal Chloe Dixon, Staff Sergeant Marie Gorstridge, Gillian Anderson and Private Ryan Fennell
Having decided to take part in the challenge Staff Sergeant Gorstridge, from the Welfare Office of 4 Logistic Support Regiment, set about putting together her team, which consisted of Lance Corporal Chloe Dixon (3 LSR), Private Steve Reeve and Private Ryan Fennell (both 4LSR).
Marie explained the reasons behind wanting to take on this particular challenge: “I’m coming near to the end of my time in the Army and I wanted to complete some sort of meaningful challenge or event.
“I know there are lots of people who raise money for service personnel who have lost limbs but I thought about the work the charity Blind Veterans UK does and it struck a chord with me.
“I have mental health issues which surfaced during my time in the Army. I have often thought about what it must be like to be blind. When you are having nightmares and see dreadful sights being replayed at least you can open your eyes and they disappear.
“When you are blind you don’t have that luxury. Personally it was things that I could see that helped me out – a baby’s smile, the sunset, simple everyday things we often take for granted.
“I just thought how would a blind person see happy things to help them mentally; it must be hell.”
Staff Sergeant Gorstridge makes her way to the first checkpoint
After months of training both in Abingdon and Northern Ireland, the Welfare Wanderers set off on their adventure on the longest day of the year and faced a tougher challenge than any of them contemplated – searing heat, gruelling hills, rough terrain and injuries.
But for Marie, the journey was to end up having much more significance than just raising money for a worthy cause.
She said: “The further I walked, the more I realised I was doing it for myself too. I have suffered from post traumatic stress disorder since 2003 when I went on tour to Iraq. I went there again in 2007 followed by Afghanistan and my issues became compounded and got steadily worse.
“It started in 2003. There was a lot to deal with, we saw and experienced many things and at the time I didn’t realise I was suffering from depression. The help then wasn’t as good as it is now and there is also a stigma within the Army that if you admit you are depressed it’s a sign of weakness, so I kept cracking on.
“I kept going on tours, had troops under me, kept myself going when I shouldn’t. I should have gone man down and dealt with it. It was a case of blocking it out and pushing on.
“The Army has improved a lot since then, they educate the guys more now and they improve with each tour. Back then you didn’t get the briefings on it or understand that you would feel different after a tour. Little trivial things would annoy you and you couldn’t figure out why.
“When I came home from that first tour I was six stone from being a nine stone muscle-bound girl. No one could hug me and I’m a very touchy person.
“I didn’t show any emotion at work because you can’t.
“On the 2003 and 2007 tours, we often found ourselves heavily bombarded with rockets and under fire, and even now if I hear a bang or a thud like the sound the mortars made it’s like a cactus is running inside my body.
“It’s like it sets off a bomb inside me and the prickles spread out inside me – it’s the only way I can describe it.
“In the end I became like a robot. I was getting up for work and then going back and crawling under the duvet until I eventually sought help from the doctor in 2013. I did try to help myself first, though. I went on self- development courses, I bought Jeannie my puppy to give me a reason to get up each day and eventually I got posted to the Welfare Office in Abingdon.
“Finally I saw a doctor and have been receiving treatment which has made all the difference. I can say I am now past my depression.”
Private Ryan Fennell and Marie Gorstridge and Gillian Anderson take the opportunity to rest and have some food and water
With 24 hours to contemplate life as the team made their way through the streets of London into the countryside and over the north and south Downs into Brighton, and despite the arduous and challenging route, Marie found herself shedding a great deal of emotional baggage along the way.
She said: “Yes it was exceptionally tough but there was no way I wasn’t going to finish this walk.
“I’ve never been a quitter and that’s why I’ve done 22 years’ service. I kept thinking ‘this is the last challenge I will do as a soldier’.
“Coping with eyesight loss in itself is a major thing and they have to struggle with it every day. There’s something wrong if I can’t walk, one step at a time to get to the finish line.
“It began as a walk for blind veterans but it ended up as a walk for me.
“I started and left many issues behind and walked out of the darkness towards a bright new future.
“I thought that if I had been trapped in my mind blind I wouldn’t be here now, and in the end that’s what gave me the strength to get through the walk.
“I left 22 years’ service, my PTSD and other personal issues behind at the start and walked into a bright new future when I crossed the finish line. Doing this is something I will never forget.”