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Calling all Veterans and Service Personnel

Words and pictures from Steve Johnson.

This is a rare – maybe even unprecedented – midweek blog because we as a club have something important to plug.

My name is Steve and I’m a co-founder of the Oldham Athletic Veterans Supporters Group.

I served in the RAF for almost a decade from the age of 17. I've been posted, and been on operations, in a variety of places worldwide and have had the sombre experience of attending several battlefields, including those in Normandy, Gallipoli and the Falkland Islands. I then became a Civilian Instructor at 1855 Royton Sqn RAF Cadets.

They say that you never leave the RAF - they simply stop paying you. That saying is spot on. With Garry Brown, a fellow RAF Veteran, we formed the Oldham Athletic Veterans and Armed Forces Supporters Group last April.

This Saturday is Armistice Day, when the nation remembers and pays tribute to those who have given their lives in the service of their country. For those of you who tuned out during your history lessons, Armistice Day is the anniversary of the day when World War One ended: the armistice (an old word for ceasefire) came into effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The date and time was intended to be memorable, so that those who fought weren’t forgotten, and those in future who make the decision to go to war have an annual reminder about what it might mean. We of course also use the day to remember the fallen and sacrifice of all conflicts since.

I don’t get into the politics of it. You can find all that bollocks somewhere else.

The long and short of this message is that the club is giving complimentary match tickets to serving personnel and armed forces veterans for this Saturday’s fixture against Eastleigh. The details can be found in the bottom two paragraphs here. But if you are a veteran or if you’re serving and on leave – or AWOL (just don't brag about it, as we've RAF Police in attendance ha ha) – do try to get down to Boundary Park this Saturday. It’s rare that civilians get the chance to thank those of us who have served or who currently serve, and it’s rare that we are celebrated, so do yourself a favour: come down and bask in the praise for a minute.

I can’t promise that the football will be any good, but a free ticket is a free ticket and there's a great bar to drown your sorrows in too! By the way, the Fan Bar sells our badge and stickers. We use the money to, among other things, buy season tickets for those who can't afford them.

This is me in my RAF days, in Galipolli in 1995 (bottom row, on the left), flying with 617 Squadron (The Dambusters) from RAF Lossiemouth, and wearing my scary mask in a Tornado. I did not throw up.

It’s nice that Eastleigh are the visitors on Saturday – notwithstanding the fact that we don't belong in this league and they do. They’re nicknamed The Spitfires because the Supermarine Spitfire flew its maiden voyage from Eastleigh airfield, and the planes were assembled and tested there during World War Two. Again, for those who don’t know their history, the Supermarine Spitfire is one of the most celebrated war machines in history, because they – and more importantly the people who flew them with incredible bravery and skill – won the Battle of Britain in 1941, which was when the Nazis (surely you’ve heard of them) tried to establish air superiority over the UK ahead of an invasion and lost. It was the first time the Nazis had been beaten at anything in three years of sending their forces wherever they liked. Lots of our pilots died. Your life expectancy piloting a Spitfire in the Battle of Britain was about the same as doing a bungee jump without the rope.

Remembrance Day is not just about history though. It’s about the here and now. Not a lot of people know this, but only a few times since the world wars has our country not been involved in military conflict abroad, or in peacekeeping (which is much more dangerous than it sounds).

There will be lots of pageantry at the match on Saturday, but for me the best thing is that the players will warm up in SSAFA shirts. SSAFA – the armed forces charity – provides direct support to former and current personnel who need physical or emotional care. This is one of the aspects of serving your country that a lot of people don’t realise. It has a cost.

You come out of the Army, the Navy or the Air Force changed. You go in as a boy or a girl and you come out as a man or woman, sometimes missing one or more limbs, or carrying bits of shrapnel as passengers. These are the physical changes.

There are psychological changes too. If you’ve been in battle, you’d be a rare case if you weren’t traumatised by it. At the time, you do what you’re trained to do almost without thinking. But the brain has this tendency to take you through it all again and again and again, and every time you think every thought in slo-mo.

That is post-traumatic stress disorder, and you can imagine how it plays out for personnel when they get to Civvy Street: they drink too much and take too many drugs too often; they end up homeless; they push their girlfriends, wives, kids, siblings, friends and parents away; they go to prison. Lots of us need help when we come out of the forces, and SSAFA is there to provide it.

Even those who’ve had the easiest years of their lives in the forces take some adjusting to civilian life. You’ll never be tighter with a group of people than the lads and lassies you were with in uniform. You’ll miss them like mad. Even the ones who drove you up the wall. You soon forget what wound you up back in the day and laugh about it now though! I know for a fact that on 2nd May 1991, my West Ham-supporting mate was giving me dog’s abuse all day but strangely stopped around 5pm. I still wish him a Happy Valentines Day every year too – yeah, he wound me up for a few hours, but I've been reciprocating for a lifetime!!!

I suppose what I want to say to everyone is that the people who need help are not confined to Army towns like Aldershot or Catterick, or Navy cities like Portsmouth, or RAF areas like Lincolnshire. They’re here, in Oldham. Quite a lot of us in fact: there are 6,000 Veterans in Oldham and who knows how many serving men and women. It’s a good career option. You might be sitting next to one of us at the match and not know it.

We walk among you. You get a mystery prize if you can guess which one is me.

The Royton branch of the Royal British Legion will be at the game collecting for the Poppy Appeal. Bring your loose change if you can spare it. Bring that biscuit tin full of coppers if you can lift it.

Vicky Prescott will play the Last Post before the game, so please pay both her and the Last Post the respect they’re due. After the whistle is blown ending the Minutes Silence, ROAR with aplomb, let our Military Supporters know that they’re appreciated – personally speaking, I do love that roar after the silence.

Stickers (interior and exterior) are £2 each from the Fan Bar or a bargain 3 for £5. Badges are £5 apiece. We bought a season ticket for the hardship scheme this season with the proceeds, and also pay for mascot packages, throw in for the toys fund and so on.

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