Neil on the 2011 MU AFIA Family Holiday Team for Mothers' Union in the Diocese of Winchester
Now a regular member of the Mothers’ Union ‘Family Holiday’ team in Winchester Diocese, and still a serving soldier, Neil tells his own moving story:
In the eyes of the world I had been a complete success and was considered to be a role model.
I was a soldier who had done just about everything. In civilian life I had been a semi-professional kick-boxer. Now I was described as one of the most successful snipers in the British Army. I had done all the combat stuff, pulled people out of burning buildings, done humanitarian aid work, seen mass graves of ethnic cleansing, been in riots, searched for bombs. I’d done close observation, human intelligence, and frequently gone into hostile territory in plain clothes. I had been shot at more times than I can count or remember, I’d been blown up, and I’d been set on fire.
But by 2005 I was virtually a broken man, suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
My wife had gone to church for years but I was not interested. In fact I did not believe in a lot at all. But, we were offered a holiday by Tina’s church, something called the “Mothers’ Union, Away From It All (AFIA) Family Holiday”, and so, begrudgingly, I went along.
When we arrived, I sat waiting in the car nervously for 10 minutes, wondering what was going to happen. I had been it, seen it and done virtually everything, so why was I here with a bunch of do-gooders?
At the time, my attitude didn’t shock me. I couldn’t see what I had become through prolonged exposure to so many violent events. In hindsight, it had turned me in to what I can now only describe as a murderous, lying, thieving, cheating scum, on the verge of alcohol dependency.
After a few days I felt something change. I went to the evening reflection led by the holiday’s chaplain – a lady vicar who could make a pig out of a banana!! She read something from the Bible about “Come ye who are heavily laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
I was given a stone to hold in my hands. I meditated on that passage for what seemed like an age. In reality it was a couple of minutes, a time in which I felt Gods’ presence and heard him speak to me for the first time.
I was nearly in tears, but some habits die hard, and being a brave soldier, I held them back. This had a profound effect upon me. The next day, in the quiet times provided by the holiday team working with our children for those few hours, I really realised that God had touched my heart.
I saw that the team were not ‘do gooders’. They were people who wanted to help make a difference in people’s lives. They did it with the love of Christ. I opened up to Bennie who sat on our table for meals. She was shocked at some things I had seen and done, but she prayed for me and for my family.
After that holiday I went to church. This time it was not for show. It was because I had actually started to believe in Jesus and in God. When I looked back at some of the things I had done I was ashamed of what I had become, both in action and in attitude. I started to change from the inside to the outside.
I kept in touch with the holiday team members. I remember one guy, David, had a profound effect upon me. He asked me why didn’t I become a member of the Mothers’ Union. I said I thought it was just for women, but he told me it was for anyone who believed in Christian family values. So I joined. I was so sad when he died of cancer a couple of years later; he had helped so many people – especially me.
As I went on with my journey with God, I changed. Tina and I were asked to be members of the AFIA Family Holiday team the following year. We had a chat and made the decision: yes it would be fantastic to do for others what had been done for us- well me mainly.
Neil and his wife Tina at the renewal of the wedding vows on the MU AFIA Family Holiday in 2011
In 2011, Tina and I had our marriage blessed on the Mothers’ Union AFIA Family Holiday. We’d been married in a registry office, but since it was Family Holiday that brought me to Christ, and the years holiday theme was ‘Royal Wedding’ it seemed apt. I wanted to share our marriage blessing with the people who helped me more than they could ever imagine.
It was truly an honour that the team were there, and that they know that they make such a difference. Claire sang so beautifully, Steve took some marvellous photos, Mary led the intercessions and Ernie spoke about me and Tina. I was very emotional during the ceremony and Tina said some very powerful stuff to me, but it was awesome. Bennie spoke to me after the ceremony and said how much difference there was in me from that first year, and that I had been in a lot of people’s prayers.
Life is better than ever for our family. I am also training to be a Reader (Lay Minister) in the Church of England within the army. But I am feeling a pull towards more full time work with God. I try to study how the Bible is relevant and how it can make a difference in our lives, now. If I say to people I will pray for you – people who are not Christians look at you weird – but prayer works. I pray that other people can have an AFIA Family Holiday like I did those few short years ago, so that they too can feel the love of God and have their lives changed.
The AFIA Family Holiday run by Mothers’ Union members in the Diocese of Winchester for over 40 years, is struggling to meet the rising costs of running a weeks holiday that includes partial child care, activities, entertainment, a day out at the seaside, and lovely accommodation. Neil has a challenge for us all:
Neil, fellow team member Hanni, and some little helpers, plant a memorial tree to David on the 2009 MU AFIA Family Holiday
Being in the Army I have gone through many cuts in the past two years: no pay rise is planned, allowances have been cut. With increased living standards and paying more tax, this year as a family we will be £4000.00 worse off. Yet I still tithe. This year I will give that tithe to the Mothers’ Union AFIA holiday in Winchester Diocese – which will amount to approximately £2500.
I know it is only small but the holiday makes such a big difference. The benefits to those families who come are almost unlimited. They may find jobs enabling them to bring their children up outside of the benefit system. Their children grow up with different values that they will hopefully pass on to their children. They become members of their church doing good within their community… the list can be endless.
Christian family values are the basis of our life and should be considered the basis of what we are trying to achieve. The AFIA Family Holiday is such a resounding success with willing volunteers who do so much good, that it must be enabled to continue changing as many lives as possible.
If you would like to help this project by donating any amount, please send your donation to
Mothers’ Union Family Holiday Treasurer,
101 Winchester Street, Overton, Basingstoke, RG25 3HZ.
When sending a cheque please make it payable to ‘MU Winchester Diocese Family Holiday’ and if you are a UK Taxpayer please include a note of your address and signature so they can claim the additional Gift Aid.
Photographs on this page are the work of regular team member and professional photographer Steve Mann of Nelson Art