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Garden soothes veterans' trauma

Glenn Taylor sits on a wooden bench and gazes at the clouds reflected on the surface of a perfectly-still lily pond.

It's a rare moment of peace and tranquillity for the ex-serviceman. During his 16 years with the Royal Green Jackets and the Royal Navy he completed three tours of duty in Northern Ireland and spent time on operations in the Balkans. His experiences left him with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"I suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts and feelings of low self esteem," he says.

"There's a stigma attached to an ex-serviceman who has a mental illness. For a proud serviceman like me that's a very difficult pill to swallow."

The charity Combat Stress is currently helping more than 4,300 people like Glenn. As well as veterans from recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, it also treats men and women who have been suffering since World War II.

For this year's Hampton Court Flower Show in Surrey, Combat Stress has created a therapeutic garden. Every aspect of the plot has been designed with the needs of traumatised veterans in mind.

'Invisible wound'

"It's a tranquil sanctuary - it's somewhere the former soldiers can feel safe," says the garden's designer Fi Boyle.

"People with PTSD are very aware of what's around them so there are clear sight lines everywhere.

"Wherever someone sits they know they're not going to ambushed. The benches have nowhere that improvised explosive devices can be hidden and high backs so that someone can't lean over and grab them.

Image caption The garden has been funded entirely by donations

"All sorts of things trigger PTSD. It can be light, smell or a movement.

"I deliberately haven't used colours such as red or orange because they can be seen as 'danger' colours. I've used blues and purple flowers instead."

Combat Stress has seen a huge increase in the number of veterans seeking help for mental health problems. The number of referrals it receives has risen by 72% over the past five years.

"This is an invisible wound and for brave men and women who leave the armed forces it's often very, very difficult for them to admit they're having difficulties coping," says the charity's chief executive, David Hill.

"Sometimes that causes people to delay seeking help and it can take 14 years for people to present themselves to us."

The therapeutic garden has been funded entirely by donations, including one anonymous gift of £13,500. Once the show is over it will be dug up before being replanted next spring at Combat Stress's main treatment centre, Tyrwhitt House at Leatherhead in Surrey.

'Beautiful environment'

Glenn Taylor believes it will be of great benefit to traumatised veterans like himself.

"It's an amazing place for reflection and veterans receiving therapy need to reflect - it's part of the healing process," he says.

"It's so important when you're receiving treatment to have somewhere to take 20 or 30 minutes to ground yourself, think about what's happened during the day and calm down in a beautiful environment."

Image caption The garden has won a silver medal

The Combat Stress garden has been awarded a Royal Horticultural Society silver medal and more than 150,000 people are expected to see it over the next week at Hampton Court Flower Show.

For most gardeners, an RHS award would be a career highlight. For the designers of the Combat Stress therapeutic garden, however, it is the ex-servicemen and women who bear the mental scars of war who will be the most important judges of its success.

"By being at Hampton Court we can educate people who might have family members with PTSD," says co-designer Dorinda Wolfe-Murray.

"There's a chance to reach families who don't understand the reason their son, boyfriend or husband is violent or has mood swings is because they have PTSD.

"This garden is about more than just winning medals."

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