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Former Royal Marine Matt Abbott founded veterans charity VetRun 180 after being injured in Afghanistan rocket attack and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder

With his life crumbling around him and being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, war veteran Matt Abbott was driven to turn things around.

Not only did the former Royal Marine get his own life back on track after being physically injured in a rocket attack in Afghanistan and having to cope with the mental scars, he set himself the mission of helping others injured in conflict rediscover their identities too.

Matt, 38, founded VetRun 180, the first injured veterans organisation of its type in the UK, in early 2018. Challenging expeditions are used to reinvoke the sense of adventure and adrenaline experienced whilst serving, but with no threat.

Matt Abbott in Afghanistan (28414825)
Matt Abbott in Afghanistan (28414825)

By challenging, think crossing the Empty Quarter desert in Oman by driving over hundreds of miles of huge sand dunes in 4x4s, or spending a week in the snowy Swedish wilderness riding skidoos cross country and sleeping in a log cabin with no electricity or running water.

"It's about trying to get them to realise that they are the same person they were before they got injured physically or mentally," said former Bishop's Stortford High School student Matt.

"You're not going to help everyone, but if you take 10 guys away and one of those gets something out of it then it's been a success.

VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414777)
VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414777)

"We've had guys saying we've saved their lives. That sort of thing for me makes it all worth it."

Matt, who grew up in Stortford - his dad Steve recently retired as a teacher at TBSHS - and lived in the town for 32 years, felt lost after leaving school. After doing a few different jobs in the telecoms industry and at Stansted Airport, he found his calling when joining the Royal Marines at the age of 21.

It was in February 2009 when he lost part of his thigh and calf after being hit by a rocket in Afghanistan where he had done three operational tours, along with one in Iraq.

Three years of rehabilitation followed - and 10 years of operations - but Matt knew his career in the Marines was over. He was medically discharged in 2012 and began working with his brother Ben in Stortford installing home cinema systems.

VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414789)
VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414789)

"It wasn't really me but it paid the bills and I threw myself into it," said Matt. "Five years into that my mental health began to deteriorate.

"I'd lost my identity not being a Royal Marine anymore. Life crumbled around me and everything was affected.

"I was having these weird dreams and flashbacks. I tried to get help but got let down a lot. Finally I found some therapy and then I started organising these expeditions to help my recovery and to show other veterans what they're capable of."

VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414745)
VetRun 180 Empty Quarter trip (28414745)

It was the Royal Marines who helped him get the help he needed and it came in the form of "adventure therapy".

In March 2018, he was part of a group who drove across the Sahara Desert in a fleet of Citroen Berlingos. That got "the fire back in his belly" and he rapidly used the ideas that had formed in his head to get VetRun 180 up and running.

Matt said: "I loved adventure and I'd lost that in my life. I had those two weeks of being away in the Sahara and when I came home I literally felt like a new person.

"[VetRun 180] was a simple concept and over the next six months we managed to secure some vehicles, think of a name, get a website and set it all up."

The first VetRun 180 expedition was to Portugal in October 2018, followed in March 2019 by the incredible trip to Oman when Matt and a team of 17 became some of the few people to have crossed the Empty Quarter desert.

They followed in the tracks of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who completed the journey in two months on camels and with a 50-strong support team of desert tribesmen shortly after the Second World War. Matt and his fellow former servicemen took less than a week to conquer the challenge in a convoy of 4x4 vehicles.

Since then, an expedition in Galicia and a UK coast to coast challenge - Whitby to Barrow-in-Furness - have followed while Matt and a group of 10 have this month returned from their Swedish skidoo adventure. VetRun 180 was also given charity status last summer.

VetRun 180's Swedish expedition (28922022)
VetRun 180's Swedish expedition (28922022)

"It's great to see people that are changing their lives from a simple driving trip. I'm really passionate about it and the more I do it the more I want it to grow," said Matt, who has now taken 50 injured, wounded and sick veterans away for life-changing experiences, and has also seen people who have been on previous trips step up to take on leadership roles in future expeditions.

"We still want to stay a small charity, but we want to keep helping guys. More and more people are applying now."

Matt now lives in Great Dunmow with his wife Nancy, 34, who owns salon The Beauty Manor in the town, three-year-old daughter Bella and six-month-old son Freddie.

His next VetRun 180 event will not be as energetic as usual, but it will still be full of adventure. He is hosting An Evening with Brian Wood MC on Friday, February 21 at Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club, who chose Matt's organisation as their charity of the 2019-20 season.

Matt Abbott at Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club. Picture: Andy Todd
Matt Abbott at Bishop's Stortford Rugby Club. Picture: Andy Todd

Wood, a former colour sergeant in the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in combat following his courageous leadership under enemy fire in Iraq. In the heat of a lethal close-quarters battle, he took a split-second decision to lead his men into the teeth of enemy fire in the first bayonet charge by British soldiers for 25 years. He is now a VetRun 180 patron/ambassador.

"The rugby club thing has been fantastic. I've known Mick Coleman [club president] for quite a while and used to live next door to his farm," said Matt.

"He saw me at my worst and saw me come through it with VetRun. The response from the club has been fantastic and I think we've raised about £8,000 so far."

Matt will soon be back at the wheel for the next set of expeditions, with Portugal, Spain and Morocco the destinations before the end of the year.

And the charity is also busy working with medical professionals from various fields to improve the physical and mental wellbeing of veterans, as well as looking to provide practical and recognised qualifications to enhance employability with themselves and civilian employers.

"I've found something I really enjoy," said Matt. "To give something back and see people's lives change for the better is great."

There are a very limited number of tables of 10, priced at £500, left for An Evening with Brian Wood MC at the rugby club on February 21. It includes a three-course dinner, entertainment and a charity auction. Email matt@vetrun180.org for more details.

Any veterans who believe they might benefit from VetRun 180's support should visit vetrun180.org.

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