‘People think we’re acting like Rambo with knives

Throwing wood on the campfire, ex-soldier JP Marriott sits back on a bench he carved from a log and gestures at the nearby river. "It's so peaceful here," he says. "It feels like we're a million miles from all the everyday stresses." This is Belisama's Retreat, a tranquil area of woodland on Lancashire's River Ribble where JP "fixes broken soldiers[1]".

The former Royal Artillery[2] bombardier's retreat offers a break from civilian life to veterans with conditions such as PTSD, depression and addiction. Here, they can deal with mental anguish and build emotional resilience by spending time outdoors camping, lighting bonfires and enjoying nature. JP, 54, says: "People imagine us soldiers must be here acting like Rambo with big knives, killing stuff.

But the lads had enough of all that in the Army. We're here preserving the woodland and want to be peaceful. This retreat has saved lives."

Thought to be the UK's first military[3] ecotherapy site, it has 500 veterans registered and gets two or three new enquiries every week. A stay can be arranged with a few hours' notice. JP says adjusting to civilian life is not easy and many who join the Army from school know nothing else, adding: "We offer respite from those pressures and get down to the basic things you need for happiness: food, water and shelter."

JP Marriott founded the retreat eight years ago (Andy Stenning/Sunday Mirror)

Some sign up to the retreat to camp in the wild, while others come to offload when "the black dog taps on their shoulder".

Father of three JP, who has mental health first aid and ecotherapy training but is not a qualified counsellor, says during chats visitors tell him things they would not share with loved ones to spare them from secondary PTSD. He says: "Rather than getting angry with their partners or kicking their dog, they come here and unload without judgment. Once we've had the horrible talk, I'll start using grounding techniques to bring them back down from the open wound of the trauma and back into the room.

We might go up the river in the canoe, search for wild garlic or go looking for kingfishers or otters." Belisama's also has activities such as archery and axe-throwing. In one exercise, JP asked a veteran to create an image of his mind using nature - and the lad used dead sticks and leaves to show the messed-up parts of his brain.

JP says: "We burnt the dead sticks on a campfire. It's a physical way of clearing your head."

The retreat is located on the banks of the River Ribble, (Belisama) near Preston in Lancashire

We are visiting the retreat days after actress Tina Malone, 61, revealed how PTSD, brought on by his experiences in Afghanistan[4] and Iraq, drove husband Paul Chase, 41, to drink, drugs and, in March, suicide. Sadly, Paul's case does not surprise JP.

Suicides in men aged 35 to 44 in 2021 were 33.5 per 100,000 in veterans compared with 18.8 in non-veterans, Office for National Statistics show. Sitting by the campfire, JP cites three military peers who took their lives in recent months. He says: "More have now died of PTSD or suicide than died in combat in Afghanistan."

Veterans also face problems with money, housing, work and marriage. Homelessness among veterans in England rose 14% in 2023 compared with the previous year. JP says: "Some struggle to live in houses as they find it restrictive or triggering.

Others have got into trouble and been kicked out or lost their home, perhaps because of financial or substance abuse issues." Where appropriate, he points people to specialised support. JP left the Army in 1999 after 14 years, then worked in data communications and ran a tattoo studio, among other jobs. Using his Army pension, he bought four acres of land in 2017 intending to grow produce for local restaurants.

But its calming impact on Army mates convinced him to start Belisama's in 2018. "If it helped them, I thought it would help others," he says. His proudest achievement is aiding a suicidal ex-soldier to thrive, even reconnecting with his estranged family. JP says: "Last time I saw him, he had this sunshine glow and this other guy gave me a hug - it was his brother, who he hadn't spoken to for 30 years."

Today, demand is as high as ever but grants have dried up, leaving Belisama's reliant on donations and the savings of JP, who is working for nothing, to stay afloat. He is trying to raise GBP34,000 to buy neighbouring land and build a car park, to improve accessibility. JP would have lost his house last year but for the Royal British Legion's intervention.

He also won one of PM Rishi Sunak[5]'s Point of Light awards, which recognises outstanding UK volunteers - but could not afford to travel to London to collect it. JP says: "As soldiers, the orders we followed came from the Government. It is their responsibility to make sure grants and funding is available for smaller organisations like ours.

This work can be draining but I'm not stopping. Too many people depend on me. We just need that support."

I get fewer flashbacks thanks to the retreat'

Steve Robinson during military career

Steve Robinson was on his third tour of Bosnia when he suffered a spinal injury.

Medically discharged from the Army in 1999, at 31, the dad of two also had PTSD. Now 56, the former Royal Corps of Signals Corporal finds respite from PTSD triggers and symptoms at Belisama's. He says: "Military training changes you - it rewrites your brain so you can survive in war.

This leads to problems with PTSD. We can come down here and we're away from the triggers, with people with the same sense of humour and life experiences." Steve battled flashbacks, poor sleep and hyper-vigilance, working 100-hour weeks as an operations manager to suppress his anguish. He had a near-fatal heart attack in 2016 which led to a PTSD diagnosis.

Steve, of north Lancashire, comes to Belisama's twice a week and helps Steve run it. The community helped keep his spirits up after his back injury degenerated two years ago, leaving him partially paralysed below the waist. "I've started talking to my wife about Bosnia, properly," he says. "I don't get flashbacks as much.

My family can see I've improved massively."

'It's a place where we can reconnect'