Gary: “When you retire, you feel like you lose your tribe – but you don’t need to lose that connection”

Gary Chamberlain, a retired Crew Manager from Leicestershire FRS, shared with us his passion for ensuring all retired members of our fire services community stay connected.

Gary sadly passed away in December 2023, a few months after sharing his story with us. You can read his words here…

Keeping fit and healthy is essential when you’re a firefighter, but there’s no reason that should stop when you retire. If anything, it’s just as important as ever to look after your wellbeing.

And Gary Chamberlain, a retired Crew Manager from Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service, made it a top priority since he left the fire service and faced a number of health challenges.

Gary received our support twice and said it was been instrumental in improving his wellbeing. He told us in March 2023 of his hopes to encourage other retired members of the fire services community to stay connected to the charity – and each other – as he’d seen the huge difference it makes.

“I’ve had support from the Charity before, twice,” Gary said at the time. “Around 16 years ago, my youngest son was very unwell. I’d just retired at the time and he was very, very poorly, without going into too much detail, it was touch and go for a while.

“He subsequently got better thankfully, but it had quite a deep effect on my wife, she was very traumatised by what had happened.

“We went to Harcombe House, to one of the bungalows, at the time and it was brilliant. It was just nice to get away – Devon’s beautiful, it was nice and relaxing with no pressure – an escape from the stresses we’d had recently.”

Our rest and recharge stays – like the one Gary was invited on – invite beneficiaries to take a week away from the challenges of day-to-day life to enjoy the peaceful surroundings at our centres and enjoy a much-needed break, particularly if they’ve been going through a difficult time.

Gary then got in touch with us again around nine years ago, after suffering a deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

“I was quite unwell with that and it meant I couldn’t do any exercise for a while,” Gary added. “I rang the Charity myself and they were able to offer me a recuperative break with my family at Harcombe House again.

“There were some scheduled walks I could take part in, to keep some exercise going with others too.

“I’ve been active my whole life, so when I heard about the DVT, it put that to a very sudden stop for a while – and I found that hard to deal with. All of a sudden I went from being very active to being told I was only allowed to go on three 20 minute walks a day and I’d have to take someone with me! It’s tough. I needed to process it all really, and Harcombe helped me do that.”

Following his stay at Harcombe House, Gary concentrated on slowly building his fitness back up and, incredibly, got to the point he was able to take part in the British Firefighter Challenge in 2022.

The annual event challenges firefighters, both working and retired, to take on a series of difficult challenges – from stair climbs to hose drags and casualty rescues. Funds raised on the day are then kindly donated to us.

Many participants take part each year and fundraise for us. You can follow their fundraising efforts and support them here.

Gary was living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and atrial fibrillation (AF) at the time, and he said exercise – at the right level – was really important for him with both.

“Going to the gym gets a bit same old, so it was really nice to train towards something,” he added. “I paced myself throughout and took my time.

“I know a lot of retired firefighters that have got the same lung condition as me, and you tend to go one of two ways – you either fight it and try to keep as much as you can, or you don’t. I’ve been told exercise is not only good, it’s essential, because it keeps your lungs clear.

“I know a lot of retired firefighters that don’t want to do anything – particularly on those days when your lungs feel particularly clogged up and you’re not getting a lot of oxygen. The worst thing you can do is stop exercising.

“I want to be dancing at my grandson’s wedding, I don’t want to go anywhere yet, so you’ve got to keep pushing.”

Gary hoped to spread an important message to anyone reading his story…

“When you leave the fire service, you don’t just lose employment, you feel like you lose your tribe,” Gary said. “But you don’t need to lose that connection, especially these days. The Charity has some many ways you can keep connected.

“If you’ve had enough, fair enough I respect that, but a lot of other people may feel lost – particularly when they first retire. One minute you’re an operational firefighter, then that’s it. So keeping connected makes that transition so much easier.”

You can find out more about how we support our retired community here.

Gary said supporting us is essential to ensure we can support him, and his colleagues, right across the UK for life.

“The Charity is on social media, it’s so easy to keep up with all the news and advice being shared,” Gary added. “During my service, we were always fundraising and I donated monthly. It just happened that I never needed it until just after I retired.

“If you have the money, making a donation is really helpful too, but if that’s not a good fit for you at the moment, there are other ways you can support it.”

If you feel you’d benefit from mental health support, we may be able to help you. Call our Support Line on 0800 389 8820, make an enquiry online or register for MyFFC now and visit the ‘Access Support’ tab at the top of the MyFFC homepage.

You can also join our ‘Share Your Story’ Group in MyFFC, by clicking on the ‘Groups’ tab, to chat to others who have received our support or enquire about sharing your own story.