RCI visited a school roof in Somerset to catch up with former serviceman Tom Thompson, Highly Commended in this year’s BMI Redland’s Apprentice of the Year competition, to find out how roofing has given him the new career he sorely needed.
At 4am on July 10th 2009, a small group of soldiers from 9 Platoon, C Company, 2 Rifles left their base near the town of Sangin in Helmand Province, Afghanistan for a routine foot patrol. A few short minutes later, almost half of 9 Platoon’s 30-odd strength had been killed or injured: five men died.
They had been hit by two ‘daisy chains’ of linked Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The second went off as a rescue group from the platoon was attempting to bring back the casualties from the first series of explosions. It was, said the media, ‘the British Army’s bloodiest day in Afghanistan’.
Almost a decade later, we meet one of the soldiers from that platoon, Tom Thompson on a school roof in Somerset.
The journey from soldier to roofer has not been an easy one for Tom. Like many of the survivors from 9 Platoon that day, Tom began to suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that had been building cumulatively over multiple tours of Iraq and other hot spots during his 10-year army career.
Tom completed his contract with the army as a physical training instructor, and with no formal diagnosis of PTSD, and hence no support, spent a difficult first six months returning to civilian life. There were nightmares, heavy drinking and hours spent in the gym to alleviate the toxic duo of stress and boredom.
Tom told us how he “learnt to live with it. Some nights are still bad, but you get on with it” and, as the effects of PTSD plateaued, Tom began to look around for his next move. A trade appealed. “I was looking for something that kept my mind active, hands busy and where I could be proud of the finished product”.
Sitting at home in Devizes, Wiltshire, where he was born and bred, Tom saw two roofers at work. “I watched as they stripped the roof and I thought I'd love to have a go at that”, he says. “The next day they laid the tiles over the battens and the magic started to unfold – it was a pleasure to watch. So, I thought - that's it; active, fast, skilled and teamwork! This is what I am looking for”.
Tom found Melksham-based A. L. King, headed up by former NFRC president Andy King, who gave Tom a start. It’s not something Andy regrets: “Tom was a very able apprentice – and with great aptitude for learning. He was somebody we were happy to progress through the trade”.
A. L. King has been established for nearly 40 years and the company prides itself on offering quality workmanship and first-class service in pitched and flat roofing, with a client list that contests to that ethos.
Tom was determined to do well and counted himself very lucky to be paired with King’s most experienced roofer, Bob. “At 65-years old, he was flying around on the battens, while I was like Bambi on ice! He really knew his stuff and taught me from the moment we got on the scaffolding”.
The regime at King’s helped Tom with his transition from army life: “They have set routines, they have a certain way of doing things – and they’re very organised. I needed that”.
Tom was a good student. With support from Andy, Bob and Alan Lander of RoofTrain – Tom’s NVQ assessor at the South West Training Group – he came second, with a judge’s commendation, in the national SkillBuild finals in 2017. Further success followed in 2018, when Tom was Highly Commended in the Pitched Roof category of the BMI Redland Apprentice of the Year competition in June.
The BMI competition – open to 2019 entries next spring – is for all roofing apprentices enrolled with one of the participating colleges or training groups. The competition incorporates both pitched and flat roofing disciplines.
Entrants are tested and judged on all-round ability, including business skills. “The competition was not what I expected, and totally different to SkillBuild”, says Tom. “It required a lot more thought – especially when it came to the fault-finding and business presentations”.
All things change, and Tom has moved from A. L. King to a more local Devizes firm, Roundway Roofing. Founded by Rob Gleed, Roundway specialises in heritage work although when RCI met up with Tom, it was tackling a large school re-roof in Somerset. By coincidence, the roof was a full BMI specification designed through the warrantied SpecMaster service, featuring Redland 50 Double Romans, coupled with Icopal’s Thermweld FireSmart warm roof waterproofing system on flat areas.
While very happy at Roundway, Tom – now 30 with a young family – has an eye on the future. “I’ve still a lot to learn, but ultimately, I’d love to have a crack at being a trainer or a tutor myself”, he says. “I’ve trained up to 600 soldiers at a time and I was really motivated by my time with Alan and what I saw at the BMI competition”.
Tom’s journey so far – not least to Helmand and back – has been challenging, but it has also equipped him with the fortitude he needs to attack the next leg of his career with grit and determination.
9 Platoon’s story is told in a BBC documentary Life After War: Haunted by Helmand, which is available on YouTube.
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