Choir that banishes fear of war for soldiers’ families

IT started as just two voices from the windswept Army base of Catterick Garrison.

Last year, Nicky Clarke and Caroline Jopp, both spouses of serving soldiers, decided to set up a choir at the North Yorkshire garrison to provide some respite to families of 4th Mechanised Brigade, while their loved ones fought on the frontline in Afghanistan.

The pair approached television choirmaster Gareth Malone for help, but after not receiving a response, enlisted Richmond music teacher Carol Gedye to direct the fledgling group.

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Little did they know in setting up the first Army wives choir, that a year later, the idea would have snowballed into a national phenomenon, with a hit television series and Christmas number one on the way.

After being approached by the Catterick Wives and Girlfriends (Wags) Choir, Mr Malone decided to set up his own military wives’ choir in Devon which has now released a single Wherever You Are after appearing in his television show The Choir.

He reportedly acknowledged on the radio a few weeks ago that got the idea following a letter from an Army wife.

Despite being overlooked by the television cameras, the Catterick Wags have gone from strength to strength and now number more than 30 singers including servicewomen, members of Ministry Of Defence (MoD) civilian staff and schoolteachers, as well as helping inspire a raft of new community choirs across the area.

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The choir is also increasingly seen as a vital support service at a time when health professionals in Catterick Garrison have warned of a major rise in the number of Armed Forces families being treated for stress and anxiety as repeated tours of Afghanistan over the past decade by their loved ones starts to take a significant toll

One of its newest members is Sam Graham, a mother-of-three boys, two of whom are serving in the Army and one, Lance Bombardier Dan Graham, currently on tour in Afghanistan.

“I joined the choir a couple of months ago and absolutely love it,” she said. “It really is very therapeutic, especially at this time of year when so much emphasis is on family life.

“It is very tough having loved ones away. I miss my boys terribly, but I know they are doing jobs they love.

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“The choir is a lot of fun and it is great to be with other women who understand what it is like when loved ones are away.

“It gives you a focus away from work and worries and just takes you out of yourself for an hour or so each week.”

In the past year, the Catterick Wags have been backing singers for the band The Soldiers, appeared on national television, and been broadcasted to their loved ones fighting out in Afghanistan.

The membership of the choir constantly changes as soldiers and their families are posted elsewhere in the country.

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But Sarah McAllister, a 44-year-old-mother-of-two who has taken over the role of coordinator from Nicky Clarke after she moved on, said it has now become an institution in the garrison.

“Everybody who comes says the same thing, that it helps them switch off,” she said.

“It gives them all the chance to just stop thinking for a while.

“Most of us are hundreds of miles away from our families and we can provide that support that we don’t have to each other.

“It is great, because strong friendships form through this.

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“With the brigade set to deploy again in 2012, there is the usual sense of apprehension among the ladies.

“The impact of an operational tour can be a huge strain to any family.

“But at least we can get together and feel the therapeutic release of singing our hearts out.”

The choir is performing tomorrow at 7pm at the Catterick Garrison Memorial Church, while choir leader Carol Gedye has persuaded three new community choirs set up in Richmond and inspired by the Wags, to perform in public for the first time at Richmond Station at 11am on Saturday.

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In the past year, ABF – The Soldiers’ Charity, which the Yorkshire Post is backing in its Christmas Appeal, has seen a 50 per cent leap in the number of Army families seeking its help, alongside a 30 per cent rise over the past two years in applications from soldiers in need of support.

Bidding for our online auction closes at 5pm this Friday.

Those wishing to make private donations to the appeal, can also send a cheque made payable to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, to the Editor’s Secretary, Yorkshire Post, Wellington Street, Leeds LS1 1RF.

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