Veteran John Owens was at the top of his military career when a stroke left him hospitalised and facing an uncertain future. With support of The Open University’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund, he’s now working towards a new chapter in his ongoing recovery.
After facing his own challenges, John, from Kilmarnock is determined to show other disabled veterans that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“I was operating weapons in a war zone when I was still a teenager,” says John, who signed up for the Army after leaving school at 16. His passion for fitness led him to begin as a personal trainer but was soon seconded into Weapons Support.
“When the First Gulf War started, I was possibly the youngest soldier there aged just 17. I couldn’t help thinking, here I am in a war zone, but when I go home, I won’t be considered old enough to buy a beer in a pub!”
John’s military career took him around the world, where he travelled to conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan to provide weapons support to the frontline troops. After his tours, he was promoted and began to teach the next generation of recruits at the Army’s Specialist Weapons School. All while continuing his passion for running whenever he could.
It was then, while at the top of his 24-year service, that John suffered a stroke.
Adapting to civilian life
“After my MRI scan, the doctors found evidence that I had suffered an earlier stroke whilst serving in conflict zones in the 1990s. I then suffered another stroke in May 2011, which was more serious.
“In my typical fashion, I thought I could just run it off and went for a five-mile run! Very soon afterwards, I collapsed while walking to work. Later tests showed I had been born with a hole in my heart which I had no idea about!
“I was at the pinnacle of my career and now my whole world was collapsing around me.”
After spending his whole life constantly on the move, John was now wheelchair-bound and faced a tough recovery, including speech and language therapy.
“I had to be medically discharged from the Army which was a massive blow. I wasn’t sure what my future might hold and didn’t know what I was going to do. My Resettlement Officer mentioned The Open University, but I thought the OU would never happen as I have no qualifications and a brain injury. I was also concerned as to whether I would be fit enough to study.
“But with nothing to lose, I applied for the Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund (DVSF).”
Starting a new journey with the OU
John is just one of hundreds of former servicemen and women studying through a scholarship. The DVSF was specially created to fully support disabled veterans injured in or due to service as they transition to civilian life. It enables veterans to access free education and wraparound support so they can rewrite their futures and unlock new careers.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed when I heard I had been accepted to study for a BSc in Sport, Fitness and Coaching, and was totally over the moon as it gave me a new focus. I was determined to build on my previous experience and become a qualified personal trainer.
“I began studying with the OU in 2020 and they’ve been brilliant. I had been worried about resources for disabled students, but the OU provided me with a laptop computer and a Livescribe pen with tuition on how to use it all.”
Giving back to society
Through sheer determination, John went from being in a wheelchair to completing a 10,000-metre run within a year following his debilitating stroke.
“I thought to myself, what if I can give this drive to someone else?
“My aim is to work with other disabled veterans and individuals to show them the benefits of training. And I’m already doing this by coaching young kids to teach them about discipline, commitment and focus.
“It’s my way of giving something back to society. And that’s really my main message to donors of the Scholarships Fund, as well as saying a huge thank you for helping to give me a new future.
“I believe teachers and coaches are pivotal to our children’s futures. So the more disabled veterans like me who can be helped to do similar things, the more it benefits our society as a whole.”
You can help more disabled veterans to rewrite their futures
Scholarships are only possible due to the incredible generosity of the OU family. As part of this week’s Big Give fundraising challenge, until midday on Tuesday 7th December, all donations to the OU’s Disabled Veterans’ Scholarships Fund will be doubled – so every gift goes twice as far.
To learn more about OU scholarships and why brave servicemen and women deserve a second chance to change their lives, visit the OU’s Big Give page.