Life after service: How Shropshire veterans have struggled outside the armed forces
Gus Hales’s protest over the treatment of Army veterans could not be more timely.
The protest by the ex-paratrooper, who served in the Falklands War, comes as the country prepares to honour its war dead on Remembrance Sunday.
Throughout the memorials this weekend, Gus will remain on hunger strike outside the Combat Stress building in Newport, bringing to an end more than two weeks of protests over the treatment of military veterans.
“It’s about the veterans of the past, the present and those yet to come,” he told the Shropshire Star.
This week, veterans’ charity Combat Stress issued an “unreserved apology” for the way in which Mr Hales was discharged from its care in 2015, and is to work with the Government to find other veterans who feels they have been improperly discharged.
We have taken a look at the support that is out there for veterans and the different types of people who need it.
Retired brigadier Andrew Meek is the Shropshire branch chairman of SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity. He said that in his experience the majority of veterans adapt to civilian life again without any issues.
“But there are those who have problems such as finding housing or jobs and that is where SSAFA plays its part,” he said.
“A case worker will assess the circumstances and come up with a plan of action. But in some cases we don’t have the specialist skills.”
When veterans are referred either by the military or individuals, SSAFA can, where it does not have the specific expertise to support them, send them to another agency like The Royal British Legion (RBL), Combat Stress, the NHS or councils, who have greater expertise in certain fields.
“In Shropshire there has been a lot closer a relationship and a joined up approach,” Mr Meek said.
The majority of issues that Mr Meek says veterans are bringing to SSAFA are around money and mental health.
He also said the typical age of veterans seeking help has dropped. Whereas in the past it was often over-60s who were coming to the service, increasingly veterans of working age in their 40s are seeking help.
“That is across the ex-service sector,” he said. “It’s hard to put your finger on why.” Jane Britton is area manager for RBL in the West Midlands, and said the charity must provide for a “complexity of needs”.
She said: The RBL offers support to veterans, service personnel and their families through hardships, injury and bereavement.
“Our support ranges from providing sport and art based recovery programmes, to crisis grants, lobbying the government on issues that affect our armed forces community and advising on benefits and money problems.“We campaign for better provision for those with mental health concerns and work to educate medical professionals on the needs of veterans.
“We also work closely with Combat Stress – the experts in providing treatment and support for veterans with mental health issues – in order to best meet the changing and growing complexity of needs amongst the armed forces community.”
Darren Smith had just been promoted to sergeant and was on course to make captain in the Royal Artillery when his future was suddenly snatched away.
The 39-year-old, from Newport, was on an AS-90, commonly known as a tank, during a training exercise in Canada when an accident occurred that would change his life forever.
“It’s 50 tonnes and the heaviest artillery in the British Army with the loudest bang,” he said. “I can’t count how many rounds I had fired. In excess of 1,000 easily.
“But I was in Canada on exercise for six weeks. I was under the barrel of the gun and it was fired by mistake and you’re never meant to be where I was when it’s fired.
“It blew both eardrums out. My first thought was ‘I’m deaf’. I couldn’t hear anything, there was a ringing, whistles and blood. But then there was nothing, silence. I could see people shouting at me, but couldn’t hear.”
Darren ultimately regained some of his hearing and he managed through various ways to hide how poor it had become, but couldn’t get it past a medical officer.
“I went in for a test at 9.30am and by 9.45am he told me my career was finished, and I had no career in the artillery. I was never going to go any higher, game over,” he said, the impact of that split second decision on his life still ever-present in his voice.
Darren, now a father-of-three, joined the British Army at 17 from Wolverhampton and until the point of the accident had been serving for 12 years.
But unable to hear without bilateral hearing aids, he was forced to join army welfare service as a therapist for eight years.
He struggled adapting to an office job and began drinking heavily. After suffering a further back injury he was medically discharged.
Darren’s life was spiralling downwards. It led to him to his darkest moment, when he attempted to take his own life. Leaving the Army, he said, was hard.
“When you go through medical discharge there is a period when you spend a lot of time sat at home,” he said.
“You’re degraded and not fit for military service but you’re waiting for the process to go through and for some that can take two years.
“You’re away from the troops, not working. You do get visits from welfare officers but you are detached from the norm.
“I spent a lot of time sat at home inside my own thoughts. I was in Germany to begin with by then moved to Newport in April 2016. By the September I had made a suicide attempt.
“It had been years of not performing, not doing anything, and feeling worthless and that I wasn’t contributing.
“It took it’s toll and I decided that life would be better without me in it so I decided to make an attempt on my life.
When you’re waiting it’s like a pause on the remote control of life. There’s nothing, you have nothing to look forward to, that path is closed and dark. There are so many layers to coming out the armed forces, it’s a loss of identity, a feeling of no self worth, you’ll have injuries, family issues, debt problems and worrying about mortgages – there are so many layers to the transition process that they all compound each other into one big problem. It’s a case of which one do I tackle first?”
Darren admits that had he spoken about his mental health sooner he may not have reached the stage of suicidal thoughts. He did, however, start seeking advice through his GP and entered the NHS system of dealing with mental health issues.
“I’m not diagnosed with PTSD yet but there is stuff there that shouldn’t be there,” he said.
“Mental health is a subject we should all talk about.
“The biggest mistake I made was not talking. I was the stereotypical male squaddie. I didn’t talk to my wife, my children, the therapists. I just didn’t open up about my feelings. If I had done maybe I wouldn’t have reached the point I did.
“It’s been really hard to move on from that. I have gone through the NHS system as opposed to Combat Stress because of issues with my back injury and my hearing, it was all connected together. But I’m not out of it. I still have thoughts but I manage them better.”
Darren has also been supported by The Royal British Legion for which he now works as a case officer.
“They have been very supportive,” he said. “I now work with veterans from 18 years old, and my oldest was 102. I enjoy helping veterans and I’m passionate about that. They have also helped me, it’s a two-way thing. It’s allowed me to look after myself while looking after others.”
'Our son has PTSD'
The Livsey family have been in service with the Armed Forces for four generations.
The First World War, the Second World War, the Falklands, the Gulf wars and Afghanistan – there has been a presence from the family in every one of those historic conflicts.
Richard and Lindsay Livsey live in Telford and have seen not only the pain of conflict with their own eyes, but have also witnessed the effects of PTSD in their son, Nathan. They spoke about how they saw their son’s exit from the forces affect his life.
Richard: “Nathan served in Afghanistan. He was searching for IEDs every day, being shot at every day. He got into a mastiff vehicle and a little girl blew them up. Fortunately he was okay, but he came back with PTSD. He started acting irrationally and wasn’t making sense. I took him to the mental health services in the NHS.”
Between Nathan’s initial assessment two years ago and getting an appointment with a psychiatrist Nathan, now 30, made a suicide attempt before being saved by his older brother Sam.
Lindsay was a trained nurse in the Army and served in the Gulf War.
“We were in hospital and I saw his blood pressure drop, he said ‘I’m off now’,” she said. “I told him he wasn’t going anywhere.
“He had left his body in his mind, his breathing was stopping and I ran out and yelled ‘quick get in here my son’s gone’. It was awful. I was there and knew my son was dying. I had to know they had got him stable before I would leave to tell his wife.”
Richard, 60, who served in the 216 Parachute Signal Squadron, was himself in recovery from bowel cancer at the same time and struggled to understand his son’s actions.
“I had a big conflict. I was trying to live and he was trying to die. It was totally beyond me. It was awful,” he said.
Richard and Lindsay were desperate to get the best care they could for their son. They say they contacted Combat Stress, The Royal British legion and SSAFA for help, but because Nathan was already in the NHS system they were told they couldn’t offer their services.
The NHS crisis team were sent and as good as they were in immediately helping the family, Richard said the treatment was not suited to Nathan’s PTSD.
“There needs to be a single charity. There was no demarcation in any of this. Here was a soldier with PTSD being treated in the same places as a drug addict. The charities need to knock it on the head and come together, it needs to be one organisation for the forces.”
The couple believe that there will soon be a swathe of veterans who will need help after leaving the forces.
“When you have the lads who have been to Bosnia, Kosovo, Gulf one and two and Afghanistan, no one in the last century has seen this many conflicts,” says Lindsay.
Adapting to civilian life
Difficulties in adapting to civilian life is a prominent issue among veterans heading back down civvy street.
Chris Cain, from Newport, joined the RAF as an electronic mechanic progressing to junior technician in telecommunications working in RAF bases around the country. He served for 22 years before moving into a civil service role in the Ministry of Defence.
“My service career was relatively comfortable it would be fair to say,” he said. “The transition to the civilian environment was easier for me. But the problems occurred when I left the MOD in 2012. After 29 years in that same framework, which I understood and became my life, I felt quite alone. Since then I have had four jobs, and in each one I have resigned.”
Chris, 53, says he has found the way working environments exist in the civilian world frustrating. “I was getting so angry. I was making myself ill,” he said. “I developed anxiety and depression. I am lucky. I don’t have a mortgage, I have a family, a home, two cars – materially I don’t need anything. But I’ve lost my way. I have had fits of anger in my jobs.” Chris quit his latest job recently and is currently living off his RAF pension. He realised he needed help, but struggled to find the right avenues.
“I paid for my own psychotherapists, but I couldn’t find the right one,” he said. “I collapsed in a puddle and just felt that no one understood me. But then I just thought of the RAF Benevolent Fund and thought ‘why didn’t I speak to them before?’.
“Within minutes of calling them I was told I was going to be helped.” He was assigned a case worker who assessed his needs, gave him counselling and gave him psychotherapy with one of their counsellors. “I still have problems but I’ve learned to cope and manage more,” he said. “No one is ever completely cured from my experience, but you can learn to cope. You want to tell people, help them and show them, what works for me.”
If you are a veteran, or family of a veteran, and you feel you need support in any way then here are some of the places you can try to contact:
- Veterans Gateway – 0808 802 1212
- Combat Stress – 0800 138 1619
- SSAFA: the Armed Forces Charity – 0800 731 4880
- The Royal British Legion – 0808 802 8080
- RAF Benevolent Fund – 020 7580 8343
- The Royal Navy & Royal Marines Welfare Hub – 023 9272 8777