Conflict goes far beyond the battlefield for many war veterans. A former soldier who knows that better than most is Nicola Stokes.
Nicola has served from the age of 17, when she joined the TA, swiftly moving up the ranks to the Royal Air Force where she stayed for a decade serving on tours and training exercises in the Falklands, the Grand Canyon and Afghanistan.
At the age of 32, Nicola developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when she began to confront the childhood sexual abuse to which she was subjected.
You can watch Nicola recount her story to UNILAD in the video below:
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Nicola joined the army, following in the footsteps of her family, and looks back on her service fondly.
Recounting what it felt like to rejoin civilian society, Nicola told UNILAD:
It was hard. In the military environment, everybody there knows what you’ve been through. They understand. But society doesn’t understand what it’s about.
It was leaving the Airforce and struggling to find a job and struggling with things at home that made me realise I might have mental health problems.
She described a period in her life during which she was unemployed and isolated from everyone, spending hours on end alone in her house, as she says, ‘staring at four walls all day’.
Nicola now realises that she probably had PTSD for most of her life, stemming from childhood trauma.
However things came to a head after she left the Forces. She felt unbearably low and depressed, and began to experience traumatic flashbacks.
According to the former servicewoman, ‘everyone with PTSD has to learn ways to cope’ – and with a network of charities and a support system around her, that’s what Nicola was able to do.
She explained how running helped her, saying:
I started running in 2015 and I found I was able to cope a lot better. I wasn’t crying all the time, I wasn’t tired. I was more motivated. It was nice to get outside and go for long runs, be by myself and think more clearly. I’m quite a slow runner but when I cross that finish line, there’s a huge sense of achievement.
Since, she has run three half marathons and a number of 10k races – one a month if she can – and with the clarity of mind that offered, Nicola contacted Combat Stress, the Veterans’ mental health charity for help to get back on her feet.
Nicola was introduced to Stoll, a leading veterans’ charity in Fulham, where the Veterans’ Outreach Service team found her a flat in West London.
But although she wanted to work, Nicola couldn’t get employment. Through the charitable support system for British vets, Nicola was directed to The Poppy Factory in Richmond, where she now works making the Remembrance Day wreaths that are so synonymous with celebrating the Armed Forces.
The Poppy Factory employs new war veterans every week, and Nicola said it’s a comfort to work among people who understand her.
Knowing that on Remembrance Day, you can see the wreaths you’ve made on the memorials, it’s quite a weird feeling. For me, every wreath I make is for someone that died in battle. There’s so much pride in this work.
When she’s not running, Nicola enjoys sewing and she makes cloth dogs, selling them and giving the proceeds to a different charity each year. This year, she’s raising money for The Poppy Factory, who gave her a newfound sense of purpose, with the help of Stoll.
Speaking about Stoll, Nicola says:
Not enough people know about the incredible service this charity provides. I had no idea this help was available to me at a time when I was at my lowest. I’m now settled in my home with a fresh start ahead of me and that’s ultimately because I took the step to go to the Drop – In and ask for help.
Nicola is not alone. Other servicemen and women experience the same internal conflicts when they return home and reintegrate into society.
It is estimated that in America – where the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs keeps substantial data on the psychological disorder which shines a light on the dire lack of data on our own shores – that PTSD afflicts almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, as many as 10 percent of Gulf War veterans, 11 per cent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan and 20 per cent of Iraqi war veterans.
PTSD affects many here in Britain too, and by 2012 the number of British soldiers and veterans committing suicide had outstripped the number that lost their lives fighting in battle.
You can listen to the stories of other war veterans below:
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Nicola is currently training for her next 10k and will be raising money for Blind Veterans UK. You can support the cause at her JustGiving page.
You can contribute to the work of Stoll, as they endeavour to support our veterans through conflicts off the battlefield and to lead independent and fulfilling lives. You can also support The Poppy Factory in their mission to provide jobs for ex-soldiers who desperately want the work other employers won’t offer.
If any of the issues have affected you please contact Combat Stress via their free 24 hour hotline on 0800 138 1619 or go to the Stoll Drop – In every second Wednesday of the month. Please don’t suffer in silence.