Conflict goes far beyond the battlefield for our brave soldiers. Witnessing the horrors of war can leave a lingering threat to the mental health of many servicemen and women and further hardships on home soil.
Today, on Armed Forced Day, UNILAD met three war veterans who have been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They are just three of the many servicemen and women who face conflicts of an internal kind when they return home and reintegrate into society.
You can watch the three men share their stories below:
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In the words of 67-year-old Tom – who hails from a village near Glasgow and now lives in housing provided by the veterans’ charity STOLL after struggling to come to terms with what he’d seen on the battlefield – ‘you’ll never get over’ the experience of war and the impact on your mental health ‘will never leave you’.
Tom, of the parachute clearing troops, recalled his tour of the Falklands in the resuscitation team for UNILAD:
It’s beyond description how exhausting working 11 days without seeing your bed is, surviving on 30 cigarettes a day and five litres of coffee.
It was physically and mentally draining. In four-and-a-half weeks 774 casualties came through my team.
An officer in a British regiment had come in after an Argentinian soldier shot him through the back of head. The bullet had lifted a third of his brain out.
I sat with him for nine hours holding a shell dressing on top of his brain until he went into theatre. He was fully conscious and talking to me.
Although the injured party made a full and total recovery and, according to Tom, is now a farmer in Sussex, the memory of that grisly but miraculous encounter remains imprinted in Tom’s mind.
Despite these horrific scenes, when he left conflict to return home, Tom recalled bursting into tears, adding:
It was like a junkie needing a heroin fix. The only thing I wanted to do was not be at home with my wife, but be back lying in a ditch or a derelict house or woodland in an ambush.
It took me more than a year to come through that and 90 per cent of the guys I served with felt the same way.
In Tom’s eyes, ‘PTSD is like having a huge boil on your back’ that builds up when you suppress the horrors during service. “It was when you’re no longer under this pressure, it comes to the surface,” Tom explained.
My nightmares were hitting me four or five times a week, several times a night. I’d wake up at 3am, 4am, 5am, kicking and screaming.
It’s behaviour that actually ha been quite embarrassing on a number of occasions, but the behaviour is absolutely not intentional. You can’t help it.
It’s easy to see how PTSD can destroy any stable and strong person when meeting Tom.
The charming, well-dressed and softly spoken Scot – a man who cuts a fine and healthy figure physically – struggles to remain dry-eyed as he talks of the tremendous work of charities like STOLL, who help homeless veterans get back on their feet and tackle the mental health issues they’re faced with after service.
Charities such as STOLL and Combat Stress offer a lifeline to servicemen and women just like Tom. One of his fellow residents at STOLL’s Fulham Mansion housing complex is Ian, a perpetually smiling man, who has found some solace from PTSD in his culinary skills.
Ian cooks for the all the former soldiers that live in this community, tucked away off the busy high street, and opens his Vets’ Kitchen to serve up the best salty beef in London, according to a number of local reports.
Not satisfied by giving back to the community by feeding them, Ian’s kitchen also offers cooking qualifications and ‘a sense of belonging’ for ex-servicemen and women.
Ian prefers not to talk about his service in Northern Ireland and Cyprus; the memories are perhaps too painful. However, his account of the subsequent PTSD echoes those given by other veterans who shared their stories with UNILAD.
I wast able to control my temper and I started getting very depressed, having nightmares and flashbacks.
This impacted on how I survived. I lost businesses and – the most important thing – my family. It ruined me financially as well and I had stints where I was incarcerated under Section 11 [of the Mental Health Act].
Ian found STOLL when he was at his lowest and living on the streets. Six years on, and cooking helps Camps cope with PTSD, ‘takes away all the darkness’ and gives him a sense of purpose and pride.
Another veteran, who chose to remain anonymous, recounted his time in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’ saying:
We weren’t there as aggressors or to conquer a land; we were there to save lives. But being British soldiers, we were in the middle of the conflict.
We lived, ate and slept in this fort, stuck in the middle of the city, and we only went outside to stop the terrorists from killing each other and innocent people.
When we went out on a patrol there was always the threat that we were gonna get killed. We knew that. We patrolled looking for incidents.
We got tip offs for IEDs, usually car bombs, which could’ve been in a wall, in a bin, in cars. One of my biggest fears on patrol were the nail bombs; nasty device. That goes off, you’re blown to smithereens.
We have to patrol that route looking for an IED. And I remember as a young solider thinking on this six-mile stretch of road, anywhere along that road is the possibility of instant death. You could’ve been blown up any second.
For most civilians, the constant threat of death in a place far away from home is an unimaginable and alien fear. But for this soldier there was comfort in the familiar, despite the ‘mental and physical abuse’ he was subjected to by the very locals he was deployed to protect.
Now, he recalls how he regretted leaving the comradeship he found during service:
I was so young when I went in, so I didn’t know anything else really. When I came out the army I hadn’t really adapted. I regretted leaving the army, and when I came home it felt just like I was on leave.
But reality kicked in, I got a job. Working with civilians wasn’t like being with my mates in the platoon. There wasn’t the same banter, comradeship, loyalty. It was total re-adaptation. And I couldn’t really talk to anyone about what I’d been through, having a family that didn’t understand.
Back then you kept that sort of stuff to yourself. My solution was turning to the drink and trying to mask it and accept it and trying to get on with life the best way I could.
I went back to my hometown and decided to make the best of it. I got a good job. But there was always anger issues there. I didn’t understand why I felt aggressive.
I’d been out the army about two years – about 27-years-old – when I started getting the sleepless nights.
I can’t explain it. I would jump out my skin at the slightest noise. I would be constantly hyper-vigilant. I started to drink on my own at 2am to try and get to sleep.
The former-soldier found help in counselling, who suggested he might have PTSD. But 20 years ago, he dismissed the diagnosis as ‘bullshit’, holding on to a damaging sense of pride and echoing the societal taboos that permeated when there was a lesser understanding of invisible illness.
Fast-forward two decades later, and he found himself back in the army and struggling to cope. Upon departure from the service, he came to realise he’d ‘lost everything; a big house, mortgage, a beautiful family and a little boy… my personality, my soul’. When he suffered a mental breakdown, the ex-soldier revisited his initial diagnosis.
After contacting SSAFA and Combat Stress, he got the help he needed. He is going to celebrate his fourth year at STOLL Fulham mansions soon, and while he looks back on his time in service fondly, he implores anyone with PTSD to get help.
Ian, Tom, and their fellow soldier, are not alone. It is estimated that in America – where the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs keeps substantial data on the psychological disorder and 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 (Desert Storm) 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.
Tom has a message for young people who are tackling the PTSD that Tom has learnt to overcome each day:
I was aged 19 or 20-years-old ready to challenge the entire wold, just as you youngsters are today. Don’t ever think you’re too macho to get counselling. Don’t ever think it won’t happen to you. It might not but there’s a damn good chance it will.
Tom, with a passionate plea, concluded: “Don’t allow it to. Once the nightmares start, demand help.”
If any of the issues have affected you please contact Combat Stress via their free 24 hour hotline on 0800 138 1619 and don’t suffer in silence.
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.