Saturday’s Armed Forces Day pays tribute to our veterans. Ann Chadwick meets one who is getting back on track after suffering the horrors of war.
One minute Sean Scott was in a training exercise with the Royal Marines, the next thing he remembered was being in a hospital bed.
“One of the first training exercises I was packing my kit ready to go into the field, this reminded me too much of packing my kit for patrol in Iraq. Although it wasn’t real I remembered it all as if it were real. I didn’t know it was a panic attack,” Sean said. “I thought I was dying. It felt every part of my body had gone into reverse, I couldn’t control the shaking.”
Sean, 28, started with the TA Signals before joining the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers becoming an Army Commando. He served tours in both Afghanistan and Iraq; the first in 2007, the last 2011.
“The tour changed me,” he says.
Relations with his parents were troubled when Sean learnt they were splitting up. “They’d been married for 22 years. I took that quite hard, realising that they stayed together for the kids and didn’t really love each other, to find out the happy family as a child was all fake. So I distanced myself from family. I was away, in Germany or on tour, it was easier. I didn’t want to think about it.”
After returning from Iraq, he started showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: erratic behaviour, starting fights in pubs. “I’d left the army, got married, but my symptoms got worse. I didn’t want the people in my life who meant the most to me to hate me, it would break my heart, so I pushed everyone away.”
His wife left him. Not knowing where else to turn, he rejoined the Forces, which is what landed him in hospital. The nurses suggested avenues of help but he wasn’t interested.
“Now that I had PTSD I could no longer be a soldier, I was discharged on medical grounds and referred to get help outside of the Armed Forces. That’s all well and fine if I was of sound mind but the only thing I was ever really, really good at was gone. My wife didn’t want me, my family didn’t want me, you don’t think ‘I’ll get help’ or look to the future.”
Sean went back home. “I thought I’ll eat humble pie and go back to mum’s. She was with a new man at the time. He was not sensitive to PTSD; he thought it was an excuse for soldiers who couldn’t hack it. To hear that made staying with my mum impossible. I was ready to lash out, him in his cosy office in Civvy Street telling me PTSD wasn’t real. I couldn’t stay in that situation. We had a big argument. I thought b***s to it. If I was going to fail, I’d rather fail on my own, by myself.”
He found himself on the streets, using alcohol to self-medicate.
He was getting flashbacks. “I couldn’t get away from the fear something was going to happen to me.”
Sean puts it down to Iraq. During Ramadan his anxiety started after being hit by 36-60 mortars daily, then silence. He kept expecting the attacks. If he heard a loud bang he’d find himself cowering on the floor, or if someone jumped out at him he’d respond violently.
One night, he was sat on the street, a pizza in one hand, a cheap bottle of wine in the other.
“I had a moment of clarity and meltdown at the same time. I wanted to drink the wine as quickly as I could and collapse. I needed to pick a direction – drink the wine, give in, end it. Or sort myself out.”
That’s when he rang a number the Forces had left him for The Beacon, run by the housing association Riverside ECHG as part of their national network of support for ex-Servicemen and women around the country and based at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.
“If you leave the Forces when it’s your choice, you’re probably sorted,” Sean says. “If it’s medical discharge, you’ve given up civilian life for your country, it’s nice if there’s help to get your civilian life back.”
The Beacon gave him a room, directed him to a doctor to treat his alcoholism and to therapy, gave him vocational retraining. He’s now starting his own business after becoming a qualified dog handler specialising in drug detection. His dog, Eric, lives with him at The Beacon.
Sean studied hard. “I couldn’t pay the charities back with money, but I could by being the best I could be, putting in time and commitment, passing exams and assessments. I feel I’ve proved myself. I am massively grateful to many people but especially the support of Maggie Gwynne at SDUKI, she’s a star.
“There’s a saying here, ‘One day of service, a lifetime of support’. This charity needs to exist, otherwise I’d have been just another statistic.”
Sean has also just completed a course at the Veterans’ Artisan Bakery, which launched at The Beacon in 2012. It’s literally the icing on the cake for Sean’s story.
“The Bakery gives you reason to get up,” he says. “If you’ve lost your career, been kicked out, it’s a big knock, you’re unwanted. Ross, who heads the bakery is a lovely woman, a lady you wouldn’t swear in front of. Ex-squaddies use the f-word fairly often, it’s like an ‘err’ or ‘erm’ for us,” he laughs.
“We get food parcels that are donated but if someone is running out of money, they go to the bakery and find some spare dough and make themselves something to eat. If this place wasn’t here, I’d be a mess.”
The Bakery gives veterans a chance to socialise, a sense of structure, to create something nourishing. It sells its bread locally, and some veterans have gone on to pursue catering in college. The ghosts, Sean says, are still in the system, but he’s showing fewer signs of PTSD.
“Why is this place is important? If I didn’t have this avenue, I would have taken the other avenue, wouldn’t I? You know, civilians go to bed at night knowing soldiers are keeping them safe, it’s nice to give back and help keep us safe when we need it.”