A battle too far... ordeal of the veterans who struggle with life after the Forces

Those in the armed forces face unimaginable danger every day, but surviving life after the front line can be just as tough. Sarah Freeman reports.

When Jason Wem left the Army it was on his own terms.

He’d spent nine years on active operations with the Royal Ordnance Corps and in 1996 after serving in the first Gulf War he decided the time was right to start a new chapter of his life. Jason knew there were many who struggled to adapt away from the regimented structure of the Armed Forces, but he assured himself he wasn’t going to be one of them.

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Like many former soldiers he initially found work in the security industry before securing a job in the civil service, but last August when he began retraining as a firefighter, the scars left by his army career suddenly came back to haunt him. While competing against many candidates half his age, 40-year-old Jason sailed through the medical, passed the exams and impressed at interview, but when he was asked to put on breathing apparatus during basic training his world suddenly fell apart.

“Right there and then I had a breakdown,” he says. “Like a lot of the guys who served out in the Gulf War I spent far too much time wearing breathing apparatus. It just took me back to that time and everything I had suppressed for the best part of 20 years came flooding back. I went into meltdown.”

While that day last summer might have been the tipping point, Jason now realises the warning signs were there much earlier. Searingly honest, he admits his first marriage broke down because of his unreasonable behaviour and without the close camaraderie of fellow soldiers he had become increasingly withdrawn, finding it difficult to socialise and unable to form close friendships.

“The only way I can explain it is to say that my mind felt like the computer game Tetris, you know the one where when you get all the blocks in the right order they disappear,” he says. “The problem was that all the pieces of my life were just stacking up. I couldn’t think straight.”

By the time of his breakdown, Jason had remarried and, with a young son, he knew that he had to face up to the problems which had buried for much of his adult life. A new counselling service had just been launched by NHS Yorkshire and the Humber and Catterick Garrison in recognition of the problems many veterans suffer in civilian life and Jason became one of its first referrals.

“When you’re in the Army you quickly learn not to show any sign of weakness,” he says. “It comes with the job, but it can leave people emotional timebombs. Admitting I needed help was a big step, but what made it a little easier was knowing that I was going to be talking to people who’d also seen active service.

“My therapist is ex-military and she knows the kind of situations I have been in and the kind of things I have seen. Unless you’ve been there it’s impossible to really know what life can be like out in a war zone.”

The Vulnerable Veterans and Adult Dependents scheme was developed in direct response to fears many of those leaving the Armed Forces were becoming isolated on the fringes of society.

“It has made me understand why I‘m the way I am,” says Jason. “I now understand why I’m the person who stands in the corner when I enter a room and who is always hyper-vigiliant. That’s what I spent nine years of my life being trained to do and while it’s something that will always be there, I finally feel that I am dealing with the past.”

Jason’s story is not an unusual one. Every year 20,000 personnel leave the Armed Forces and while many do adapt to life on the outside, for a significant number the day they receive their discharge papers is the day everything begins to unravel.

A recent report by the National Association of Probation Officers suggested one in 10 prisoners had previously been in the Armed Forces – one in three serving time for domestic violence. While the figures have been disputed, Hambleton and Richmondshire – home to Catterick garrison – is now reporting a soaring number of incidents of domestic violence, a rise which has in part been blamed on frustrated ex-servicemen unable to find employment.

“Historically it’s not something people have wanted to or perhaps been able to address, but there is a growing recognition that we can’t let those who serve in the Armed Forces become forgotten heroes,” says Ray Stubbing, the VVAD’s psychological wellbeing practitioner. He spent six years in the Royal Air Force before joining the police and later becoming a mental health nurse and, while he admits his latest title is a little unwieldy, the philosophy at the heart of the scheme is simple – making veterans aware that it is good to talk.

“I know one Marine Commander who was very active, very fit, very chiselled. He was the archetypal Armed Forces guy, but within 18 months of being discharged he had completely changed.

“He had a mundane job which he hated, he was isolated in a flat in an area where none of his friends lived. He suddenly found himself in a very dark and lonely place.

“What we do is get people to open up. For some of those we see it’s the first time anyone has asked them how they feel.”

While the Armed Forces may not always have been good at ensuring a smooth transition to Civvy Street, a growing weight of evidence has highlighted the need for more services like that set up at Catterick. Following recent studies which have shown up to four per cent of returning troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, almost a fifth of servicemen have drinking problems and young soldiers who leave the Armed Forces are three times as likely to commit suicide than their civilian peers, the spotlight had been shone on the plight of many veterans.

So much so, that as part of a £400m mental health strategy, earlier this month the Government announced £7m would be invested in specialist therapists, a helpline and online support for former members of the Armed Forces.

“For every 4,000 who start training, only 3,000 make it through,” says Lieutenant Colonel Andy Smith, commanding officer at Catterick’s infantry training centre. “A lot of these lads have already come from difficult backgrounds and when for whatever reason they don’t make it into the Army it can feel like the one opportunity to make something of themselves has gone.

“We have forged good links with organisations like the Prince’s Trust and over the years we have become pretty good at steering in the right direction, but this is a big organisation and it is often more difficult to keep track of those who leave after five, 10 or 15 years service.

“When you’ve never had to pay your own bills or find your rent each month, life outside the Armed Forces can come as a complete culture shock, but it’s in all our interests to find a way of making that transition as easy as possible.”

As for Jason, he now sees his therapist once a fortnight rather than each week, he’s been taught breathing exercises to help him cope with anxiety and while life may not be perfect it’s definitely getting better.

“I just feel that I’ve been put back on an even keel,” he says. “I spent a lot of years not talking about how I felt and hoping that if I ignored certain feelings they would go away. Obviously that didn’t work, but now a weight has been lifted and finally it feels like I’m getting somewhere.”