Former Yorkshire military officer who served in Iraq helping prisoners heal from unseen wounds of war and conflict

A former military officer from Yorkshire is using her own experience of serving in Iraq to help veterans in prisons across England get the support they need as new estimates reveal the proportion of ex-service people in jail could be as high as 17 per cent.

Leigh Humpleby, from Barnsley, served as an Army Combat Medic and Operating Department Practitioner between 2005 and 2014. She was deployed to Basra, Iraq, in 2007 as a Combat Medic and in 2012 she was sent to Camp Bastion as part of an operating theatre team. She was at the base during the Taliban raid that left many dead and injured service personnel.

"I have worked in British trauma wards but during that tour I saw the most horrific injuries I had ever seen," Ms Humpleby said.

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After leaving the army she spent time working with distressed young people before she decided to move into the world of prison healthcare.

Leigh Humpleby, from Barnsley, served as an Army Combat Medic and Operating Department Practitioner between 2005 and 2014
Leigh Humpleby, from Barnsley, served as an Army Combat Medic and Operating Department Practitioner between 2005 and 2014

One of the biggest issues facing veterans in prison is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an anxiety disorder caused by extremely stressful, frightening or distressing events. Symptoms can include flashbacks, pain, feelings of shame or guilt, difficulty controlling emotions, relationship difficulties and destructive or risky behaviour.

Her army experience has given her an insight into the issues faced by those with service-related PTSD and Ms Humpleby is using this to help prisoners as part of her role as Practice Plus Group’s head of healthcare at HMP Wakefield.

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"In a veterans group session there is a camaraderie as well as shared experiences. They know they can say anything and it will be understood and accepted and this is a very necessary part of the healing process.

Leigh Humpleby, from Barnsley, served as an Army Combat Medic and Operating Department Practitioner between 2005 and 2014

“In the army people are very good at looking out for one another – if you dip they notice and are there to help you back up. The strategy Practice Plus Group has devised uses that strength to help our patients support one another back to a position where they can leave prison looking at a brighter, happier and calmer life.”

Government statistics estimate that around four per cent of people in custody or on community orders are ex-armed forces personnel, but external estimates have reported that the proportion of ex-service people in the prison could be as high as 17 per cent.

“But, for a small but significant number, the challenges they face lead to mental health problems, alcohol or drug misuse and even contact with the police and justice system.

“I was fortunate. I came out into a great support network. But, even then, there were the challenges that all those leaving the services face.

“In the army we deal with issues and talk to one another in ways that would not sit comfortably in an office environment.

“I remember really struggling with what – to most people – would be a silly thing. In the services you never speak whilst someone else is speaking in a meeting, it is just not done, everyone in the room is usually sat up smartly and completely engaged. Being in meetings where someone was presenting and people were talking or having quiet side conversations, my army brain struggled. However in the real world this does happen and that is perfectly normal.

Throughout 2021 Ms Humpleby has worked with a team of healthcare professionals nationally to support colleagues in the 47 English prisons served by Practice Plus Group to begin rolling out the group support work that was put on hold during the pandemic.

She said: “With the help of prisons, veterans support groups and caring healthcare and mental health professionals, we hope the men and women who have served their country will be able to go back to their families and communities and fulfil their potential in civilian life, healed from the unseen wounds of war.”