Long hard run out of the darkness for war veteran

Simon Buckden is running 100 marathons in 100 weeks to raise awareness of the condition that haunts him every day of his life. Catherine Scott reports.

It may be more than 15 years since Simon Buckden was in Bosnia, but the conflict is with him day and night.

Simon is one of thousands of British servicemen diagnosed as suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder as a result of the atrocities they witnessed during conflicts.

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Now Simon is aiming to lift the lid on the condition which he believes it still often a taboo and much-misunderstand illness.

“People think you are a soldier, you must be a hard man and keep a stiff upper lip and not talk about mental health issues. But I have decided that it is time to raise awareness of this condition which is affecting so many people.

“I know of people who sit at home suffering in silence. I could have done that, but I decided to try and do something positive and as a result it helps me deal with the symptoms of PTSD which I suffer every single day and night.”

Simon, 39 from Leeds, joined the Army at 17, but he is in no doubt that his illness which includes symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety and sleep problems, was triggered by the horrors he witnessed during two tours of Bosnia in the mid-1990s.

Working with the Royal Signals, Simon’s role was to work with journalists who would be driven to the scenes of atrocities so they could report on them. He is still haunted by many of the scenes he saw there, including the image of a little boy he tried to save but who bled to death in his arms.

“If you are exposed constantly to these types of things it desensitises you. I am sure that I could see a dead body now and it wouldn’t affect me at all.”

After returning from the war zone Simon was a changed man. He struggled to adapt and started to realise that his drinking was getting out of control. He became increasingly prone to angry outbursts and his marriage ended as did his Army career of 12 years.

“As a trained soldier who has been to a war zone it is very hard to adapt when you come home and people are asking you what it was like all the time. Then you are back there again; you never get any time to recover. You get used to the adrenaline of war and then struggle to replace the buzz that gives you and then you end up drinking too much and getting into fights.”

He was given a medical discharge on the grounds of recurrent depression, over-turned in 2005 when he was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Historically it can take about 15 years to be diagnosed. There is help out there but it is very sporadic and you have to go looking for it. The very nature of this condition means that people find that hard. I also constantly find myself having to explain that I have PTSD and why. People seem to need a label, it gives them something to hold on to and I suppose it explained to my ex-wife why I was screaming at her all the time, but I’m not sure that it helps me personally.”

After being discharged from the Army, Simon initially did well on Civvy Street.

He moved to London, got a job with a top recruitment company and seemed to have his life back on track. But he soon reached a point where his body started to shut down.

“It is very hard adapting to life out of the Army. You have no job, no home no nothing. I had been in care since I was six and then went straight into the Army, I didn’t know anything but living in an institution and the security that gave me. When you leave the Army it is like losing your family.

“It felt like falling off a cliff. I was feeling ill everyday and really struggled to function at all. At times I felt suicidal.” Simon says he knows of ten former colleagues who have committed suicide.

“I lost nine friends out there and have lost ten since I got back.”

Despite admitting he has personally been to some dark places, Simon says he is determined to be positive and doesn’t like to talk about his own experience of PTSD.

“I got to the point where I realised that I had to do something; it was up to me, no one else. There are lot of ex-servicemen out there who are bitter and angry about the way they have been treated, but it doesn’t get them any where. I decided that I needed to do something positive not only to raise awareness about PTSD but for myself.”

Simon moved back to Leeds where he grew up and although he finds every day a struggle he has managed to make some good friends and find life bearable.

It was while joining a friend who was running for a veteran’s charity that Simon came up with the idea of running 100 marathons in 100 weeks.

“My friend was aiming to run 100 miles in 24 hours and I said I’d run a few laps with him. Once I started I didn’t want to stop and ended up running for 17 hours and covering 80 miles; we only stopped because people were getting hypothermia because it was so cold.

“I did that without any training and it got me thinking. I’d always refused to run a marathon in the past but then I thought ‘why not run 100 marathons in 100 weeks’ – it sounded good and I decided to do it to raise money for Help for Heroes although my main aim is to raise awareness of PTSD and other mental illnesses.”

Simon started his challenge in February this year and aims to finish in January 2013. He recently completed his 27th marathon. As well as taking part in organised marathons across the country, Simon is running at least one a month in Roundhay Park, Leeds and others using treadmills in gyms and shopping centres around the north of England.

“I don’t think people really took me seriously to start with, but now I am more than a quarter of the way through interest seems to be growing. I am getting more requests from interviews which is great as it gives people affected by PTSD some hope.

“There are parents of sons out there who don’t know what to do. If by listening to me and hearing my story it helps them to understand the condition and help their son it could even save his life.”

As well as helping others, the marathon challenge is helping Simon personally. He admits it gives him a reason for getting up in the morning, even on days when his symptoms are particularly bad.

“It is a struggle sometimes. But then I think about the commitment I have made and the difference I think I can make and get up and go running. It does take a lot of mental as well as physical strength but it is worth it.”

In 2009 Simon completed a Neuro Linguistic Programming Course as another tool he felt may help him manage his symptoms. He says he uses NLP to help others and tries to see the positive in things that happen.

He is also learning more about public speaking so that he can better get his message across.

But as a man so driven by a challenge, is he concerned what might happen when the challenge finishes?

“I have no idea what will happen, but I don’t think I will stop when the marathons stop. I am already thinking about other challenges and ways of raising awareness and helping others.

“As my profile raises more and more I am asked to take on a role of ambassador and I will keep going for as long as people are willing to listen to me and I get the feedback.”

Simon admits by being so positive and by trying not to let the PTSD take over his life he has made a rod for his own back.

“When I do have bad days or I am really struggling it is hard to get it across, but I believe it is more important to be positive to get my message across, I have blamed people in the past but it doesn’t get anything done. I believe this is a much more effective way.”

100 MARATHON CHALLENGE

Simon Buckden is planning to run one marathon every week for nearly two years as part of his 100 Marathons in 100 Weeks Challenge to raise £10,000 for Help for Heroes and awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As part of his challenge he aims to run one marathon a month at Roundhay Park in Leeds on the last Sunday of every month at 10am.

As he is doing multiple laps he is keen for any one to join him. Anyone who wants to find out more or to make a donation should visit www. bmycharity.com/100marathons or follow him on Twitter @100mara100weeks