"You never stop suffering": Veterans across Yorkshire open up about living with post-traumatic stress disorder

There are so many ways the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis can impact on an Armed Forces veteran’s life. Ruth Dacey reports.

For Captain Michael Richardson, it was an opportunity to follow a long and proud family history.

The chance to embark on a military career saw Capt Richardson sign up to the Army at the earliest opportunity as he was inspired by the generations who went before him.

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His great grandfather was part of the Labour Corps in the First World War, while his grandfather died while fighting for his country in World War Two.

Pictured, Captain Michael Richardson. The 59-year-old from Beverley in East Yorkshire joined the military in 1977, the same year his father left after more than 20 years of service. Photo credit: Simon Hulme/ JPIMediaResell

The 59-year-old from Beverley in East Yorkshire joined the military in 1977, the same year his father left after more than 20 years of service.

He signed up at the age of 16 and excelled in training, but he admits he was never prepared for the profound impact his military career would have on him in later life.

Despite a family history steeped in military tradition, Capt Richardson, who has completed tours in Kenya, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq, said a “culture of silence” had passed between the generations, with very little spoken about the experiences.

He only discovered the extent of his family’s military history, when arranging his father’s funeral three years ago.

Pictured, Captain Michael Richardson on an Operation Tour in Bosnia in 1998. Photo credit: Submitted picture

He said: “My father was very private about his military service - trying not to let his family feel the pressures of army life. I know all about his career now, it’s a shame I can’t ask him questions.”

A decade ago, Capt Richardson was on the verge of taking his own life, struggling with post traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and developing an alcohol dependency which saw him drinking up to half a bottle of vodka a night to try and help him sleep.

“My wife was on the brink of divorcing me or leaving - it was that bad and the children had stopped coming round because I was unbearable,” he said.

“I was on the verge of taking my own life - that’s when my wife stepped in and said this has got to stop.”

Armed Forces veteran David Maxwell. He joined the Royal Engineers in November 1990 and left as a Corporal in August 2008, and admitted he initially struggled to adapt to life outside of the Armed Forces. Photo credit: Scott Merrylees/ JPIMediaResell

The loss of his best friend in a car crash while he was serving as a 19-year-old soldier in Kenya had a profound effect on Capt Richardson.

He said he had repatriated the body of his best friend.

"Unfortunately the box was not well encased and it slipped open and I could see the state of his injuries in the back of the wagon… It still sticks in my mind to this day," he said.

He added: “But we carried on - we did another three to four months out there... I wasn’t really allowed to grieve about it - that’s my remembrance of it.

Pictured Ian Graves, who was medically discharged from the Armed Forces as a Chief Petty Officer in November 2006 due to PTSD, depression and anxiety and is now a Combat Stress Peer Support Coordinator which operates from Bridlington to Lancaster. Photo credit: Jonathan Gawthorpe/ JPIMediaResell

"He had died and it was a tragedy and that was the end of it."

And while on a tour of Northern Ireland in 1981, his six-man strong team returned to base in Castledillon after a patrol to find bullet holes in the side of the armoured vehicle.

He said: “There were two bullet holes in the side of our Land Rover which had just missed the back of my head and the Corporal's head.

“It was a shock to say the least - it brought everything home at the time. Again, it was just part and parcel of life at that time.”

It was only five years ago that Capt Richardson finally received a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder.

However he said his diagnosis could have been picked up earlier, as he first developed symptoms in 2003, following serving in Iraq.

Pictured, Ian Graves, here in 1992, for HMS Raleigh. He left the Armed Forces as a Chief Petty Officer in November 2006. Photo creditL Submitted picture

He talked about his nightmares; the shouting, the screaming, and how he would wake up after up to 10 hours sleep but still be “absolutely dog tired”.

“It was because I was experiencing these memories that were so disjointed - I didn’t know how to categorise them,” Mr Richardson said. “Day-to-day I was hiding everything from fellow workers.It’s probably why I left the army with no one having a clue that I was suffering from anything because I was very good at hiding it.”

But he describes himself as “one of the lucky ones”, as he has since received support from services including the Humberside Traumatic Stress Service, where Capt Richardson was able to access therapies including Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing treatment (EMDR).

He also said help from the Combat Stress charity and the Beverley branch of Alcoholics Anonymous were also “vital” to his recovery.

He said: “I found it hard to relinquish control - it was hard for me to discuss the emotional aspect of what I was experiencing.

“For 30 years I had been a soldier and soldiers don’t cry, soldiers don’t have emotion, and that was what had been drilled into me for years and years.

“I have cried more in the last five years than I have ever cried in my life. It’s been a release and not a burden.

“I didn’t talk much to my son much about my military experience… We have a closer relationship now.

“If I hadn’t gone through that process we probably wouldn’t be as close as we are now.”

Capt Richardson’s story is by no means an isolated case.

In South Yorkshire, David Maxwell, who joined the Royal Engineers in November 1990 and left as a Corporal in August 2008, admits he has struggled to adapt to life outside of the Armed Forces.

The 46-year-old, from Wombwell, is one of 273 veterans to receive vital support from Project Nova last year, which is a collaboration with the RFEA - The Forces Employment Charity and the Walking With The Wounded charity.

The project supports veterans who have been arrested or are at risk of arrest in South Yorkshire and neighbouring forces across the majority of northern England.

The Army veteran was referred to the project in April 2020 after he had been placed in emergency accommodation as he found himself homeless.

Previously when leaving the military Mr Maxwell worked as a gas engineer and eventually set up his own business, however he recounted how experiences on tour brought on PTSD symptoms and having suicidal thoughts and he turned to drink and drugs to help self-medicate.

“Civilian life isn’t like life in the military, said Mr Maxwell. “Slowly my confidence went down and down. Everything I knew had gone and I felt like I was in a new world and I didn’t know how to cope with it.”

The Commando Royal Marine, whose time serving included being a military diver, said: “Back then there was no trauma rehabilitation. It was just deemed that traumatic things you had seen and experienced were ‘the normal’ and you were just expected to carry on and forget.

“I was severely taking drugs and alcohol, but I didn’t see that it was bad. I just saw it as a way of making me feel better.”

However since receiving support, including emergency accommodation, referrals to alcohol and drug services and treatment for PTSD, he has begun to see light at the end of the tunnel, and is working again.

“It saved my life,” he said. “I’m lucky I’m here really.”

Since national lockdown restrictions came into place for the third time Mr Maxwell has had mounting concerns that the impact of coronavirus on vulnerable veterans and the cancellation of face-to-face appointments could be building up a backlog of ill-health for veterans across the region.

“I’ve come out the other side,” he said. “But my worry is if services have to be cut there will definitely be deaths that could have been avoided without a shadow of a doubt”.

Steve Brookes, a former Lance Corporal, and the regional manager for South Yorkshire and Humberside for Project Nova, said there had been added pressures to delivering the service due to coronavirus.

“We have had increased calls to our service… because people who were already struggling - it is not going to make things any easier.

“Those who might normally be isolated have been isolated further.”

While on the Yorkshire coast, Ian Graves has now gone full circle and is aiding fellow veterans, after being “saved” by a Yorkshire charity scheme.

The 51-year-old joined the Royal Navy in September 1985 at the age of 16, and was deployed to the Persian Gulf, Argentina, Kosovo and Iraq.

He is now using his own experiences as a regional coordinator for a mentoring programme run by the Leeds and York Partnership Foundation NHS Trust in collaboration with Combat Stress.

His remit includes Bridlington and Whitby in Yorkshire, and stretches to North-East Lincolnshire and across to Lancaster and Cheshire.

In 2005, while still serving, the Hull-based veteran tried to take his life after returning from a tour in Iraq.

A year later he was medically discharged from the Armed Forces as a Chief Petty Officer at a private inpatient service in Southampton due to post-traumatic-stress, depression and anxiety.

At the time the Ministry of Defence did not provide any service in-patient facilities for mental health.

He said: “After being discharged I was then forgotten about. I received hardly any support from the Armed Forces at the time - I had to fend for myself.”

He returned to civilian life and was employed in several roles but had to give up work in 2015 due to his deteriorating mental health.

He said his day-to-day life was disrupted with flashbacks, traumatic images and feeling as if he was “reliving” events of his time served.

He described tensing up when he walked past a building site, due to the smell of smoke or hearing an aircraft overhead, as it evoked painful memories of his military career.

“You feel like the war is still there even though you are miles away back at your home,” he said. “You never stop suffering from PTSD, because the memories and the trauma is always there - it’s just how you deal with those.”

He claimed that the support and therapy from Combat Stress, the UK's leading charity for veterans' mental health, “saved his life”.

He added: “I’m giving back to the charity that saved my life. It’s an absolute honour to help other veterans as I have lived experiences now - I can help them now.”

He added there was a need for more support to charities, who have come under increasing demand. :

“It is a sad thing for many charitable organisations that support veterans,” he said.

“It’s been a hot topic for many years, certainly with the veterans community. There are many charities which fill the void where maybe the MOD should step up.

“There is a lot of help and passion but it is quite fragmented.”

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