Since leaving the army in 2012, my state of mind has been like a f**king pogo stick. I sometimes feel is if there are huge gaps in my life where certain elements are missing.
Last week, I had the greatest pleasure in conversing with a fellow veteran who has also found these cracks in the pavement. I would like to introduce you to a man who I am sure, just like myself, many veterans will be able to find common ground with.
Patrick Medhurst-Feeney joined The Royal Army Veterinary Corps in May 2008, just as a young teenager. During his time-serving with the corps, he operated in Afghanistan on both Op Herrick 14 and Op Herrick 19. Unfortunately, due to an ongoing back injury, Patrick was medically discharged from the Army in 2016.
If you don’t mind me asking, why were you medically discharged?
“I suffer from chronic pain syndrome in my lower back. When I was on Op Herrick 19, I was suffering from a reoccurring back injury, though, I was sent forward anyway. All of the strength in my lower back diminished to nothing and this also caused problems with the nerves in my right leg. As a result, I now need to use crutches. On top of all this, I have a lot of mental health issues which stem from the fact that I was casualty extracted on the 5th of November. Going from the scenarios in Afghanistan to waking up in Birmingham with fireworks was s**t and that triggered something in my head”.
“It was a complete accident. Whilst searching an old Afghan truck (considering most Afghan trucks are held together with rust), something went from underneath my feet and I fell from the truck and onto my back. I felt fine when I had the osprey body armour on because that gave my back support but when I took the body armour off, it became clear that my back was weak”.
Sometime after the incident, Patrick was carrying out some physical training of his own and suddenly his back locked up.
“I couldn’t walk and I had to be stretchered off onto a PEDRO Blackhawk”
The back is such a vulnerable part of the human body and Patrick is not the first veteran I have heard of to have had a back injury. As a soldier, you are required to carry a lot of kit and equipment which is essential yet extremely heavy. I can’t help but wonder if maybe the osprey body armour has a part to play in these reoccurring back injuries.
“When I had the osprey body armour on, I felt that it put almost all of the weight onto my shoulders and the body armour-plate was working as my spine rather than my spine bearing the weight. When that body armour support wasn’t there, the nerves in my spine were continually sending pain signals to my brain which caused my back to go into full spasm. Of course, when the osprey armour was providing my back with support, those nerves wouldn’t be sending any signals”.
As an infanteer, I can confirm that we do a lot of running around and diving about with relentless amounts of weight upon our bodies. To be honest, this is probably one of the main reasons I personally suffer from lower back pain even to this day.
Since having left the army, I have had many jobs that require you to attend certain health and safety courses. On these particular health and safety courses, you are taught that any weight over fifteen kilogrammes is considered to be a two-man lift. Nonetheless, I can recall being on a promotional course with the army in Brecon and on that course, I was lugging around a bergen that weighed easily between seventy to eighty kilogrammes. That’s more than a recommended two man lift. However, in the army that is the nature of the beast and it is very much on your back and off you go. It is what it is.
So following your medical discharge, how did you cope with the transition back into the civilian world?
“I wasn’t ready to leave at that point because I was still receiving treatment for both my physical and mental health. It seemed like the military was very quick to fire me through the relevant courses just to tick certain boxes. On the day that I left the army, I wasn’t actually ready to leave. I felt as if I needed more time to actually do the resettlement courses.”
“I find ‘civvy street’ very strange and I struggle to find common ground with civilians. I still find it hard to strike a conversation with somebody”.
I truly believe in veterans talking to veterans. In my own opinion, the best possible hope for veterans is in fact, other veterans. Civilians understand us to an extent and the general public is getting better at understanding veterans. Nonetheless, there will always be gaps in the bond between veterans and civilians compared to the common ground between veterans themselves.
“When civilians think of the word veteran, I imagine that they envision soldiers of World War Two. It’s not the soldiers of Northern Ireland, Iraq or the soldiers who operated in Afghanistan. That is almost completely taboo. I don’t think that civilians even know how to talk to veterans and this is something that needs to be broken down”.
Most veterans, in my opinion, are actually quite open and approachable. In fact, they tend to be quite keen to answer any questions.
“I’ve been lucky enough to play cricket for a local team and I have said to the team that if they wish to ask me any questions then I will be happy to answer them. So they’re rather comfortable speaking to me but if I’m not having a good day, they have that understanding to leave me alone”.
What was the hardest thing you have had to deal with when transitioning from soldier to civilian?
“As soon as I handed in my army ID card, I didn’t belong to anything. If someone had asked me what I did for a living before leaving the forces, I would have said that I am in the British Army. It was a status and I felt a part of something“.
“Subconsciously, I understand that I now no longer belong to anything and that part of my life what was once so prominent has finished and gone now. That has been the hardest thing I have had to deal with, that loss of belonging”.
I can certainly relate with Patrick on this subject as I too sometimes struggle with having lost that sense of purpose. That’s probably why I have created ‘Soldier to Civi’, subconsciously I have been trying to fill that gap in my life. The feeling of purpose and a sense of belonging to something. I hope to build a ‘Soldier to Civi’ community so that veterans can once again feel a part of something and belong to a veteran family.
“Help for Heroes have a community called ‘Band of Brothers’ and it is made up of wounded and sick veterans. It is all well and good having a group like this but it is only for that small period of time. Although, as soon as you leave that recovery centre, that is it. You are back home and back in reality. It’s scary to think of what life would be like without those charity groups like ‘Help for Heroes’ and ‘The British Legion'”.
“I’ve had a lot of help from ‘Veterans with Dogs’ who have helped me with my mental health. It’s scary to wonder what would have happened to me and a lot of other veterans without their help. As soon as I left the military, I had a huge dip in how I felt about myself and I struggled to find myself in society. Without that support from these charities, I wouldn’t like to think how high the veteran suicide rate would be”.
“I feel that our country as a whole should have a support network for veterans. I don’t mean just for the wounded, injured and sick but I mean just for veterans in general. It is tough, there is a huge rate of homeless veterans and many other veterans who are miss using substances such as alcohol and drugs. I believe this is something that can be avoided if there was such a thing as a veterans department within the government rather than leaving it to the charities to pick up the slack”.
I too feel that the government have palmed off veterans in the hope that these independent charities will pick up the slack and take responsibility for these veterans. I expect nine out of ten charities are actually run by veterans. Once you have served in the British Armed Forces and you have served a certain amount of time, that service should never be forgotten. Maybe to repay a veteran’s service, the government and HM Armed Forces could guarantee a life-long support network for the rest of the veteran’s life.
So what do you do now?
“I use cricket for my own mental recovery as it is something that I did before joining the military. Cricket gave me a chance to switch off from everyday struggles. This is where my blog titled The Crippled Cricketer stemmed from. In this blog, I talk about how cricket has helped me and how I cope with everyday life. I’m also currently doing a Level two Cricket Coaching course which will allow me to teach others. Using my military experience of teaching, this has been very easy to transfer, and eventually, I would like to go into a cricket-related job”.
“I have also been organising a charity bike ride called The Trike Tour ’17 which has been keeping me very occupied. I have an adapted bike which I power with my arms and I will be riding from Edinburgh to Exeter which is approximately five hundred and twenty miles”.
If you could give one piece of advice to a soldier leaving the armed forces, what would you say?
“You are not alone. You can become quite isolated but when I speak to old friends from the Vet Corpse, I only realised that I should have picked up the phone sooner. I found it very hard to ask for help and I felt as if I needed to tackle everything by myself but it would have been easier to ask for help. The veteran community is always willing to help other veterans, so don’t struggle on your own“
– Patrick Medhurst-Feeney, aka The Crippled Cricketer.
The key element of this week’s blog is that we are not alone. Once you have served in the armed forces, that is something that will forever be engraved within you. We will never fully convert back to a civilian but we will always be a veteran. If you can imagine how many soldiers have passed through the military just in the past one hundred years alone, then that will help you realise how many veterans are around us within our everyday life. The next time that you are out and about in your local area, look a little beyond your usual limit of vision and realise how many veterans are actually in and around you.
You may feel alone within your community but I can guarantee there are other veterans within that community that are wearing the same shoes.
Therefore, you do belong to something. You belong to the veteran community and although the veteran community may lay below the surface of everyday life, I can assure you that it is there. You are a veteran and that is your belonging.
Veteran, wear it on your sleeve with pride.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s blog, I hope that you were able to find a small golden nugget from the read.
Take care and remember, you already belong alongside many other veterans.
– Jamie and featured veteran, Patrick Medhurst-Feeney