I have discovered the power in turning to other veterans for help.
Mark Thomas kindly shared his story with ‘Soldier to Civi’ last week and it is through his experience that I have been reassured there is power in veterans supporting veterans.
For some veterans, leaving the Armed Forces can be a very lonely and isolating experience which in some cases leads to depression and anxiety. This, in turn, leads to other complicated self-treatments where veterans take to the misuse of alcohol and drugs.
Mark explains how he suffered in silence for many years and was pushed to his limit of exploitation, so to speak.
“I joined up in 1978 when I was just sixteen years old. I attended the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion (IJLB) in Folkestone for a year and then I went to the Rifle Depot in Winchester for light infantry training where I won the award for ‘Best Battle Pair’. From there, I was posted to the 1st Battalion of The Royal Green Jackets in Hong Kong. Further postings included security in Hounslow, public duties at Buckingham Palace, St James’, Windsor and operational tours in South Armagh and Belfast. I was then exemplary discharged in 1987”.
“I spent my last couple of years at the Infantry Demonstration Battalion (IDB) in Warminster and then I went back to the Rifle Depot”.
Did you prepare for the transition from soldier to civilian?
“I was f**king clueless! There was no support at all, I stepped out of the gate at Winchester and then I was back into the ‘world’ and unbeknown to me, I was completely institutionalised. I had already been suffering from mental health issues and at one point, I was flown out of Ulster and classed as ‘unstable’. For about ten years I was a complete nuisance and alcohol and drug abuse ruled my life. Much of it is very vague now”.
“Somehow I managed to continue functioning but depression set in and things were a bit of a struggle for the next thirty years or so. I had a complete breakdown in 1996 and have had many stays at various mental health institutions”.
“It was only when my girlfriend saw something about ‘Combat Stress’ and actually called them on my behalf five years ago, that I was diagnosed with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)”.
Turning to drugs and alcohol seems to be quite common among veterans when they initially leave the Armed Forces. It certainly sounds like Mark has had a rough transition and for such a long period of time without the right support.
What happened after that significant phone call to Combat Stress?
“I’m not really sure how I’m still here, to be honest. After an assessment by a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN) and an ex-Welsh Guards captain Julian Sayers, both top blokes, I attended the two-week Transdiagnostic course at Tyrwhitt House. This was time well spent, meeting other Veterans in the same boat, knowing that I was not the only one with a problem was fantastic. I laughed properly for the first time in years”.
“You couldn’t make the tales of woe up, but we all just pissed ourselves laughing at our conjoined mental f**k-ups”.
That’s the beauty of reaching out to other veterans. For such long periods of time, veterans tend to suffer in silence for many reasons but when you finally make that connection like Mark did, you actually find that you have so much common ground with so many other veterans.
So this was the kick-start to you finally being able to get back on your feet, where did this lead to?
“Asking for help was just something we never did. Combat Stress was immensely helpful. Learning coping measures was the main aim, but an introduction to mindfulness was also important for me. I had seen a brochure for Hadlow College at a garden centre and started an Access to Higher Education Diploma in Land Based Studies in September 2013. I had already been put into the highest class of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and I was also receiving Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and getting benefits as I was unable to work for many years, it was a nightmare, but I did get some help from the Royal British Legion (RBL). It’s so difficult, that’s why I welcome the Veteran’s Gateway, I’ve written to many people, including the government, asking for a one-stop shop for military charities”.
“That first year was quite tough, returning to education after 30 years. But the college was very supportive and understanding and with their help, I completed that year. I attended a Rural Week with HighGround in 2015, it was only five days at Plumpton College, but a charity who I believe can be instrumental for many people if they are aware of it. One of my cohorts on that course is now also attending Hadlow, doing a course in animal management, he also suffers from PTSD and depression, so it’s brave of him”.
“I’ve just finished the first year of a two-year foundation degree (FdSc) in Countryside Management. My tutor actually phoned today to suggest that I do an additional year to get my BCs (Teaching Qualification)”.
“My long-term aim is to, hopefully, put something back into helping veterans as I believe horticultural therapy is of great use, however, I believe we are only in the infancy stages of it in this country though”.
Would you recommend ‘HighGround’ to other veterans?
“Absolutely! Anna is a fantastic lady and Alex Hardman was a top boy in exchanging information between the college and HighGround. I know they’re down in Devon now, but the information they make available for Veterans can be, I believe, life changing. The education in how our skills are transferable to ‘civvy street’ is so important, I wish they’d been around when I first left the Army.”
I’ve had discussions with both Anna and Alex and I can honestly say that they are both extremely passionate about supporting veterans. It’s reassuring to hear that they are both doing great work to support veterans.
Mark, if you could give one piece of advice to someone leaving the Armed Forces, what would you say?
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Life outside is so different. Take all the help and support you can and keep an open mind”
– Mark Thomas
There is so much power in reaching out to other veterans for help because they will be the ones who have the greatest understanding of what you are going through. However, this may not be the option for all veterans because I understand that this can sometimes be easier said than done. It may be more beneficial and in some cases preferred by veterans to talk directly to professionals.
Yet, this can also feel so far out of reach for a veteran who is struggling with mental health and it may, unfortunately, fall on the shoulders of the families and loved ones. Which is why Mark wanted to express how much he appreciates the help from his partner Gill. He feels as though Gill has had to put up with a lot over the years but has still continued to support him.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s blog, I hope you have found Mark’s story insightful and inspirational.
To veterans and to the families and loved ones of veterans, please don’t feel alone. There are always understanding people out there who are willing to provide the support and help that you need.
Jamie and featured veteran Mark Thomas
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