In 2005, I joined the Army straight out of school at just 16. Joining wasn’t something I had always planned – I’d wanted to be a plumber – but problems at home meant the army became the escapism I needed.
Life in the forces at such a young age gave me a unique chance to travel the world, and become part of the most amazing military family. As part of the Royal Army Medical Corps I went through medical school, learning about life, loyalty and what it means to serve your country. While challenging, my time was enriching and unforgettable. I served in countries including Afghanistan, Kenya, Canada, Malaysia and Brunei, and assisted in the treatment of casualties in emergency environments as a combat medical technician. In short, I loved it.
Then, after 11 years of service, my career came to an end. I was medically discharged thanks to two debilitating knee injuries from army rugby and football, but also post-traumatic stress disorder following my time in Afghanistan. As a medic, I felt guilty for the people I couldn’t save, as if it was my fault. I saw some horrific injuries, and not just to my colleagues; the injuries suffered by some innocent local women and children too was really hard to deal with. With some injuries you can just accept there’s nothing that can be done, but with others you feel a sense of responsibility that someone lost a leg, or even died. But at the time I just couldn’t accept that.
My discharge was heartbreaking. I’d dedicated my whole adult life to the Army and to the military family I loved, and knew I had no idea how to live a ‘normal’ life out of uniform. In the Army you’re kind of institutionalised and have everything done for you. Going from having that to no support at all on civvy street was going to be really hard.
“I was left alone and didn’t know where to turn for help”
I wasn’t in a good place even before I left, but I was shocked I didn’t get much support after I was discharged. You’re given a barrage of information when you start your transition about where to seek help, how to resettle, but I just wasn’t in the right headspace to get my head around everything and take this on board. From then on, I was left alone and didn’t know where to turn for help, which left me feeling lost and confused about life outside the army.
I had regular nightmares and flashbacks to the horrors I experienced in service – even now I can’t stomach the smell of cooking bacon, it reminds me too much of human flesh – and I had a hard time with little things like paying bills or putting out the bins or navigating public transport, which you don’t have to worry about in the Army. That felt degrading, and it was a huge knock to my confidence to be struggling with such basic things.
Not only was the instability hard for me, it was tough on my son too. For military children, you’re constantly on the move, often making and then leaving friends. You lack the stability that most kids are fortunate to have. The one positive is it made my son really resilient – he always saw everything as an adventure.
Housing was our greatest struggle. After I left, I couldn’t find anywhere to live. No one from the Armed Forces reached out to me to make sure I had found accommodation. And so I became homeless with my five-year-old son, either sofa surfing or staying in hostels paid for with money borrowed from friends. Drug use was rampant in the hostels, and I went into a dark place far from the life I had wanted for my son. I felt like I had no control over my situation and could not see how I would ever turn my life around.
After a turbulent few months, I was on my last legs and just felt exhausted and that I had nowhere else to turn. Then, a simple Google search led me to Help 4 Homeless Veterans, a charity works with service leavers across the North of England. They quickly managed to organise a one-bedroom bedsit for the both of us as a stop gap. With a safe roof over our heads, we had some order in our lives.
Soon after, we were able to get a home of our own through their local community Covenant work. For the first time since leaving the Armed Forces, I felt a sense of security. Finally, I felt able to get my life back on track. Like most veterans, I’m not sure I’ll ever fully adjust but this was a huge stepping stone to becoming a proper civilian.
Of course I still struggled, and I was still afraid we’d end up out on the streets again. But I’ve recently moved into my own house in Sussex, and have just launched a business running boot camps while I complete my fitness diploma. It was always a passion, so it made sense for me to pursue it as a business. It’s like being in the army again – just with less shouting.
I’m in a much better place mentally too. The hardest thing for me was overcoming my pride, which is a big thing for soldiers because admitting you’re struggling is unthinkable. Letting your guard down isn’t something you’re used to doing in the army.
“After losing that invaluable support structure in the forces, speaking to someone face to face could make a world of difference”
Most veterans are fortunate to transition successfully from military to civilian life, and there is now more support to help make this easier. But more still needs to be done to help veterans, especially in that first year of transition. Why shouldn’t most towns have somewhere ex-military people can go to ask for help? Somewhere you could get help on housing, health and counselling? After losing that invaluable support structure in the forces, speaking to someone face to face could make a world of difference for veterans like me struggling to transition.
That’s why I’m supporting the No Homeless Veterans campaign. Run by a coalition of Armed Forces charities and aims to reduce veterans’ homelessness as close to zero as possible calling on local authorities, homelessness charities and advice agencies such as Citizens Advice, to ‘think veteran’ in order to identify former Servicemen and women and signpost them to the enhanced support available to them. Campaigns like this will mean more vulnerable veterans, just like me, are signposted to charities and organisations who can help. With any luck, what happened to me won’t happen to anyone else leaving the Army.
Looking back now, I wouldn’t change anything about my time in the Armed Forces. But the turbulent few months following my discharge were even tougher than my time spent serving. Things are finally looking up for me and my son now. We have a roof over our heads, and I have the confidence and support I need to keep our life on track.
My son’s transitioned really well now and is settling into school and making friends. He still has his challenges, like we all do, but we’re getting there together. He’s still getting used to the civvy streets just like me though, so we’re both on our own journey.
My only wish is that others get the help they need to build the life they want, free of homelessness, once they’ve left the forces.
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