I joined the Armed Forces in 1998 at the tender age of just 17 to escape a troubled, abusive upbringing from my step-father. That said, I was incredibly proud to join the Royal Navy as an Engineer.
I instantly enjoyed the Navy’s sense of humour and the high standards that the senior service demand. The passion, loyalty and most of all the brotherhood, are all things I will always have because it was drummed into my personality at a very young age. During my service, I was part of a great team and was involved in the RO5 sea trials and the Joint Task Force operations, including a tour of the Mediterranean which also involved Sierra Leone to bring back our troops.
In the military, we are all trained to show no fear or emotion, but it’s because of this training we then struggle to talk about our invisible wounds. Pride and self-preservation always get in the way. For sure, my navy training made me physically and mentally stronger, but my background from before my time in the military, added to other factors, began to have an impact. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of what I did for my Queen and Country and nobody will take that away from me, but I was devastated when I was P7R Medically Discharged. I simply couldn’t hide my mental health problems from the Royal Navy anymore. However, what was more devastating to my wellbeing was that I never received any aftercare or proper resettlement from the MoD, or from the NHS with my mental health.
Like so many of us, I served my country with pride and honour and when I was no longer an asset to them, I was told to leave and fend for myself. I was P7R medically discharged on 26th June, 2003 and given a Royal Navy Medical Pension of just £92 per month. I developed severe Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after leaving the Royal Navy and struggled to adjust to civilian life. My mental illness is not combat-related; it is directly related to certain things that happened in my younger years, including losing a very close friend in 1999, while serving in the Armed Forces. His death was, and still is, very hard to swallow. I have never spoken about these feelings I have for my dear friend Jay Hitcham, aged just 21. I was there at his bedside with our close friends and family when they turned off his life support machine. I had to watch him drift away and there was nothing I could do about it. Even today, writing this part of my life is very upsetting for me. I miss him every day and I will never forget his face from that day when his lips and fingertips turned blue and cold in front of my eyes. RIP brother.
As a discharged ex-serviceman, I struggled to cope with a ‘normal’ society, one that doesn’t understand people with PTSD, complex or otherwise. Trust me, ‘civvy’ life is hard enough to adjust to after leaving the MoD under normal circumstances, let alone for the ones who suffer from mental and physical wounds. On release, I started to have really bad flashbacks from my younger years, with night terrors. I was suffering from black-outs and began drinking quite heavily. I immediately self-referred for mental health and NHS wellbeing for extra help but slipped through all the safety nets with the MoD and NHS. I reached out to my local GP and was misdiagnosed on numerous occasions with anxiety and depression. In 2013 I suffered a mental breakdown and attempted to take my own life. I had an amazing daughter and a loving wife, but that wasn’t enough as I felt I just couldn’t cope anymore.
Back then, I tried everything to get support for my family by way of benefits but, believe it or not, I was turned away from the local Council and DWP. I had to turn to friends and family for support and tried desperately to get a job, but nobody wanted to employ me. After multiple suicide attempts in 2014, a crippling drug addiction and spiralling debt, I felt backed into a corner. Out of sheer desperation, I committed fraud. I took £25k off a man and £27k off an insurance company to pay off all my bills, drug dealers and, most importantly, to keep my family safe with a roof over their heads and food on the table. Even though I have been judged and served my time, I still feel like I have to constantly say sorry to them. Unfortunately, it will never be enough for them and it always fell on their deaf ears, so what’s the point of wasting one’s time and energy.
After handing myself in and pleading guilty in the police interview, in October 2014, I was sentenced to three years in prison with an extra twelve months on top for my very first offence. The morning I woke up in prison I looked at myself in the mirror and said: “It doesn’t get any worse than this”. I didn’t want my time in prison to be an empty space in my life, so as well as getting better mentally, I also gained fifteen different qualifications in Construction, Health & Safety and BICS while there. I also underwent psychotherapy for my mental illness, which i found helpful.
I worked alongside the amazing staff and finally got the help and support I desperately needed. It’s just a shame that I had to go to prison before I was even noticed, let alone treated, and it’s here where I was diagnosed by the MoJ MH team with Complex PTSD. Prison is what you make of it, and the tools are there for anymore who wants to use them. I was determined to change and nobody was going to stand in my way to achieve my goal. No matter what life throws at me I continue to refuse to give up.
I’m glad to say that I’m well on the road to recovery by controlling my CPTSD, but it’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was singled out by gangs every single day in prison because I was different. But I stood alone and fought my way through it for nearly two years. The system was never going to beat me.
While I was at Britannia House, a resettlement unit housing Cat D prisoners, I asked HMP Norwich Governor, Mr Steve Garvie, if there was anywhere that I could go to use a computer for creating my CV and to seek advice from UK Armed Forces charities. That’s where the building itself came into the equation. I asked Governor Garvie if I could decorate and refurb the building to put it to good use incorporating the new skills I had learned while at HMP Norwich. Because there was no money in the budget, there was no way this was ever going to be achieved unless I took on the challenge for charity. So on my own, after ten hours a day, seven days a week, I managed to complete the entire building from start to finish in under 28 days.
Whatever you might hear or read, there is no easy way to do a prison sentence. I did it because I had to, because I committed a crime. But I did it with true grit, and the determination to be a better and happier person at the end of it. On my release, I sought help from Norwich-based veteran’s charity The Walnut Tree Project and its founder Luke Woodley. They helped me to turn my life around. I enrolled in a sixteen week Veterans’ Stabilisation Programme. Although still a broken man, when I came out of prison in 2016, it was down to Luke and his own expertise that got me through it. If it was not for him and his charity, I would either be back in prison or dead. I took what I needed from the course and it kind of gave me a new lease on life.
Today, I am not only clean from drugs for nearly four years, but am back in full-time employment as the Prison Rehabilitation Manager for the GFSL. Prior to this, I attended twenty-one interviews and applied for forty-three jobs over a thirteen month period. I’m planning to undertake a charity skydive in March to support the organisation, which I believe saved my life. I’m also making myself homeless for Save Our Soldier and I am now the official ambassador of the charity, alongside patron, Ollie Ollerton, from C4 show SAS: WhoDares Wins. This is another massive personal achievement and I’m very proud to be part of the team. It’s time for me to make a difference to those who serve their country before they travel down the same path I did. I believe that the public need to realise that in most cases of minor white collar crimes, a.k.a. non-violent, veterans offend because of underlying factors such as mental health issues through serving their country and other factors.
Let me leave you with this: after all I’ve been through, I know this for sure – if you’re struggling, for whatever reason, take my advice – try a little hope and self-belief and you will be amazed at what you can achieve.
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