Words cannot express everything I witnessed

Mr W had longstanding mental health problems and previous treatment in inpatient, community and outpatient settings, but it was not until he got in touch with C&I’s London Veteran’s service that the right help came together. Here he talks about his experiences:

Trauma came into my life very early on.

I joined the RAF as a boy soldier aged 16 direct from school. I had not long been there when I had my first traumatic incident. A helicopter I was tasked with refuelling fell onto its right hand side, rotors turning. The tail snapped off, the main blades shred into thousands of pieces and the aircraft’s engines were screaming as the aircraft thrashed itself to pieces. I sought the only cover that I could and prayed that none of the shrapnel would hit me and my companions. This was the first of many traumatic air accidents I witnessed.

I worked on what is called “crash and smash”, that is recovery of crashed aircraft and piecing them back together for the Air Investigation Branch, sifting all the pieces including body parts. I helped recover a crashed helicopter from the mountains. This was really difficult for me. I had known the crew, all of whom were dead now.

At this point I had seen more death in three years than most people see in a lifetime.

I also served two tours of duty in Northern Ireland at what was the height of the troubles, and in the early 1980s I went to the Falklands for the conflict with Argentina. Both were intense environments where words cannot express everything I witnessed. Returning to England, whilst gliding at an RAF site I had the bad luck of witnessing a friend of mine crash their glider from several hundred feet almost directly in front of me. I was first on the scene and the images are ones I’ll never forget.

From the time I left the RAF I had nightmares. As I got older I found it increasingly difficult to keep my mind from going back to thoughts that haunted me.

Some 10 years ago, I was shocked to accidently learn I was adopted. My adoptive family had kept my adoption secret, but security vetting for a healthcare job came back with a copy of a birth certificate that was a “me, that wasn’t me, but was”. I cannot still to this day put into words how I felt at that moment – my world had collapsed.

This came at a time where I was going through a divorce and eventually it all just became too much for me to deal with. I made a suicide attempt because I just wanted out.

Then, two years ago I received the news that I had cancer and this pushed me to begin to self-harm. In the last three years the situation has gone from bad to worse and I eventually found myself being sectioned. I had developed a bad temper problem, suffered panic attacks and had become both verbally and physically aggressive.

My doctor here in London pushed for me to be seen. After a panic attack out on the underground I was referred by an outpatient psychiatrist to IAPT. They noted my veteran status and put me in touch with the charity Combat Stress and the NHS London Veterans’ Service (LVS). They work together and made contact when I had emailed in crisis to coordinate a psychosocial assessment from Combat Stress at home, and a therapy assessment at LVS. LVS contacted the local personality disorder service and GP to organise a stepped-care plan. I am about to be seen by a therapist to help me with my personality issues that have come about due to my traumas, and after that PTSD can be treated, probably via Combat Stress’ residential programme for veterans, although NHS outpatients is another option.

I was recommended the London Veterans’ Service and Combat Stress in an effort to help me deal with my mental health issues, and things have continually improved. The combination of these two groups has moved my mental health back to what for me is a “safe zone”. I have the groups to thank and friendships that I have been able to form during this time. I have my life back and though still off long term sick I do voluntary work for both Combat Stress and LVS which does my mental health the world of good. I work in one of Her Majesty’s prisons, for the chaplaincy department, where I can repay my treatments by working with ex-servicemen in prison.


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