Insight: Neglect of Forces veterans continues to end in tragedy

Former Army sergeant Calum MacLeod was in an Irish American bar in Germany when he suffered the flashback that forced him to face up to his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With hindsight, he accepts he had been struggling for a long time.
Veteran Steven Wyllie outside the Reid Mcewan activity centre.
 Picture: John DevlinVeteran Steven Wyllie outside the Reid Mcewan activity centre.
 Picture: John Devlin
Veteran Steven Wyllie outside the Reid Mcewan activity centre. Picture: John Devlin

Ever since he had been attacked while serving with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers in Northern Ireland in 1992, he had suffered nightmares, which he countered with heavy drinking. Back then, a crowd of youths had cornered him in an alleyway, hit him over the head with a concrete slab and stolen his gun. When he regained consciousness in a hospital in Belfast, he was told one of the youths had pointed the weapon at his head and fired, but the mechanism had jammed, so he survived.

Hearing U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday on the jukebox in Heidelberg more than a decade later triggered a violent outburst. “One of the Yanks had put it on and I just lost it,” says MacLeod. “My best friend was with me. He said: ‘Your eyes just changed; you were hyper-aroused.’ He forced me into a taxi. I was lashing out, trying to escape. The song, the sounds, the crowd: I really thought I was back in the Province.”

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MacLeod, from Hamilton, ended up in a psychiatric hospital where a colonel told him he was suffering from one of the worst cases of PTSD he had ever seen. Posted back to the UK and unable to cope with confined spaces, he pioneered a successful scheme to help would-be Army recruits reach the required level of fitness. But, in 2011, after 23 years of service, he decided it was finally time to call it a day.

Leaving the Forces is rarely an easy option; adjusting to the plodding pace of civilian life after years of living on your nerves can be a challenge. Jobs and housing are in short supply and the camaraderie has gone. It is not uncommon for relationships to break down or for veterans to find themselves homeless. MacLeod’s own marriage failed and he found employers unsympathetic to his condition. Eventually, he decided to focus on building up his business, Alpha Military Fitness, and on motorcycling, which staves off his dark thoughts.

“I think I am one of the lucky ones and that’s largely because my family got me through. Some of the veterans come out and there’s no-one there for them. In the last 18 months, I have been to seven funerals: all suicides,” he says.

There is more than one way to self-destruct, of course. Some people kill themselves in a single act, others in instalments. Their sense of purpose and self-worth evaporates; they stop caring whether they live or die until, eventually, they are beyond reach.

This appears to be what happened to Darren Greenfield, who had been sleeping rough when he died in an Edinburgh hospital just before Christmas. Greenfield, 47, was a familiar figure to rail commuters as he sat in his camouflage jacket begging outside Waverley Station. Friends say he served 12 years in the Army and drove armoured vehicles in Bosnia in the early 90s. After leaving in 1998, he disappeared from his siblings’ lives until one of his sisters, Asten Robertson, tracked him down. He moved to Edinburgh to be near her, but neither she nor the charities who work with rough sleepers could find a way to stabilise his life.

Though he secured a place at Whitefoord House, a hostel for homeless ex-servicemen, he found it “too regimented” and returned to the streets. After his death, a cardboard sign reading “gone to the angels” was put up at his pitch.

MacLeod, who had spoken to Greenfield on several occasions, said many former squaddies gave him money, but he was “beyond help”. He and Colin MacLachlan, an SAS veteran, have set up a charity, Who Dares Cares, in an attempt to reach out to ex-servicemen who might benefit from support. Among other things, they are developing a Facebook site and an app through which troubled veterans will be able to access volunteers with a military background at any time of the day or night. “We want to make sure there’s someone for them to talk to when the demons come out and the black holes open up,” MacLeod says.

There are an estimated 240,000 veterans in Scotland and most adapt fairly quickly to life on the outside. A significant minority, however, struggle to make the transition. Perhaps they joined the Army straight from school before they learned any life skills; perhaps they were fleeing a troubled home life and have no families to return to; perhaps they lived in married quarters, with lots of amenities and like-minded friends and now find themselves in a council scheme where they know no-one.

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The Army teaches soldiers to be strong and self-reliant, but their lives are lived within clearly defined parameters. When they leave, they often feel disorientated; they may have no idea how to access housing, health services, benefits, and be too proud to seek help.

On either side of the Atlantic, there have been complaints that veterans are poorly recompensed for the sacrifices they have made. For a long time, the Armed Forces did very little to prepare its servicemen for civvy street. “When I left in 1993, it was just, ‘Thank you for your service and bye bye. Be out of your billet by 10am’,” says former Army chef Steven Wyllie.

With so many young men leaving after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Armed Forces began to offer more support. Nowadays, they offer resettlement packages which include advice on social housing and access to training courses. In 2000, the Armed Forces Covenant – once a tacit recognition of the mutual obligation that exists between the State and its armed services – was put into writing, and in 2007 the Royal British Legion accused the then Labour government of breaking it.

As a result, the then health secretary, Alan Johnson, promised that veterans would get priority treatment on the National Health Service and those who had suffered injuries would be treated immediately in hospital rather than put on waiting lists. Councils were also to ensure veterans were not disadvantaged when it came to social housing. Most now waive the “local connection” criteria for ex-servicemen who may have lived abroad for many years (though, clearly, if there is no housing for locals, there is no housing for veterans either).

In 2015, £35m of fines paid by banks implicated in the LIBOR scandal were put into a special pot to fund projects run by military charities such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA). For its part, the Scottish Government has appointed a Scottish Veterans Commissioner and established a Scottish Veterans Fund.

None of this has stopped some ex-servicemen from falling on hard times; the shrinking of our Armed Forces means more are coming out in the middle of an economic downturn when there is already a dearth of affordable accommodation and pressure on mental health services.

According to Scottish Veterans Residences, which provides temporary accommodation, including Whitefoord House, 650 veterans were assessed as being homeless last year, though many more may have been sofa surfing.

The charity – which houses a total of 150 veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh – estimates 3 to 4 per cent of rough sleepers are from a military background. Of the 71 veterans they took into their Edinburgh residence last year, ten had been on the streets.

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“The reasons veterans end up homeless are similar to the reasons anyone ends up homeless: unemployment, mental health problems, alcohol abuse,” says Susie Hamilton, head of external relations. “But those problems may be magnified for ex-servicemen because, if you have moved around a lot, you are unlikely to have the social network you would have if you had lived in the same place for a long time.”

Combat Stress – a national charity which works with veterans suffering PTSD and other mental health problems – is also under increasing pressure with a UK-wide rise in referrals of 143 per cent over the past ten years. In Scotland, Combat Stress has 365 registered veterans, with 253 referred to its services for the first time in 2016. As well as providing a network of community teams, it runs Hollybush House, a residential treatment centre in Ayr.

At a newly opened activity centre on the Erskine Estate – an ex-serviceman’s village near Bishopton – Wyllie, 55, who has himself attended Combat Stress, is at a computer researching his family tree. A former chef with the catering corps (now the logistics corps), he served in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Germany and Canada and “saw a few things” that still trouble him today.

When he left the Army in 1993, at the age of 31, he discovered the years he had spent away meant he was not immediately eligible for social housing – so he had little choice but to move back in with his parents.

Eventually, he made himself homeless and moved round temporary accommodation for six and a half years before securing a council house in Dumbarton. In the early years, he picked up jobs in catering, but he found the gap between cooking for 3,000 and cooking in a hotel too great, and in any case his mental health was failing.

Like many people who suffer from PTSD, Wyllie finds it impossible to use public transport, and for several years he was confined to the house.

In another room, I find Garry Morrison, 39, working on a charcoal picture of a German Shepherd dog as part of an art class. Morrison, also a chef, was badly injured while training for deployment to Afghanistan and now walks with a stick. Medically discharged in 2010, he was forced to leave the married quarters at the base in Germany and move back to Scotland with his wife and three young children.

Like Wyllie, the family had no automatic right to social housing, so they moved in with his parents and then into dingy temporary accommodation before being offered a cottage for four on the Erskine Estate years ago.

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“You leave what we call ‘behind the wire’ accommodation and it’s like being dropped in the deep end. You have to figure out: ‘Who do I see about housing? Who do I see about my banking? Who do I see about schools?’” says Morrison.

Morrison says he too suffers from PTSD. “Being in catering I was used to a busy lifestyle – I was always on the go, always fit. To go from that to not being able to do physical training, not being able to work – it brings your mood down,” he says. “You feel disappointed and that opens the gateway to other things.”

Talking to Wyllie and Morrison, you get the sense they feel forsaken by the Armed Forces and government and maybe even by a population that fails to give British veterans the respect accorded to their American counterparts by US citizens . “It took me ages to get into local mental health and I haven’t had a CPN [community psychiatric nurse] for two years,” says Wyllie. They have nothing but praise, however, for Erskine and the other charities who step in to fill the breach.

At present, the Erskine Estate is comprised of four care homes and 44 one, two and three-bedroom cottages. Recognising the challenges faced by early service leavers, however, the charity has just unveiled plans for 24 apartments for single men and women. The apartments, which will have a double bedroom, en-suite shower room and kitchenette, will house veterans working at Scotland’s Bravest Manufacturing Company, which is due to open in June. This social enterprise will employ 40 ex-servicemen and women to produce road and rail signs and provide fulfilment services.

The new Reid Mcewen activity centre, which runs classes in woodwork and cooking as well as art, and is open to all veterans in the Erskine/Bishopton/ Dumbarton area, is providing a morale boost to Morrison and Wyllie. For the past year, however, Wyllie has also been receiving one-to-one mentoring through a project called Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine. The project – funded by ABF, The Soldiers’ Charity and run in partnership with Erskine – tackles social isolation among those with ongoing mental health problems.

Project co-ordinator Ali Smith says one in five of the 72 veterans who have been matched with a mentor have PTSD and 22 per cent have been homeless. “At one of our focus groups, an ex-serviceman painted a perfect picture of how he slowly self-isolated – how he went from being able to go out of his house to just being with his family to gradually reducing his world room by room, until his entire universe was his bedroom ,” adds Andy Forster, programme manager of the national volunteering charity TimeBank, under whose auspices Shoulder to Shoulder Erskine runs.

Wyllie’s mentor is an ex-Royal Marine who has helped Wyllie push himself little by little to the point where he feels confident enough to attend the centre. “If I hadn’t been being mentored I would still be confined to the house,” he says. “Now, this centre has opened I have somewhere to go and the possibility of making more friends.”

The Scottish Government has identified two groups as particularly vulnerable: early leavers with less than four years’ service (50 per cent of whom will not have found employment after six months) and older NCOs (non-commissioned officers). But what Smith is seeing is a growth in the number of middle-aged men who left the Armed Forces many years ago whose lives have slowly disintegrated.

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This is a perfect description of Greenfield, who had been out of the Army for almost two decades. Today, the Ancre Somme Association is among several organisations raising funds for his funeral. “We just want to do our best for Darren and his family,” says association secretary Tommy Davidson. “He deserves to be honoured and remembered.”

A more enduring legacy, however, would be a future in which fewer veterans slipped through the net. This is the goal MacLeod and MacLachlan have set themselves.

“We want to get to people earlier; to give them a sense of purpose,” MacLeod says. But they also want to help those who are teetering on the edge. “If we can pull guys back from the brink, if we can stop them from pulling the trigger – that would be an achievement.”