Stephen suffered terrible injuries whilst serving with the military and the impact of his experiences continue to live with him today. Now a veteran, he spends his time supporting other veterans living in the community. As part of our report looking at ‘What Matters to Veterans?’ we share his story. Stephen’s name has been changed to protect his identity.
“While I was on exercise with the Royal Engineers, I had two Royal Engineers tamper with the lorry brakes on all the vehicles. This was because, as punishment, they had to clean down all the bridges which were on top of our vehicles. Then, after a two-week exercise, whilst we were all having breakfast with the engineers, we went back to the vehicles and I was lead vehicle driving along with my lorry with the bridge on top. We went through some country roads and a pedestrian pulled out in front of me and, because we were doing convoy driving, we were really close to each other. I tried to stop, had no brakes because they’d tampered with the air brakes, and I had a choice of either hitting the car, or heading towards a house. So, I headed towards the house, but I saw a young girl with a pushchair so it was either, kill her or hit the house, so I hit the house. The second vehicle went into the back of me, pushed me through into the front room, the third vehicle hit the second vehicle which then hit me again, which pushed me further into the house. Then the fourth vehicle hit the third vehicle which hit the second vehicle which hit me again and then the house collapsed around me. It took them four hours to dig us out.
I spent nine months in a coma and was taken back to Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital in Woolwich. I spent nearly two and a half years being rehabilitated after I came out of the coma. I was told I had an officer waiting for me in London, when I was discharged, to help me. I went to London, but there was no officer. I then spent six months on the streets with nowhere to go. I was a type 1 diabetic through the accident and basically, two police officers one day found me on the streets under a load of cardboard, almost dead. I got rushed to hospital in London. They tried to put lines in me and everything to give me fluids but they couldn’t, so in the end they opened up my heart to do a direct feed. I was later told that at this time I had the highest sugar level ever seen in nine and a half years. The hospital then kept me for about five months but they wouldn’t let me leave unless I had somewhere to live, because I was a type 1 diabetic and needed insulin. Having no fixed abode, I could not get hold of any insulin, so in the end, the district council put me in a B&B. I spent nine months there and then I was told I would have to leave. They were waiting on letters from the army and the army hadn’t provided the letters so they were going to kick me out of the B&B. I then got a phone call from the council housing officer stating that he’d received the letters from the military and asked if I could go down and see them. So, I went down to see them and they gave me a disabled flat. Because of my experiences of living on the streets, I used my medical pension from the army to get a mortgage after three years and I bought the flat because I never wanted to be homeless again.
I had a lot of experiences with my mental health, having issues with the police, having meltdowns. I was going to a place called Combat Stress where I spent thirteen and a half years attending, for six weeks every year getting convalescence care. I was diagnosed in 1991 with suffering with severe PTSD. I then spent ten years with the RBL (Royal British Legion), Combat Stress and solicitors to fight to get PTSD recognised in the British Army. In 2001, I set a landmark precedent where I was the first soldier to actually be officially diagnosed and compensated for having PTSD in the British Army. At the time I helped 9000 soldiers with finally getting their right diagnosis.
I got 100% disability pension from the armed forces and war pensions and medical pension. I then met a woman and had two children, but Combat Stress notified social services to say that they felt it was dangerous for me to look after my children. So, I wasn’t allowed to then look after the kids on my own. It was mainly because of the violent outbursts with the aggression, with the PTSD and the fact that I have what they call uncontrolled diabetes. My sugar levels would spike through adrenalin rushes and I would either go hypo- or hyper- all the time. So, having two very young children, they didn’t think it was safe, which, if I’m honest, broke my heart, because I don’t think I would ever have hurt my kids. After about nine years, the army relaxed their opinion and, from the age of about ten, I could look after my children. It gave me a new lease of life; I put my whole life into looking after my kids and trying to be the best dad I possibly could.
I knew a lot of old guys in their 60s and 70s, and you’ve got to remember at the time I was probably in my 30s. These gentlemen were wingmen for me and looked after me and gave me a purpose. I am now 51 years of age and those same guys that looked after me in my 30s, I am now their welfare officer, their care officer, and I go and see them. Sometimes I am the only person they see all week. I spend a lot of my time helping veterans. I know some who have been in bad places and the classic thing is, “oh you’ve fallen through the net”. Well,to be honest with you, none of us have really fallen through the net – we were ignored, abandoned, and forgotten about.
A guy that I’m dealing with at the moment, William, has 18 years’ service. He is basically an alcoholic. He’s been through three failed marriages, he’s got PTSD, he’s been abusing the bottle as a way of trying to numb the pain. He’s living in a caravan at the moment, and I went to see him. He was in bed with 23 bottles of whiskey, empty by the side of the bed – that’s in nine days. I had to call an ambulance and they took him away; kept him in hospital for three or four days and eventually he got discharged. He’ll end up going back to his caravan and, if I’m honest, I don’t think he’ll survive the next time. There’s no safety net at all for soldiers anymore. They spout on about what they do the military covenant and everything, but I have lived it, I’ve seen it and it doesn’t work. I do not know where the money goes that they tend to use for this sort of stuff. It’s quite…obvious in my opinion that it doesn’t work.
I think the Breakfast Clubs are an amazing thing though if I am honest. Because that has really helped soldiers reconnect with each other. You have got some amazing guys doing these Breakfast Clubs and helping soldiers. Again, the army organisations, the core charities, infantry charities, they do amazing jobs. But it should not be up to them to do the jobs, it should really be government-led.”
In the time that followed….
Tragically, on 1st January 2021, William was found in his caravan alone, having passed away. After being advised to leave William in the hands of the authorities, Stephen felt with great sadness that they had let William down. The lack of pro-active support from the hospital through repeated discharge, minimal safeguarding put in place and other services who had failed to provide adequate support, Stephen felt had resulted in the death of a veteran with whom he had become very close friends.