Life after the Army overshadowed by post-traumatic stress

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

  • Published
Media caption,

Tom Sawyer: "I couldn't put up with life"

For former soldier Tom Sawyer and his partner Sue Hawkins, Tom's service in Northern Ireland and his head injury during the first Gulf War in 1991 cast a long shadow over their lives.

He left the Army in 1993, but his experiences in both places haunted him in ways he felt he couldn't share with anyone.

"After what I'd seen in Northern Ireland, I kept it subdued but even while I was still in the Army I was turning up on parade in the morning, still drunk, my kit not pressed, and it just got worse and worse," he says. "My drinking was heavy, and helped break up two marriages."

Today, his partner Sue sits supportively beside him as Tom, 48, recounts what happened after he left the armed forces.

The fresh-faced young man on the military ID card that he still carries in his wallet had turned into an adult who couldn't bear crowds and could barely leave the house.

He once tried talking to an NHS doctor about it but walked out when the doctor told him that he "knew exactly" what he'd been through.

I ask why he didn't talk to anyone within the Army while he was still serving.

"It was the macho thing," he shrugs, lighting a cigarette.

"You keep it quiet and even in the units I served with we didn't really speak about it. Even if you'd gone to your commanding officer or family officer then they'd just tell you 'don't be stupid, there's nothing wrong with you, are you man or mouse?' At that time, I was a mouse. I couldn't speak."

Suicidal thoughts

After several years of trying to blot out his traumatic memories with alcohol, the death of Tom's father threatened to tip him over the edge.

It was then that Tom decided killing himself might be the best solution.

"I just couldn't put up with life," he remembers.

Sue knew then that he needed urgent help.

"That particular night, I really thought that he was going to kill himself. I have never ever, in all the years I've known him, known him to be so down. Tom felt he was a freak and that no-one wanted to know him," Sue says, squeezing Tom's hand as she sits next to him.

"I just knew we had to do something or else he wouldn't be here."

Their call for help was answered by a small and relatively new military mental health charity, PTSD Resolution, which put them in touch with one of its network of therapists, Joy Gilson, in Brighton.

Over the past months, Tom has had five sessions with Joy in the bright and sunny room she sees clients in; the aim of the therapy is to help take away the trauma associated with his memories.

Sue has also been able to sit in during the sessions and offer her support.

'Fight or flight'

Joy uses a method known as "human givens" and has also studied trauma-focused cognitive therapy.

She explains that post-traumatic stress disorder can happen when traumatic memories are not processed properly in the brain.

Image caption,
Tom's partner Sue is able to accompany him to the therapy sessions

"The memory is in the wrong place, so it's constantly live and when information is coming in, it's always flashed by this part of the brain, the fight or flight part," she says.

"I don't have to ask people to relive the memories; all I need to know is that there is a memory here so I can get them to reprocess the memory in a calm way.

"Once they've done it a few times it becomes a normal memory and they are not constantly on alert."

She still remembers the day that Tom arrived for his first session.

"When he walked in here, he was suicidal and he said to me 'I'm terrified. This is my last shot and I'm going to kill myself if it doesn't work'," Joy tells me.

"Now he feels that he wants to live and although he's not as far down the road as he wants to be, he wakes up in the morning with a sense of meaning and purpose. That's a huge difference and that's after five sessions."

'Detailed evidence'

Despite having helped former soldiers such as Tom, the charity is still fighting its own battle for official recognition of its services for veterans, while the use of human givens as a therapy is not yet publicly funded for treating PTSD by NICE, the institute for clinical excellence that evaluates therapies and drugs for the NHS.

Piers Bishop is one of the founders of the charity and now a trustee.

"Of the 400 or so veterans that PTSD Resolution has taken in the past four years, it has worked for 80% or so of cases where people have had more than one session," he says.

"That might look unusually high but everything we do is documented and we keep detailed evidence of every session that takes place. The real hurdle is the expectation that trauma is hard to treat."

He is in no doubt there will be a knock-on effect on the mental health of some veterans from the current military campaigns.

"The official figures are starting to show there is a greater chance of being traumatised by repeated deployment to conflicts.

"If we're going to have more people coming through with trauma, we're going to have to find more efficient ways of dealing with it that equip someone to get on with their own life under their own steam."

'Weight off shoulders'

For Tom, help came just in time.

"What's really helped is having Sue with me through all the sessions so I didn't have to come out and explain.

"Every time I come out of a session it's like a weight being taken off my shoulders. I've come back and am feeling a lot better in myself.

"For years I thought I was a freak, a mishap of service life, but now I know I'm not a freak - but just normal crazy," he smiles.

Sue is simply relieved that many of the demons that haunted Tom are now under control.

"He's learning to cope with it, and it's not the PTSD in charge of him any more. I've learned a lot, and the sessions with Joy have saved his life. It's so much better now that he's not creeping around corners any more."

The Ministry of Defence says it recognises mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as a serious and disabling medical condition, but one that can be treated.

Assessment and treatment is available for service personnel who might be concerned about their mental health.

The MoD is also running a mental health awareness campaign to encourage those serving today to come forward if they are experiencing problems.

Like Tom, though, many may wait until long after they have left the forces to ask for help.

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