“Joining the military was all I had ever wanted to do. Family members had served in the Army and Royal Navy and eventually I settled on the Royal Air Force (RAF). I joined when I was seventeen in 1987.“My first posting was at RAF Hereford. Initially I was based on the station but then I was put on the Emergency Reaction Force, which meant I could be deployed anywhere in the world at short notice. In 1990, when I was just 20 years old, I was called up with four hours’ notice to take part in the Gulf War. During my six-month tour, I was on the frontline in Iraq and Kuwait.
I couldn’t sleep, had terrible nightmares and flashbacks, and even attacked my mum at one point. I couldn’t socialise – all I wanted to do was stay at home. I had no idea what was going on. I felt like I had lost control and been taken over. It was like being trapped in a bubble, reliving things again and again.
“When my leave ended, I went back to RAF Hereford and tried to get back on with life, but I couldn’t function properly. At one point I tried to take my own life whilst on duty.
“My parents said I needed to get help, but I didn’t want to get it. It had been my childhood dream to join the Services, and I felt that if I asked for help it would be detrimental to my career.
“I was sent to see a military psychiatrist, but he just told me pull my socks up and take my medication, emphasising that no one would employ me otherwise. I only had another eight months left of my service so I struggled on.
“When I left the RAF, I moved back to Bristol and just tried to survive, trying hard not to get angry. I initially worked as an HGV driver but then I got a security job, covering nights. I enjoyed it – there was no pressure and no one around but eventually the long hours dragged me down. And then in 2003 the second Gulf War began and, even though I had left the RAF, I felt I should have been there. I felt rejected and left behind. I shut myself away and cried.
“It was my sister who finally got me to seek help. She saw Combat Stress at an Armed Forces Day event and told me I needed to pick up the phone and call. I was in a really bad place by this point, but I decided to give it a go. I called the Helpline and cried for 20 minutes but then I started to get the help I needed.
“A little while later, in 2017, I was offered the chance to take part in the charity’s PTSD Intensive Treatment Programme (ITP). Taking part in the programme was empowering - I learnt why I act like I do and how to cope. Part of my rehabilitation was also to re-engage with my family, telling them what I had been through on the frontline. I now have a really good relationship with my family, and they can support me if my PTSD flares up. I’ve also got a new partner now – we’re engaged, I’m a dad to her two kids, and I feel like I’ve opened a new doorway on my life.
“I did find it a bit difficult to reacclimatise after doing the ITP so I phoned Combat Stress and was able to take part in a resilience course in Plymouth. It touched on a lot of things I already knew but I was also able to reconnect with others who had served.
“I’ve also used the charity’s Peer Support Service, meeting once a month with other veterans in Bristol, but the pandemic meant we had to stop meeting in person.
“And more recently I’ve contacted the charity for more help as I realised I was beginning to struggle again. I called the Helpline a couple of times – having someone to talk to is a big help - and I’m now just about to start having some one-to-one occupational therapy online (due to COVID-19 restrictions).
“Since undergoing treatment, I’m able to look back and analyse things. I understand now that I had to do things I didn’t agree with but it was what I was trained to do. “I’m so grateful for all the help and advice Combat Stress has provided me – I’d be six feet under without their support. It’s been amazing to turn my life around. I’m able to survive day to day now and when things start to go awry, I know what I need to do before I get to a really bad place.
Take a moment to support veterans like Richard this armistice.