I’d known ‘Joe’ since Primary. He went to school with my older brother. He came from what you would call a working-class environment. Working poor really. Parents that have one or two jobs each. Latchkey 70s kids spent a lot of time out unwatched in the parks and youth clubs. Getting into mischief, like most kids from our area. Boredom and not much fear only breeds ill behaviour outside and inside school. My brother says that what happened was, the local Army Cadet Force came into the school and gave a talk in assembly and encouraged the lads of 13 and over to come down and join up. Joe, my brother and some classmates did. This led my other brother and his friends to join. When I got old enough I also went in.
Cadets is a primer. It gave kids structure, discipline and focus. An outlet for natural exuberant ways. A chance to do things most kids are not allowed to do. A progression of goals. A direction in life. The possibility of a career. Pride. Like most kids who went into Army Cadets, all Joe wanted to do is go into the Junior Leaders at 16 (which you could do back then) and do basic training. Which is what he and some of the other Cadets eventually did. Joe entered an infantry regiment that went on to be amalgamated with another. Me and my brothers and friends left and went on with normal life, which included recreational using.
This was the early 90s. Joe would get leave every few months. He’d come back from some base in some place with all his wages and spend it on pills. Getting drunk. Getting into fights. He always was funny bloke, and he could take care of himself, but there was an underlying vibe of menace with him now. As if he could switch at any moment. Sometimes before he left to go back, he would stock up on drugs to take them back with him. There were many times our partying meant he’d miss the date he had to return, and he’d get classed as AWOL. He was jailed plenty of times for this. During those times he was back, he would tell us things. He’d been stationed in West Germany. He did a few tours in Northern Ireland and he went to Bosnia. He had experienced first-hand the aftermath of atrocities in both those countries. I’m sure most armed forces personnel break the official secret acts with loved ones. But one time drunk and emotional he told us “there are things I’ll never be able to tell you, or anyone”. Which was disturbing, considering everything he felt he could.
In the mid-nineties there was a terrorist incident, a mortar attack on the base he was stationed at. Panicked he phoned my father while it was in happening. My dad jumped into his car and flew up there. Joe had six months left of his term of service. Shook up he told my father he wanted out. My dad spoke to the base commander, who said Joe couldn’t just leave, as he’d be jailed for AWOL. He could be discharged, but that would be classified as a dishonourable discharge. But my dad could “buy him out.” … In a trauma state Joe had a quick decision to make. One I’m positive he came to regret. My dad bought Joe out. Joe forfeited all his military support. His career. His Pension. All severed.
After he came home, he’d stay with us sometimes. He’d enter a new relationship, have a family for a bit and things would be fine for a while. Then all his underlying unaddressed issues would manifest. It made a long-term partnership impossible no matter how many times he started one. Work was the same. What does someone do, if the career they chose was acceptably violent and everything you trained to do wasn’t applicable out here? What do you do if you can’t tell people your story because of the monstrous facts, or you are embarrassed at how your service ended? What does this do to someone’s psyche? Where do you go?
Over a very quick period Joe went from drinking and recreational drugs, to progressing to using heroin. To cope(!)
It made it tough for his, and my own family to deal with him, also for him to have any kind of productive life with a non-using healthy partner. To be an available father, son, friend. He careened through others lives, like so many users do. Separate, adrift and spiralling. He’d turn up at my mums, aunts, or at my brothers unannounced and in need. His health further deteriorating. Always with a story of a detox or rehab and the treatment of his blatant PTSD, just around the corner. Second to last time I saw him, he turned up at my mums to stay for a bit with his girlfriend. They’d been kicked out their flat. Both we’re injecting. I barely saw them the few days that their few belongings were piled up in the corner of the front room. The help he desperately required we couldn’t give him.
He’d been failed again.
I last saw him 2 years ago. He was begging outside a train station. In a uniform. head down, with a Homeless Veteran sign at his feet. I was literally, hand in pocket walking over when I recognised him before he saw me. Full of a shocked feeling, I walked past. I stood around the corner not knowing what to do. How I felt. How he would feel if I walked up to him. I didn’t approach him. I turned and walked away. About 6 months ago one of my brothers told me he had completed a therapeutic rehab set up specifically for ex-military personnel. Now he was out he was doing fantastic. He was also helping others who had served our country. Who had fought in the wars we have waged since, and were dealing with substance use, depression, homelessness, anger issues, and other complex problems specifically associated with being in Her Majesties Armed Forces. Including those that had sacrificed nothing as obvious as lives or limbs, but something more intangible. “For Queen and Country”.
I tried to contact joe recently for his perspective on substances in the military. I have contact details but have had no response. No one I’ve spoken to in my family seems to know where he is, or how he is doing.
His current whereabouts are unknown to us. I hope he’s ok.
Joes story is not that common……. though I fear it’s far from unique.
If you or anyone you know were at any time in the British Armed Forces and are in need of help, please contact .www.britishlegion.org.