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Soldiers on the Street: Why Ex-Military Personnel Find Themselves Experiencing Homelessness

6 January 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Leosaysays

It’s long been the case that ex-military personnelfind themselves experiencing homelessness at highly disproportionate rates. The lack of support for transitioning back into civilian life, substance abuse issues and PTSD all play contributing factors and, while steps are being taken to address the issue, it remains problematic. Ex-serviceman Tony was in the Royal Navy for three years and the Royal Marines for another nine, before a serious injury ended his military life. Here, he talks about the experience of going from being a decorated veteran to living on the streets...

“I had to break my own foot to get it free,” Tony tells me, voice shaking slightly, “It was stuck under the accelerator pedal and if I hadn’t I would have burnt to death.” With a face etched in lines of painful reflection, skin canvassed with tattoos and shoulder-length greying hair, Tony has the appearance of someone much older than his years. He’s talking from a room within a Framework care home in Nottingham, where he is currently residing after a period of homelessness. The event he’s describing came when the military vehicle in which he was travelling hit a landmine, killing several men on board. Having freed himself, Tony saved the life of an intelligence officer and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his conduct. As he relays the episode, Tony rolls up the legs of his tracksuit bottoms to reveal two heavily scarred, discoloured legs that bear the marks of having been pebble-dashed with shrapnel. “Even now I get small pieces of metal coming to the surface,” he explains, “I should have died then, but for some reason I didn’t. Someone clearly wants me alive.” 

The injuries Tony sustained during the attack ended a military career that had seen him serve in the Royal Navy for three years and the Royal Marines for a further nine. As is the case for many veterans, the lack of support for his transition to civilian life proved too challenging and, after a series of driving and laboring jobs, Tony found himself homeless. 

There has long been an association between homelessness and ex-service personnel. Although accurate studies are difficult to come by, and many are London-centric, it’s widely accepted that a disproportionate number of ex-military end up experiencing homelessness at some point. During the nineties a Royal British Legion survey reported that as many as 20% of the homeless in London at the time were ex-services.  

Sadly, the practice of soldiers, sailors and airmen being shunned by the countries they dutifully served is as old as the military itself. Stories of veterans from World War One being ostracized on their return were commonplace, and even the sailors who fought with Nelson at The Battle of Trafalgar – arguably Britain’s most famous military victory – found themselves unwanted, unsupported and desolate on their return to Britain. It’s a tragically common theme that has echoed down the centuries, with Nelson himself writing in 1797: “We are a neglected set, and, when peace comes, are shamefully treated.” Soldiers are taken at a very young age and created to serve a specific purpose that, once served, often sees them treated as societal inconvenience. 

“There was no real support for us once we were out,” Tony recalls. “The transition back to civilian life was hard, and I didn’t fit in. I ended up working as a HGV driver just so I could be on my own. I couldn’t mix with other people, even my own family.” While life in the military carries natural dangers, it also brings with it a sense of camaraderie, stability and discipline that doesn’t exist anywhere else. There’s functionality to it, where everyone has their own specific place and role, and is accountable for it being carried out correctly. That accountability brings with it order and purpose, something which is extremely difficult to replace in civilian life. “I felt so out of it, like I was a freak. It’s like I was different to everyone else,” Tony remembers, “I just wanted to disappear because I couldn’t relate or socialize with anyone. I felt like I’d lost the only job I was able to do.”

Like with many ex-military personnel, Tony’s situation was exacerbated by post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from an incident in which he refused an order to shoot an unarmed enemy combatant. “We found one kid hiding in a corner, shaking. I was ordered to shoot him, but I couldn't do it. He was only seventeen or so, and had wet himself.” After refusing the order, Tony’s commanding officer shot the boy instead, “He told me that if I ever disobeyed another order, he’d shoot me himself.” That event, as well as the incidents in which he suffered his career-ending injuries, left a lasting mark on Tony’s psychological state: “I still have terrible nightmares now where I wake up screaming and throwing my arms around. It got to the stage that my (now ex) wife had to sleep in another room because it was too dangerous to be next to me.”

I still have terrible nightmares now where I wake up screaming and throwing my arms around

The failure of his marriage and inability to maintain steady work, as well as an increasing dependency on alcohol saw Tony end up homeless, where his situation became much worse: “One night I woke up with blokes urinating on me, another time I got a bottle kicked into my face while I was asleep. I had broken glass in my face and eye and had to spend the night at QMC. I can still only see out of one eye.” Subsequent health problems continued to plague Tony while he was homeless, including pneumonia, endocarditis and a collapsed lung: “I’ve had four big things that were all killers, and no-one thought I was going to make it.”

While our societal understanding of mental health, alcoholism, and post-traumatic stress disorder have improved significantly: the change came too late for Tony, who still finds it difficult to talk about his past. But circumstances are improving for ex-service men and women. Local organisations, like Framework, as well as national groups who focus specifically on ex-service personnel, like The Royal British Legion, Veterans’ Foundation, Help for Heroes and Combat Stress have made great strides in providing a support network for those who are suffering from PTSD, substance abuse issues, homelessness or the difficult transition back into civilian life. A more recent CHAIN study shows that the numbers of homeless ex-veterans is now down to between 2-3%. While still too many, it’s evidence of the slow progress being made. 

As our conversation draws to its conclusion, Tony shakes my hand, the strength in his grip betraying how weak his frame appears. Beneath the unspeakable tragedy he has endured there’s still a glimpse of the humour he once had. He tells me of the table he is currently making from the Framework care home in which he now lives, and his voice sounds excited and frustrated at how long it’s taking to complete. Though clearly still haunted by his past, he has, for the meantime, found some semblance of peace. But as troubled as Tony’s life has been, he might just be one of the lucky ones, as there are countless others that are not alive to share their stories. Rates of homelessness amongst ex-veterans are still disproportionately high and almost 200 ex-military have committed suicide since 2018 alone. As I thank him for sharing his story, I think of the opening lines of a poem that, though written in 1817, feels as grimly relevant today:

“Who is it knocks so gently at my door?

That looks so way-worn, desolate, and poor;

A paid-off sailor, once his country’s pride

But now a wanderer on the highway’s side.”

 

If you know, or are yourself, a veteran looking for support, the Veteran's Gateway offers support to the ex-service community and their families. As the first point of contact for veterans’ support, with a 24/7 Helpline, website and free downloadable app, the service has a wealth of experts, some of which are ex-serving themselves, who can offer an understanding of some of the issues facing the veteran community. 

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