By James Somper
A haunted war veteran has described how his life was ruined by PTSD – which he says he got from the guilt of working with the families of soldiers who had been injured and killed.
Neil Harrison, 49, spent 25 years in the Royal Artillery and saw service in the Gulf, Bosnia, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
But, it was only when he spent four years working in the UK as his regiment’s casualty visiting officer – caring for families who’s loved ones had died or been injured – that he came close to a complete breakdown.
For Neil, the guilt of having to face the families of his colleagues who had been injured or killed – when he was not deployed abroad himself – was too much to bear.
Neil, who had passed the arduous Commando course to win the green beret, was unable to leave the house and spent whole days crying because of the stress and depression he was experiencing. He was diagnosed with Vicarious PTSD and left the Army.
But he says he was able to rebuild his life thanks to the support of The Royal British Legion – and is speaking out to encourage everyone to buy a poppy and support the Legion during its annual Poppy Appeal.
Neil, from Market Drayton, Shrops, said: “I had the world on my shoulders. I felt like I had failed and let the lads down.
“I was trying my best for people, but I was stuck between the army and dealing with the family of a wounded solider. The family would blame me for their problems and I had no one to turn to.
“I had no training for the job, I was thrown in at the deep end and told to get on with it.
“I thought I was up to it at the beginning. It was very hard, I was dealing with people at the end of their tether.
“I really struggled and the Legion was a real lifeline. I want everyone in the services but also in the civilian world to know what an amazing job they do.”
Neil dealt with the families of wounded soldiers alongside his normal job as a transport officer, meaning that he would frequently spend long periods of time away from his wife and two children.
Over the course of five years, Neil experienced anxiety so bad that he was left shaking.
At the funeral of an officer in the same regiment, Neil said he came close to a full break down.
He said: “I had one week which was fairly relaxed and I started to get shakes in my hands on the Monday.
“By the Friday I couldn’t take it, my anxiety went completely out of control and I was sent home.
“The lowest point was at that funeral, a colleague in the same regiment. I remember meeting the guys at the funeral but I felt that I just couldn’t be there.
“I felt guilty because I was in the UK and my peers and friends were in Afghanistan and I was stuck here. I was also conscious though that I had an important job to do.
“My job was to support the families of those who’d been injured or killed. I was the point of contact between the family and the army for anything they needed.
“When I was told that one of the soldiers I was looking after had a severe head injury that was terrible. His wife and I were told that when he’d wake up he wouldn’t recognise us, that was hard.”
Eventually, Neil was diagnosed with Vicarious PTSD and was sent home.
He said: “I remember when I was sent home. I felt really guilty and that everyone was looking at me saying I was a failure. I went from working long hours with lots of responsibility to being sat on a sofa at home.
“The army sent me home and no one spoke to me. The longer I was sat there the worse I felt.”
Neil was recommended to attend a course at the Battle Back Centre, a sports and adventure facility run and funded by The Royal British Legion.
The course was a major turning point for Neil who says he was able to discuss his problems with other service personnel for the first time.
He said: “They were so empathetic and understood everything that I had been through, every time I got anxious they’d sit with me and calm me down.
“Once I was in the system, they looked after me, they wrapped themselves around me and supported me constantly.
“I was on a spiral down into further and further depression before going to the Battle Back centre as part of my recovery programme.
“I can truly say that the course was turning point in my life – helping me to realise that any of the negative thoughts I had about myself weren’t true and that I had developed a type of illness as a result of my service.”
“I felt like I had failed everyone before going to Battle Back, but the team there made me realise I was not to blame.
“Having the opportunity to go to Battle Back not only helped me, and improved my quality of life, but helped my family, who had previously been so worried about my mental and physical well being.”
Neil’s wife Susan said that Battle Back has made a huge difference to Neil.
She said: “At first I didn’t really notice as he was away anyway during the week. As time went on he had to deal with more and more.
“I don’t think he’ll ever be the same as he was having dealt with what he’s dealt with but the legion have helped him no end.”
With remembrance day fast approaching, Neil said he’ll be thinking of the friends and colleagues he’s lost.
He said: “When I left the army I felt very guilty every remembrance day. Last year I went to a service and wore my medals for the first time since leaving. I felt very proud but also conscious of the people we’ve lost.
“This year I’ll be thinking of them all as the clock strikes 11.”
The Battle Back Centre is a modern sports and outdoor centre for injured, sick or wounded Service people and veterans.
The Royal British Legion’s £50 million funding commitment makes it possible. The Battle Back Centre provides adaptive sports and adventure opportunities.
It’s led by a world-class team of coaches from Leeds Beckett University, with residential accommodation for up to 24 people at a time and recognises that being active is a recovery accelerant, leading to improved physical and mental well being.