The bravest decision - to start talking

Author Andy Owen describes the challenges that veterans face when they come home and have to deal with memories that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

When I look back to my time in the military the first thing I remember is the people. Of course I remember the places and the experiences, but it is the people I always think of first. The big characters, the good friends and those who you were just glad they were on your side.

Many years before I had even considered joining the army, I remember walking through the empty corridors of my school in the early dark of a winter evening after a parents’ evening – the same bricks and mortar that I would see every day seemed completely alien. 

Walking back into the Mess now would seem a bit like that after hours school visit, as although the physical building would be the same, the faces and voices would be different. When you leave both school and the army, you cannot just walk back in; you need to be invited. You don’t just leave; you become excluded. You become excluded from a family that shaped your sense of identity and gave you purpose. You can lose touch with the only people you know who have shared the same experiences as you – experiences you are struggling to come to terms with.

While some leaving the Armed Forces rarely pause for breath while spinning tales of their heroism, others find it difficult to share their stories. It may be because they feel others either won’t understand, will judge them harshly, or it may be they just cannot find the words. This can lead some to stop interacting with those closest to them, leading them to finding themselves sitting alone in the twilight of a familiar, yet alien empty building.

In 2014, 22,530 personnel left the regular Armed Forces. Some estimates predict that of these over 27% will have a mental health disorder. The Ashcroft Review (The Veterans Transition Review, February 2014) found that for Early Service Leavers the struggle after service life can be even more difficult – only 50% were in employment after six months. For some this can lead to offending, dependence on alcohol and drugs, homelessness and mental health problems. This is where TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project steps in.

Since leaving the military I have written two novels. The first looks at why people go off and fight by re-interpreting Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The second, East of Coker, looks at what happens when those who have been involved in conflict come home, as it moves through a London and an Iraq that shadow TS Eliot’s Waste Land.

After looking at a number of charities, I decided to donate all the proceeds of East of Coker to TimeBank’s Shoulder to Shoulder project. Amongst others, one of the themes East of Coker looks at is what makes us the people we are through the interactions we have with those closest to us. In East of Coker the main character, Arthur, a veteran of The Second World War, moves to a point where he sees he has the power to change how he feels about the past and realises that because he has walled himself off from the world, in an attempt to preserve the memories of those he has lost, he has denied himself one of the key things that makes him a person - interactions with others. He becomes determined to be brave enough to share his story and determined to convince a new friend who has fought in a more recent campaign to do the same and avoid the mistakes he has made. When we do nothing and do not interact, we cannot become all that we can become.

TimeBank recruits and trains volunteer mentors to befriend and support veterans and their families. They try to help veterans lead independent lives, with the confidence to identify goals and lead their own recovery plans. They help them to try and take control of their lives, lives that may have felt out of control since leaving an environment that provided a time and a place to be for much of their adult life. The volunteers can also help family members identify isolation, signpost them to services to help and aid them in building supportive social networks.

The first step on this journey can be making the bravest decision some will ever have to make; the decision to start talking. As one of the characters in the book resolves: to ‘try to use those late night whisky soaked words I don’t usually use in the sober daylight hours, and be better than the man I once hoped to be’. Shoulder to Shoulder ensures that when someone makes that brave choice there is someone there to listen, someone there to interact with, someone who can help them to start becoming the person they once were again.

Both Invective and East of Coker by Andy Owen are currently available on Amazon as e-books. East of Coker will be published by the War Writers’ Campaign (a non-profit independent publisher in the U.S. supporting Veterans) in March 2016.