A TIDWORTH veteran has spoken out about the difficulties faced by many ex-forces personnel especially at Christmas time. 

Former Staff Sergeant Mark Hepworth served for 22 years with the King’s Royal Hussars before being medically discharged with complex PTSD in 2016.

After completing operational tours around the world including Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Iraq, Mark struggled with physical injuries but his battle with PTSD has been a long one.

Salisbury Journal:

Seeking help 

After first seeking help in 2001, Mark says he felt unable to fully open up and there was a pressure to keep any problems to himself. He struggled to keep busy and distract himself over the years so decided to try again talking to a doctor in 2011.

Mark said: “I tried again in 2011 but was advised that going forward with this may have a negative impact on my career. When you’re told that’s the likelihood of the outcome, you quickly back track.”

But, a car accident proved to be the breaking point for Mark.

“That was almost the real finishing touch. I wasn’t able to do those things I’d been able to do to manage and cope with my problems. It wasn’t until 2015 and a few months into his sick leave that he was officially diagnosed with complex PTSD. During that time, he felt wholly unsupported and was even told by doctors that he “would never work again”.

There was a lot of shame and “failure” in how he felt as a result of his mental health, not just in his career but as a husband and father too.

“As a chap you believe that you keep providing no matter what but when you either realise yourself or the military realise you can’t meet the required standard, it’s that ‘you’ve failed’ kind of attitude, in every part of your life. You are a soldier first and a civilian second, so if you fail at being a soldier, fundamentally you’ve failed as a civilian as well," he continued. 

Pressure on the family 

His wife, Alex, described the pressure this put on their family: “I had to give up my job when Mark went on sick leave because I just couldn’t juggle it all. It completely broke us as a family.”

For Mark, joining the military had given him the family that he lacked as a young man so when he went on sick leave and was subsequently medically discharged, he and Alex felt more isolated than ever.

Alex said: “The Army family went when Mark went on sick leave. It was very lonely.”

Christmas has always been hard for the Hepworth’s with a lack of a support network. 

“You’re thinking ‘where do we turn’, ‘who have we got’? That’s where Help for Heroes picked things up.”

Salisbury Journal:

Finding support they had been seeking

Mark and Alex found the charity to provide a safe space and the family they’d been seeking through the Band of Brothers and Band of Sisters fellowships and the charity’s Hidden Wounds service.

Alex described: “It was people who actually got it. We weren’t isolated or on our own anymore.”

This Christmas has been slightly different for the family this year as they featured in Help for Heroes's Christmas catalogue. 

Salisbury Journal:

“Family is the focus of Christmas for us so to be the face of the Christmas range for Help for Heroes is amazing. You sit and look at how far you’ve come - from being scared, lost and lonely. We’ve now put down our roots, started building a business and been able to give a little bit back to the charity. We want to show people who are where we were at the beginning and who are feeling what we felt, that actually you can build back up and get stronger.”

Mark, who started business The Flat Cap Coffee, added: “Not every day will be a good day, but it’s one step at a time.”

Help for Heroes Survey

A survey carried out by Help for Heroes has found that 64 per cent of veterans and serving personnel with long-term health conditions in the South West say that they struggle to make meaningful connections in the community.

The charity says many veterans experience feelings of isolation due to their health conditions, both mentally and physically, but these can be heightened at Christmas time, a time when many take great joy in the company of others.

Factors include them losing their sense of identity, their ‘military family’ and social life when they leave the Armed Forces, while the pandemic has also left many feeling less confident about going out to meet people.

To cope with these issues, staying alone at home can feel like a safety net, but it can be detrimental to their health. The charity has also found that the most lonely and isolated veterans are the least likely to come forward to ask for help. So, with the pandemic creating even more isolation than ever before, this Christmas will be a difficult one for many veterans and their families.

How you can help 

To help veterans and their families who, may be struggling at this time of year, Help for Heroes has created #BeChristmasPresent Isolation Tips:

  1. Spot the signs - keep an eye out for behaviour that suggests someone may be struggling this Christmas, like not answering their phone or door, stopping attending regular events, seeming sad or unmotivated
  2.  Make simple connections –the simplest things can make a real difference when someone is isolated; a smile and a wave through a window, a text, a Christmas card through the door or an invitation to a community event. You may be the only outside connection they have on that day
  3. Go walking – many of us found mental and physical benefits from going out for a socially distanced walk with others during lockdown. Those benefits are universal so why not invite them on a walk if you know them well, or a group walk with neighbours if not
  4. Find common ground – those in the military don’t always understand civilians and vice versa. This misunderstanding builds barriers that need to be broken so find something universal to talk about, like local news, sport, the weather or your favourite Christmas song!
  5. Get support – if you think someone is really struggling, encourage them to get professional support. Any veteran struggling with mental or physical health as a result of their service can visit helpforheroes.org.uk/get-support for advice and support.

Sarah Jones, the head of psychological wellbeing at Help for Heroes, said: “Loneliness is normal and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you. We’ll all experience it at some point in our lives, but it can be hard to cope with.

"At Help for Heroes we take an holistic approach to supporting isolated veterans, with mental health support available and activities on offer that bring veterans and family members with similar experiences together and help build purpose and confidence.

“By acting on our #BeChristmasPresent isolation tips and being there for veterans and other vulnerable people, the general public can have a positive impact on someone who is feeling isolated this Christmas.”

Visit: helpforheroes.org.uk/donate-online