Shine A Light

When Civvy Street isn't safe

Ex-soldiers with PTSD use public art to claim a space in their community.

Rebecca Yeo
27 June 2013

Steve, an ex-serviceman experiencing severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), describes the intense isolation when leaving the armed services:

"Out in Civvy Street there's absolutely nothing. There is nobody there for you whatsoever, you're left on your Jack Jones … That's why so many guys end up on the streets." 

Alan left the services thirty years ago. He began to have symptoms of PTSD fifteen years ago. He explains how civilian life feels to him as if it were a mine-field. While we are talking he glances at every passing car. His experiences in Northern Ireland have left him unable to control his instinct to check in case someone shoots at him. Lately on a crowded street he heard a car exhaust backfire. He hurled himself into a shop doorway.

A group of disabled ex-servicemen living in Norfolk painted murals on the café in Chapelfield Gardens, a park in the centre of Norwich. They worked with artist Andrew Bolton and Disability Murals, a research project using painted murals to convey people’s messages. The intention is that the artwork brings the group together with other disabled people and improves public understanding of their experiences.

Steve reckons it works:

"I walk past that mural maybe 4 or 5 times a week. Every time I walk past it, there’s at least two or three, sometimes more people stood in front of it, talking about it."

When people join the services they are given intensive training. Alan says: "your whole persona … what you were before you went in changes." But there is little training to "help you become a Mister again, to help you become a civilian again".

Servicemen are trained to obey orders and to have an emotionless response.  Alan drew the stone figureheads at Easter Island to show his feelings.

According to the charity, Combat Stress, the symptoms of PTSD often manifest years after the trauma has passed. This makes it difficult to prove attribution. All the people involved in this project believe their problems stem from their time in the military. Yet none of them get a disability pension from the Ministry of Defence.

Alan described how difficult it is even to get social security benefits. He had a medical assessment to check his fitness for work, "they assessed me physically to stand up, to walk forward, bend down. Physically I was fine … they didn't assess my mental health … I was suspended from money … Physically I'm fine. I wasn't there for physical reasons."

All those involved were deeply critical of mental health services. Steve described his first visit to psychiatric hospital: "it was such a shock having my human rights suspended at the door…it's a lot worse than prison, you've got rights in prison.  In mental hospital you have no rights." 

He describes being forcibly given drugs whose side effects were worse than the original difficulty: "they wanted to give me an injection and I refused, so five blokes piled on top of me on the floor and injected me in the arse….woke up in bed with lockjaw and rectus. They'd overdosed me…it got me really, really angry."

He says, "medication is a management tool. It is not there to promote the well-being of the patient. It is there to make the patient manageable."

Even when released from hospital the problems are not over. Another member of the group, Robert, describes how he is no longer in hospital but, "I'm still sectioned, I can be lifted at any time and just taken, gone. No questions asked, nothing. Put back in mental hospital."

Robert recalls "a guy who used to run around with an SA80, not feared of anything and he is scared of a knock on his door, ‘cause they can lift him just like that … straight out of his house and put him straight in the bin".


Those who are able to, choose to give up with mental health services. Alan rarely leaves the house. The outside world is fraught with difficulties for him. But he no longer uses mental health services. "I got frustrated with them ... nobody did assess me properly and nobody could help me," he says.

The group were unanimous in believing that civilians cannot understand. Steve has set up a self help group. He says: "Nobody but nobody from top to bottom understands how a soldier thinks ... it is only other ex-servicemen that can actually communicate freely… we speak the same bloody language … We can say things to one another that you couldn’t say to another human being."  

This lack of support is not only destructive to the people concerned.  According to the criminal justice campaign group No Offence, as many as one in ten prisoners in the UK are military veterans.

Steve explains why he believes so many soldiers are leaving the services with PTSD: "In Afghanistan now, they are … living in fortified bases … Up time for them is when they step outside the gate. But even while they are inside sleeping…[the enemy] are lobbing mortars and rockets in at them.  So even when you are sleeping in your bed, supposedly protected, you are still living in a combat situation."  

There have been approximately 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, "If 5 per cent of those get PTSD on discharge, that's one hell of a number of people that are ticking time bombs … somebody could say something to them and they'll kill them…in a bar, in a club.  And it's not their fault."

He describes one man who has spent 11 of the 13 years since he left the army in a secure unit, "All because he smashed up a few bollards in the middle of a road …they sectioned him straight away … because he was violent. What do you expect?  He is a trained bloody soldier. He has just lost it, what do you expect?"

Steve looks at the mural with pride: "The work gives us a feeling of solidarity...makes us feel part of a wider movement… It brings the community together." 

(Some names have been changed)

This work can be seen at any time in Chapelfield Gardens, Norwich. It can be seen in reproduction with others created by groups of disabled people (in London, Bristol and Frome) at The Guardian, King's Place, York Road, London until 10July.


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