The Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity has worked in partnership with Combat Stress for many years to support Royal Navy veterans with complex mental health conditions.
In 2020 the RNRMC began a three-year funding agreement with Combat Stress as part of the RNRMC’s Health and Wellbeing Support Programme. This partnership ensures that Royal Navy veterans, like Jim, will continue to receive vital support. Jim had wanted to join the Royal Navy since he was nine years old. When he was 18 that dream came true, but unfortunately his time in the services was not what he imagined.
After joining the Navy, Jim was quickly identiﬁed as a promising rugby player and spent much of his time on the rugby pitch. Playing rugby took him to several ships and shore bases over the course of 18 months, but Jim’s life was about to change forever. “In March 1992, after joining the HMS Illustrious, my life was totally changed when I was the victim of a random unprovoked attack shortly after going ashore,” he said. “My attacker, who pushed me through a plate glass window, was later charged with attempted murder. I sustained life-changing physical and mental injuries.
“Due to the nature of my injuries, I had to remain awake, un-anesthetised during surgery and I watched as the medical staﬀ brought a priest in to administer the last rites as they didn’t think I would make it. “But I did, and once my physical injuries were stabilised, I was moved by the Royal Navy to a mental health ward where in June of 1992 I was diagnosed with PTSD. “I spent four weeks undertaking a PTSD awareness course. One element of the course was art therapy and I found painting helped me – in fact, I was encouraged to continue painting and remain busy in order to keep my PTSD at bay. I was also told not to think or talk about my trauma.
“For over 25 years I continued to paint as a way of coping and never spoke about the attack.
“After the course, I was sent back to HMS Dryad, and despite all I had been through, was encouraged to get back to rugby; however, when it came to my ﬁrst match back, I was convinced I would sustain further injuries and didn’t play. “Shortly afterwards, I was oﬀered a medical discharge which could take several months to arrange, or I could take an honorable discharge based on the exceptional circumstances which would take just 24 hours. I took the second option allowing me to leave as quickly as I could. “I left and got on with life, often travelling extensively with work in order to remain busy. I followed the instruction to keep busy, but I know now this was the wrong choice and wasn’t working.
“I used to relive seeing the priest at the end of my bed at night – just like during surgery. I also used to feel like the blood was pumping out of the scar on my head, just as it did after I’d been attacked. “It was when I was confronted by my daughter, telling me she’d come into my bedroom one night to tell me to turn the telly oﬀ that I knew I had to do something. The television wasn’t on –it was me shouting and screaming in my sleep. I knew I used to do this – I had to move into a mess of my own in the Navy because of it – but when I knew it was aﬀecting my family, I decided to do something.”
Jim went to his GP initially and explained that he had been diagnosed with PTSD. However, he didn’t receive the support that he needed. Then in 2017 he reached out to Combat Stress. Finally, Jim started his journey towards recovery. “It wasn’t easy. I was embarrassed to call the helpline. I thought I’d been dealing with my problems but really, I’d just been told to keep busy and push everything to the back of my mind. I felt like a failure.
By working with the specialist team at Combat Stress Jim began to learn management techniques and coping strategies for his mental health issues such as hyperarousal and ﬂashbacks. “I learnt about grounding, mindfulness and did much more art therapy. I received CBT & EMDR treatment which has signiﬁcantly helped with the reliving. I no longer see the priest. Thanks to CBT/EMDR and the art therapists, I understand why I have these memories and have begun to process them. “I also found the education sessions invaluable – learning about how memories work and how the brain processes them really helped me. The peer support has also played important part of my recovery too, supporting me as I returned back to a Royal Navy shore base and the place of trauma. “Combat Stress also encouraged me to reengage with the veteran community. I hadn’t engaged in anything military since leaving the Navy.
“In 2019 I was selected to attend the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday. Since leaving Combat Stress, I had further medical support and discovered through a brain scan that I sustained brain injuries as a result of my attack. This injury was contributing to the sensation of blood pumping, but with medication, this is manageable. “What I learnt at Combat Stress has made a massive diﬀerence to me. I know now I needed to process my memories, not just bury them or push them away. I owe my life to the team who were on duty at the Royal Naval Hospital Stonehouse – thank you! Also, a huge thanks to Combat Stress for improving my health and knowledge, enabling me to look forward to a better future.”
If you would like to ﬁnd out more about Combat Stress or how to access their support, please visit their website, or call their 24 hour helpline on 0800 138 1619.
Navy News. (2021) Jim’s Journey Out of the Darkness. Navy News. July 2021, pp.33.