Lee can remember exactly what happened when he killed his first man. The 28-year-old was in Afghanistan, the war zone in which he served his tour and then returned to the UK to find no job, no prospects and ultimately no home.
“My first kill,” he said. “He had a gun and went to point it at me. I did my warning shot but he didn’t run away so I shot him. I remember telling my sergeant at the time. He just said ‘Well done.’ Then you have to get on with it.
“I saw big, grown men, hard as nails, in their thirties or forties, curled up in a ball just crying that they wanted to go home. I always thought: will I be next? Will I just break down and want to go home? I got shot. I hadn’t been there long, and as I went to move forward my sergeant pulled my rucksack and I fell backwards. I felt this burning pain on my arm and the bullet had skimmed my arm. I started crying and just threw myself at his feet thanking him for saving me. He just told me to grow some balls.”
Lee had left the Army after his mother became ill and he left to look after her. But back home in West Cumbria, he found it difficult to get work in an area with considerable social deprivation. His situation was not helped by suffering from depression and paranoia since his time in the service. He ended up in a hostel in Manchester, and then reduced to “sofa surfing” among the homes of his friends and wider family.
“You have to be heartless to be in the Army, but on the other hand, you have to have the biggest heart ever because you have to love your brothers and uncles and sisters and aunties that are around you. That’s what they are: your family.
“I sometimes think about going back, but I have bad depression now. They won’t take you with depression. I’ve tried counselling, but it didn’t work. How can it work when you have nowhere to live and no job?”
It was a meeting with Rachel Holliday that has given him a chance for a future. Ms Holliday, 35, was once homeless herself in her teens after drifting into drugs and ending up on the streets before being put in a rehabilitation centre in Manchester.
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
In pictures: Homeless Veterans appeal
1/20 Glynn Barrell
Glyn Barrell is among the veterans hoping to benefit from the self-build scheme in Plymouth
2/20 Rachel Holliday
Rachel Holliday is converting a police station into a hostel
3/20 Androcles Scicluna
Veteran Androcles Scicluna says performing boosted his confidence
4/20 Christopher Cole
Christopher Cole, 51, from London, spent three years in the Army but left in 1982
5/20 Maurillia Simpson
Former servicewoman Maurillia Simpson with the medals she won at last year’s Invictus Games
Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard
6/20 Martin Rutledge
Head of The Soldiers’ Charity, Martin Rutledge, says charities sometimes allow emotion to dictate their choices
7/20 Ben Griffin
Ben Griffin wants to open people’s eyes to the cycle of political violence
8/20 Robin Horsfall
Robin Horsfall, who fought in the Falklands and helped end the Iranian embassy siege
9/20 Mark Hayward
A bed for the night and food helped Mark Hayward out of misfortune
10/20 Ashley Rosser
Ashley Rosser, who served in the RAF, at the Veterans Aid hostel in east London
11/20 Dave Henson
Britain's Invictus Games captain Dave Henson says veterans’ charities helped rebuild his life
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
12/20 Hugh Milroy
Hugh Milroy dispels myths about war-zone veterans through his work as the CEO of Veterans Aid
13/20 Andy MacFarlane and Julie Taylor
Former soldiers Andy MacFarlane and Julie Taylor work at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Solihull under a covenant connecting veterans with employers
14/20 Mark McKillion
Mark McKillion's experience of living on the street eventually left him feeling as though the only way to escape was to end his life. He survived his desperate jump from Westminster Bridge, and VA's help has restored his "faith in humanity"
Nigel, a navy veteran, remembers living on the beach in the run-up to Christmas, when it rained every day for a week. He slept on a bench for seven years whilst suffering from Parkinson's disease.
16/20 Keith Cooper
Before Keith Cooper had his place confirmed at Avondale House in Newcastle, he was working out whether he could afford to buy a tent to live in
17/20 Simon Weston
Simon Weston, a Falklands War veteran, said even something as simple as a cup of tea can be an important step in getting the life of a homeless veteran back on track.
18/20 Ian Palmer, professor of military psychiatry
Ian Palmer, the first professor of military psychiatry to the British Armed Forces, says that the depiction of all ex-service personnel having post-traumatic stress disorder may stop people who really need help from getting it
19/20 Douglas Cameron
Evgeny Lebedev with Douglas Cameron, who had a hernia operation while serving in Burma
Johnnie Shand Kidd
20/20 Veterans Aid
General Sir Mike Jackson, President of ABF The Soldiers' Charity, called for donations to the Homeless Veterans appeal
She became pregnant and returned to Whitehaven where she was supported by social workers and Sure Start. With their help she was encouraged to go to Lakes College where she studied law and secretarial skills. “They took me out of poverty,” she said. Gaining an A grade in law helped her to get a job as a legal secretary, and she also begun to volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau.
Now working at Cumbria Action for Social Support, she became aware of the problems some veterans suffer after they leave the military when she had established her own charity, Time to Change (West Cumbria). This provides instant access to hostel accommodation for the region’s homeless. “I assumed that veterans would fall under the category of priority need but they don’t,” she said.
“The trouble is that by the time they are dealt with by the system and entered social housing or supported accommodation, they become a different person. They have lost their self-esteem and are socially isolated. I asked myself the question: ‘Why don’t we have somewhere safe for them to go while they are moving through the system?’ ”
She has now raised almost £500,000 to set up a hostel in the region and has received from the local police authority a building in which to base it: Egremont Police Station, which had been declared too large and no longer fit for purpose.
It will cost about £350,000 to convert the building and it will have 11 rooms, all en suite, as well as a social hub consisting of a community room and kitchens. Alcohol will be banned and staff will be on site 24 hours a day. Ms Holliday plans to welcome the first residents, including Lee, in September.
The Independent on Sunday, along with our sister titles The Independent, i and Evening Standard, have been campaigning for servicemen who have fallen on hard times to be looked after. The vast majority of those who serve return to civilian life successfully and go on to productive careers. But some fall through the gap.
Lee says that his time in Afghanistan showed him why those who have served their country can suffer problems.
“It can do things to your head,” he said. “You see sick things. We’re sending these British lads out there at 18 years old. I walked past a teenage lad, an Afghan, with his arms and legs blown off. He was still alive but you’re not allowed to put them out of their misery. I just had to walk past him.”Reuse content