Last summer Paul McEwan was lying in a hospital bed in Kent hoping he would die. The 39-year-old former Royal Marine had suffered a seizure, one of many he had experienced since succumbing to alcoholism, and believed he had no reason to carry on with his life.
Then a man appeared at the foot of his bed. His name was Phil Rogers, a specialist in substance misuse at Veterans Aid. He had received an email from Mr McEwan’s father telling him about his son’s troubles. He told him how the charity could help.
“I was in that much turmoil and pain and suffering, I had no strength in me,” Mr McEwan recalls. “I was bankrupt, spiritually and physically; I just wanted to go. But Phil walked round the corner and said, ‘This is what Veterans Aid can do for you,’ and there was a bit of hope there, and I just grabbed it and used it. It was a godsend.”
Mr McEwan, from Stirling, joined the Marines at 17 and served for 13 years, including in Northern Ireland, Kuwait, Zimbabwe and Zambia. He loved his time in the forces and says he had no problems with alcohol while he was serving, but would drink heavily when he was on leave.
“It was work hard, play hard. I wouldn’t say there was an emphasis on the drinking culture, but when we did have time off that was the normal thing to do,” he says. “Every time you go away, whether it be for a six-month tour or a shorter tour, you’re not drinking – so when you do come back you’ve missed it. Some people it grips, some people it doesn’t.”
His real trouble with alcohol began after he left the Marines at the age of 31. “I was a lost soul,” he says. “I was basically institutionalised in that way of life from the age of 17. I didn’t know how to sign on, didn’t know how to go about getting a flat, didn’t know anything. For three years I was walking the streets just getting drunk, trying to escape what I’d put myself into. I didn’t wake up one morning and want to become an alcoholic – it just happened.”
As his life became increasingly chaotic, he gradually lost all his belongings and frequently ended up in hospital, which is where Mr Rogers found him. With the help of Veterans Aid, he has now been through rehab and is staying at a “move on” house in Catford, south London. “I owe Veterans Aid my life, I really do. It’s been a miracle,” he says.
Around a third of the ex-servicemen and women who arrive at the charity – one of two being supported by The Independent’s charity appeal for homeless veterans – have a problem with drugs, alcohol or gambling. According to Mr Rogers, who has been at Veterans Aid for six years, addiction of some kind is often what drives them on to the streets.
The Centre for Military Health Research at King’s College London has found that the rate of alcohol misuse among serving and former members of the military is 13 per cent, compared with 6 to 8 per cent nationwide.
However, recent analysis by the Royal British Legion has suggested that only small percentages of veterans have problems with drugs or alcohol, and Mr Rogers thinks serving in the armed forces does not make someone more susceptible to addiction.
“These issues are really complicated,” he says. “The reasons some ex-service personnel drink and use drugs are the same as why people in the general public drink and use drugs. There isn’t a straightforward answer.”
Another Veterans Aid client is Daz Mallard, 40, who was born in Berlin to a military family. He joined the Royal Corps of Signals at 17 and served for three years.
When he left the Army he worked as a postman and bus driver, but over the years his life began to unravel because of alcoholism and drug addiction – problems which he says had nothing to do with his military service.
In September 2013, he was in London, “homeless, hungry and depressed”, when a police officer gave him a list of military charities to call. The first few he tried “couldn’t care less”, but when he arrived at Veterans Aid they bought him lunch and put him up in a hotel. He spent five months in rehab and now has his own flat in Tooting, south London.
“The staff were very friendly when I got here,” he says. “To walk in here on that morning, to come from some filthy crack house with diarrhoea and vomit and blood all over the carpet, and for someone to just say, ‘Sit down in a nice chair and have a cup of tea’ – I can’t explain what it does.”
When he first made contact with Veterans Aid, he says he didn’t even know what alcoholism was. “It comes as a bit of a shock to find out you’re the problem, and that didn’t come to me on day one,” he adds. While he is pleased with the progress he has made in the past year, he says he realises his recovery isn’t over – something the charity also understands.
“The road back… is not easy; indeed, relapse is often part of the process,” says Dr Hugh Milroy, head of Veterans Aid. “It takes courage to ask for help once. For those who fail and need to come back it is even harder, but our door is always open and I’m particularly proud of those who refuse to give up.”
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