Veterans facing daily battle on civvy street

Chris Harrison who is setting up the Live At Ease chairity to help ex-service personel, pictured with his wife, Carolyn.
Chris Harrison who is setting up the Live At Ease chairity to help ex-service personel, pictured with his wife, Carolyn.

When Royal Marine Chris Harrison left the Navy at the age of 21 due to a serious back injury, his whole life lay ahead of him. He struggled to cope with the vast change in his life and only now, at 58, has he found support to help him with his health problems.

Guardian reporter GAYLE ROUNCIVELL went to meet Chris to find out about a new NHS pilot scheme which aims to help ex-servicemen and women when they return to civvy street.

FORMER Royal Marine Chris Harrison stared death in the face when he fought in Northern Ireland during the 1970s.

He saw close friends killed and survived explosions which left him damaged for life.

And when he returned home he faced new challenges as he sought a new career at the age of 21.

Nearly 40 years later, Chris has overcome further setbacks with the help of a programme designed specifically with veterans in mind.

New NHS trial service Live At Ease has helped Chris and other veterans in Lancaster to cope with the practical issues that often arise when they leave the forces.

North Lancashire is home to 29,332 veterans. Of those, nearly 1,500 of them sustained an injury significant enough to receive a war pension or Armed Forces compensation.

Live At Ease was commissioned after research showed that treatment for conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression were much more effective if practical issues were dealt with first. Issues such as poor housing, substance misuse, debt, unemployment and family breakdown are all common amongst veterans.

Live At Ease, which runs until the end of June, offers free one-to-one support to veterans and their families so they can cope with the practical and emotional issues that often arise when making the switch from service to ‘normal’ life.

Veterans may find themselves drinking too much to cope with big life changes or they might struggle to deal with the strain that resettlement puts on family relationships.

Housing is another issue, as many veterans have relied on forces accommodation in the past.

Some find it hard to translate military skills to civvy jobs and have problems finding work.

Others have difficulty managing money as they find themselves in charge of bills again and often have to survive on a low income.

Chris was discharged from the Marines after suffering a serious back injury while serving in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s.

Returning home, he worked for a transport firm until 2008, when his back problems worsened and he was made redundant.

In 2009 Chris was provided with a mobility scooter by the British Legion and last year, after being registered disabled, he contacted Live At Ease for further help.

Chris said: “I was discharged from the Navy because of back problems. Now my back is worse than ever and I struggled to find suitable accommodation.

“We have been living in rented accommodation but it’s been tough to get my landlord to make any adaptations.

“I contacted Live At Ease a few months ago and they helped me to get my landlord to make the adaptations.

“They also put me in touch with social services so I could get further home improvements made.”

Chris and his wife Carolyn, 54, had been on the city council list for new housing without success when a bungalow was offered to them at the Westfield War Memorial Village off West Road by the Guinness Trust.

It is a big weight off their minds after years of Chris struggling to use the stairs in their Vale Road home.

“Since Live At Ease got involved it took a lot of the worry away,” Chris said. “They put us in touch with the right people – having them on our side made things a lot easier.

Live At Ease pulls together services offered by military charities as well as non-military voluntary groups and organisations, the NHS and Probation Service.

Each client has a dedicated adviser who puts a support plan together and ensures they quickly get the right support.

Michael True, head of service for Live At Ease, said: “Research shows that many ex-forces men and women find the transition to civvy street challenging.

“Live At Ease provides immediate support to help with these practical and emotional challenges.”

“I wasn’t planning a life like this,” Chris added. “I get depressed but I get myself out of it; you have to just look on the bright side. I won’t give in to it.”

Chris and Carolyn have three children, including a son, Gary, 28, who is serving in the Army.

“I’ve seen what it’s like for him and can relate to what he’s going through,” Chris said. “You come out of a structured life where the money you get in your hand is yours to keep.

“When you come out, not only have you lost the comradeship but you are on your own. You don’t know how to deal with it, you don’t have that support, and if you have been injured then you also have the trauma of dealing with that.”