"I still carry the guilt” – Recovering from Vicarious PTSD

How career soldier Neil rebuilt his life after being diagnosed with vicarious PTSD.

Neil Harrison frowns as he remembers the day he avoided saying goodbye to his colleagues going on tour to Afghanistan.

“I saw the men getting onto the coaches. I froze and walked behind the main guardroom on the camp to avoid them.

“I just couldn’t say goodbye or cope with the idea that I may never see them again. That’s when I knew there was a problem.  I still regret that and still carry the guilt of not saying goodbye to the lads.”

A career soldier

Neil spent his two decade long career in the Royal Artillery working up through the ranks to Warrant Officer, looking after all the transport requirements of his regiment.

Neil in Royal Artillery mess dress with his wife. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

“I was the one who got all the coaches to Brize Norton as troops returned from Afghan. By hook or by crook I made sure I was there to get everyone back to camp, back to their families.”

“I’d always wanted to join the army.  I wanted to be a soldier, like my grandad.”

Joining at the age of just 17, Neil went on to have an active career and was always putting himself forward for challenging physical courses.

“I chose to do my All Arms Commando course, a gruelling few weeks which got you the coveted Royal Marine Green Beret.

“It was brilliant, loved every minute of it – apart from losing all my toe nails!”

Neil still has his coveted green beret. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

A new role

In 2011 Neil was transferred into a role where he was responsible for dealing with soldiers medically evacuated from Afghanistan, often coping with life changing injuries.

As a Casualty Reporting Officer Neil would liaise between the unit and the families to ensure soldiers were looked after during their time in hospital and during recovery.

“That doctor saved me.”

“It was a 24/7 job.  I would take families to visit the injured soldier. I spent my life in a car, visiting very distressed family members. It really took its toll on me.”

Neil still has his Royal Artillery mess dress uniform. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

On his return to normal duties he visited a Royal Navy doctor to check out a worsening knee injury. She saw the issues that Neil was facing and diagnosed him with vicarious PTSD, which is where people who work with victims of trauma (as Neil did as a Casualty Reporting Officer) develop emotional and cognitive aspects of PTSD.

“I tried to tell her about my knee and I just burst into tears. That doctor saved me. If it hadn’t been for her I would have just tried to get on with work. I was diagnosed with vicarious PTSD and started a long period of counselling.”

Vicarious PTSD can occur among those who work with trauma sufferers, such as Neil working as a Casualty Reporting Officer. It affects people emotionally, some of the issues people face are a reduced ability to feel hope, sense of humour, and sense of being worth loving, to name but a few of the issues.

In 2012 Neil left the army after serving a full career and receiving a commendation and a merits service medal.

“I’ve kept all my military kit, but I keep my medals in the drawer. I don’t want to get rid of anything, but it also reminds me of the past and that’s often difficult for me to process.”

Neil with his two dogs. The puppy is a recent addition to the family. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

Neil suffers with chronic pain in his hips and feet after escaping a crash in 2002 during his training to drive a Warrior armoured vehicle.

“I used to run a seven-mile circuit from my house, now I can’t even run half a mile! I have a lot of pain in my hip and sometimes find it hard to even get to the end of the street.

“I’ve got the dogs to keep me company but also get me out of the house.”

After a 10-month period where he had his driving licence removed by the doctor, Neil was desperate for something to keep him going.  He was eventually referred to The Royal British Legion’s Battle Back centre for a week-long stay.

Neil has all his military photographs on display. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

Battle Back was established for wounded, injured and sick Service personnel. It aims to help people recover through sports and adventure activities so they can either return to Service duty or make a smooth transition to civilian life.

“It’s very lonely when you leave the military.”

Since leaving the army Neil has developed a keen interest in photography, and he loves photographing the activities at Battle Back, following in the footsteps of his father who was also a keen photographer.

Neil takes pictures of the soldiers as they spend the day at a climbing wall. Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

Neil now attends the Battle Back Centre on a voluntary basis to help with the week-long courses.  On talking about why he puts himself forward he reflects on his own time at the centre.

“They arrive with no idea what to expect and leave with a sense of achievement and the camaraderie that we often miss when we leave.

“When I turned up it was one of the first courses. I was so nervous and had been home, isolated for many months. It gave me some confidence and it was great to be around people who were nice. It’s very lonely when you leave the military.”

Credit: Alison Baskerville/Royal British Legion

“Before I went to Battle Back I was at home, in my dressing gown and unable to leave the house. It’s totally changed my way of thinking and I love seeing peoples beaming smiles as they arrive.

“My only criticism is that we should make these courses for our partners!  My wife Sue, who is also a veteran, would love a few days here.”

Images and words by Alison Baskerville.

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