Former soldier Ian Camps at work in the Veterans’ Kitchen. He says having a stable home and being able to run the cafe has helped him to get back on track. Photograph: Veterans Kitchen/Stoll
I loved the army. It gave me a structure and a sense of camaraderie I will never forget. I could just about deal with the racial abuse I experienced at the beginning of my army career and I came to see it as family. But I wasn’t prepared for the impact those years of service would have on the rest of my life.
I served in Northern Ireland and Cyprus. Army life gave me a structure that I think I took for granted at the time and when I left the army I struggled. I don’t know why, but I know what it felt like – I was like a boat without a sail or a rudder. People talk about the transition from the armed forces to civvy street as if it is always a really smooth process but that’s not true for everyone. It wasn’t for me.
I spent some time in Germany. When I returned to England I felt completely lost, like I had no future. I tried a few different jobs but I struggled to adapt. I now know that I was trying to live a “normal” life while dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The memories and flashbacks kept coming. My behaviour became erratic. Keeping work going was a struggle. I fell out with my wife. Then everything collapsed. I was homeless, camping down in the bin areas of blocks of flats. Getting by on people’s leftovers. Hanging round market stalls for the throwaways at the end of the day. My behaviour was getting more and more out of control and I ended up being sectioned.
I look at myself now, serving customers at the Veterans’ Kitchen, running a social enterprise – and I have to pinch myself. When I was homeless I didn’t trust anyone, let alone be able to serve them jerk chicken.
Initially, it was the charity Combat Stress that helped me out and put me in touch with Stoll, a charity with a few hundred homes for veterans. Stoll provided me with a flat in west London and made sure I had the support I needed at the time to get back on my feet. I now have a place I can call home; I have my sail and rudder back and a life to look forward to.
I am one of the lucky ones. I trained up as a chef at the Veterans’ Kitchen and when Bob, the previous owner, retired he passed the business on to me. I now run the Veterans’ Kitchen, next door to Chelsea Football Club. Having a stable home and being able to run our little cafe for veterans and the local community has helped me get back on track.
One of the hardest things for us military people to do is to ask for help. We are trained to be tough and independent. But my advice to anyone coming out of the armed forces is always ask for help.
This year’s theme for World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2016 is psychological first aid and the support people can provide to those in distress.
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