Having risked his life for his country at home and abroad for two decades, he might be forgiven for expecting recognition for exemplary service.
First he spent 12 years with the Royal Engineers, leading a specialist bomb disposal team on perilous missions in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Tiring of Army life but determined to put his experience to good use, he then joined the Metropolitan Police, proving a brave and effective frontline officer.
Yet instead of laurels, this dedicated public servant has, ten years on, achieved an altogether different distinction.
He is Britain’s first homeless policeman.
A Metropolitan Police officer, and veteran, has been sleeping rough in a Home Counties town
Like so many who put their lives on the line to keep others safe, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017.
Emotionally adrift, his marriage failed – ‘I became impossible to live with’ – and then his life fell apart as his condition worsened.
Shamefully, the state averted its eyes. On sick leave ever since, he remains in theory a serving officer because the Met appears – inexplicably – to have forgotten him, or rather, in the words of the voluntary group fighting his case, allowed him to ‘fall through the cracks’.
Virtually penniless and unable to draw his pension, he slept rough last month, still with his warrant card in his back pocket. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, during which he repeatedly broke down, he spoke bitterly of abandonment, his belief that his Army and police careers had effectively been ‘for nothing’ and how his life had no horizons greater than finding his next hot meal.
A 46-year-old proud father-of-three, he has asked not to be named.
His story emerges on the anniversary of this newspaper’s successful campaign to ensure British troops suffering battlefield stress have a dedicated, round-the-clock helpline.
Manned by specially trained professionals, the helpline has received a remarkable 1,700 calls from soldiers and their families over the past year.
Helpline’s 1,700 calls in a year
The new helpline for troops suffering stress has received 1,700 calls in its first year. Here are more shocking numbers…
- 13 Every 13 days in 2018 an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran committed suicide.
- 415 Estimated number of soldiers believed to have taken their own lives since 1995.
- 5,000 Troops diagnosed with mental disorders in 2017.
- 393 Troops forced to leave Army in 2016/17 due to mental health issues.
- 1,672 New cases of mood disorders among troops diagnosed in 2017.
- 6,137 Troops assessed for mental health issues in 2017.
- £22m Extra Government funding pledges for troops’ mental health after MoS campaign.
- £5.5m Compensation paid by defence chiefs in 2018 to troops suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said: ‘The Mail on Sunday highlighted a critically important and often hidden issue.
I am incredibly proud of how much the helpline has achieved, helping serving personnel and their families access the best care, wherever they are.’
But one policeman’s plight is a reminder that more needs to be done.
After exhausting the goodwill of friends, the officer slept in shop doorways in a Home Counties town.
Even if passers-by gave the bearded man a second thought, they could never have guessed his occupation.
Things have improved in the past fortnight.
For now at least he has a roof over his head at a homeless hostel.
A crack cocaine addict occupies the room next door, just the sort of person the officer frequently encountered when he patrolled the streets of East London attached to a violent crime unit.
‘It’s hard to think of the future when life is like this,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t feel like I have one.’
At his worst, his mind feels ‘like a washing machine’ mixing harrowing experiences from his military and police careers with one nightmarish memory segueing into another.
Often, he awakes to find his face covered in blood from where he has clawed at the side of his head during the night.
‘In my sleep, I am struggling to remove my helmet. In Iraq, I always felt great relief – relief of pressure – taking off my helmet, goggles and radio at the end of an operation.’
After leaving school, he initially worked as a chef but he came from a military family and had always been fascinated by bomb disposal. After overcoming resistance from his mother, he joined the Engineers.
Britain’s first homeless policeman has been on indefinite sick leave from the force since 2017 (stock photo)
It was a few years later, during the war in Kosovo in 1999, that the realities of his hazardous role first became shockingly apparent.
In the face of Nato’s ground invasion, Serb forces retreated but, as they did so, systematically rounded up and executed every man they could find. Bodies were slung into mass graves, often laced with booby traps.
‘There were hidden devices primed to go off when a body was removed,’ says the officer.
‘It was nerve-jangling work. On one occasion, we were with Belgian gendarmes at the site of a mass grave in a village. After killing the men and burying them, the Serbs dug them back up and swapped their clothing to make identification difficult. I’ll never forget the grief and desperation of the women and children.’
How Harry’s comrades inspired our campaign
Prince Harry’s brother in arms in Afghanistan, Warrant Officer Nathan Hunt is believed to have killed himself due to PTSD.
It was his tragedy and the suffering of others in Harry’s Household Cavalry unit that prompted the MoS’s push for a 24-hour helpline.
Worse followed. The officer’s team collected body parts scattered by cluster bombs.
‘It was horrifying and it affects me now, but at the time we just got on with the job.’
The officer’s Army career coincided with the increasing use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq. By now a corporal stationed outside Basra, he led a four-man bomb disposal search team.
‘There was a road we called Sniper Alley and it was our job to sprint alongside armoured personnel carriers trying to spot IEDs. All the while, we had to be wary of snipers positioned in high-rise flats.’
He recalls another occasion around the same period when his airport base came under sustained mortar attack.
‘I was on my way to meet a colleague for a game of chess when I heard this familiar whistling sound. I dived face-down into a ditch and one must have landed close because I was encased in dirt. I lay there for 40 minutes before it was safe to move.’
On leave a few months later, he recalls being in a pub garden near his then home in Essex one summer evening with his wife and friends when, overhead, a plane approached Stansted.
The unnamed former veteran was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017 (stock photo)
‘It made the same whistling sound as the mortar and I instinctively dived under the table, sending glasses scattering.’
After a difficult tour of Afghanistan, he began to think of a career change.
He passed through police training with flying colours and relished his new work – though it was not without danger.
During the London riots in 2011, he found himself cornered by a mob, punched to the ground and battered with an iron bar.
Ironically it was an off-duty accident in which he fractured an eye socket which led to his breakdown.
Off work for months, he ruminated on his past and grew first reclusive then increasingly paranoid.
During the London riots in 2011, he found himself cornered by a mob, punched to the ground and battered with an iron bar
By spring 2017, he was, he says, ‘completely broken’. The Met talked of counselling sessions but the officer says that a former Army colleague recommended Combat Stress, which offers mental health support for veterans.
Such was the severity of his condition, the charity sent him on a six-week residential therapy course.
But he claims that afterwards the Met wanted him back at work.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson launched the helpline for heroes after a campaign by The Mail on Sunday
What it should have done, he says, was to help him get better. Instead, he was signed off sick and after a year his payments had dwindled to nothing.
And when last month his wife finally evicted him, he found himself homeless.
Another group, PTSD Blues – which helps police officers – is now fighting his corner.
Co-founder Paul Settle says: ‘We always try to get officers back to work. Sadly, this man’s condition is now too far advanced. He should have been retired on ill-health many months ago. Of more than 200 PTSD cases I’ve dealt with since we started in 2017, his is the most high-risk and critical. It’s the only one I’ve felt the need to directly contact the Met Police Commissioner about.’
The Met said it could not comment on individual cases, but was ‘committed to providing a range of support for officers suffering from psychological-related illness’.
It added: ‘All cases involving current employees continue to remain under review and the Met endeavours to ensure that any necessary support is provided.’
- The important number…0800 323 4444. The helpline for Heroes number for troops to call at any time day or night