Developing

How ex-soldier emerged from his 'maze of darkness' to help fellow veterans suffering in silence

Writer Neil Blower to take his 'Veterans Champions' idea to Parliament

Soldier author Neil Blower could be in line to get government backing for his groundbreaking idea to place 'Veterans Champions' in every British local authority to "save the lives" of ex-forces personnel.
 
Royal Tank Regiment veteran Neil witnessed his mentor sergeant Steve Roberts being shot and killed as the first British casualty of the Iraq War in March 2003.
 
Like an estimated 50,000 others returning to civilian life in Britain from conflicts happening now, dad-of-two Neil - who also served in Kosovo - suffered post-traumatic stress disorder when he left in 2005.
 
Many former soldiers with the condition slip tragically slip into alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.
 
But amazingly Neil - who was taught to fire a rifle before he could vote or drink - found solace from a 'maze of darkness' in his head by picking up a pen and writing.
 
His first book 'Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins' - which he described as 'Heart of Darkness meets Adrian Mole' - was published to critical acclaim in October 2011.
 
And now Neil, who lives in Salford with his partner Samantha, 26, and sons Ethan, 5, and 13-week-old Oliver, is planning to get Parliament to listen to the stories told by thousands of others.

Neil in his days as a member of the Royal Tank Regiment (Picture: Caters)

 
Despite a network of more than 700 charities offering support to former servicemen and women Neil believes a government-backed 'Veterans Champion' working at a local authority will be able to help as they will understand what the ex-soldiers have been through.
 
His idea has already got support from his local MP Hazel Blears and Neil is set to meet defence minister Mark Francois this December.
 
Neil, 29, said: "If you have a young man in his early 20s who do they talk to? The public have shown an enormous amount of respect to the armed forces, but should it be up to them to provide the support?
 
"I do think this will save lives, having someone like an NCO who has commanded 100 men will be someone these young men and women can talk too.
 
"Get any veterans together, be it from the Korean War, the Iraq War, the Falklands or whenever and there is a connection there, an understanding.
 
"These 'veterans champions' will be someone these ex-servicemen and woman can talk to knowing they understand and someone who can connect them to a network of support.
 
"In Salford you've got 11,000 people employed by the council so what is one more, and the money they will save in social services, prison costs and support for homelessness or substance abuse will pay for itself.
 
Neil said his own personal experience was echoed throughout the armed forces returning to civilian life in the UK.



 
He said: "We have been at war for a decade now, in Kosovo, in Iraq and now Afghanistan. We send children to fight our wars and I was trained to fire a rifle before I could vote or drink.
 
"I was 18 in Kosovo when I lost my innocence and first witnessed the horror and man's inhumanity to man.
 
"When I came back in 2001 the TV show Pop Idol was at its height and I saw it and civilian life and was thinking 'there are people dying out there', it had f***** me up to be fair.
 
"I was 20 when I saw my comrade and mentor Sgt Roberts die, he was like an uncle to me, to the whole unit.
 
"Iraq was the biggest British Army operation since Korea, it was a shooting war, people went and didn't come back the same person.
 
"They say that travel broadens your horizons, except when your travel agent is the British Army it's a bit different."
 
Neil said much of the problem ex-forces personnel face is a sense of 'loneliness' from the rest of society.
 
He said: "People say the people in World War II didn't get all these problems we get now, but that was different.
 
"I live next door to an electrician and a chef, if it was World War II they would have gone to war too, it was the whole country at war, so it was a shared experience.
 
"Now you are talking a fighting force of at maximum 100,000 in a country of 60 million people, unless you live in a garrison town we are just a small demographic.
 
"In 2005 I left the army on a Friday and got a job as a cleaner at the Job Centre on a Monday before I became a security guard.
 
"I think I had an NVQ when I worked on the tanks but there aren't a lot of Challenger II battle tanks in Salford to work on.
 
"For me my release of the emotions I was feeling was writing, little short stories and notes, but for others it is not like that.
 
"Inside I suppose the best way you can describe it is like a maze of darkness, for me this came across as feeling angry, I shut myself off from the world, I wouldn't make eye contact or listen to people when they talked to me. I probably came across as a bit of a p****."
 
Neil said he had support from his partner Samantha, his children and discovering a love of writing.
 
He said: "I got made redundant in the recession and decided to go to university and study a degree. I got into Salford University studying English and Creative Writing.
 
"I was like a sponge, I began reading everything I could, studying philosophy, everything and when I had my book published I was over the moon.
 
"The biggest thing for me since that day has been getting reviews from ex-squaddies telling me when they read it they thought 'that's me' - that's the best review you can have."
 
A study by King's College London estimated that up to one in five British soldiers leaving the frontline this year will suffer some form of mental illness, while the Forces charity, Combat Stress has warned that up to 50,000 British service personnel could develop mental health problems in the future
 
Defence secretary Philip Hammond has now said he will ask Lord Ashcroft, the Prime Minister's new veterans' tzar, to consider Neil's idea "very carefully" in his deliberations on how to improve support for ex-service personnel.
 
Neil's MP Hazel Blears, who represents Salford and Eccles, said: "You only have to look at the figures to see that more needs to be done to support our brave ex-servicemen and women who have put their lives on the line for their country.
 
"Far too many veterans suffer in silence from mental health issues, and some also end up in prison or living on the streets.
 
"Beyond each statistic is a moving human story like Neil's and having a Veterans' Champion in every town hall is a realistic practical step that could be taken to help.
 
"It would not cost the earth but it could make a real difference to a section of our society that has been let down for too long.
 
"I'm pleased that the secretary of state is to ask for the idea to be considered further and I will be writing to Lord Ashcroft to make the case in more detail."
 
Criminal justice campaign group 'No Offence' claims that military veterans comprise at least 10 per cent of the prison population in England and Wales, although the MOD puts the figure at 3.4 percent.
 
Homeless Link, the membership body for organisations working with the homeless in the UK has estimated that up to six per cent of the country's homeless population are veterans.
 
Neil's book Shell Shock: The Diary of Tommy Atkins published by Firestep and is on sale at £8.95. £1 from each sale goes to the charity Combat Stress.