Former soldier’s tribute to the Royal British Legion
PUBLISHED: 11:48 11 November 2013 | UPDATED: 12:22 11 November 2013
A former soldier who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder after serving in Kosovo has paid tribute to the Royal British Legion for helping him turn his life around.
Mike Lake, 32, is now studying Law with Criminology at the University of East London.
He joined the British Army at 16 and two years later was deployed to Kosovo.
He said: “I grew up in an army family which regularly moved around. I left school at 16 to join up myself. There are pictures of me dressed up in my dad’s army gear when I was six or seven years old. I had always wanted to be in the army, always. We broke up from school in July and I went into the army in September after the summer holidays.
“I went straight into the Royal Signals. I was doing telecommunications, learning to be a radio operator.
“We were attached alongside the RAF, 21 Signal Air Support. All the time you are preparing to be deployed to a war zone. The war in Kosovo and Bosnia was going on, Afghanistan and Iraq hadn’t happened then.
“I was 18 when I was sent to Kosovo. We went from Brize Norton to Pristina Airport in Kosovo. All I thought about was getting a medal and the extra pay for being abroad. I wanted to be able to wear a medal at a Remembrance Sunday parade. If you had asked me then what I was going for, what the problem was over there or what it was about, I would not have been able to tell you.
“We worked right next to Pristina airport, doing the communications for the Medivac teams – the medical helicopter evacuations. I was out there for two and half months. I am quite an emotional person, even my friends out there would say I was not your typical hard man. I couldn’t brush things off. A few weeks in, a helicopter crashed and two of guys – the driver and navigator – died. We did a guard of honour when their bodies came back and seeing their coffins going past you, draped in the Union Jack – I hadn’t seen that before. It made it real, people die.
“A couple of weeks after that we were in a serious road accident. I remember sitting by the passenger side of the vehicle after we crashed. I remember two or three guys in leather jackets coming towards us with their hands in their pockets as if they were armed. We had crashed into a local car and it was hostile environment. If you can imagine, there were kids being taken out of the back of the other vehicle with blood running down their faces. The adults were blaming us and I really thought ‘this is it’. I thought we were going to get killed. A Norwegian personnel carrier came and secured our location and I was taken away to a field hospital and sent home a week later with nerve and muscle damage. I stayed in the army as my physical condition improved, but mentally I went downhill from there.”
He handed in his notice at 21 and left at 23 without a plan or a job. He ended up in Thailand where he did a lot of drinking.
He said: “It seemed like I was living the dream on the beach, but then the tsunami hit in 2004. It was devastating. To cope I was drinking day in day out, picking fights with people and was basically quite badly depressed.
“My girlfriend took me to a hospital and despite not speaking the language, I was committed to a mental hospital out there. I left after a few weeks but when I came out, she had run off with all my money. I tried to go back to what I thought was my home only to find out she had sold it. I ended up at the British Embassy in Bangkok asking them to help me get home. I wasn’t on good terms with my family but the Embassy called them and they agreed to help.
“I flew back in 2006. My sister met me and took me to a backpackers’ hostel in Oxford Street in London and paid for a few nights there. I just had the clothes on my back so the next day I walked to The Royal British Legion in central London. They sent me to the Ex-Service Fellowship Centre near Buckingham Palace.
“The guy took my name and army rank number and told me I could get a place at a hostel for ex-forces in Whitechapel in a couple of days. I didn’t go back to the backpackers though but stayed on the streets near Victoria Station.
“At Whitechapel, I was given my own room and it was the first time I was able to sleep in about three years. Although I was having problems, my view of soldiers was still of them being fit and healthy and following rules by the book. At the hostel, there were heroin and crack users, people with really bad issues and serious mental health problems. But they were very good at the hostel. They got you on training courses and said that you need to start addressing your problems. Effectively they helped you get a grip on life.
“I stayed there for a year during which I did a Security Industry Authority course, and eventually moved to Surrey and got a housing association place for ex-Army in Haslemere. I was really, really happy. The Royal British Legion helped me again. They helped me furnish the flat and I felt like I was getting back on my feet. I got a job at the local university doing security, everything was going well.”
Mike suffered a setback after coming upon an accident in which he tried to save the life of a girl. Although he performed CPR, she died on the way to hospital.
Mike said: “When I found out, that affected me really badly. I found out she was on her way back to her family’s house from her university graduation. I felt guilty, like I should have done more. It also brought back the accident in Kosovo. My mental health went right down. I started self-medicating with alcohol again. Relationships went to pot. I lost my job after a while.
“Luckily I was sent to Combat Stress, the services veterans’ mental health charity, where I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They do intense workshops, occupational and mental therapy, and you are among similar people. I do still feel guilty as I feel my problems are so trivial compared to others. My mental health problem will always be there.
“I met my now wife in 2010 and she was a godsend. We had been at school together and got back in touch on Facebook. I was still drinking a lot but she said sort yourself out and it was The Royal British Legion again who helped me get on to another course. I did a BTEC in criminal law and investigations. I got a job with Nacro, the crime reduction charity. They hired me as they recognised that I could speak to young people about my own experiences.
“Being at university has been hard. I have memory problems which are common with PTSD, so studying is actually quite difficult. I also have to take endless painkillers to keep moving.
“I have been at my lowest, but am now married with three children. I have got to make it work for them. Reggie is 5 months old, Casey is three and Lila is eight.
“I would love to become a solicitor. I’m even having laser removal for my tattoos to ensure I can put myself in the best position to get a job. That’s how dedicated I am! I am currently getting stronger to make sure my back can cope with working nine to five. I want to do the Legal Practice Course after my degree. I don’t see myself just doing 3 years at university. I think I will carry on and do more. It just shows you should never write yourself out of the game. It shouldn’t be down to charities to help people from the army, it should be the Government. With the right support it is amazing where you can get.”
If you value what this story gives you, please consider supporting the Newham Recorder. Click the link in the orange box above for details.