PTSD a hidden problem among former Defence Forces personnel
An inquest in the UK has heard how a former senior aircraftman with the RAF, who served as a pallbearer at the funeral of Princess Diana, froze to death in a churchyard in November 2021. The story that emerged was that 10 years after undertaking a tour of duty in Iraq, Malcolm Livingstone (44) developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which led him into alcoholism.
Steven Shields, veteran support officer (VSO) for this area with Irish Defence Forces charity ONE (the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel), is well aware of how real a problem PTSD is – and how commonly it presents among ex-military personnel.
At present, he is counselling 18 defence force veterans around Mullingar who are attempting to cope with the condition, and several others with the same condition across the wider region he covers.
“It’s a complex disorder to treat and it’s a disorder that generally veterans don’t talk about or be mindful of until – sometimes – they leave the Defence Forces , and then they have time to process what really they were going through,” says Steven, who has even encountered the condition in people who have endured it since their time serving in the Congo – 60 years ago.
Steven, a qualified psychotherapist, is one of three VSOs employed around the country by ONE, and he can with justification say he has an in-depth understanding of the military world, as he spent 27 years serving with the Defence Forces, three “really good” years of that time at Columb Barracks in Mullingar.
After leaving the army, Steven studied and qualified as a counselling psychotherapist and worked for the prison service and in various other settings, before taking up the job he now holds with ONE, helping veterans.
While most of Steven’s military career was spent in Connolly Barracks in his native Longford, he also did several stints of peacekeeping duty abroad, and he is heartfelt in his respect for all who have served this country in uniform, but often pained when he sees the difficulties with which some veterans find themselves contending – depression, addiction, even loneliness.
“I’m passionate about what I do,” he says, revealing that there is a real need out there for the services ONE provides: “In the last 18 months, I’ve seen 23 people from the Mullingar area – and that’s a lot.” Four of those were in need of housing; 18 had mental health issues; and six have addiction issues.
“I’ve also treated some people for loneliness, which is a big thing for our veterans as well. And I’ve treated people for grief for partners dying.”
Homelessness has long been an issue of concern for ONE and Steven is about to present the case at an ONE strategic meeting that for the north midlands area, they are going to have to look at providing a residence for homeless veterans, even though there is one already in Athlone.
“ONE started in 1951, but really, when it began to gain traction was in the 1980s and 1990s when three veterans died on the streets of Dublin, so there was a kind of a ‘let’s make a decision here to help veterans that are suffering homelessness’ idea,” says Steven.
The first house opened in 1994 and there are now four around the country, and another due for completion by the end of this year, which will mean ONE will then have accommodation for 56 people. By the end of 2026, it aims to add another four houses which will bring the bed complement to 80. There is no limit to the time a veteran availing of an ONE room can stay there.
Nationally, ONE has 38 branches, including one in Mullingar. It has 16 veterans support centres.
“Unfortunately there isn’t a veterans support centre in Mullingar, although there is an IUNVA (Irish United Nations Veterans Association) support centre in the barracks in Mullingar and sometimes I work from that,” Steven says, going on to pay tribute to four lead members of ONE locally for their work – Martin Coyne, Chris McKenna, Eugene Stenson and Ruth Illingworth.
“They are the backbone of ONE; they are the grassroots, so if anything is happening to someone, they can feed that back into us, and they’re the first line of defence.”
Between that team and Steven, there is a welfare officer trained in suicide awareness and mental health first aid.
“Then if a person is coming close to homelessness or anything, we’ve got house managers that we can liaise with, so it’s ‘a wraparound’. It’s a quick intervention. It’s dynamic, it moves and it flows. And every year we seem to be able to move with the times and answer the needs that’s happening – and believe me, even in Mullingar, there’s a lot of need.”
ONE sees its role as also helping the families of veterans: “So I see wives, husbands, girlfriends, partners, mothers and fathers,” he says, adding that around 15 per cent of those on his client list are female.
While homelessness is a problem for some, others can be battling addiction, whether to alcohol, prescribed drugs or over the counter drugs; others may be trying to come to terms with marriage breakup, and then there is the PTSD issue, which is more common than many might imagine.
Sometimes the PTSD can even come on top of an earlier trauma: “Someone could be carrying trauma from their childhood and there are times I’ve dealt with veterans who’ve seen stuff overseas, have trauma, and have developed something called Complex PTSD, which means it’s a trauma after a trauma – they are ‘re-traumatised’.”
While the Irish defence force personnel – unlike those of the UK – do not go to actual war zones, even on peacekeeping missions, Steven says, military personnel can witness “terrible tragedies”, and he points out that last year, on a “peacekeeping mission” in Lebanon, young soldier Seán Rooney lost his life while on duty.
“A lot of my PTSD clients certainly had their experiences in Lebanon. But I have three clients currently suffering [as a result of serving in] Chad, and one from Liberia, but mainly Lebanon.
“People need to understand that, at the end of the day, we are veterans. Alright, we’ve done our time but for the serving personnel, now it’s serious, you’re out there to do a serious job, which is to hold the peace. And sometimes that involves leaving yourself at risk at some times.
“Of course, that’s the job. People know that of course, but at the same time, you don’t know what you’re going to see on any trip. If you are going out to a foreign country, and performing peacekeeping duties, you just don’t know what you’re going to see. It’s totally unpredictable.
“And you know, we’re not meant to see such tragedy or devastation.
“Really, trauma is a lasting emotional response to something a person has seen or been involved in, especially if there’s loss of life, and it’s a distressing event.
“And what that really does to the person is it gives them a sense of the fear for their safety – they start to lose a sense of who they are, and sometimes a lot of ability to regulate their own emotions.”
Typically that can mean flashbacks; it can mean nightmares; it can mean they lose their temper easily: one of Steven’s clients, if ever in a pub, had to sit with his back to the wall because of his lasting fear of being attacked from behind.
“The first thing is that the people that are suffering generally start – over a period – to subtly withdraw from things – say, where they used to be going out on a Friday night or to play golf or if they were a member of a GAA club, you’d find that their social activities become lesser and lesser; they start to react more to small little incidents by getting angry easier.”
Another feature can be disassociation. “In general, you might think that they’re just quiet, but in reality they’re suffering a lot in silence,” says Steven.
He goes on to make the point that in conversation, veterans will say to each other ‘where did you serve?’, not ‘where did you work?’.
“Serve Is a different word. And that means that you’ve given your whole life, career, and everything to the Defence Forces. And, unfortunately, sometimes our personnel fall on hard times. And that’s what we’re about, when people fall on hard times that we can support them and that takes a lot of stress off county councils, off health services, off government agencies.”
The work that ONE does is funded partly by a grant from the Defence Forces, but primarily from membership subscriptions.
“And we really need more ex-veterans to join,” says Steven.
“We really need them to join because even if they don’t want to take part in the ceremonial end or be part of one of the centres, even if they can contribute, it will be great, because it’s helping out this service and it will be helping stop someone being on the streets. And that’s so important.
“The other thing is the Fuchsia Appeal and that happens every autumn, including in Mullingar.”
To seek the help of ONE or to get involved, contact Steven on 086 1380825. Alternatively, speak with any of the local ONE members, including the four mentioned above (Martin Coyne, Chris McKenna, Eugene Stenson and Ruth Illingworth) or see one-veterans.org or the Facebook page facebook.com/ONEIreland.