Larry Knowles served in the RAF for 26 years before he developed post-traumatic stress disorder and ended up homeless. He shares his experience, and talks about the change he’d like to see so others don’t fall through the cracks…
On June 16, 2013, I got on my hands and knees and pleaded to God to take this terrible affliction away from me. Vodka was my food. Within a few weeks I would have died, without a doubt.
I was 22 when I joined the RAF in 1975. I served 26 years in different places throughout the world, eight years in Germany, Belize, Cyprus, detachments all over the United States and Canada. I rose to the rank of chief technician in charge of 200 aircraft engineering personnel. One of my duties in the latter part of my service was organising aircraft crash recovery, which unfortunately involved picking up some really bad scenes.
There was a culture of work hard, play hard in the RAF, I’m sure it’s the same in the Army as well. At the end of the day, irrespective of what you’d gone through during that day, you’d end up in the NAAFI bar or the sergeant’s mess, or any of the other bars that were always available and you’d thrash things out over a beer. A man’s way of doing it, I suppose. But it’s when you get home and you’re in a quiet room that you reflect on things and that’s when it hits you the hardest.
Picking up victims of crashes affected me badly. I finished up with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which reared its ugly head in the form of alcohol abuse. My drinking became completely out of control after I left the service in 2001. I went from excessive to compulsive. I couldn’t go without a drink. I went from beer, to beer and a mixture of spirits, to a litre of vodka a day. My marriage broke up. A lot of it was down to my drinking. I was never violent but I became objectionable and probably quite obnoxious without really knowing it. I lost everything, my family, my home, my livelihood and I finished up on the streets not knowing where my next drink was coming from, and that was all I was interested in. Quite a lot of the time I slept rough. For a couple of weeks I lived in a porch of a church in Porthcawl.
PTSD reared its ugly head in the form of alcohol abuse. My drinking got out of control, and my marriage broke up
I ended up in different hostels in Newport and selling The Big Issue. It was an experience in my life I will never forget. If I see anybody selling The Big Issue now I buy a copy from them because I can relate to people like that, having done it myself. There was a place called The Wallich, which was helping people who were homeless, and they cottoned on to me. They managed to get me a one-bedroom flat in Bridgend but it didn’t even have a bed. I was put in touch with an organisation linked to a local church that gave furniture to people like me. From them I got a bed, a sofa and a few pots and pans.
I felt so grateful to these people. I gave them a hand with deliveries for a little while and found myself helping other people like myself who had nothing. A couple of them kept saying, why don’t you give the church a try? I resisted for a while but one particular day I relented. People didn’t treat me as a down and out and I kept going.
I went to Sunday school as a child and always believed there was a God. It’s the way I was brought up. Obviously in my darkest hour I began to doubt Him. I used to plead and say, where are you, why am I in this mess? I used to scream and shout at Him, but deep down I always believed there was a God.
My recovery stemmed through my Christian belief. When I was down on my knees, I literally felt a weight come off my shoulders. Since that day I haven’t touched a drop. I won’t try and convert anybody to Christianity, all I can tell people is what worked for me. I’ve been dry for three years now.
Re-Live is a theatre group and their Coming Home project looks at issues that surround veterans when they return from conflicts or situations of stress. Through this group I’ve been able to express myself and tell my story. Before I wouldn’t have been able to tell people this. It’s the first time since leaving the military that I’ve had this feeling. I feel like I’m part of something again.
There are common threads going through all of the veterans involved, even though our stories are all completely different. One is PTSD and the way it affects people’s lives – not just the person going through it but their family members and friends. The other is the frustration felt by every single one of the veterans in the way they have to jump through hoops all the time to get any assistance.
One of the things that any veteran will say to you is, we served Queen and country for X amount of years but the governing bodies, i.e. the MOD and Department of Health, have dropped us like a hot potato. They just don’t want to know us. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot of my time in the service but once you leave, basically the MOD don’t want to know you any more. You’re no use to them. That is the biggest sad fact.
There are organisations that offer help and support but they’re very fragmented. There is no co-ordination between those agencies and they have very little follow-up procedures. For example, the wait for a cognitive therapist can be months and months and months, by which time veterans like myself finish up on the streets homeless, living in subways, turning to alcohol. Some of them end up in prison, or worse.
I managed to recover myself from the depths of despair and I want to get the message over that while you may feel like you’re down at rock bottom, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I find myself in the wonderful position of being able to live in a lovely town by the sea, Porthcawl, I drive a nice car and I’ve got a lovely new wife of 18 months. A few years ago at church I met this lovely lady called Carol. She was always there for me and never gave up on me. To cut a long story short, we became involved in a relationship. She saw something in me that I didn’t see. The man I used to be. The man I am again.
For more information on the Coming Home Project visit re-live.org.uk