Steven Price Brown: From PTSD and homelessness to the high seas

Steven Price Brown went from working in the fashion industry to the armed forces. He served in Afghanistan before suffering from PTSD, which led to homelessness. He tells us about how his life was turned around by a sailing voyage around the UK

I was in Milan, working in fashion when I realised it was a vacuous industry. What excited me in the past didn’t excite me anymore. At the age of 41 I joined the army.

With the Grenidier Guards I spent six months in Afghanistan, four doing ground holding in the Upper Gereshk Valley and two months strikes ops, being flown out for specific operations.

The British Army trains you very well. I remember my first contact, I was incredibly excited. The first sound of enemy gunfire and what we call ‘angry wasps’ – the rounds going past you – and the training kicks in. People I guess don’t realise in combat when things are going your way it’s an incredible adrenaline buzz. To be honest I don’t know if you take it too seriously. That sounds a bit flippant, I don’t know if you are able to process how serious a situation is. It’s only when someone a friend gets hurt, maimed, killed that it completely and utterly changes your viewpoint. You can’t prepare for that. You just have to get on with it. Friends got hurt and within a couple of hours you’re back patrolling again. That delays the reality.

There is a lot of support out there, the key thing is putting your hand up and asking for help

Maybe because I was a bit older and potentially they thought I’d be a bit calmer under pressure, I was given the role of advanced team medic. Whenever we didn’t have a medic with us I would be the one who had to deal with it.

On one early morning patrol my mate Jay got hit by an IED and lost both legs. I treated him as well as I could. I can still remember the leg feeling like raw steak and the smell of burning flesh. That memory of his shattered body was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep and the first thing I thought about on waking up for many years. He’s ok now, though, and an inspiration to us all.

Out of our 12 men we had two double amputees, one gunshot wound to the face and one blast injuries to the face; luckily all survived.

We had a pick-up truck turn up one day. In the back were six kids. The Taliban had mistakenly blown them up while they were playing. The lads tried to save the ones who were still alive, who were screaming, while trying to match the body parts of the dead ones. On shitty days, stuff like that doesn’t leave you.

I came home [for R&R] in October 2012. I remember sitting on the tube in London, among all the commuters and tourists there for the Olympics, me with my crisp, clean uniform but blood still on my boots. I knew I had had enough.

PTSD is quite insidious and slow. I decided to leave and get as far away from the war as possible. It wasn’t going to be a career – you don’t want to get shouted at by too many 21-year-olds when you’re 42. I went to Africa to be a mountain guide and while I was there I found my tolerance level for other people getting less and less. It’s a gradual process, I don’t think other people noticed anything was wrong, just thinking I was having a bad day. But it became the norm and in the end I got to the stage where I was living up a mountain in Kenya on my own.

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Two good friends paid for my ticket home. I was homeless for a while then I went to stay in Veteran’s Aid in east London and it was them that got me in front of the right people who diagnosed me in PTSD in October 2014.

Things are better than they used to be, there is a lot of support out there. The key thing is putting your hand up and asking for help. That can’t be done by a charity and that’s the most difficult thing for a soldier to do. When you’ve been in an environment where physicality and self-reliance has huge currency and you get to a stage where you’re vulnerable, it’s a really difficult bridge to cross.

Help for Heroes have an alternative club, Band of Brothers. If you’re a wounded soldier you become an automatic member. They try to stop you being alone, get you off your sofa. They offer exciting trips and skills to build your confidence and get you back to where you were before.

In October 2015 I couldn’t leave my room, I was completely isolating but I replied to one of their emails and ended up on a train to Cornwall. Turn to Starboard is a charity that uses sail training to support Armed Forces personnel affected by military operations. All the instructors and the people there understood what I was going though because they’d all had their own challenges. When they saw me, they saw themselves either 12 or 18 months before.

After a bit of toing and froing we decided, sod it, let’s sail around the whole of the UK. No one knew which end was the bow and which the stern at that point but everyone signed up.  Sailing helped me and my colleagues so much. We thought there was a little bit of magic out in the sea.

Steven Price Brown interviewed during the voyage

I met Prince Harry when I did an interview for the Today programme. I chatted to him about Afghanistan and how he was our ugly call sign, which means Apache pilot, on some of our ops. And he said, “Really? There are quite a few of us pilots with quite posh accents.” He’s experienced that wonderful moment of bonding but no doubt also what comes afterwards.

A year on I’m in a little village opposite Falmouth, as I look across the bay I can see Turn to Starboard’s offices. I’ve got a home, car, job. I work in a community work, looking after hard to reach people. Helping myself by helping others.

Riddle of the Waves by Steven Price Brown (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is out now