Felt So Alone
Published on 29 July 2019
Veteran tried to end his life twice after being shunned by system — but was saved by a tweet
SUFFERING a mental breakdown and crippled by spinal injury, ex-soldier Gary Weaving was wheeled out of hospital and dumped at a bus stop in his pyjamas.
Hospital staff, who had packed his bag, did not give him any bus fare or even call his wife.
Gary Weaving, 42, was invalided out of the military with a damaged spine and PTSD
After he’d spent 45 minutes sobbing in the street in Portsmouth, a passer-by called Gary’s wife who got him home. In the months that followed, he twice tried to end his life.
Gary knows from personal experience that the Forces Covenant set up to help those who served from being discriminated against is not working.
And Gary, 42, is delighted that PM Boris Johnson has backed The Sun’s campaign to get a better deal for Britain’s two million ex-servicemen and women by setting up a Whitehall department for veterans and appointing a dedicated minister, former soldier Johnny Mercer.
The new PM has also promised to bring to an end investigations into Northern Ireland veterans — another key demand of our Never Forget Them veterans campaign, which we launched just three weeks ago.
Former Royal Engineer Gary says: “Having a veterans department in Government — just like Commonwealth countries and the US — means that, at last, veterans such as me will be treated properly.
In 2006 Gary was sent to Helmand province in Afghanistan
“I just needed proper mental health support. The Armed Forces Covenant states that if my injuries are attributed to my service I must be seen as a priority. But this was not adhered to in any way, shape or form."
In 2006, Gary was sent to Helmand province in Afghanistan. He was invalided out of the military four years later with a damaged spine and post-traumatic stress and suffered a mental breakdown in 2015.
Believing “the greatest sign of love I could show my family, was to end them of me”, he twice tried to kill himself. But, thankfully, Gary has now turned his life around and set up a charity to help other former veterans — all thanks to a tweet.
He had seen actor Stephen Fry on TV talking about how strangers on Twitter had helped him cope with his mental health problems.
So, in March 2016, Gary sent a heart-wrenching tweet under the name @alone_soldier. It read: “I have never felt so alone since I left the Army.” Within minutes, 30 strangers had replied.
"I felt like no one cared . . . forgotten about and alone.
The father-of-two says: “One of my first Twitter followers was a mother whose son had killed himself. She helped me realise what I would have done if I had succeeded.
“I started talking to many people and comparing my story with theirs. I then realised there are hundreds of thousands of Garys out there.
“I started sending out picture messages of a soldier looking broken, and I put poignant things such as, ‘What if it was your son’? More people started following, including key players in the military world.
"By week six I had 7,000 Twitter followers. I was still waiting for a mental health appointment, nine months after a serious suicide attempt, but was just happy feeling like I’d got a use in life.”
Urged on by his followers, he set up a Facebook page, Forgotten Veterans UK, “so people who felt forgotten had somewhere to come”.
'MY DEMONS DROVE ME TO JUMP'
He continues: “I started to buddy people, old men, young men, wives. I’d talk to them and use the internet to find out information to guide them to different services. More and more kept coming. It was fate.”
Gary even gave handouts from his own pockets to fellow veterans who couldn’t afford essentials such as food and electric. He says: “I was going without to give it to others.”
So Gary and a number of volunteers founded charity Forgotten Veterans UK. It provides round-the-clock help for former military personnel who are struggling.
He says: “We started selling wristbands to give veterans food vouchers. I couldn’t bear to hear of kids going without food.”
Gary is acutely aware of how it feels to have requests for help perpetually ignored. He recalls that, back in 2015 he had “given up asking for help”.
He says: “I felt abandoned by the Army and abandoned by society. Slowly, I became a recluse and shut myself off from the world.”
In June 2015, for the first time in their 17 years together, Gary’s wife, Nikki, 43, gave him an ultimatum: to leave home and not come back until he had help for his problem.
Gary says: “Some might say that’s harsh but she was fed up of asking for help and no one doing anything.”
So he packed a bag, called an ambulance and arrived at his local hospital, the Queen Alexandra in Portsmouth — but ended up in the street in his pyjamas. Over the following months Gary felt increasingly dejected.
He says: “I felt like no one cared . . . forgotten about and alone. I didn’t see the future. I was having flashback after flashback and all I could see was darkness and gloom.”
LEAPING FROM FIFTH FLOOR
Now Gary is determined to help other former Forces staff through Forgotten Veterans UK. Last year, the charity gave away 90 per cent of money raised in hardship payments for gas, electric, food, school uniforms for veterans’ kids, clothes for a job interview and travel fares to health appointments.
Remarkably, the Queen Alexandra Hospital, which put Gary on to the street in 2015, is now one of the leading centres in the country for helping veterans with medical care. And it often refers veterans who are feeling lonely or struggling to Forgotten Veterans UK.
Lois Howell, of Portsmouth Hospital Trusts, says: “We have met with Mr Weaving on a number of occasions and we fully support his efforts to help veterans.
“We have made great strides in working with veterans. We have strong military links and are proud to be one of the first trusts to be certified as Veteran Aware.”
Convinced that veterans are the best people to help veterans, Gary hit upon running regular camps for ex-Forces personnel who feel forgotten to meet together.
My demons drove me to jump. I was discharged from the Army with no aftercare
Historic England gave Forgotten Veterans a run-down unit at Fort Cumberland, a Napoleonic-era fortress in Southsea, which it could turn into offices, a meeting area and campsite.
The Sun visited the camp, where 20 veterans were staying in tents for four days, wearing Army olive kit, as part of their recovery.
Among them was David McAllister, 40, a former trooper in the Blues and Royals who served in Iraq and suffers from PTSD and alcohol problems.
In 2015 he attempted suicide by leaping from a fifth floor window, and suffered severe internal injuries, broke his neck, fractured his skull, had a brain bleed and was in a coma for six weeks.
He says: “My demons drove me to jump. I was discharged from the Army with no aftercare. Soldiers are told to man up but you can only man up so much until you break — and I recently broke.
Forgotten Veterans UK £50,000 costs
LIKE many small charities, Forgotten Veterans UK is struggling and may have to fold in November if it doesn’t get more money.
It needs around £50,000 a year to employ four staff on the minimum wage and to pay rent on its base at Fort Cumberland.
In the past, small charities such as Forgotten Veterans UK could be helped by large military charities, but that doesn’t happen now.
Gary hopes new Veterans’ Minister Johnny Mercer will be a big boost.
Former head of the military Lord Dannatt is already helping the charity apply for a Positive Pathway Initiative grant from a £10million Forces Covenant fund set up by the Government to help veterans with mental health problems.
Lord Dannatt, chairman of trustees at Help for Heroes, says: “It is fair to say all the charities in the service charity sector are feeling the chill at the present moment because, unlike a number of years ago when we were involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Soldiers, sailors and marines were on the front pages in the news every day.
“In the case of Help for Heroes, its ability to give grants to other charities is somewhat curtailed because it is having to prioritise helping individuals it is committed to and also supporting the recovery network which it put in place a number of years ago.
“In the Budget last autumn the Chancellor added an extra £10million for veterans’ mental health issues. I think Forgotten Veterans fits the bill entirely.”
“I walked eight miles in the pouring rain to ask Gary for help. He put me in touch with the Veterans Outreach service, an alcohol counsellor and a drug counsellor. If it wasn’t for him I’d be dead. Now I’m on the road to recovery and I have got hope.”
Gary’s wife Nikki, a part-time hotel worker, was also volunteering at camp. She says: “Gary got better through helping people who were in the same boat as us.
“We didn’t want other people to go through the same hardship we went through. Leaving the Army, we never got any help at all.”
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Articled accredited to: The Sun 29/07/19