Leeds army veteran speaks out about his mental health struggles and hails 'life-changing' support from Help for Heroes
For Leeds army veteran Rob Jennings, the battle to keep his mental health in check, he says, has become a full-time job.
The former Royal Signals communications operator suffers with sleep deprivation along with PTSD, panic attacks and health and social anxiety.
It follows two tours of the Gulf and one of Bosnia where the horrors of war left him struggling with his mental health to such an extent he was medically discharged at the age of 25.
But while that struggle continues to this day, Rob, now 50, says his “life changed” with the involvement of veterans charity Help for Heroes and other support services who he says have helped give him the tools to live life as well as possible.
He has spoken to the Yorkshire Evening Post about his experiences in a bid to encourage other veterans facing mental health difficulties to seek help.
“A lot of veterans think they can handle it on their own. I want them to stop thinking they can do it themselves. There’s such an emphasis on teamwork in the army, then you come out and don’t have your team here and think ‘I can have to do this on my own’. That’s not the case.”
It comes as a recent Help for Heroes poll showed 73 per cent of veterans with permanent health conditions struggle with their mental wellbeing on a daily basis, and 82 per cent have difficulty sleeping.
The survey, conducted on 2,201 veterans and serving personnel in June 2021, also found 56 per cent reported their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic.
Rob says being a soldier was all he ever wanted to do, following in his father’s footsteps of serving in the Royal Signals.
He joined the army at 16, completed his apprenticeship in Harrogate before joining his first unit, the 30 Signal Regiment.
During his tours, he said his experiences involved seeing “lots of grotty stuff” and some close calls while coming under attack.
In Kuwait, working in satellite communications for the bomb disposal missions after the Gulf War, Rob was “blown up” at a communications centre - luckily escaping with no physical injuries.
A year later, in Bosnia, he was involved in an artillery strike which he said “brought back memories” of the Kuwait incident.
He was also shot at by a sniper in Bosnia, recalling: “Three bullets hit the ground next to me. Some guy dragged me back behind a Land Rover.”
And it was soon after, while still in Bosnia, that his mental health difficulties first hit.
He said: “I got depression. I just didn’t understand what was going on. I just went down and down. I was crying all the time. I didn’t understand why people were doing what they were doing to each other.”
Once it became clear he could no longer function in the job, or elsewhere in the army, he was medically discharged - to what was a very different life on “civvy street”.
“In war everything is black and white. People are either your friend or they’re going to kill you. It’s not like that on civvy street. People are motivated by different things - snazzy cars, gym membership.
“When I first came out, even though I’d been sent home for mental health, the first thing I wanted to do was go back out there.”
He said: “After being in war, you don’t feel like you are of any value to anyone any more. I’d saved thousands of lives at work. My messages helped change people’s lives. On civvy street, I can’t do that on such a grand scale so you feel unvalued.”
With his mental health deteriorating, Rob failed to hold down jobs, lost his benefits and was forced to sofa-surf for months on end.
He struggled on for many years, largely retreating from society before he was eventually put in contact with Help for Heroes through the British Legion in 2014 - a moment, he said, which changed his life.
“It’s a very lonely life as a civvy. As a veteran you’ve only trusted your army mates. Then you haven’t got army mates around you. By going to Help for Heroes, you could speak to like-minded people who have exactly the same conditions that you have got.
“You start realising ‘I’m not broken, this is actually a thing’. But it’s the fact that someone is taking an interest in you and spending that quality time talking to people feeling exactly the same way.”
The charity also provided valuable life courses such as in nutrition and sleep hygiene - an aspect of life Rob still struggles with.
“Sleep has always been an issue. I jolt in my sleep and dreams, nightmares wake me up. It’s just an uncomfortable experience.”
But he said Help for Heroes were able to suggest structure and routines to aid better sleep and help improve his well-being.
Last year he moved into a new home in social housing after making contact with a veterans housing officer in Leeds and now has a puppy to help keep him company - along with his partner-of-13-years, who lives nearby, and his parents who live in St Helens.
Over the years, he has also taken on courses in massage, complementary therapies, reflexology, is a first aider and also a volunteer for the Calder Valley Search and Rescue’s dog training team.
He says he’s realised his mental health battles are “never going to go away” but said he is learning - through interacting with support services - how to look after himself better and manage his time constructively, taking each day as it comes.
And he urged other veterans to reach out and take the help that is available.
“I knew about satellites, I knew about communications but I didn’t know about mental health. I didn’t know about mindfulness,” he said, adding; “I want other veterans to engage [with support].
“I’m trying to get the message across that you can get help and build some sort of life up again.”
For more information on Help for Heroes, visit www.helpforheroes.org.uk.
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