1. ITV Report

Life after Afghanistan: leaving the forces

Steffan and Rachel Coombes at home in Suffolk Credit: ITV Anglia

It's a sunny summer afternoon in the Coombes' family garden in Suffolk; Steffan and Rachel's two year old daughter Catrin, runs round her parents delightedly, and drags her father off to play on the slide.

The front line in Afghanistan feels unimaginably distant from here, and yet the conflict continues to dominate the Coombes family life.

Steffan joined the army at 16 and planned to serve his 22 year term. But in 2010 after eight years in the army, he was medically discharged with post traumatic stress disorder, brought on by his experiences fighting on the front line in Afghanistan.

It's an invisible injury but one that can tear your life apart. Terrifying flash backs, anxiety, anger and insomnia are just some of its symptoms. The charity Combat Stress is currently supporting over 400 veterans with the condition in the East of England.

Lance Corporal Steffan Coombes in Afghanistan Credit: Steffan Coombes

Steffan now works on a farm near Eye and the family are rebuilding their lives. Some days are better than others; Steffan enjoys his job out in the open and finds his employers supportive, but he still has periods of deep depression. It's not easy for him to talk about, even to Rachel his wife.

He doesn't really like to talk to me about it which I understand. You know, what he saw out in Afghanistan, what he did out there, losing fellow soldiers.

"It was very difficult when we didn't know what he had and he didn't want to be here really, he didn't want to live. I think he still gets that now but thankfully now he's got the right medication to help him feel a bit more at ease."

– Lance Corporal Rachel Warnes, Steffan's wife

Rachel was also in the army and served in Afghanistan, though unlike Steffan not on the front line. She left in 2008 after 6 years of service, and found the change to civilian life difficult. In particular finding work was a challenge; after two months of searching she got an admin job that was neither as well paid or as senior as her former military role.

Corporal James Heenan (centre) and his wife Carolyn at a forces recruitment agency in Ely Credit: ITV Anglia

Rachel's experience is shared by James Heenan, who left the army this April after 22 years of exemplary service. Since then he's done some shifts as a truck driver to pay the bills, but wants to find work at managerial level, equivalent to his military position and salary. To try and get help, he's gone to a recruitment agency for former forces personnel based in Cambridgeshire, which specialises in this area.

Even more worryingly, James also needs to find somewhere to live. Along with his wife Carolyn and four year old son, he's still living at Oakington baracks. Since his service has ended, the family have been served an eviction notice and need to move into a home of their own. But despite being on the council waiting list for some years, they've yet to find one.

People like myself that have served 22 years for Queen and county, have never asked for a single thing, I've never asked for any help from the government at all. And now I'm asking, I"m not getting anything and I think that's disgraceful."

– Corporal James Heenan

South Cambridgeshire District Council say James and his family are in Band A on their housing list and one of their 'top priorities to find a home for.' The Council add that if the Heenans are made homeless they will supply them with temporary accommodation.

On patrol in Afghanistan: the journey home can also be hard Credit: Ministry of Defence

It's a far from ideal start to civilian life, but sadly not an uncommon one. Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, a psychologist with twenty years experience of working in the military, says civilians have little idea just how extraordinarily stressful leaving the forces can be.

When people leave the services, it's different to leaving a job. They're leaving employment, accommodation, they're leaving a large social network and they are leaving a way of life. So all those four things are things that most of us never really have to think about when we change from one job to another.

– Professor James Hacker Hughes, Clinical Psychologist

For Steffan and Rachel Coombes leaving the army isn't something that can be achieved in a day. The conflict in Afghanistan has irrevocably changed their lives, as it has for so many who fought in it. Life after Afghanistan is a work in progress.

For anyone who is affected by the issues raised in this report, the links below connect to organisations which may be able to provide support.

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