- Former para and press photographer and Stuart Griffiths reveals his descent into mental illness
- He reached out to the Royal British Legion for help
- Before his career on Fleet Street, Griffiths served in Northern Ireland
- Today, he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- The RBL were due to represent him at a War Pensions’ tribunal
- But they pulled out at the last minute because no one was around to help
- The Legion raises millions per year
- Poppy sales are heavily supported by papers like The Sun, the Express and the Mirror
- Griffiths worked for all three titles as a news photographer
By Stuart Griffiths
My name is Stuart Griffiths. I am an armed forces’ veteran who served in the elite Parachute Regiment on violent tours of Northern Ireland during the troubles.
Having joined the British army aged 16, I was sent to the Province aged 17 to 3 Para who were on a residential tour from 1989 to 1991 based in Belfast. When I arrived, there had been a mutiny by the “Toms Liberation Front” during which Private soldiers or “Toms” had tried to blow up the Commanding Officer after blaming him for the deaths of three paratroopers in Mayobridge. I was deployed onto the streets of Belfast, aged 18. My second deployment was in 1992, in County Tyrone on an “emergency tour” where it got so disorderly, even the area Brigadier had to be removed from his post. I witnessed bomb attacks, brutal riots, life changing injuries and the joy rider killings.
It was the main reason why I never stayed in the Paras for a long, illustrious career. Northern Ireland f****d my head up. Both my tours of duty were relentless. I could not believe how intense the detestation was from the community that I patrolled. I later learned that it came from a deep rooted hatred towards the Parachute Regiment for what they had did during the Northern Ireland “troubles” during the early 1970s and onwards. From the intensity of British army operational tours and their constant consequences, there was also a deeply twisted perverseness I had witnessed within its barrack blocks, with alcohol abuse, sexual assault and strange rituals that were part of the norm that messed up the world view of many young men, sending their many moral compasses into hyper drive.
But hey, back in 1990, the way to deal with trauma was through lager therapy, and copious amounts of it, or Bruffin 600mg painkillers from the medical centre, or drugs, like amphetamine sulphate, LSD, ecstasy, marijuana or smack. This was the era before compulsory drugs testing came in force in the British army from 1996. All these bad memories have all impacted my mental health all these years later.
Yet, despite suffering from bad memories since 1990, I decided to to do a degree in photography at Brighton University after I left the Paras in 1993. One of my class mates was Paddy Considine, who made a good career in acting, which began when he starred in a the Shane Meadow film Dead Man’s Shoes where he plays an ex-Para returning home.
After graduating with my honours degree, it was not exactly easy getting work in photography. When I moved to London, I was homeless & lived in a veterans’ hostel in London during the whole year of 2000. I working tirelessly as a paparazzi snapper, photographing the rich and famous on the streets of London’s West End. It was during this time that I met my future wife and we raised a family together. I excelled in photography more than anything else I had ever done in my life. I worked for the national and international press, won awards for photography, appeared on BBC television and BBC radio and on more than a few occasions was included in touring photography exhibitions, had solo touring exhibitions and had publishers make books on my photography and words. Yet, I still have nightmares and flashbacks from these times in Northern Ireland.
Then, in 2015, I began a scholarship at Ulster University in Belfast with the intention of becoming a photography lecturer. But it was whilst doing a PhD that I started to have problems. My wife suggested I should seek some help from experts, so I sought medical help from the NHS who then diagnosed me with PTSD in October 2018. My scholarship ended, and I had no other option but to go onto the Universal Credit scheme. In January 2019, I was paid £58 for the month, because I had given a lecture on photography at Westminster University before Christmas and was penalised by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). I was finding it increasingly hard to cope.
It was around this time that I began my first EMDR sessions. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is psychotherapy that helps you process and recover from past experiences that are affecting your mental health. It involves using side-to-side eye movements combined with talk therapy. It sounds mad but it’s the latest way to treat PTSD. I had to relive my worst traumas from my military service. It was hard work and made my head hurt. I was lost and didn’t know where or whom to turn to. It was during this time that I was advised by other veterans, whom had also been treated for their PTSD at places like Combat Stress, who strongly suggested I should apply for a war pension.
A war pension is for former serving personnel of the UK armed forces who served before 2005 (after 2005, it is called the Armed Forces Pension Scheme). To qualify, you have had to suffer from injury sustained from military service. Firstly, you fill out paperwork that is downloaded from Veterans UK and attach your medical assessments. Then, you wait about a year before being assessed in a social services type environment; in which my experience meant waiting in the reception for over 3 hours. During my questioning, I was told that I could not mention the word “ambush” and was asked if I had thoughts of killing people and if I ever thoughts about taking my own life.
At that time, I had also applied for a part-time job (so as not to be penalised again by the DWP) at a veteran charity in the summer of 2019. I had been attending this same veteran “hub” – which had recently got charity status – every other Saturday since 2017, where it held meditation classes and workshops on trauma, anger management and how to deal with your “shit bucket” of trauma memories. The job was in a support-working role, helping veterans with Personal Independent Payments (PIP), housing and signposting them to the many various service user organisations. It was the only work I could get at that time, and I needed to support my family. So when a full time position came my way, I decided to take it on – rather than be at the mercy of Universal Credit and the DWP.
Then, in March 2020 Covid happened, and the world changed. During this time, I received confirmation from the War Pensions Scheme (WPS) that I had got between 15 and 19%, meaning the NHS Doctor who administered my EMDR treatment said my mental health was improving, I was sleeping better, I also had gym membership provided by the Tim Parry & Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation in Warrington (which I had been involved in since 2005) through funding from Victims & Survivors Service which helped my wellbeing greatly.
My gratuity payment meant not having to rely on food banks for the foreseeable future. I finally finished my PhD, having my graduation ceremony on Microsoft Teams. I applied for many academic posts with my newly acquired Doctorate, yet despite my many applications in academia, the door remained shut mainly because I didn’t have a teaching qualification. So, I kept working for the third sector veteran charity hub in Hastings. Then, when I tried to renew my gym membership with the Peace Foundation and VSS, no one from the Foundation bothered answering my phone calls, reply to my emails, or even respond to private messages on social media. Without having a gym in which to work out, my mental health further deteriorated. After the shoddy withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, I felt totally betrayed and lost all faith in the British government. Despite never serving in Afghanistan, or travelling there as a photojournalist, I knew of plenty who did and I’d photographed many soldiers injured from Afghanistan and covered many funerals as a news photographer from Sunderland and Scunthorpe to Sussex.
My boss at the veteran charity kept summoning me into his office, concerned that I was “not myself lately”. The thing was, many of the veterans at the charity are there because their military service messed up their minds, and it had impacted their mental health. The whole blazer-wearing, medal & regimental beret-wearing scenario was beginning to wear thin with me, and it was doing more damage than good. I could not take working at the veteran charity – just the thought of facing the people I worked for made me feel psychically sick. I was advised by my boss at the charity to self- refer myself to the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service, know as the Transition, Intervention Liaison service (TILS) part of the umbrella of MP Johnny Mercer’s “Operation Courage” and its veteran care network.
It was at this time that I was seconded to answering the office intercom as my job role, or rather a general dogs body, or gofer. It was just like being in the army again all over again, although they could not see that it was the army that had caused me damage. No matter how much I tried and kid myself about the Glory of War, there isn’t any. Having got my gratuity payment for my war pension towards the end of 2020 when everyone was in embroiled in a global pandemic lockdown, it has made me realise that the MoD did indeed recognise my condition. And that I, like every person who deserves their day in court is entitled to appeal against the MoD decision on my future. As a former British Paratrooper that has given his all for Queen & Country, I had suffered from its consequences, mentally. Being diagnosed with PTSD is not much fun. It does not help your job prospects and the only work I could get, it felt, ironically was working at a veteran charity in Hastings, where I have lived since the financial crash of 2008. This state of affairs made me worse and sent me over the edge of the abyss, like being pushed into a corner that you did not want to be in.
Presently, I’m undergoing trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy through a psychologist through TILS. Although its very painful stuff, I’m trying to learn and manage my intrusive thoughts. Meanwhile, I was waiting for my war pension tribunal that went ahead on Tuesday, 7 June, the day after the Queens Platinum Jubilee bank holiday. Due to my service background, I am entitled to free independent advice from the Veterans Welfare Service, or charitable organisations. I was advised to contact the Royal British Legion, who I was told were good and helpful. After making contacting with them they had opened a file on me on the 15 February 2022.
The Royal British Legion agreed to represent me, free of charge. I then waited to hear back from them. Then, on Wednesday 25 May 2022, at 4.25pm the Royal British Legion finally called me up. They informed me that no one could attend my online ZOOM tribunal that was to be held on Tuesday 7 June, because there was know one around that day to attend. The person on the phone was very apologetic. He said that his department had not been given enough time to prepare for their case, despite Veterans UK making contact with the Royal British Legion on the 17 May. Someone was leaving the department that dealt with war pension tribunals they said. The way the Legion talked was if they did not have the money or resources to fulfill their obligation to me, or I was simply not important enough, or famous enough. According to the financial year ending 30 September 2021, the Royal British Legion’s total income of £137,359,000.
What it felt like – after months of online psychologist sessions, NHS medication for alcohol dependency syndrome and post traumatic stress disorder (which incidentally I get free, because of my “war pension”) EMDR, Trauma focused CBT, which means going through specific traumas from my time during service all over again – it felt like a huge feeling of betrayal, injustice and being let down yet again, just when I most needed help.
I have been informed from veterans who have gone through the rigmoral of war pensions schemes/armed forces pension schemes that all the MoD want to know is if this person’s condition is attributable to his or her service career, and if this person can cope. By the time you get to your tribunal, you end up going through many hoops just to present the worst version of yourself. This is maybe why so many veterans are driven to take their own lives. Yet despite serving in the elite macho Parachute Regiment, where the Queen’s son HRH Prince Charles is its very Colonel & Chief (although unlike Royalty, we are not famous, we are not celebrities) we don’t have the foresight of privilege, or a privileged education. I was born in Manchester. I come from a working class background. I did my bit, but I did not make a career in the army despite having joined aged 16 in 1988. We went to war for Queen & Country and this has screwed up many once young and great minds.
We are too entitled to our day in court, just like any other human being. Even if it has to be done online via ZOOM. Yet despite this, the Royal British Legion with its Royal patronage, Royal allegiances, where people all over the world buy its Poppy for Remembrance Sunday every year, they cannot represent me because no one is around on my day of reckoning. It is a great shame that we veterans continually get cast aside. Keep getting abandoned. Furthering our pain and suffering is simply sickening, humiliating and demoralising having to jump through hoop after hoop just to be heard and listened to, so we can get our war pensions for our injuries sustained from military service, because we need help, we need to be coping, so we don’t take our own lives in the near future.
We reached out to RBL for comment, and did not receive a response.