A former soldier who struggled to cope in the civilian world has found a new purpose leading others to help fellow veterans.
Paul Atkinson, 50, completed three tours of duty on the front line in Iraq, including the second Gulf War in 2003, and also served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland during his 22-year Army career.
After Paul returned home to Cambridgeshire he developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from his time in service and struggled to hold down civilian jobs – until he found support from The Poppy Factory.
Paul said: “After the Gulf War there were a number of incidents that stayed with me. As well as serving in the Royal Armoured Corps, I was a trained medic. At one point I came across a three-year-old who had been hit by artillery and badly injured, and I had to wait and get medical cover to him.
“In Basra, my wagon broke down and my driver couldn’t do anything to get us out. We had a lot of explosives with us and we had to just sit there with mortars falling all around, waiting for someone to help us.”
[Photo caption: Paul in Iraq]
“I completed my service in 2013, and a while later I had a very bad couple of years and really crashed. I ended up getting a part-time job in a mobile phone shop. Because of my PTSD, dealing with awkward customers was difficult and I’d have to walk out of the shop to calm myself down.”
Support from The Poppy Factory
Eventually, Paul contacted The Poppy Factory and was supported by Keiron, employability consultant for the East of England. Within two months of their first meeting in 2018, Keiron helped Paul successfully apply for a job as a regional mentoring coordinator for another Armed Forces charity, SSAFA.
Paul said: “I read about The Poppy Factory in a military magazine and phoned up, and within two weeks I met Keiron. He helped me think about what I should be doing, and made me realise my own potential and the value of the experience I’d had from 22 years in the Army.
“If it wasn’t for The Poppy Factory, I don’t think I’d still be here. My life was in such a mess before – now things have really changed.
“Now I lead a team of mentors who support service leavers, their partners and veterans transition into civilian life. I’m using my own experience to relate to fellow veterans and show them that even though they may be in a bad place, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
Paul and his team at SSAFA are able to help with practical and emotional support, signposting and referring people to other agencies on issues ranging from mental health and pain management to housing and employment.
Keiron, Paul’s employability consultant at The Poppy Factory, said: “It has been incredibly rewarding to support Paul and help him understand and fulfil his own potential, and it’s fantastic to see him flourishing in his new role.”