N.B. The names and some details have been removed to protect the identity and ensure the safety of the people involved


N.B. The names and some details have been removed to protect the identity and ensure the safety of the people involved

Serving in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, Tony, a former soldier in the Ulster Defence Regiment, faced two targeted attempts on his life and constant death threats. The horrors of war, which he experienced on his own doorstep, continue to haunt him in the form of Complex PTSD. Struggling to work due to his condition, he turned to SSAFA for financial help. Now he wants others to know what support they can access.

I slept with a handgun under my pillow. It was permanently cocked.

Tony was a young boy when the Troubles in Northern Ireland officially started and was a witness to horrific violence. At the age of 13 he and a friend saw the bodies of three Scottish soldiers killed by the IRA, it was a sight that would live with him all his life.

A decade later, at the height of The Troubles in the 80s, Tony was deployed as a soldier in Belfast and the border areas as part of the ‘clean-up operation’.

"Everywhere the police went, we went too to protect them. We were subjected to terrible violence. I witnessed multiple bomb explosions, found the mutilated bodies of informers who had been subjected to long periods of torture and close friends were blown up and killed” Tony explains.

Unlike British troops from England who stayed in barracks, Tony and others in the UDR had to go back to their homes every night. He says he was left in constant fear of his life.

“We had to leave the safety of the barracks and go back to our own homes. The first thing I would do is get the rifle out of the boot of my car for protection. It seems unbelievable now.

“I went to bed with my handgun under my pillow every night. It was cocked all the time. There was a bullet inside 24/7. I never cleared it. I always had it ready in case a knock came to the door. And the same with my rifle, it laid under my bed. It was the rifle I used on duty. If I had a bath or went to the bathroom, I had my handgun on me.

“We didn’t have mobiles; the lighting was curbed because of the Troubles. Everything seemed to be in darkness. It was a nightmare.

“I would put empty beer tins on a string hanging from my back gate so it would rattle if anyone tried to get in. Every morning I searched under my car for bombs, not knowing who was standing waiting for me. And on duty in Belfast on the border area, your life was always in danger.”

Tony was not the only one who felt the constant fear and pressure of service in Northern Ireland. 

“Several members of my regiment committed suicide including a few friends.” 

My mother was tied to a lamppost, tarred and feathered and severely beaten.

Tony faced even more difficulties than most. He grew up as Protestant but was the son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother. He also married a Catholic woman and had two children with her. His whole family life in Northern Ireland was complex and in constant jeopardy.

“My father and mother were abducted and tortured. My father was taken to a house and beaten.

"My mother was severely beaten and tied to a lamppost, tarred and feathered. My sister and I were the people who found her tied up. Her injuries contributed to her death months later.”

Sadly, these experiences were too much for Tony’s sister. One morning he got a call saying she hadn’t turned up for work. He went to her house to see where she was, but he found her dead on her bed after taking an overdose. She was only 19.

With everything that had happened to him, Tony came close to taking his own life too. His Catholic wife received death threats from the Protestant community where they lived, and they were in constant fear and the relationship became strained. After two attempts on his life by the IRA, Tony tried to commit suicide.

“My wife was upstairs bathing the children and as she came down the gun jammed. She saw everything. Our relationship was never the same again.”

Tony took the difficult decision to leave the Forces and after his marriage fell apart, he moved to England. For the safety of his two children and ex-wife, he didn’t maintain contact and he hasn’t seen them since.

Tony went on to remarry and have three more children. He has told them his story, but they find it hard to comprehend what he went through or why.

They came and said, “what do you need?”

Four years ago, Tony, who suffers from Complex PTSD, was desperate and needed help. His wife worked hard to pay their rent and debts, but Tony was unable to work. It was just before Christmas and the family were really struggling.

Tony had never heard of SSAFA before but was told about the charity by Help for Heroes.

Seven weeks before Christmas, Tony was put in touch with case workers from his local area.

“I must say they are the nicest people I have ever met. They came and said, “what do you need?” and I said, “I have my daughter here, it’s nearly Christmas, it would be nice to get them a bit of help with gas, electric and food vouchers”. I wasn’t asking for anything else.”

“I was in a crisis. Believe me on that. SSAFA came and said they will see what we can do for me, and to try and get money from my old regiment, the Ulster Defence Regiment, now the Royal Irish Regiment”

“They kept in contact with me every week. I didn’t even have to ring them. They kept me informed. It took about 5 weeks and they came back and said, “We have good news for you, we got you £600 from your old regiment” …I needed that, I was so grateful. But the kindness and respect they showed me was second to none and I mean that.”

“I can’t put it into anymore words the effort they put in. They supported me and my family and I am very grateful.”

The money was given to the family in the form of food vouchers and cards for the gas and electric meters.

Now Tony wants others to understand what SSAFA do and to get help if they need it.

“Too many people suffer in silence and don’t know who to turn to. And it isn’t fair. They served their country. They deserve help when they need it. They can always turn to SSAFA.

It’s hard but I’m getting there

Tony says he still finds it very difficult to cope following everything he has been through and he has specialist mental health treatment from the NHS Veteran’s Mental Health Complex Treatment Service to ‘turn the volume down a bit’ so he doesn’t have as many flashbacks. He is very grateful to the NHS service for all the support they have given, alongside SSAFA.

“When I left the regiment, I got no help. There wasn’t the same support there is now. But I know there are many people still who need help that aren’t accessing it.

“It’s hard, but I’m getting there. Lots of things can still trigger me, like children playing and screaming in the street. You will never be 100% clear of it.”

50 years on from the start of the Troubles, Tony now feels he has the confidence to tell his story.