MILITARY servicemen and women put their lives on the line in war zones – but for many, the real battle begins when their time in the forces ends.

In every town and city of Britain, former soldiers, airmen and sailors struggle in silence, dealing with feelings of isolation that most civilians can't possibly understand.

In 2019, General Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the army, called veterans' suicides "an epidemic of our time" following unconfirmed reports from military charities of hundreds of ex-servicemen taking their own lives since 2018, the Telegraph reports.

And this year, veterans dealing with isolation have been at more risk than ever.

Military support group All Call Signs says requests for its services jumped by 60 per cent in just one month at the beginning of the pandemic, with the group rescuing four suicidal veterans between March and April alone.

For many, mental health issues aren't something that are often thought or talked about while enlisted.

"You’re in that environment together, and I don’t think you understand what it is you’re part of, and what you see," says Shaun Franklin, a 31-year-old former Grenadier Guards infantryman.

"And that’s why you see a lot of veterans struggle once they leave."

But even those whose service took place decades ago struggle with loneliness and rely on the support of other veterans to cope.

As part of The Sun's Christmas Together campaign, two ex-servicemen share their experiences of isolation – from being pushed to the edge by torturous PTSD to calling on fellow veterans for support after suffering a heartbreaking loss.

Constant paranoia of deadly attacks

It wasn’t long into Shaun Franklin’s first tour of Afghanistan that he was confronted with the brutal realities of war – when his friend was killed in an explosion.

Shaun, who’d joined the army aged 18 in 2008, had only been in Helmand Province for a few weeks when the deadly blast took place in 2009.

“I think it just makes it very real,” Shaun says. “All of a sudden, you’ve had a friend who just a few hours before you were sat joking with, and now he’s not alive anymore.

“Not only was he not alive, as he passed away in a horrific incident, but also you’ve had other friends that’ve been injured subsequently because of that blast.

“All kinds of things go through your mind. That paranoia comes in, like: ‘How did it happen?’”

'Wake to the sound of kids screaming'

When Shaun returned from his second tour in Afghanistan in late 2012, he was ready to do something else – but he had no idea how much leaving his highly structured military life behind would affect him.

And so in May 2014, he left the Grenadier Guards for good to become a personal trainer, building on experiences he'd had as a physical training instructor in the army.

“At 24, I’d been away and fought in a war twice, and the second time I’d gone up a rank and had some responsibility, and then I’d got a mortgage and gone into a job," Shaun says.

“It was just very thick and fast, and very full-on. A lot to deal with.”

But it wasn’t until the birth of his and fiance Tracy's daughter, Hallie, in 2016 that his mental health began to spiral.

“That was the turning point – that’s when it all crashed," he says.

“Trauma during childbirth isn’t just for women. Men can feel completely lost in that situation – I couldn’t control it and I couldn’t do anything.

“She was physically and mentally drained, but I couldn’t stop that. That was definitely a trigger.”

It was in the months after Hallie's birth that Shaun's military trauma really started affecting his behaviour.

“Even leaving the house felt impossible, to the point where it felt like I was gearing up for a patrol,” Shaun says.

“I would then plan several different routes – I felt like I didn’t want to be followed.

"All these different things going through your head like they do when you’re on an operational tour, which out there will save your life.

“But when you’re here in the UK, you’ve not got the same pressures. But I was treating it as such.”

'Psychotic' breakdown

It all came to a head one day when Shaun took Hallie to the park at an age where she was just old enough to start using its equipment.

"All of a sudden, all I can see is every single way that she can die," Shaun says.

“It’s almost like a psychotic phase comes on.

"I can see her in the park, but I can see her sliding to her death, I can see her swinging to her death. It just took over."

He grabbed Hallie and took her home to safety – but his crisis was only beginning to unfold.

“Sleeping became nearly impossible," Shaun says. "I’d have multiple nightmares throughout the night. I’d wake up to the sound of children screaming. 

There was definitely a lot of depression in there. There were a lot of suicidal thoughts.

“My partner would find me just stood in the middle of the room, completely confused, not a clue what was going on. Or really distressed at what I’d been hearing inside of my head. 

“No matter how illogical or in a dream world you know it is, it becomes very real.” 

Suicidal thoughts and 'life-changing' help

Shaun’s situation continued to deteriorate until he was pushed to the very brink by his mindset.

“I knew it was really seriously wrong, but I was avoiding it,” he says. “I’d drive to work and I’d be in tears, sat there in the car park in floods of tears just breaking down. Then I’d just cancel my day.

“Everything was becoming impossible. Social events I’d just be avoiding.

"There was definitely a lot of depression in there. There were a lot of suicidal thoughts.”

Worried for his safety, Tracy contacted Combat Stress – a charity which offers mental health support for veterans.

After a triage call, the organisation put him in touch with Walking With The Wounded who helped him have therapy for PTSD.

He’s worked hard to improve his situation and, with the help of the counselling after years of suffering, he’s now in a better place.

“I took both of my children to the park on my own at the weekend,” he says, after years of being unable to go. “It’s absolutely life-changing.”

He now has a son, Zachary, and runs his own gym, Chamber Health and Wellbeing.

While Shaun is doing better now, he warns that 2020 will have been a difficult year for countless veterans unable to be with people who know what they’ve been through.

“I think the saddest thing about isolation and the lockdowns is losing touch with people who understand you,” he says.

“So for military, losing touch with the people that understand you the most and understand your language and know what you’ve been through, I think not being able to see them has a huge impact.”

Walking Home For Christmas is Walking With The Wounded's annual, nationwide walking challenge to support their work with the NHS –empowering ex-military and their families who are in a downward spiral due to poor mental health to thrive once more.

Love after national service

Unlike Shaun, Colin Stegeman's need for support from his fellow veterans didn't come until decades after he left the Royal Air Force – at the age of 85.

Colin, who lives in Brockton, Shrops., was called up to the RAF for his national service in his early 20s in 1957.

After leaving the RAF on October 22, 1959, he rejoined the electrical engineering company where he’d worked before the war who eventually sent him down to their London office.

“The good thing about London was that I met my wife there again,” Colin says.

Colin first met the woman he was to marry, Margaret, when he was nine and she was six.

The daughter of a Methodist minister, Margaret and her family moved around a lot and Colin lost touch with her when she’d moved away from his village when she was just 12.

But when Colin told his family his new address in London, his sister, who’d kept a pen friendship with Margaret, said he lived near her, and he should visit.

So one night, now in his mid-20s, Colin knocked on Margaret's door and she invited him in for a coffee.

“I followed her upstairs and I thought ‘by, they’re a nice pair of legs’!” Colin says.

“Not long after that, we fell in love and got engaged. And then we got married, and it was a lovely marriage.”

They had two children together, Anna and Michael, who in turn both had two sons of their own.

'Six weeks' to live

After decades together, on Christmas Eve, 2008, Colin received heartbreaking news.

“Margaret had a blood cancer called multiple myeloma, and she was given between six weeks and a year to live by the consultant,” Colin says.

Medics at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital put Margaret on four different kinds of chemotherapy to try and lengthen her life.

“She battled through those and she was a real stalwart,” Colin says.

Incredibly, despite predictions, Margaret lived for over 11 years after her diagnosis.

“Life was not easy for her,” Colin says. “But we lived together at home and she died on June 14 this year. She died at 7:02am. She was in my arms.

It would be nice if we both went together.

“It happens to us all. I don’t know who’s the lucky one – the one who goes first, or the one who waits. It would be nice if we both went together.”

Margaret passed away just six days before hers and Colin’s 56th wedding anniversary.

'I really would be isolated'

With the pandemic raging, Margaret’s funeral was restricted to a small group of ten for social-distancing reasons.

Only ten people were allowed to go – meaning only Colin, his two children and their two partners, his four grandchildren and the vicar could attend.

“Other family came and stood around the wall and the hedge of the churchyard looking over, but they didn’t take part in the service,” Colin says. “It was a very brief service done by the vicar.” 

The Sun’s Christmas Together campaign

THIS Christmas we are teaming up with the Together Campaign, a coalition of community groups and organisations, and Royal Voluntary Service to combat loneliness.

And we want to recruit an army of volunteers to support those feeling cut off, anxious and isolated, this Christmas.

Could YOU reach out to someone who might be struggling and alone?    

It might be someone you know in your own life or community who needs support.

Or we can connect you with someone in need through the NHS Volunteer responder programme run by the NHS, Royal Voluntary Service and the GoodSAM app. 

Could you give up half an hour to make a call and chat with someone feeling  isolated? Or could you volunteer to deliver essential shopping or festive treats?

Go to nhsvolunteerresponders.org.uk/christmastogether to sign up as a volunteer. 

You will then receive an email taking you through the sign up process and be asked to download the responder app which will match you to those in need in your area.

Don’t worry if you don’t get a job straight away, because jobs are matched according to the need local to you.  Being ready to help is what really matters.

Since then, Colin has had to adjust to life without the woman he loved for over half a century.

“I’ve had a struggle, and I still have a struggle,” he says. “I’ve been to the grave this morning, oddly enough. I go frequently.

“But yes, it was a shock. I lost my memory for two weeks.” 

In his grief, Coil turned to counselling arranged by the RAF Benevolent Fund, a charity which supports serving and former members of the Air Force.

One day a week, a counsellor calls him – at “1500 hours” as veteran Colin puts it – to ask him how he’s doing.

We’ve never been apart at Christmas time.

But possibly even more crucially, the Fund has also arranged for Colin to speak to six other veterans twice a week in a Telephone Friendship Group, which he says is “first class”.

“We’ve got to know each other quite well over the telephone,” Colin says.

“I can’t praise the RAF Benevolent Fund too highly for making such arrangements.

“Because I really would be isolated, and I think the others would as well. We always look forward to our chats.”

This Christmas, rules permitting, Colin will be spending the day with his daughter and son-in-law who live nearby – but it’ll be his first without Margaret for decades.

“We’ve never been apart at Christmas time,” he says. “Obviously it’ll be sad. But it’ll be happy because I’ll be with the family.

“And they’ve been a great support to me.” 

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