'I spent weeks looking for my weapon': Army reservist opens up about PTSD battle after returning home
PUBLISHED: 07:00 07 May 2019 | UPDATED: 10:17 07 May 2019
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars impacted thousands of people in our region. In the latest in our week-long series looking at their legacy, reporter Reece Hanson talks to army reservist Darren Elston about his 10-year PTSD battle.
An army reservist who continues to battle PTSD 10 years after serving in Afghanistan has urged veterans to know “it is alright not to be alright.”
Darren Elston, of Oulton Broad, opened up about his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder in the hopes of helping anyone going through their own fight.
Last month, the 42-year-old was joined by 16 other British military veterans with physical or psychological injuries to cross more than 600 miles of sand dunes, some up to 400ft high, in the Empty Quarter desert in Oman.
Mr Elston, a reservist and arming loading point commander for Apache Attack helicopters, said: “You switch off your feelings because you are scared of them. You feel guilty for the way you are.
“I had various treatments to help me cope with my PTSD symptoms, but nothing was better than racing up and down those dunes and across the desert flats with people just like me.
“Sometimes we just need to be told that it is alright not to be alright. You are not alone.
“The best thing for anyone who has been in the forces is being around the people. That is the best help you can get, so chat to them because being in the same situation means you are not being judged.”
For Mr Elston, the transition between serving his country in Afghanistan and returning to his day job working in entertainment in Lowestoft proved difficult.
He said: “As a reservist I can be on an operational tour one minute in a war zone, and three weeks later be back doing my civilian job, so I have to adapt very quickly.
“One minute you are going through extreme adrenaline in fight or flight mode, then you are back in a normal 9-5 role. It's hard, very hard.
“You can't be like a light switch and just switch everything on and off.
“You have to switch off your military head because in the military it is the humour that gets you through, whatever happens. You have to use that to carry on through, but people who haven't experienced that wouldn't understand if you didn't switch it back.
“The everyday intensity and threat level is difficult to get used to. I spent weeks looking for my weapon when I got home, and whenever I visit a restaurant, I cannot sit with my back to the door.
“You still have that inside you and it will always be with me.”
The Oman expedition was arranged by VetRun180, which takes veterans struggling with physical or psychological injuries on worldwide adventures, free of charge. The group were following in the footsteps of British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, who made the journey on camels in two months shortly after the Second World War.
Mr Elston praised the expedition for bringing the group together to help each other.
He said: “When you leave the forces you are largely left to your own devices, but being a man you don't really talk about your feelings.
“Years passed and I was still struggling but you do it in silence, and that is how we lose so many friends through suicide.
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“I didn't want to be another statistic and I thought this was a really good idea to meet others with similar experiences and when you are with them you recognise traits in other veterans that you have too. “We could talk in a safe environment, but there was still an element of danger because we showed no fear over those sand dunes and got airborne a few times.
“It was brilliant and it brings you back from the edge and helps you realise you can achieve whatever you try for.
“When you're still serving there is a great mental health team based in Colchester, but for veterans it is very hard to get help because it is a unique condition to treat and it can take months to get the help you need.
“Each soldier is different, which is why it helps to get together and help each other without being ridiculed.”