BY JAY BURGESS
Geoff Richardson served in the army for two years in the Middle East.
But the day he left, all he got was a perfunctory thank-you and sent on his way.
The memories traumatised him for years.
Now he lives on the streets. He said: “I lost my family. I lost my kids. But I would do it all over again for this country.”
The soldier served in the Middle East for two years, but his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have driven him into years of homelessness.
The corporal served in the British Army’s catering division from 2011-2014.
He was active in Iraq and Afghanistan, including a two-year tour in Basra, Tikrit and Kabul.
Today, he lives hand-to-mouth, moving from pavement to bench to doorway in East Croydon.
The warning signs came on his first day of service, when he arrived on base.
He said: “When you get off the truck, the first thing you see, that the Yanks [Americans] have written, is ‘there is no God here’.
“That hits you a bit.”
We have moved inside a coffee shop to talk. He is animated and intense.
“Things aren’t what you see on the news,” he said. “Things are totally different.
“A lot of Englishmen are dying out there for no reason. I lost a lot of friends. A lot of good friends. And I’m just wondering ‘what for?’.”
Geoff spent three months after his tour at a holiday camp at a base in Cyprus, given to troops to allow them to rest and reflect.
But he found such relief to be superficial – an afterthought offered by an institution quick to forget him.
“And then I was back on the cargo plane,” he said. “Back to England.
A pat on the shoulder and a ‘bye-bye mate, thank you very much’.”
Once home, the extent of his trauma emerged.
Geoff was suffering from acute PTSD, specifically from mortar attacks.
His wife and two young children were caught in the crossfire.
“I started getting sick. My family’s freaking out, my kids are crying,” he said. “When I used to get up in the mornings everybody used to freak.”
Geoff did go to hospital, receiving an injection every three months to calm him down, but he found this ineffective. He still suffers from the nightmares.
“I don’t go to sleep at night. As soon as I try….” he said. At this point he feverishly imitates the rattle of gunfire and whistle of an incoming mortar rocket, cowering on top of the table with his hands above his head.
When it comes to mental health support, veterans are often undeserved. Stigma around mental health means that only half of veterans actually ask for help.
Those, like Geoff, who do ask, most rarely receive the specialist care they require.
Just 18 months after returning home, Geoff’s erratic behaviour and angry outbursts proved too much for his family. He left home, with nowhere to turn to but the streets.
Geoff has been homeless ever since. His son is now 11, his daughter 18 – and he hasn’t seen them for three years.
The British Legion estimates that there are currently nearly 6,000 homeless veterans in the UK.
There has been some response to these figures.
The MoD has been training NHS staff to understand veterans’ mental health needs better, and charities such as Combat Stress and No Homeless Veterans offer treatment and signposting.
But Geoff remains homeless, and appeared resigned to this status. With cultivated authority, he gave a message to the public: “Please don’t ignore the homeless.
You don’t know who they are, where they’ve come from, or who they’ve been.
“They weren’t born homeless. They didn’t want to be homeless. They all had a family once.
“It was just situation, circumstance…. a bad childhood, bad parenting, abuse…. anything could have happened to that person.
“All we need, as homeless people.. Is a ‘hello’ and a smile. It’s good enough for us.”
He feels he was lied to by the Government.
He said: “We need your support, and you’re not giving it to us. We would fight for this country again if you asked us. It’s us that you need.
“This is what I got out of it – I’m homeless. I lost my family. I lost my kids. But I would do it all over again for this country.
“God bless England.”
At this, Sarah – a friend of Geoff’s helping homeless people in the area – became visibly emotional.
Geoff consoled her, saying, “I’m the one that should be crying, not you.
“But I’ve still got a smile on my face.”
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