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Jason Burns

The Power of Love and Family – Jason’s Story

Jason Burns joined the Royal Marines straight out of school in 1986 and spent more than two decades fighting in war torn countries across the globe. His career took him to places like Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kuwait. He also conducted two deployments in Afghanistan.

On his first tour of Afghanistan in 2006, Jason saw what a desperate state the country was in. The importance of the job he was doing was evident. He says: “We didn’t know what we would face each day. It was a banshee country and those we were fighting had no limitations.

Returning in 2011 was a completely different experience says Jason: “We deployed back to the same area of Afghanistan in the centre of Helmand and the difference was quite amazing. In 2007 we basically walked out of a nightmare. Then, thanks to the hard work and perseverance of everyone who followed us, we returned to a place that felt more vibrant and more hopeful. We were making a difference.

However, despite the changes Jason saw, just surviving in Afghanistan was a daily battle. His unit faced a constant threat from the Taliban and mortars proved a significant risk, even when they were in the relative safety of the compound they called home.

On the morning of 16 September 2011 Jason was in the shower when he heard the mortar alarm ringing out. “I grabbed my towel and sprinted as fast as I could to my tent. Suddenly, my feet went out from under me and I flew into the air. I landed on a chair that smashed into the base of my back.”

Lying on the floor Jason was dazed and in agony. But the only thing running through his head was that he needed to get dressed, and to safety. Somehow he summoned the strength to get himself off the floor. He continues: “I could hear my back making all sorts of noises it shouldn’t make but I was managing to put my clothes on. Then I swung my 20lb body amour on and I collapsed. My back couldn’t take anymore strain.”

Once back in the UK, Jason returned to his unit as ‘walking wounded’, and was seen by specialists and surgeons. The news wasn’t good. The accident had caused disk tears, bulges and nerve damage along the lower section of his spinal cord. He explains: “I was heartbroken. I saw the surgeon and he told me he couldn’t operate and there was nothing they could do to improve my condition; in fact it was degenerative. They could help me manage my pain, but that was it.”

That was the moment that Jason first realised that his 26 year career as a Royal Marine Commando had come to a cruel end, long before he wanted it to. “I was still fit, I was still hungry, and I still had so much more to give to the Marines. Then, in a split second it was all over.

However, he didn’t realise how much his physical injury was impacting the rest of his life outside of the military. It was a shopping trip to buy Christmas gifts in 2011 that provided a painful wake-up call. “I remember going into a changing room to put a t-shirt on and by then I was on all sorts of medication, wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping and I was having bad panic attacks. I stood in front of the mirror and I was just crying my eyes out. I looked emaciated and ill; I didn’t recognise the person I was looking at. It was also at this point that I made it my mission to never cry again.”

The next two years were almost unbearable for Jason, his wife Andrea and their three children, who had relocated from Plymouth to the North East where they had a strong network of family members to support them. He was already suffering from depression and anxiety, but he was then diagnosed with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and had to deal with the end of his military career. Things were desperate. Jason explains: “We felt alone and I felt forgotten about. It was a dark, difficult time and that put a strain on our family life. It was so hard trying to just get through each day. I had been diagnosed with PTSD, but I hadn’t accepted it. One morning I was on the sofa watching the telly, and then all of a sudden I felt this wave rip through my body, all the way from my head to the toes. It was like getting possessed or something. I just flipped.”

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It was then Jason knew he had to start working through the PTSD and the ‘whys’ circling his mind: “It was an accumulation all the tours I’ve done. All the things I’ve seen. All the lives I’ve lost. And the sheer weight of the responsibility I feel. I now know it’s not my fault but that doesn’t stop the feelings of guilt.”

After two years struggling on their own, a chance connection on Twitter would prove life-changing for Jason and Andrea. It was Carers Week in 2013 and Help for Heroes put out a tweet saying: “this week is #carersweek and we’d like to recognise all those unsung heroes who care for their own hero.”

Andrea saw the tweet, and was so touched by what she read that she replied saying: “Really needed to hear that, today’s been a really hard day. It can be draining some days. Life’s changed so much.”

What Andrea didn’t know is that by sending that simple tweet she had opened a door that would change her and Jason’s lives for the better. Jason explains: “Within an hour of sending the tweet the phone started ringing – it was Help for Heroes. I was then in the Band of Brothers and my wife in the Band of Sisters. We were finally getting help. It was suddenly like having another family that caught us as we were falling.”

The Help for Heroes Recovery Centre in Catterick has proved vital for Jason’s recovery. But, it’s not the building that has helped him. Rather, it’s the friendships he has formed inside its walls and it’s the knowledge that his family can come with him and leave refreshed. He explains: “Whenever we come down here as a family we know we’re in a safe place and people know us. That means special things happen. Andrea is always able to talk, cry and release everything that’s been going on and the children can just have fun. As for me, there are so many others who are going through the same struggles – we draw strength from each other and that helps.”

Another benefit Jason has discovered through Help for Heroes is support for his wife Andrea. Knowing how much the strength of her love helps him, Jason wanted to make sure she was supported too. He explains: “Andrea has fibromyalgia and our middle child Ethan has autism, so emotionally there’s a lot going on. I am so grateful that Help for Heroes is so good at looking after the family too. Andrea gets support from the Hidden Wounds psychological wellbeing service. It means she is able to talk through what is going on with her and it is not about me – it’s about what she needs.”

For Jason it is Andrea’s love, and that of his Children, which is the steady constant keeping him strong when he feels weak. The demons he battles in his mind have sometimes been so strong that he has tried to take his own life. Wanting something to anchor him to the love of his family when he feels like he can’t go on, Jason chose to get a tattoo on his arm, which says ‘never underestimate the power of the words love and family’. He explains why: “When I’m feeling down or having a bad day I put my head in my arms and just look at my tattoo. I will read it and read it because the strength of my family’s love keeps me going and stops me feeling suicidal.”

As for his second family – Help for Heroes – Jason is humbled by the support on offer and is thankful to all those who choose to put their hand in their pockets and a pound in a pot. He says: "Everybody who supports this Charity is helping people like me and Andrea. I suppose, in some sense, it is these people – the generous public – that saved my life. Please, please don’t stop remembering us or supporting H4H. You’re amazing and I can’t say thank you enough.”

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