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Lee James

Fighting for a Brighter Future - Lee’s Story

Lee James was fresh out of school when he joined the Army in 2006. Aged just 16, he was too young to be deployed so had to watch his battalion go off to war without him. He says: “The guys I was serving with were out in Iraq and I had to stay behind. When I turned 18 I decided to volunteer for a deployment as I wanted to get one under my belt.”

On the battlefields of Afghanistan Lee experienced the reality of war as he came under fire and faced the constant threat of Improvised Explosive Devices. All the training in the world couldn’t have prepared him for what he saw.

Lee did his best to cope, but little did he know his problems were just beginning. Still in his teens and with a different regiment, he didn’t feel he could talk to the guys about what he was going through and experiencing: “I was just a young boy, I was barely 18. I was out on tour with soldiers who’d served for years and it didn’t seem right to talk to them.”  

Lee felt alone and with no one to confide in began writing as a way of coping. He says pouring out his emotions onto paper was very therapeutic: “It was a way of speaking to myself and getting rid of my problems. It helped me get through that first tour.”

Two years later, in 2010, Lee returned to Afghanistan. Hoping the experiences on his previous tour would stand him in good stead, Lee felt prepared for what would come. Then the worst happened when he was caught in an incident during a patrol: “We drove over an IED – even though I’d escaped with only minor injuries it turned out the experience really affected me mentally. The emotional impact was huge. It was a downward spiral from there.”

After returning home, Lee’s condition failed to improve. He was crippled by anxiety and depression and was unable to even leave the house or socialise with friends. Once a vibrant and outgoing young man, he was haunted by memories of the things he had seen during war. He was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in 2011 and has been in recovery ever since.

Because of the taboo that exists around mental health, Lee felt unable to talk about his PTSD, thinking he would be judged and ignored. As a result, he channelled his emotions into his writing. He wanted to escape from the nightmares and suicidal thoughts he was living with every day: “My writing evolved into poetry – it was the best way of showing what I was going through. I’d write something down and then go and read it until it didn’t make me feel as bad. After that I could scrunch it up, put it in the bin and hope I’d dealt with it.”

As beneficial as Lee’s writing was for getting things off his chest, his PTSD continued to get worse and worse. It couldn’t just be scrunched up and thrown into a bin. Lee was in a dark place and believing there was no way out tried to take his own life: “I couldn’t speak to anyone about my condition and went through a really bad patch in my life. I made several suicide attempts and was in and out of mental hospitals.”

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It was following a visit to the Department of Community Mental Health in Tidworth that Lee was put in touch with Help for Heroes. At first hesitant about the prospect of visiting one of their recovery centres, walking through the doors was instead the turning point: “Help for Heroes has given me direction – I didn’t have that before. In my head I’d think ‘you don’t deserve to be here anymore.’ Everything seemed utterly worthless. The Charity told me I had a reason to live and allowed me to be myself again. They picked me up and have put me on the right path.”

Before Help for Heroes, Lee felt he couldn’t see a future for himself. Since being involved with the Charity he says his outlook has changed dramatically: “I now feel optimistic about life. I’m excited for the future and really looking forward to what’s coming next.”

Back when he was at his worst, Lee didn’t want to leave the house. Now he is throwing himself into lots of opportunities available through the Charity. One of these is playing for the Help for Heroes Cricket Club. Being back in a team environment after shutting himself away for so long has been brilliant for Lee’s recovery. He explains: “With PTSD you feel like you’re on your own, but being part of the cricket team brings guys like me together. It’s as if we’re back in the regiment without the added pressure of military life. We feel accepted for who we are and all try to help each other.”

Lee also started writing about his time with the club, with one of his heartfelt poems even featuring in the programme for Cricket for Heroes. Before that, he’d never shown anyone his writing. But after being encouraged to do so by the Charity, he says he’s been amazed by the response: “It’s difficult for people to know what guys like me are going through. I hope my writing gives them an understanding of that as well as giving others who are suffering a voice.”

The poetry he writes is so important to Lee he chose to have some of it tattooed on his arm as part of a larger design of an angel fighting demons. The words, ‘I’ll rest my soul in heaven for I spend my time in hell,’ tell a story of Lee’s journey from the depths of despair to where he is now. He says: “The tattoo shows everything I’ve been through. It empowers me to be strong in the future.”

The courage Lee has shown turning his life around having hit rock bottom has been phenomenal. As he looks ahead to a brighter future, he says it’s something he believes wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the public: “They’ve given so much to Help for Heroes and I hope they continue to do so – there are many more Service personnel with psychological wounds out there. The amount the public have done so far is very humbling. As blunt as it sounds, I probably wouldn’t be here without them.”

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