Experience Counts after terrible losses
Lanarkshire veterans and their families are receiving lifeline support from a former Wishaw corporal who has first- hand experience of the psychological and practical difficulties of making the transition from military to civilian life.
Former Coltness High School pupil Andrew Weir was working as a glazier with Motherwell District Council when his 16-year-old cousin, Stuart Weir, of Cambusnethan, was shot and killed during a training exercise at Army barracks near Newcastle.
The tragedy in 1991 had a major impact on 19- year- old Andrew, who quit his job and, within two weeks, had joined the Queen’s Own Highlanders’ Glencorse Barracks in Penicuik.
“Wishaw was changing, the job was changing and the Army was a better fit for me,” said Andrew.
The British Army took him to Germany in 1992 and he married Anne, of Muirhouse, a year later. The couple went on to have two children, Mark and Melissa, for whom the Army was a way of life.
After a spell in Edinburgh, soldier Andrew returned to Fallingbostel, Germany, before being deployed to Bosnia on a six-month tour.
His Army career took him to Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Iraq and the Falkland Islands, with him serving latterly as a welfare non-commissioned officer looking after the housing needs of families when soldiers were on deployment.
But in 2012, Captain Walter Barrie – the boss Andrew held in the highest regard – was shot in the back and killed by an Afghani national on Remembrance Day. Andrew admits that then, it all became too much to bear and he left the Army the next day.
“He was a great boss – a great family man. He was everything you u could aspire to be. I was s close to his wife and son. I could have done another r two years but I went back k to the UK, supporting g families.
“It was quite hard to take. I have not been able to deal with loss very y well since I came out,” ” admitted Andrew, 45.
“I have never had a chance to deal with any y loss. That is one of the e things that has been n highlighted since I left ft the military. It was a shock k coiming out. I did not have e the support that I was led d to expect and I ended up p in depression.”
Hi s frustration n manifested itself in anger. r.
“I’d been a solider for r 22 years and my attitude e was that I should not be e feeling like this. I did not ot have these problems while le I was in service – only when n I came out. I lost three e close colleagues during my military time and that has as been really damaging over er the years,” he explained.
“I’ve had bricks and nd bottles thrown at me but I have never been seriously injured. I’ve had a few close calls in Northern Ireland, but nothing too serious.”
Shortly after leaving the Army, he completed an HNC in social care at New Lanarkshire College, East Kilbride, with the aim of following a career as a social worker.
The family moved from Edinburgh to
Andrew’s home town of Wishaw – a move he admits was difficult for all.
He picked up a job as an assistant support worker with the Scottish Veterans Residency in Cranhill, supporting former military families through homelessness, rehousing, drugs and alcohol abuse – a role he had to leave due to his academic commitments.
Then, his path crossed again with Deborah Burns, who had been Captain Barrie’s military clerk for 18 years, and she introduced him to Wishaw-based project Experience Counts, mental health charity SAMH and Veterans First Point Lanarkshire.
In order to join Experience Counts as a peer support worker, employees must have lived through trauma and have experienced mental health difficulties.
He is now helping veterans with mental health, drugs and alcohol dependancy, motivation, use of time and integration into the community, getting out of the house and finding accommodation.
In supporting them, Andrew now ow recognises that he too encounters some of the same difficulties and challenges that they face when making the transition to civilian life.
“Accessing a decent GP who will look at me as a veteran with veterans’ issues around mental health is a massive problem,” explained Andrew.
“A doctor asked me to go and find psychological help for myself. It wasn’t medication I needed. It was constructive help with mental health.”
At Ve t e rans First Point Lanarkshire, Andrew receives supervision to help maintain good mental health – a level of support which has allowed him to continue his education at the University of the West of Scotland in Dumfries where he is three years into a BA degree course in social care.
The unique insight he has into veterans will, he hopes, further contribute to the difference he will make in his career in social work in North Lanarkshire.
In his role with Veterans First Point Lanarkshire and Experience Counts during the past 18 months, Andrew has worked with military men and women whose trauma dates back to the Falklands, Lockerbie, Iraq and Northern Ireland.
“There haven’t been many from Afghanistan – a few, but not as many as there will be. The amount of veterans in Lanarkshire is huge and that’s why it’s imperative that Veterans First Point, Experience Counts and mental health services mantain a presence in this area. By coming to these meetings, people are peer-to-peer sharing without knowing they are doing it in a safe and confidential environment,” continued Andrew, of North Kilmeny Crescent, Coltness.
“I have never regretted joining the Army, but I do regret leaving it.
“It is hard and difficult and the deployments are long. I would go back and do it all again. I met great people from all backgrounds and difficulties and the bosses I have had have been second to none.
“It is a life-changing experience. The anger is always there and something can make me angry and agitated very easily. Because of my education and career, I have pushed everything back and tried to focus on different things and tried not to dwell on what could have been and what could have happened.”
*Veterans can attend access points every Friday at Houldsworth Central Library within Wishaw Health Centre on Kenilworth Avenue, between 11am and 2pm.
For inquiries, call 0300 303 3051.
Working together Deborah Burns and Andrew Weir