Abuse and Impunity in the UK Armed Forces

Photograph Source: Corporal Rob Kane/MOD – OGL v1.0

There is an underbelly of sexual abuse in this society. It happens in schools, coaching environments, the church, you name it. There are millions of people in this country who were sexually abused as children. I’m one of those people.

This underbelly of abuse is all around us, it’s everywhere. Now and again it will make a headline, and then go away. We have had the football association revelations – the hundreds of apprentices who were abused between 1970 and 2000. We know about the forced adoption of 186,000 children from 1948 onwards, including 130,000 who – to ease the country’s financial burden – were taken from their mothers and deported to the Commonwealth, where many of them went on to be brutalized, sexually abused, and even murdered. In the police, David Carrick has now admitted eighty-five offenses of rape, sexual abuse and other crimes; and Wayne Couzens’ crimes are well known. We’re now hearing about the fire service and the NHS. In institutions like the police, and the MoD, deviants flourish – sex perverts, violent people, bullies. The armed forces in particular is a playground for sadistic bastards.

Two-thirds of women in the army have experienced bullying, harrassment or sexual abuse during their time in the forces, and 10% of female child recruits are now sexually assaulted by their colleagues. According to anecdotal evidence, that proportion is similar for boys. It’s the dirty little secret that everybody in those institutions knows about. Of course they don’t want to admit it, so lawsuits take place behind the scenes, compensation deals are made with litigation solicitors behind closed doors, and the public never hears about it. With over two million veterans in the UK today, we are talking about hundreds of thousands who have been bullied, brutalised, tortured and sexually assaulted.

The perpetrators could be lauded, they could be on the battlefield, and yet they could be brutalising us at the same time. And they were.

My childhood was not easy. There was abuse in the home, and then in my early teens I was groomed and sexually abused by a paedophile. Deviants and predators will know how to find those vulnerable children and young adults. They seek them out. Frequently, I would just black out. If you know anything about sexual abuse, for a lot of children it’s an out of body experience. Your mind, your brain and your emotions try to protect your body. So you black out, because of the trauma.

 I didn’t fulfil my potential at school, but did well enough. I was a good sportsman, and I liked scrapping. My dad said that trouble had a way of finding me; that if something was wrong I would be the idiot that stood up and said ‘ this is wrong’. I never learnt to pick my battles. People have told me that wherever I can, I’ve protected people. But I haven’t always been able to protect myself.

At age seventeen, I joined the army and the violence and abuse entered a whole new sphere, another planet.

Some of the training instructors liked to think they had the power of life and death over you. One of my first training instructors had served in the Falklands. He said to me, I don’t do this on purpose, but I can’t stop myself bullying and hurting recruits. I thought, bloody hell, get a grip on yourself and get some help – punching and kicking us isn’t going to help you. But as far as I know, nothing was done. It doesn’t bear thinking about how many beatings he took part in.

There are so many whose lives have been ruined. A few months before I started training, one young man had told his training instructor he was gay. This was in 1983-4, and homosexuality in the army was still illegal. This training instructor set a gang of blokes on him and put him in A and E.

It’s only now that I realize I actually went into the army with PTSD. I was an excellent sportsman, but the PTSD can incapacitate you without warning. The body and mind stop working in unison, it becomes hard to concentrate and tasks get harder and harder to perform. Sometimes, it feels like your brain has just stopped working, you glaze over. All that is exacerbated by the stresses of army life – especially when you’re getting hardly any sleep for days at a time – and when it happens, you’re looked upon as weak and stupid. And that doesn’t leave you. Once you’ve got that tag you’re done for. You’re fair game.

For a start, there is the psychological warfare. It’s not a bullet. You walk into a room, and somebody’s shit on your bed. You go to your meals, and people don’t want to sit with you; you’re walking up to the table, and everybody looks down and there’s silence – there’s hundreds of people in there but nobody wants you near them. Then you go back to your room, you spend your life in isolation inside your head, with every single eye watching you. My regiment was 22 Engineer, one of the largest in the country. You’re in a regiment of five hundred to one thousand people, but you’re all on your own. Yet you’re infamous – everybody knows you.

Several times in training, people who’d never met me used to come looking for me, asking me ‘Are you Fessey?’ When I said I was, they’d say,  ‘We’re gonna have a fight’. Either I’d tell them to eff off and leave me alone, or we’d have a dust up if I wasn’t too tired. Sometimes I’d just sit there and let them kick the crap out of me. I once woke up to someone beating the living hell out of me, shouting ‘Fess, Fess, I’m gonna fucking kill you!’. Several minutes later he was on the floor begging for his life. They wanted to charge me for assault. I still see his face every day.

I was never on the battlefield; my battle was every single day with ‘my own people.’  But it was battlefield brutality. There are no words to describe the level of violence we endured. Towards the end of my time in the army, my last sergeant was telling us about one of our colleagues who was suspected of thieving. At the morning parade, he told the 20 or 30 of us gathered there, “You didn’t hear this from me, but I want him sorting out.” He ended up getting bullied daily. Within weeks, I was getting the same treatment. This sergeant was promoted to staff sergeant when I left.

One night in around 1986-87, whilst I was on my plant operators course, I came back to the camp drunk as a skunk. I was sat on the stairs outside, and woke everyone up with my singing. A former comrade came out in his boxers telling me what he would do to me if I didn’t stop, but I just laughed and carried on. He kept hitting me, again and again, maybe twenty or thirty punches, until my nose started coming away from my face. The blood just flowed out like a tap. Eventually, he took me to A and E and they stitched it back. I remember it like it was yesterday; it’s still doing damage all these years later. People can die from that kind of beating. It’s after that that I went AWOL for 15-20 days, resulting in a spell in regimental prison, and getting kicked off the training course I was on.

I stayed in the army for four years. Once you turn eighteen, your color service begins. Unless you have special permission (PVR – premature voluntary release) you cannot leave for the next three years. During my four years, as well as being brutalized and tortured, I was sexually assaulted three times. If I hadn’t been kicked off my course I would have been obliged to stay in the army for six years. I probably wouldn’t have made it out alive.

Despite everything, after the army, I did well. My work became my passion, my obsession really. I got my qualifications – level 2 gym instructor, level 3 PTI (personal training instructor), level 4 health and fitness advisor (specializing in cardiac rehab), scuba diving assistant club instructor and lifeguard license. My deepest dive – I did it with a friend of mine was 51.1 metres – 167 feet. One of the club’s senior divemasters said that people like us were the future of scuba diving in this country. By my early 40s, I had become a recognised endurance athlete.

For a while, I was employed by the NHS, where I spent nine years working in cardiac rehab. Those years did humanize me. I got some calm for a time and was starting to feel the effect. But in the final years, with the effects of the illnesses, that began slipping away and everything snowballed. The job became too much, and I couldn’t, no matter what I did, get any help or support. That downward spiral has not eased, and the MoD is not taking its foot off the accelerator. I try to tell myself all the good things I’ve done in my life, what I’ve achieved, but it’s just not working anymore. It means nothing now, all the successes and achievements mean absolutely nothing. The army killed me thirty-nine years ago – and that goes for many of us.

I have been diagnosed with PTSD, Complex PTSD, and multiple personality disorders. All of it has been documented as having been caused by service – it’s in writing from the MoD, confirmed by the Secretary of State, in black and white. Complex PTSD is caused by a constant barrage of brutality and torture – emotional, physical and sexual – from which there is no escape. That’s what happened to me in the army, as now recognized by the MoD. And for that, I get a disability war pension of £352 per month. I’d like to wipe my arse on every single one of them, but I have bills to pay.

Complex PTSD gets worse over time if the right support or treatment is not put in place. You think you’ll find satisfaction and closure, but you don’t. It takes pieces out of you for the whole of your life. You don’t ‘survive’ it, you just exist; every year that passes, I feel less and less human. The police are no help in a crisis; they use it as an excuse to attack you. I have been assaulted by the police five times in recent years.

I used to be quite proud that the army didn’t break me, but now I think I’m starting to lose my mind. Every year and decade that passes, I feel less and less human. It didn’t happen overnight, but I just feel rage, absolute rage. I don’t feel adored, I don’t feel respected, and I certainly don’t feel loved by my nation. I am ashamed of myself, I’m ashamed of this country, I’m ashamed this has happened to me, I’m ashamed that it is still happening to other people. I feel horrible and dirty and ashamed and guilty every single day. That’s how so many of us feel.

Like a lot of veterans, I just want to isolate. Life to me is futile – I wish I’d never been born, it’s too hard. I’m forcing myself to sleep 10, 12, 15 hours a day – I actually can’t face life anymore. It hurts, all of the time.

Veterans commit suicide at the rate of almost one per day in this country, and those numbers are rising. All of us who have been through the kind of abuse I have are potential suicides – anything could tip us over. And when people like us attempt it, we mean it, we’re not messing about. It can’t come quick enough. My first attempt was in my thirties – I shot myself with a mini-flare. Later, I actually tried to cut myself apart. I don’t mean self-harming, I tried to cut off my right arm and right leg. I wanted to look like how I felt, and I wanted to feel the pain. I just hacked and hacked and hacked. I wanted to bleed out. When the police and ambulance arrived, they said it was a scene from a horror movie. I hadn’t phoned them, I was saying goodbye to family members and they got the GPS from my phone. They put me in handcuffs, with my right arm half hanging off. The nurse told me if I had cut by another millimeter or two I’d have lost my arm. A week later, covered in hundreds of stitches, I saw my GP. He said to me, you’re clever, why didn’t you just cut your throat? I wanted to plaster the walls with him. Sometimes I imagine going somewhere public, wrapping myself in barbed wire and petrol and setting myself alight. To show this country what it’s done to me, to make them really see it, so they can’t ignore it anymore.

At the age of 17, I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever be this debilitated. I’m a completely different person, what it’s taken from me. Dr. Atkins has described me as severely mentally disabled. You think that you can keep it inside you, or put it behind you, so you can go through the rest of your life – you think you’ll find satisfaction, closure, but you don’t. You just don’t. It takes pieces out of you for the whole of your life. You don’t ‘survive’ it, you don’t live, you just exist, that’s all.

I have lived my life in melancholy, sad all the time. I don’t get spells of happiness, I just get fleeting glimpses of it once in a while. But it quickly falls apart, so you learn to live without it.

There is a limit to the doctors’ and nurses’ understanding, I think, because they were trained to save lives. They weren’t trained to kill. And when you are trained to kill with the violence that we were trained to commit, you’re going to have the most intrusive violent thoughts, and you’re not going to know where to go or what to do with them. So, the quacks and the professionals, we don’t tell them everything, of course we don’t. We’d all be locked up.

For veterans, there is a scale, a spectrum. At the bottom end is prison, drugs, alcohol, homelessness. They’ve split up with their families, lost contact with children, lost jobs, no careers etc. And then there are obviously those that have gone on to become entrepreneurs, authors, consultants etc – they’re at the top end of the scale. I’m somewhere in the middle.

I don’t go to the reunions myself, but I’ve heard about what happens. You sit in a crowd of 50 to 100 of them; some may start fighting, some will take their meds; anything can kick off. So I tend to steer clear of veterans’ organizations and other veterans now. I’ll only talk to them if I need to.

Every single step you take with the MoD is a fight. The military covenant doesn’t exist, it’s another lie. When you go for your war pension, they discredit you. They discredit the diagnosis, the research, the evidence. They trash your character. For about two to three years, it made me suicidal. I believe it’s a conscious strategy, to herd us towards suicide. They have been strategizing this for decades. They just keep you treading water or marking time for as long as possible, hoping you go away or commit suicide. But I’m no longer treading water, I feel like I’m drowning,

I haven’t found the words that will inspire anybody – the police, my doctors, politicians – to actually do anything. I’ve now approached 183 organizations – politicians, media outlets, journalists, doctors, academics, barristers. I got declared disabled, got my illnesses verified as caused by service, all on my own, without any help from any of them at all. The last media organization I talked to, the journalist actually said to me – what you need to do is align yourself with a celebrity. Become their friend and let them speak for you: that’s the only way your voice will ever be heard , nobody gives a shit about people like you. I was flabbergasted. Then he hung up on me.

I spoke to one councilor and they said, I talk about parking tickets, Mr Fessey, this is beyond our remit. Another councillor started to question my attitude on the phone; their default seems to be to tell you, you’re being aggressive. Another councilor, after an hour and a half’s conversation, told me he was shocked and horrified. But he hasn’t come back to me.

I’ve contacted five MPs now – Shabana Mahmoud, Tobias Elwood, Angela Eagle (my local MP), Leo Docherty and Johnny Mercer. None of them have been much help. I’ve been in communication with Angela Eagle for about three years now and I still can’t get a meeting. They’re just dismissive of you as a constituent. I don’t expect Angela Eagle to drop everything and give me a call. But I expect something after all these years. I’ve been waiting for decades but I can’t find the words to inspire anybody into any action. The desperation is brain-numbing. And I’m becoming less and less human every year.

I’ve contacted veterans’ organizations over the years on many occasions. But, again, too many of us are beaten into submission. Combat Stress has helped very little; and the British Legion hasn’t done enough either. I don’t have much faith in many of the professionals either. Especially when they sit in the room and ignore you, contradict you, offend you.  And then when you’ve regurgitated everything and had to relive it all, they turn round and say you’re too complex or you’re too complicated and we can’t help you. But it’s not complex and complicated at all: you put the proper help and support in place and you stop looking down on us. One surgeon told me the NHS is not equipped to deal with personality disorders. But the country, the MoD, have caused it. And now they’ve turned their back on me.

One consultant psychiatrist I saw, Kovvuri, described my being groomed and sexually abused as a child as me “allowing myself” to be used for sex and money. The lead for the veterans’ complex treatment service for the North, Lawrence Atkins, wrote to her imploring her to change her language. Abused children still get described as “promiscuous” today, by the very professionals who are supposed to be protecting them. One of them scoffed when I told him we were all potential suicides. I thought, who the hell are you? Scoffing, sniggering, laughing at me? But that’s what I’ve been met with for many years now from the professionals. They’ve got their degrees, status, they claim they treat and look after us, but sometimes I swear they don’t know what they’re talking about. Often, they treat us like idiots..

It’s not just me. There are officially over two million veterans in the country right now. They’ve lost maybe a million because they’re off the radar – they’re in prison, they don’t claim benefits, they’re homeless. They don’t trust the state, and they don’t want its recognition. They’ve just fallen out of society, fallen away.

There’s a myth about army life. You’re fed this romance as a child growing up, and then putting the uniform on it’s still romantic, and then you think when you retire you’ll be looked after, but it’s all a load of bullshit, it doesn’t exist. You’re sold this romantic notion of the future – in uniform, traveling the world, fighting wars. But they don’t tell you about what happens after that. Too many end up like me. There’s not enough help and support. Decades later, if you’re still alive, you might get your compensation and pension. But many don’t make it. And for the survivors, things slowly deteriorate. People like me should be dead, we should have died when we were fighting. You can’t let people like me live our lives unless you are going to look after us and support us. Because we just disappear into our own trauma. At home, my mind has become more like a prison cell. War is a romantic notion dreamt up by your government, your politicians, novelists, the church, the crown, the MoD, to glorify making the ultimate sacrifice – dying for your country in battle. What a load of absolute shite. If we knew back then what we knew now, there wouldn’t be any armies and there wouldn’t be any war.

I would never have thought, as a teenager watching all those cowboy films and war films, that my patriotism would one day have disappeared. But my love of this country doesn’t exist anymore. I served, protected and fought for this country, and in return, this country sexually abused, brutalized and tortured me. That has now been acknowledged, recognized and accepted, and the MoD knows who did it. My training instructor Corporal Brendon Rhodes completed his training instructors course in 1983, and went into the training regiment the following year. That would be a minimum three-year contract. Yet in October 1985, he was discharged from the army.  All we were told was, “The dirty fucker has been discharged.” Decades later, in the 2020s, Hampshire Police traveled to Yorkshire to question him about allegations of sexual assault made by former recruits. No further action was taken.

My abuser got away with it because the recruit who reported it was bribed with the prospect of a great career if he didn’t go to the police. And I have to go to sleep knowing that that vile piece of work has never had to face up to any of what he has done to us. It gets perpetuated because so many of us don’t want to talk about it. When I had my tribunal last year, my psychiatrist was aware of nineteen others who had all been brutalized, tortured or sexually abused in the army. He contacted them to ask if they would write a statement to support my case. Not a single one of them wanted to do it. That hurt. But I don’t blame them. It’s too painful. We live it every single day, and then to have to write it down and regurgitate it – it’s too much. We’ve been beaten into submission.

The only way things will change is if we talk about it. Childhood sexual abuse is an uncomfortable topic, but we can’t keep brushing it under the carpet and hope it will go away. That only perpetuates it. We need to acknowledge it, admit it goes on, and keep it in the public eye. Then hopefully other people will come out and say, this happened to me as well. That’s the only way things will change. And they need to change. Our lives need to be better. We deserve more.