A Veteran's Story


My name is Hilary Horton; I am 56 years old and have worked for almost 4 decades as a Professional nurse in acute and emergency care. I have held senior managerial and clinical posts in the NHS, HM Prison service and the Royal Air Force; I am a published author of health related articles and have been instrumental in Professional Nurse Development and training.

As a child from a large family with east end/Essex roots I consider myself to be of a strong constitution with a determined, confident character; mentally resilient with a 'glass half full' perspective on life. But in 2004 I became mentally ill with struggling health until 2010 when I needed (and benefitted from) the Mental Health Services at St. George's Hospital Stafford.


This is my story.................

My military career happened by chance; I was invited to enter the RAF by a medical colleague who happened to be the Commanding Officer of 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron based at RAF Lyneham. To shorten the story I was commissioned in as Flight Lieutenant Nursing Officer and after many years in the role was called up to Regular Service in 2002. In 2003 I was deployed initially to Brize Norton and briefly to Sierre Leone and Cyprus before eventually taking command of a field Hospital in Al Amarah 20 miles North of Basra Iraq.


With all the necessary and adequate kit, having received extensive training on international exercises in extreme climates that had included the Middle East I felt prepared and confident for this very challenging and demanding role. I will not dwell here on descriptions of what it is like to work in a theatre of war; safe to say I saw all the horror of war and experienced the fears and exhaustions that one would expect in such an environment. Thankfully I stayed well throughout, I believed I did my job well and following debrief returned to civilian life at the end of 2003.
In 2004 I became mentally ill but it was to be almost 5 years before I came under the care of the Mental Health Services of St. George's Hospital Stafford.


Working as an Occupational Health manager for an International Transportation company in 2004 an injured man was brought to the medical centre by a First Aider. They were not supposed to be but this was a typical day, an ordinary day. An ambulance was called and I set about caring for the chap who had suffered arc eye sustaining a head injury. Checking vital signs I rolled up his shirt sleeve.


Like a blow hitting me between the shoulders, winding me, bewildering me, I was pole-axed. Seeing the tattoo on the gentleman's arm I was immediately taken back to Iraq, I recall sweat pouring down my back, heart racing, couldn't breathe, feeling fear, as if my mind had become dislodged. I was wearing my desert combats again, The heat almost unbearable, I could smell cordite, and all around me were flies, the stench of war, army uniforms, and the wounded I was back in command of the field hospital in Iraq.


This flashback caused me to lose sense of where I was and what I was doing.
My thoughts were only for my nurses; must prepare them, protect them for this horror; so many last offices to perform. ...


The only way I can describe the flashbacks that became an everyday feature of my nights and days is to say it was like watching a film that could not be stopped. Whatever I was doing in my life when the 'film' started I was compelled to watch it all and re-live the emotions and energies of war, like a frozen consciousness. I began to bargain with the symptoms, talking to the dead, promising to watch the 'film' later if it intruded in my working life. After the film I was always left crying, distressed melancholy and feeling so lonely. I withdrew from family events, deliberately destroyed a long term relationship and pursued lone hobbies like horse riding, swimming, walking etc. Interestingly although I became emotionally numb I did not become depressed I declined prescribed medication fearing it would numb my senses or dull my ever fragile personality; I felt so ashamed, a failure, embarrassed and worried my clinical colleagues would discover what I perceived to be were weakness and failings. Every day became harder and harder work; I suspected I was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome but I refused to believe or accept it; how could experienced clinicians suffer like this. "It will go I know it will pass" became my daily mental chant.


In March 2010 on my way to deliver a presentation to a large corporate client I suffered something of an emotional collapse outside Stafford Railway Station. My GP referred me urgently to the mental health care team; I was seen very quickly by the Veterans Lead Nurse and diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I entered into the care of Dr Shirley Timson and over a period of months slowly recovered helped by Eye Movement Desensitisation Therapy (EMDR). Initially the therapy was very difficult and my flashbacks increased but over time and with the kindness and support notwithstanding her professional skill Dr Timson aided my return to normal mental health. I could speak a thousand words here about my care at St Georges but it's probably enough to say I am well now and working as Specialist continuing to care for others.


Throughout my illness two questions haunted me every day; why was I only tasked with caring for the dead? and, Could we have saved them if we had got to them sooner? Dr Timson with the EMDR therapy made me realise these questions were never mine to ask and the answers to them lay in the higher echelons of the military and political world.


I now have professional memories of Iraq that I can safely recall and use to benefit my continued work in nurse education. Caring for the wounded, injured and those who we lost was an absolute honour for me in Iraq; furthermore as the Senior and most experienced officer/clinician of course I was absolutely the best person for the job.


I write this story to demonstrate that mental illness can occur to even the strongest amongst us; it is not selective, there is no shame and I remained ill for many more years than I needed to because
I refused to understand what was wrong with me or how to access the services at St. George's Hospital. I know now that as a military veteran these services are essential to benefit all ex -service men and women and that if I need them again they will be there, efficient, Professional, discreet and non-judgemental, in fact I could liken the care I received to a warm, kind embrace by a team who genuinely believed in me and my ability to recover.


Hilary Horton Hilary@enspirita.com 


May 2012