By Samantha Rea
Former Welsh Guard Simon Weston is a veteran of the Falklands War. He suffered serious burns to almost 50% of his body when his ship was bombed. Incredibly, he has since become friends with Carlos Cachon, the Argentine pilot responsible for the bombing. This is the second half of a two-part interview in which Simon speaks exclusively to Sorted magazine.
Q: You seem like you’re in a really good place now, but you have had a lot of operations, you suffered from PTSD and there was a time when you were drinking heavily and feeling suicidal. How did you get through that?
There were lots of different things – it was little and big things combined. For instance, people always come into my life at the right time, just when I need it. I’m a very positive person, I always have been, and I’ve always found that the more positive you are, the more people with positivity gravitate to you – and the more receptive they are to your thought processes, desires, and what you’re trying to achieve.
People who see negativity in everything stop being as productive as they can be. I don’t have negative people around me. I don’t gravitate to them. All my friends are positive. They believe things will work out – we just have to work at it. Nobody’s going to come along and solve all your problems. But if you’re working hard, people who can help you will always come along. They see you’re trying to achieve something, and they think, ‘I can do this little bit that might help.’ Sometimes that’s all it is with life.
Do you remember as a kid, you’d see a bar, and you’d try to pull yourself up but you couldn’t get your arm over the top, and it would be just that half an inch you’d need? Then somebody touches your foot and up you go! That’s all other people’s positivity is – it’s that help over the bar.
Eventually you’ll figure out how to do it yourself, but sometimes, just so you’ve done it once, you need a bit of a push up, that’s all. I’ve been very fortunate to have those people in my life. My mother was a district nurse and a qualified psychiatric [nurse], but her colleagues Mary and Jean used to come round the house to help with my dressings, because my mother was too close to it. They would probably be reprimanded if they were to do now what they did when I was a young man, because they used to come into the bathroom, and go: ‘Right, we’re going to give you a bath!’ And I’d say: ‘I don’t need you to give me a bath! Clear off!’
As much as they’d seen gazillions of naked men, it was like: ‘No, bugger off! Leave me alone!’ They were a nightmare, but I loved them for doing it, because it was fun and that’s what life is – certainly when I grew up – it was people taking the mickey out of you. If you can take the mickey out of somebody and be a bit blunt with them, you know they’re going to be OK.
Q: So your own positivity and the positivity of the people around you got you through the worst of it?
Yeah! There are difficulties, but even then, it’s staying positive and looking for other people to help. Always be prepared to ask for help. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and there’s nothing wrong with things not being right – it’s how you go about fixing it. I’ve learned so much from different people. Meeting Carlos was one of those moments. Sometimes you have to meet negativity too, and that makes you realise how strong and resilient you are, and how much of a good place you’re in. People have made cruel denouncements about my disfigurement, but I’m still here, I’m still happy, I’m still healthy.
Q: You’ve spoken out about the lack of support and compensation for veterans. Do you think things have improved for veterans since you started campaigning?
Some things have improved. The media have been brilliant, because they covered it and they supported the guys, and the people in the country did too. We from the Falklands campaigned hard for the future generations. There was no hope for us of getting any compensation from the government, but we knew how hard it had been for us – and we were still in a time when you could buy a house for a reasonable sum of money.
A lot of the guys who join the military don’t come from affluent backgrounds. I came from a council estate, and the majority of the guys were from very working class families, so when things went wrong for you, when you’re injured and have to leave, you have very little in the way of back up.
And of course there was PTSD. We’re all aware of mental health problems now, and that’s primarily down to the Falklands guys, because of their PTSD. Now everybody’s realising what I’ve been saying for over 30 years – that the biggest disease on the planet is mental health problems.
My campaigning was about giving people the opportunity to live the best lives they could, after they’d given their best for their country. It was never about profitability or making life ultra-easy. It was about making things that much easier, considering what most of them had sacrificed.
I campaigned about equipment for soldiers on the frontline, because if you’re asking people to give of their best, to do their best, to sacrifice everything, then is it not common sense that you would give them the best that’s available? To give them the best fighting chance to survive whatever they face?
When I campaigned for compensation, and the way that healthcare should be conducted, I wasn’t campaigning for me. I was campaigning for them – and the people that would come after them. Every single one of us was somebody’s son or daughter. All we were campaigning for was to have a system in place that – if you made it home – would give you the best and most equitable resettlement, enabling you to live life as fully and constructively as possible, so you can carry on contributing.
One of the biggest problems is that people feel lost and isolated by depression and PTSD. That’s when they stop contributing, and feel their contribution isn’t valued any more. If people felt valued all the time, depression largely wouldn’t be there. You look at sports stars – it’s when they retreat into their shells that they start having problems.
Q: What improvements would you still like to see?
The financial package for people who defend this country is woeful, so there need to be other incentives. I’d like to see the children of veterans attending university free of charge, like they can in America. A lot of people won’t join the military because they worry about who will look after their kids if something goes wrong – it would be a great incentive to join if they knew their children’s tuition would be paid for. Then their children, because of their educational status, would be able to contribute more greatly to the country’s future, and be of benefit to the country, like their parents were.
I would also like to see opportunities made available for people in the military to do psychology degrees. This would give veterans a degree, and it would give other veterans the opportunity to talk to someone who understands fearing you could be overrun, caught, tortured, murdered, or left limbless or blind. Those things go through your mind, but you still keep fighting – and that’s a horrendous stress and strain.
Talking to somebody who’s been there can help – if I’m going to tell you about the horrors I’ve seen in conflict, it’s easier for me to talk to you if you’ve been there as well.
Getting veterans with PTSD back on a level plane means their mental health issues won’t reach the worst degrees – the drinking, the isolating, the depression, the aggression, the alcohol abuse, the substance abuse, even physical abuse. There’s a huge amount of divorce, and providing psychological help would reduce the effect on the family and children of veterans. It would also take away the excuses for physical abuse, because they’ve had help so there’s no excuse for it.
I’d like to see an educational system within the military encouraging people to get qualifications in lots of different areas – not just psychology – to better prepare them for Civvy street. Most people join when they’re young, so they’re easy to train, coach and educate, so I’d like this happening from the start of their careers.
There are lots of people in the military who are very intelligent, who’ve never thought of themselves as being so. I’d like them encouraged to explore their abilities, skills and talents in different ways, because eventually they’re going to come out of the military.
They’ll leave with self-discipline and a sense of duty. The discipline of being on time, doing the right thing and working until the job is done – rather than having their coats on at quarter to five, which is part of civilian culture. There’s a great deal of respect for veterans, but what you had in the military is not what you’re going to get in Civvy street. At least if you’ve got qualifications you can leapfrog some of the way up.
I know of organisations that allow you to get a Masters degree in telecommunications from being in the military, because of the courses you’ve done. I’d like more of that to be made known and worked on in the military. I think these are sensible things we could put in place.
Q: You’ve credited your mum with helping you get through the worst of it, and you said she reunited you with your old regiment – how was that helpful?
I was going through a real sticky patch and my mother contacted the battalion, who sent an officer to the house. He said: ‘Do you want to go to Germany to watch the battalion play rugby?’ They had a cup final, so I went over and I had a great time. Nobody treated me with kid gloves – everybody expected me to do my own bit. We were all staying in the same room, in a barracks. I had the key, and it took me four or five minutes to open the door because I couldn’t hold the key properly. But none of the guys butted in. They waited patiently for me to open the door. I turned the key and the key hurt my hands, but I did it. It sounds like nothing to most people, but the accomplishment of that, the fulfilment of doing it, and the respect the guys gave me, in leaving me to get on with it, helped to build my confidence. There are lots of little things we don’t think are that big – then all of a sudden we see it as being a collection of the things that make your life better.
Q: What have you held onto from the Welsh Guards?
Cleaning my shoes. Always clean your shoes. You could have on a million dollar suit, but if your shoes are dirty, or you haven’t put on any polish, the suit is just hiding the fact that your dedication and attention to detail is not there. I’m a strong believer in doing the little things correctly, because it’s the little things you can do something about – the big things you can’t.
I get annoyed about the little things in life, like locking keys in the house – things you can avoid doing. I never get annoyed at the big things that happen in life, because they’re going to happen anyway.
Simon Weston is available for after dinner speaking, as well as keynote and motivational speaking: simonweston.com
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist. She can be found tweeting here @Samantha_J_Rea