'˜After the Falklands, I bottled everything up'
One moment Chris Purcell was joyfully throwing his daughter in the air, huge smiles on their faces. The next he was collapsed in a heap, shaking, his daughter having fallen on top of him.
It was 1982 and, upon hearing a bang from a nearby rifle range, he was transported from his sunny back garden to the Falklands.
He had experienced a flashback to the moment an Argentine exocet missile hit the warship he was serving on, HMS Sheffield.
In that split second, he could once again see the ball of fire hurtling towards him, hear the bang from the missile and the screeching of burning, twisting metal.
The smell as fire ripped through the ship and the adrenalin pumping through his veins felt as real as it did that awful day when 20 of Chris’ shipmates perished.
Chris, now 56, had been down to the galley to fetch hot water, laughing and joking with the men, just moments before HMS Sheffield was struck.
It took the main impact and many of the chefs were killed.
Chris was married at the time, and one week later he became a dad again to a son. He returned home on leave to live a normal life but he was not the same man.
He continued his service in the Royal Navy, struggling with his visions that haunted him everyday.
His symptoms were made even worse by serving in the first Gulf War.
He had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Chris, of Adames Road, Fratton, says: ‘The years went on and any loud bangs and smells triggered flashbacks.
‘The only people I could talk to about what I went through were elderly people who had fought in World War Two, or close friends who had been through the same experience.’
Both his first two marriages failed as a result of PTSD.
He says: ‘I was living a lie. I was suffering from full-blown depression but I always wore a smile.
‘That’s what people saw even though my head was all over the place.
‘I was angry, bad tempered, but I couldn’t leave the navy because I couldn’t do anything else.
‘I hid what was going on from the navy and I was probably a danger.
‘Although I reached the rank of Petty Officer sometimes I would lose concentration.
‘I was drinking heavily, I’d get fines for being late for work, but I wouldn’t seek medical help.’
He credits his third wife, Louise, with saving him. They married a year after meeting 15 years ago.
Chris says: ‘It wasn’t until I met Louise and talked about my background after bottling everything up for so many years that I began to feel better.
‘She encouraged me to talk.’
Chris was eventually medically discharged from the Royal Navy in 1995.
Louise, 49, says: ‘When I met Chris in 2001, I knew there was something going on with him, and made him talk about things and get help.
‘I can say it was very hard, and very trying to deal with, and I ended up going to a women’s group.
‘It was a relief to know we weren’t the only ones going through this.
‘Chris spent time in Thrywhitt House with Combat Stress, Leatherhead, which helped him talk about things and find coping mechanisms for his PTSD.
‘In 2005 we knew he could not continue working – he was working in the NHS at this time – and he had to leave work.
‘This was when we turned to the Royal British Legion for help. We were worried about losing everything, especially with his loss of income.
‘They helped us sort out our finances.
‘Even if they couldn’t help with something they put us in touch with other charities that specialise in the things we needed help with.
‘They fought our case for pensions and benefits, and helped make us able to feel comfortable living with his illness.’
Chris’s PTSD manifests itself in many different ways.
He finds it difficult to leave the house without Louise.
Noises, such as screeching brakes on a train, take him straight back to that fateful day on HMS Sheffield.
He admits: ‘I’ve put Louise and the children through hell.
‘I would get really angry. The kids would call Mr Volcano Head.
‘I’d be fuming one minute and want them to hug me the next.’
Louise adds: ‘Chris still recalls the event of May 4 every day, but we have learned to live with it.
‘Many silly things may heighten his symptoms such as a car back-firing, or the crushing of the dustbin van – like the bending metal of the ship being hit.
‘I have learnt to spot the signs and help him with it. His GP is now helping more as they are more aware of PTSD now then they were years ago.
‘No-one will ever take away their memories, nothing can do that, but we can live with it.
To see a video of Chris go to portsmouth.co.uk/video.
DEDICATED TO FUNDRAISING
Chris and Louise Purcell dedicate themselves to raising money for the Royal British Legion.
Eight years ago they stepped in to help out the Portsmouth Central Poppy Appeal for a short while – and have been at the helm ever since.
Chris says: ‘When I fell on hard times we had financial problems.
‘The Royal British Legion gave us shopping vouchers and things like that.
‘In return we do the Poppy Appeal for Portsmouth Central. The charity means a great deal to us both.
‘Any chance we get to raise money for them, we do.
‘I know I can call on them at any time.’
As well as the Poppy Appeal Chris also runs stalls at fetes and helps out at the Veterans Outreach drop-in which takes place on the first Wednesday of the month at the Royal Maritime Club.
It runs from 1pm to 7pm and, as well as the Royal British Legion, Combat Stress, and SAAFA also have representatives there to talk about any issues veterans and serving members of the armed forces are concerned about.
And on Sunday, the Astor Big Band are putting on the show More Miller Magic, at the Kings Theatre, Southsea.
All profits from the event, and the bucket collection, will go to the Royal British Legion. Chris and Louise will be there representing the charity.
To book call (023) 9282 8282.
For more information go to britishlegion.org.uk.