Cosham navy veteran tells of struggles adapting to civvy street

Barry Lawson is a Royal Navy veteran who was medically discharged from the service because of a spinal injury. Here the 35-year-old, from Cosham, writes movingly about his struggle navigating civvy street and how there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you fight for it.

Tuesday, 29th October 2019, 4:07 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th November 2019, 9:55 am
Barry Lawson, 35, from Cosham, suffered a spinal injury called cauda equina back in April 2012 and had to resign from the Royal Navy. Picture: Sarah Standing (251019-59)

St Francis of Assisi wrote: ‘start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible’.

When I read these moving words by the great theologian, they resonate with the course that my life has taken over the past five years. In 2014, I was discharged from the Royal Navy on medical grounds due to a spinal injury known as cauda equina. It is a condition that develops when the cauda equina nerves at the base of the spinal cord become compressed. Each case will vary between each patient, but symptoms include loss of bowel and bladder control, sexual dysfunction, pain and weakness in legs and feet.

In April 2012 I was in the grip of a battle to treat cauda equina. The onset happened after a dead-lift during a rehab session where I was already being treated for a large herniated disc. I was aware of the symptoms and immediately sought urgent medical attention when I started to experience urinary retention. I was admitted to Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, and underwent emergency surgery to remove the offending disc.

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Barry at his passing out parade in 2008 with dad John, brother Graeme and mum Sandra.

It was not long after surgical intervention that I had to accept my career had come to an abrupt end.

I had just turned 24 when I enlisted into the Royal Navy in June 2008. Before joining, I was a gamekeeper. Despite my love for the job, I wished for a life with a bit more adventure, travel and less solitude so I decided to take the Queen’s shilling and threw myself into the Senior Service.

I grew up in a former mining village called Quarter on the outskirts of Hamilton in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. It has a rich heritage of industry and agriculture. Indeed, Portsmouth and the people are not too dissimilar in character to those of Hamilton so it is not surprising that I settled in the city and made it home with my wife Emma, a food technology teacher from Denmead. We met online, one date led to another and seven years later we’re married with our troublesome black Labrador, Milo.

Up until my injury, I had a relatively successful career in the Royal Navy. I worked with the Royal Marines, including being the company medic to the Mountain Leaders; completing my winter warfare course, including ice breaking drills in minus 25C. I also worked on board HMS Kent.

Barry with his wife Emma (31). Picture: Sarah Standing (251019-15)

It was my dream job and to top it off, I was extremely fit, participating in cross-country running and triathlon.

Yet once my career came to an end I had to work out what to do next.

I searched for a new job but finding employment has proven difficult for someone with chronic back problems. I can’t stand or sit for long periods or lift heavy objects, which has narrowed what I can do.

Having no formal qualifications other than a few Scottish Standard Grades, I enrolled on to a degree with Open University to read history, graduating in 2017.

Barry at his graduation in 2017.

However finding employment, while at the same time managing a long-term health condition was proving rather difficult. I spent all my savings on studying.

Since leaving I have skipped from job to job – all I could get was low hours and zero-hour contracts.

Essentially I have ended up subsidising myself to work with the small pay-out I received upon leaving. Each job has been woefully unsuitable for my condition and left me without any savings to subsidise my small pension. Only recently I left a job due to ill health, causing further stress.

Chronic pain can only be managed not cured and it is extremely debilitating. It can be managed by stretching, practicing mindfulness and through the use of opioids. While these are effective, the effects can be hard to live with. I can also suffer from short-term memory loss and poor cognitive ability, among many other side effects too long to list.

One of the secondary illnesses that commonly occurs alongside chronic pain is depression. I slumped into a dark period when I was turned down for Personal Independence Payment (PIP); straw, camel and proverbial come to mind.

Up until November 2017 I had been receiving the daily living component of PIP. Yet the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) still withdrew my benefit at review and tribunal, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and a supporting letter from my MP.

I was on the ropes. I don’t know what is worse – chronic pain or severe depression. Hope soon faded as well as my self-esteem and confidence. I was unrecognisable.

I was prescribed antidepressants and I kept persevering, if anything for my wife who has been an extraordinary support.

We both went to the Portsmouth Job Centre in November 2017 for support, where we were told that it could not be given as we did not meet any of the criteria.

I was tired and exhausted. I could not find happiness in anything. Mentally, each day it felt like I was dragging myself through thick mud.

The last two sentences of Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est kept coming to mind.

I eventually asked the Open University careers team for support – we veterans hate asking for help.

I told the team I thought about journalism, although being a successful journalist in my mind was reserved for Oxbridge graduates, not a crippled 35-year-old veteran with no journalism experience.

I soon received a telephone call where I was told the good news that I had secured work experience at The News, Portsmouth.

This came out of the blue and I was ready for the challenge ahead.

As we approach the November ceremonies it must be remembered that my story is only one of thousands who have been affected by a broken system, where servicemen and women are abandoned by the very state they served without question.

We did our job with professionalism – we have not received the same from our masters in Whitehall.

Each one who has been injured in service have their own impossible. I found it impossible to be kind to myself but I am getting there. I have also been reflective on what I can do, not what I can’t and accepting this. I am more content with what I have, my wife and family.

And with my Disabled Veterans Scholarship from the Open University to read English Literature, I hope to find a new direction in my life as a writer.