Written by Gareth Smith
On September 9th 2002 I jumped on the train and waved goodbye to family and loved ones, my 18-year-old naïve self was about to change in more ways than one. 30 weeks of Royal Marines Commando Training was all a blur, constantly wet, cold, exhausted and depleted, I passed out in April as an original member from 838 Troup and able to wear the coveted Green Beret and be part of an elite body of men.
As a Royal Marine in 42 Commando life was good. However, 4 years into my service I developed Ulcerative Colitis. An emergency flight back to the UK from arctic warfare training in Norway in December of 2005, I was rushed into Hospital. I didn’t have a clue about medicine or what this diagnosis would mean for my chosen career or health. There was discussion of removing part of my colon and having to have a stoma bag, however I responded well to medications and managed to keep my Colon but I wouldn’t manage to keep my job or my planned future.
Life threw me a massive curve ball. Everything I wanted and had planned was to end. I couldn’t continue as a Royal Marine as I knew it. I couldn’t develop into UKSF, I couldn’t go on deployments and I couldn’t go to War. My body had let me down. I had failed and I let the negativity surrounding this control my life. I was medically discharged from the Royal Marines in January 2007 having served a short 5 years. I worked on the bin lorries, I cleaned drains, I did anything I could for money all whilst wishing I was back with the guys. I couldn’t see a future. I didn’t want to see a future. I had given up and succumbed to the fact that this was now me for the entirety of my life. A chance glance at a newspaper however introduced me to the idea of going to university to become a paramedic. I hadn’t even considered a career in health care and going to University at 25 wasn’t part of my plan. However, I was accepted and began a university diploma in Paramedic Science in September 2009.
Completing this diploma in 2011 I was still missing something from my life, the adventure the excitement, the adrenaline. I still couldn’t let go of my Royal Marine past and although I probably never will, I needed more to be able to prove to myself I wasn’t a failure. So, I started working in Iraq, both Basra and Baghdad as a Paramedic within a private security company. This led to other opportunities. I met an Owner of a company on a flight from Baghdad to Dubai. I happened to be upgraded to business class and was sat next to this individual. I didn’t know who he was. I talked about myself and what I did. I was polite, I was me! As the flight landed he offered me a job on his medical team that would fly around the world setting up medical provisions and clinics in some of the most hostile locations. I was blown away by what had just happened! 2 years into my career as a Paramedic I already had the dream job. Working on a critical care air transport jet, I flew to a multitude of locations to retrieve critically ill patients. I also was sent to some of the world’s most dangerous locations. I was an integral part in the medical cover for NGO’s and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) during the Ukraine/Russia war, helping repatriate bodies from the MH17 flight that was shot down, helping stabilise locals who had been shot or blown up whilst caught in the middle of the war. I set up a clinic in Central African Republic (CAR) for the United Nations (UN). I was deployed to Somalia where I flew around the country, often surrounded by Al-Shabab. Kabul was often frequented among other Afghanistan cities but also Iraq.
Five years flew by. Fate is a wonderful thing I thought. It had got me here, the chance encounter on the flight, what were the odds? I continued to learn, completing another diploma from the Royal college of Surgeons in Edinburgh, A degree in Para-medicine from Cumbria. But this was all in detriment to who I was. I was becoming someone I didn’t know. I was lost. When I would return home and back to the UK. I would count down the days to leave again. Life was too quiet at home. I was accustomed to war, I wanted explosions, I wanted bombs, I wanted danger.. I craved it. I couldn’t function at home. I would get angry, drink too much and constantly be on edge. Things were peaceful in war. I could function. I was calm, collected and I loved what I did. My wife left me, I didn’t know my friends anymore and I wouldn’t see my son for months on end whilst I chased more of what I thought had been stolen from me after leaving the Royal Marines too soon.
I was blown up for the final time in December 2015. Fate had saved me again, I was on the roof of a building when a suicide bomber blew himself and his vehicle up outside my villa. I was cooking a BBQ and the wind was too strong. I had just moved the BBQ to the other side of the roof when the explosion happened. I woke up, dazed, ears ringing with falling debris hitting the ground around me. I looked over to where I was stood before I had moved the BBQ and nothing of that part of the building remained. “How was I still alive?” I clambered to my feet. Bullets flying overhead and I crawled for cover.
I spent Christmas day on my own that year. In the cold Afghan winter. Sat counting down the days till I could leave. I’d never done that! I always wanted to stay in hostile environments, however my nine lives were all used up. I had to get home. I couldn’t let my son down and leave him fatherless! I flew home in January 2016 never to return to a hostile environment again. Things weren’t right though. Life wasn’t right. I didn’t feel I had friends. I didn’t feel I fitted in. I’d always be on edge, I’d drink too much. I’d start to cry for no reason. December 2016 was tough. I didn’t leave the house. No one knew what I was going through and I could hide how I felt so well though behind a strong happy and outgoing personality. I didn’t want people to know what was going through my head.
I was offered a job on an ambulance but chose to accept a place on a Masters course to become a Physicians Associate (https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/medical-associate-professions/roles-medical-associate-professions/physician-associate) which I started in September 2017. Fate once again I felt. I had come so far from the wet, cold boy I was during Royal Marines training. Things were good but they weren’t right. It all manifested itself when I was sat at the edge of the cliff in the winter of 2017. I was ready to go for good. I couldn’t cope with what was going on in my head. I felt trapped by a perpetual cycle of anxiety. I wanted to scream but nothing ever came out. I couldn’t go on living like this but I couldn’t leave my son…. I flipped the coin. Tails to jump… heads to go to the doctors the next morning and get help… The coin spun in the air for eternity… I caught it and placed it on the back of my hand. I didn’t want to look because I wanted to jump. I looked….. got back in my car and drove home (Fate again).
I saw the doctor the next morning and the rest is history. I’m me again. Happy, fun and loving. Not perfect, but who can be after seeing how evil man can actually be. There’s things I’ll never forget, things I’ll never be able to un-see . But actually, accepting that I wasn’t bullet proof and impenetrable to emotions has allowed me to move forward with my life and process the emotions that were stuck. Mental Health issues and PTSD are a taboo subject but I came out the other end and I have my whole life to look forward to with no regrets.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the veterans agency and the love of a special woman saved my life and I’ll never be able to thank them enough.
I’ve never been a failure although I may have thought it. I always thought fate has got me to where I am… but has it? I’ve worked hard in life. I was the person that passed Royal Marine Training. I was the person that pushed myself through my illness to be able to get out to Iraq and offered the dream job on that flight. I was the person that continuously professionally developed my skills as a paramedic and I’m the person that is now back in University further developing myself again.
The jobs that have come in the meantime are only a manifestation of the hard work and dedication that I have put myself towards. A few speed bumps along the way and I can now finally enjoy life again. December this year will be interesting. Although I now feel I have the mental resilience to not let things get me down. I’m able to process my emotions and function in normal society. I might not have a partner that wants to put up with me and when I do have one I push them away. But I have friends again and the most incredible relationship with my son. It’s never fate that moves you forward. It’s the hard work that you put into life.
I would like to thank whoever it is that has saved my life though because I’m sure I’ve had my fair share of chances. I don’t know how I’ve survived what I have. But I’m glad I have as there’s plenty more hard work to come from me and plenty more self-made opportunities to grasp with both hands.
“A dreamer is someone that can only find their way by moonlight. And their punishment is that they see the dawn before the rest of the world”
Dream big, and your possibilities are endless as long as you search for the light and don’t linger in the dark and gloom.
Be a Sunflower and always find the light, no matter how dark the day.
Gareth Smith is a former Royal Marine of 42 Commando. He is a Physicians Associate student, paramedic and avid photographer