‘I self-medicated after serving in Afghanistan – I didn't fit into the military or society’
As a former foster child, Leon Calder felt his life choices were limited. So, at the age of 17, he decided to join the army. Being in the Parachute Regiment meant it wasn’t long before he was deployed to Iraq.
“I joined at the perfect time,” says Calder, who’s now 38. “If you’re young and you’ve signed up to be a soldier, you want to see the world. I went to Iraq and I got to do everything - some soldiers spend decades in the army and don’t fulfil their dreams.
Two years later, Calder joined the Pathfinder Platoon - “a bigger boys club: more badges, more objectives, more to do”.
Then, in 2006, Calder was deployed to Afghanistan. The initial brief was a “peaceful mission”. As history recalls, it was anything but. “You ask for rain, you get wet,” he says with a shrug. “We were in kinetic activity [active warfare involving lethal force] for a high percent of that tour,” he says. “We got surrounded, we couldn't get our wounded out. We had casualties.”
Losing friends and colleagues like that is something that most civilians will never understand but part of a soldier's training is putting this trauma aside. “The mission comes first,” says Calder. “You have to block it out and drive forward. You suppress it. It's all part of the training, you're told you're a hero, you're told you're invincible so when you lose colleagues you just have to keep going. If you don't keep going, someone else is going to get hit. You just have to keep busy. But you are a family, a unit, so when it goes wrong, yes it's horrific, there's no way to get around that.”
As long as he was on the frontlines, Calder felt he could literally ‘soldier on’. By 2008, he’d applied for SAS selection but a doctor diagnosed him with hearing loss; a result of gunfire on the battlefield. Four days before he was due to begin the selection process he was told he couldn’t continue.
“It broke me,” Calder recalls. “The Pathfinder Platoon has the highest SAS selection rate so that had always seemed a natural pathway for me. I’d devoted my whole life to that goal. It felt like a bereavement when it didn’t work out.
The experience encouraged Calder to leave the army in 2009. “I couldn't go on. I didn’t want to support from the rear,’ he says.
The transition back to civilian life felt like going from “hero to zero”. Calder felt adrift, cut off from his friends, his family, the identity he’d spent his entire adult life cultivating vanished overnight.
Calder was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It felt like his fight-or-flight response had been switched; where he’d been trained to feel perfectly in control while he was being shot at, his calibration for the world most of us inhabit was out of balance.
“That’s where you get into trouble,” Calder explains. “Most veterans self-medicate drugs, embark on distractions like motorbikes, sky-diving…You’re trying to find something to give you the same high. But I’ll tell you now, nothing will beat the feeling you get from being at war, standing on the precipice of life and death. You feel an immense guilt for enjoying that feeling so much. It’s the adrenaline, it’s almost impossible to describe. When you lose that, there’s a massive void of nothingness that you desperately attempt to fill.”
Calder self-medicated with alcohol. “I’d drink, cause problems at home, then disappear back off to the desert on close protection jobs, to bury my head in the sand and just get through it,” he admits.
It became a vicious cycle, only ending when a former colonel advised him to think about his future. Private security jobs in Iraq couldn’t last forever and he’d have to find a new reason to get up in the morning.
By now, Calder was a father of two, and determined to clean up his act. For years he worked doing odd jobs but “it was a car crash,” he says. “I did what I thought I had to do, I turned up on time, I did the work, but I didn’t have my team behind me. I felt worthless.
“I felt like the military didn’t want me, I didn’t fit into society - I was in no man’s land. That’s when all the baggage you pretend you don’t carry around, the mental health injuries you never talked about, bubble to the surface.”
Calder realised he needed professional help. The turning point came in 2017 when he discovered the RBLI, one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Appeal.
“The RBLI was the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle,” he says. “I’d gone from military to veteran, but the RBLI bridged the gap back into civilian life.”
He enrolled on the charity’s LifeWorks course, a national employment support programme, which as of 2023 has supported more than 6,000 veterans since its inception. Eighty-three percent of participants in the programme moved into work within twelve months, especially impressive given 79 percent have some form of physical or mental disability.
The five day course, hosted by former army professionals, life coaches, vocational assessors, psychologists and career consultants, runs all over the country. It helps veterans create a modern CV, learn how to job search, and how to nail an interview.
“What I liked was that I rang RBLI and they said ‘yep, we can help’. It wasn’t a matter of waiting for days or weeks, it was 48 hours, bang, there’s your date - it showed me they meant it,” says Calder.
One of the reasons many military veterans struggle, says Calder, is because they speak “a different language.” What made RBLI’s help different from anything else was that it was coming from ex-military people who could share their wisdom and spoke in a manner veterans could understand.
“We were taught a mnemonic which I still use: STAR - situations, tactics, actions, results, I think about that every single day,” offers Calder as an example.
The advice and training he got from LifeWorks propelled Calder through the application and interview process, and he soon landed a job on the veteran’s programme at Barratt Homes where he has found success in construction. “From a trainee site manager who couldn’t put up a shelf and the only house I built was out of lego, to a senior site manager at Tilla Homes in five years - not bad,” he says.
Having come up through a veterans programme, Calder has been keen to offer help to other veterans coming up behind him in the construction industry, but thinks there is still more to be done by the army itself.
“There’s a lot of help out there for military veterans, but it needs to be joined up,” Calder muses. “The LifeWorks course was amazing, but if they’d run something like that as a matter of course when I left the army, it would have saved so much pain for so many veterans.
"In this country we wait until there’s a problem, a mental health issue, homelessness, desperate for help, before we intervene. If I could talk to the people in charge I’d advise them to shorten the gap between people needing and receiving help. The army will tell you they already do that, that they’ll put you on these courses, but their provision isn’t nearly good enough.”
Without joined-up thinking and oversight, Calder believes, plenty of veterans charities have lapsed into offering bland platitudes or impractical solutions. “What RBLI did was say ‘shut up, listen up, this is what we have for you, if you follow it, it will work’,” he explains.
“That’s what a soldier needs. We don’t need to be told how brilliant and amazing we are, we don’t need sponsorship to go to Africa to climb mountains. That might be great for two weeks but how does that help in real life? All that happens is veterans go home and the struggles come back. RBLI is very good at equipping us with the tools that we need. The ownership and the consequences to say ‘look, if you don’t do this, don’t expect good things to happen for you.’”
Calder now realises that the lessons he learned in the army will always run in his veins. “Sometimes people often refer to me as a 'veteran site manager' but I often think I'm really just an ex-soldier playing a site manager,” he says. “I'm always going to be ex-military. The training is too good to let you escape that easily.”
RBLI is one of four charities supported by this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Age UK, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927