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Veteran: Remembrance Days are for the dead, what about the living?

By Faye Clark and Stephanie Busari, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Veteran angry at treatment by UK government and speaks out on Remembrance Day
  • Brian Rowe, 56, fought in the Falklands war in 1982
  • Now homeless, he sells the Big Issue magazine to make ends meet

London, England (CNN) -- A homeless war veteran has accused the UK government of failing to do enough for people who risked their lives fighting for their country.

Brian Rowe, 56, told CNN: "They need to do more to ease you into civilian life and give you more aftercare, but once you sign on the dotted line you're out, they're not bothered either way."

Speaking as the war dead were remembered Wednesday around the world on Armistice Day, or Veterans Day (in the U.S.), Brian says he feels let down by the system -- despite leaving the army in 1984.

He says veterans deserve more respect than they currently get and claims the UK Ministry of Defence, (MoD) washed their hands off him as soon as he left the forces.

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He told CNN: "Their attitude was: 'You are a civilian now, do as civilians do.'"

"Remembrance Days are for the dead, what about the living? I am sure a lot feel better off dead. I have felt like that at times."

He had served during the 1982 Falklands War, a bloody six week conflict between the UK and Argentina that killed 900 soldiers on both sides.

Brian joined the armed forces when he was 16 and left 10 years later after taking voluntary redundancy to spend more time with his wife and child.

Brian also believes the military didn't do enough to prepare him for life after the army. "[It was] like being let out of a cage after 10 years," he says.

"There was no routine and no one telling me what to do. I could not pay my bills or hold down a job. I did not have the equipment to survive. I'd never had to pay rent in my life, they [the navy] took it out of my wages. I couldn't cope with the responsibility."

Without any transferable skills, he took odd jobs and worked variously as a factory worker, laborer and kitchen fitting assistant. He referred to his colleagues as 'sir,' a hangover from his military days, and found it hard coping with the amount of freedom people were afforded.

Far from the hero's welcome he expected, Brian says he was upset by the hostile reaction he encountered from a public who seemed to be against the Falklands war.

"People looked at you as if you were a bully or the aggressor but all I was doing was my job as I were told," he says.

"People were saying, 'how do you feel about killing people for an island that only has sheep on it,' but as far as I was concerned it was a sovereign land and my allegiance is sworn to protect my country.

"I expected a little bit of a pat on the back, a hero's welcome, but people were hostile, they thought there was some sort of conspiracy behind the war."

As a consequence, Brian says he found life tough back on 'Civvy Street,' -- as soldiers call it.

Unable to cope, he soon found himself divorced and homeless with an escalating drink problem. He cites undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as one of the myriad reasons for his homelessness.

Brian's shame of being forced to sleep rough only compounded the feeling of hopelessness, he says.

"I'd hit rock bottom and slept rough for two years I felt sorry for myself and drank as an escape until I went yellow and my liver started to fail. I stopped by myself in the end and have not had a drink for 10 years now."

Brian remembers the first day he took to the streets of London. He slept that night in a doorway of the postal sorting office. Another homeless person, in an attempt at kindness on the cold winter night, had draped their lice-infested coat over him.

"That made me feel even more sorry for myself, it was a few days itching like mad before I met an homeless ex-serviceman who showed me where the drop in center was for lice lotion," he says.

Years later, Brian says he is surprised that feelings and events he thought he had dealt with are still recurring in his mind, he has nightmares even now, and puts this down to PTSD.

In his darkest moments Brian admits he was tempted to commit suicide.

According to the South Atlantic Medal Association (SAMA), a UK veteran organization run by veterans, more than 260 men have committed suicide since the Falklands conflict, they allege that the UK's Ministry of Defence has tried to ignore the issue of PTSD.

"[We] know beyond all doubt that reasonable care was almost nonexistent in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the early 1980's for serving HM Forces."

An MOD spokeswoman told CNN there is now an extensive mental health service in place for former soldiers.

"The MoD takes the mental health of our personnel extremely seriously. Mental health professionals provide expert assessment and treatment and the new peer-group monitoring scheme encourages personnel to talk about concerns, reducing any stigma associated with seeking help.

"We have established community mental health pilots, expanded the Medical Assessment Programme at St Thomas' Hospital, and set up the Reservists Mental Health Programme."

Global statistics also show that former military personnel are particularly vulnerable to homelessness and mental health problems.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that approximately 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a given year.

About 45 percent of homeless veterans suffer from mental illness and slightly more than 70 percent suffer from alcohol or other drug abuse problems.

However the situation has improved in recent years as awareness of the problems faced by veterans particularly from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict, rises.

In 2000, the long standing UK military covenant between the armed forces and its servicemen and women was formalized, acknowledging the duty of care the military has to its veterans.

However, for many like Brian, who have fallen through the cracks and remain ignorant of the services they are entitled to, this agreement may have come too late.

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report