Daniel McNeil

Dan is a Royal Artillery veteran who was discharged without his autoimmune disease being diagnosed. SSAFA helped him combat the depression he suffered, and has now begun fundraising for the charity.

Diagnosed with a debilitating autoimmune disease after leaving the Army, Daniel McNeil’s spiralling depression led him to the brink of suicide.

But with support from SSAFA, Daniel turned his life around.

Two years ago, he set off to walk the entire UK coastline to pay back and raise awareness of our work. Still on his journey today, he has raised thousands of pounds to help and inspire others.

Daniel McNeil was just 16 when he joined 19 Regiment, Royal Artillery after a challenging childhood.

“I had a tough background, mentally. And I think I still had that childhood trauma lingering over me like a black cloud throughout my military career,” says Dan, now 27. “I was in for five years. A lot of my family were in the Army; my uncle, my cousin, and my grandad. So, it was quite a rich military background. And the Army gave me qualities like discipline, courage, and attention to detail.

I couldn't walk properly or get out of bed.

“But my health was going downhill. I had chronic pain; I couldn't walk properly or get out of bed some days,” Daniel says. “I didn’t understand why, and neither did the Army doctors. I was doing physiotherapy all the time, and nothing was getting better. I remember a physio one day saying, ‘You've been here for so long, why are you here? Is there actually something wrong with you or are you just faking it?

“Why would I even fake it in the first place? And then there was a constant kind of bullying as well from other soldiers, saying, ‘Oh, you're on the biff! (Army slang for sick note)’ or ‘You can't do this!’

“I had a really s**t time, for a long time,” he says. “I have lot of resentment and frustration around that period that I still haven't really came to terms with.”

Meanwhile, at home in Dumfries, Daniel was dealing with a family split and the death of his pet dog. Feeling overwhelmed, Daniel began self-medicating with cannabis and other drugs.

“I was in pain quite a lot. I had mates back home that smoked weed and did coke at the weekend, so I started. I wish someone would have taken me aside and just asked me, ‘How's your family life? What's going on?’ I was gambling as well. No one said, ‘You have an addiction here.’"

When drug traces were discovered in his shared room during an inspection, Daniel was interrogated.

A messed-up situation.

"I admitted I had mental health issues and smoked weed,” he says. “I'm not trying to sugar-coat it; I know what I did was wrong. It was just a messed-up situation. I couldn't process anything that was going on in my mind. I was trying my best to ask for help, but I didn't know what to do to.”

Daniel was discharged from the Army a month later. “I was just a young lad,” he says, looking back. “I was 21 and already not really able to be in the Army anymore because of my health.”

“After I left, my life just spiralled downwards into drugs and alcohol. I had depression and anxiety and contemplated suicide.”

Civilian doctors eventually identified the cause of Dan’s chronic pain and fatigue.

It took two years to diagnose me.

“It took two years to diagnose me. I had an MRI scan and they found I had an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis that inflames my spine, my sciatic nerve and my legs and hips,” Dan explains.

But the symptoms continued to dog him until one day he felt he could take no more.

“I just remember lying on the floor in my living room, crying in pain because I had a flare-up,” he remembers. “I was in a horrible place, considering suicide.

“I had no 'leccy in the house, no gas. I got an eviction notice because I was behind on my rent, and I tweeted a cry for help, asking for a job. With what I was suffering through, I felt it was my last hope."

SSAFA saved my life.

“SSAFA pretty much saved my life. A caseworker came out the next day. We just chatted, I told him my story and he explained how was going to look after me. He gave me £20 for the gas and 'leccy, filled my fridge up bought me a hot meal and then he sorted out the eviction notice.

“It wasn't counselling, just a shoulder to lean on. But it made me feel a lot more positive and it gave me that motivation, that inspiration, and the kindness to turn my life around. It spurred me on to try my best to claw my way out of the dark hole that I was in.

“I really wanted to make sure I wasn't just going to waste that help. I wasn't going to not do anything with it or go back to my old self. I really wanted to change my life. It was a real turning point."

I needed to turn my life around.

“I just said to myself, 'I need to turn my life around, and do something about this.'

“So, I got on the internet and searched wellbeing and diet, to try to get rid of my chronic illness. I researched meditation, yoga, breathing techniques and began going to the gym and looking after myself.

“I started waking up at 4:30am and doing a workout. I was highly motivated to turn it all around. I managed to get a job, I had goals and things to look forward to, and I was in a really good place.”

Daniel was working part-time as a holiday lodge cleaner. “It was money coming in, so I was able to pay my bills and I enjoyed it,” he says. “Then COVID came along and messed everything up and messed everybody else's lives up as well.

“My depression wasn't returning, but I did feel like I had a lot of potential and I was just sitting doing nothing.

I wanted to give back.

“It was a very traumatic time for everyone, and I felt a real compassion and I just wanted to give back, to help or do something positive to inspire a lot of people. Especially with the techniques that I learnt; I felt they were revolutionary really.

“Meditation was a saving grace. I swear by it. Even if my mind's not okay now, I just need 15 to 20 minutes to myself, to calm my racing thoughts. Meditation helped me realise who I was as a person, and who I was led to believe I was, and who I wasn't. It was quite a profound thing for me.

“I decided to meditate for four hours see what I could come up with. ’And it just came to me, ‘Why don't you walk the entire UK coastline?’

“I thought, ‘Awesome!’ It's just an amazing idea. And I could do it for SSAFA, to raise awareness, give back and help veterans that might be suffering at this time and need a bit of financial support."

It was like a calling: 'I need to walk.'

“It was like a calling: 'I need to walk.' So, that's what I did. I sold every item I owned in my house. If I couldn't sell it, I gave it to charity. My couch was my biggest fundraiser. I got about 400 quid for that. I sold my telly; that was about 100 quid. So, it was about maybe 600 quid in all; not a lot of money, but I was jobless.”

On 15 March 2021, Daniel said goodbye to his hometown of Dumfries and began hiking around the West coast of Scotland.

“Four weeks after I had the idea, I set off. I just went for it. I had a pure focus mindset, tunnel vision in a way. And five minutes into it. I was sweating, trying to climb this hill, and regretting every minute of it!

“I started off the absolute basics: £20 boots, my down jacket, a pair of trousers, a cheap bergen and some food for the next few days. I had a £30 pop-up-tent, a massive disk I carried about like a handbag for a whole month. It was dragging along the ground, so bramble bushes and rocks would scratch it and make holes.

“But this walk was one of the best decisions I've ever made. I'm very fortunate and I'm very happy to have done it,” says Daniel. “As I started walking around, people started helping me."

It’s mind-blowing how generous people have been.

“One of the best things about the walk is people's kindness. It’s mind-blowing how incredibly generous people have been. It really gives you faith in humanity.

“Things like cooked dinners, coffees, teas, buying bits of kit like my bergen, my jacket and boots. I've had a phone paid for me. One woman paid for a four-star hotel room. She didn't even ask, just sent a text: ‘Here's a gift so you can rest for the night.’ Just wow!

“Every little act of kindness is simply wonderful to see. It's amazing. I try to highlight that more than anything else on the walk, because it's one of the most beautiful things and there's not a lot of it in the media. It helps me pass on the kindness with the donations, because I know the money's going to make a difference, and probably help people that are in the situation I was at one point. It’s a ripple effect, like chucking a stone in the water."

The walk has changed me.

“The walk has changed me in a lot of ways. I am quite introverted by nature, but I'm becoming a more extroverted person. It has made me a lot calmer. It's made me appreciate nature.

“It has also made me understand a lot of things about myself, the difficulties that I've faced and the challenges that I've come across,” says Daniel.

“What I've seen and what I've experienced is that there's very much still a mindset, a stigma even, that mental health isn't the priority of a soldier's health. It was very much physical. And I think soldiers are taken to a warrior-like mentality, where they're brought to such a higher level that as soon as they're out, they don't know how to get back down to earth.

“When I was in, there were no things like wellbeing and mental health. I'd never done anything like meditation or yoga which is one of the biggest aspects of healing myself. And I learned all of this after I got out of the Army, myself.”

I've got the better of my illness.

Prioritising his health and fitness has helped Daniel deal with his autoimmune disease and keep symptoms under control. “I've got the better of it, for sure,” Dan reports. “The biggest thing is my diet. It’s now mainly meat, fruit, and honey.”

Which is not to say walking 15 to 25 miles every day is easy. “There have certainly been quite a few tough times," he says. “But I know if I have bad days, I just need to get through it. I just need to walk, to continue. If you need to eat, you need to get to the next shop. I don't really know where I'm sleeping tonight, you know? It's like that every single day. But I prefer that to worrying about bills or gas and 'leccy. It's just different stresses.

“When I was on Jura, I couldn't make it to this bothy I was trying to get to and I had done two miles in an hour-and-a-half, trying to go through long grass with clegs (horseflies) and midges biting me.

“I fell in bog pits, and didn't have my tent with me, so I pitched up under my umbrella. Then the rain and wind came. My umbrella was attached to my jacket sleeve, so every time the wind came, my arm would go up. It was just horrible, man. I don't think I got any sleep that night at all!”

“I'm finding out how resilient my mind and my body can be, which I didn't expect. We need a bit of adversity; it helps us grow and become better people. It makes us happier as well, knowing that we've done something that's really hard. It gives us a sense of achievement,” he says.

It's a privilege to be doing this.

“It's a privilege to be doing this and I've used it for the right things; to educate myself and learn, from reading, audio books and podcasts. I know that by the time I finish this walk, I'm going to be a well-rounded, better person, so that I can go back into the world and continue to inspire and empower people and help them with whatever they might be dealing with.”

“I'm very much open to ideas. I'll definitely write a book. I could do motivational speaking, go back into education. I could do more adventures for different charities I'm passionate about. We've had ideas like Australia and New Zealand. We'll see what happens. I'm looking forward to it, but also, very much focused on the task at hand.

“The biggest thing, if nobody takes anything else away from this, is that what I'm trying to do is inspire and empower people that have been down or maybe been through the same kind of thing as me. We've all had a bit of depression or anxiety at some time. I want people to be free and happy and if I can help another person then I'm doing my job!”