Janina Hooper, 39, joined the Royal Navy at 19. She served on HMS Fearless in 2001 dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. Prior to that she was on HMS Sheffield and during a tour of the Baltics in 1999/2000 she organised toy collections to deliver to orphanages. She was medically discharged after serving for eight years, leaving in 2004. Battling depression, she struggled to adjust to civilian life and is now wheelchair-bound and unable to work.
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“I signed up to serve for 22 years and suddenly my career was over. No one can prepare you for that. When you leave the Navy, you have left a family. You become disconnected. You’ve been used to having so many people around you, and then you’re on your own. Trying to fit back in is hard.
“The day you leave the Navy you feel you are leaving part of yourself behind. I lived in Portsmouth to start with, but found it difficult seeing people I used to serve with. I still chatted with them, but it felt like ‘us and them’. It was different. I had expected to serve another 14 years, but I had a bad ankle injury which needed an operation and three months later I was told I would not be going back to sea, that was hard to accept. Then, one day when I was travelling to Haslar Royal Naval Hospital, I was involved in a bad road traffic accident and suffered whiplash and a lower back injury.
“I was medically discharged, and it took me three years to find my feet in civilian life. Depression kicked in. It was the reality of losing my career, and there was nothing else. I’d been having counselling while I was in the Navy, but when I left there was no handover to a civilian doctor and I had to start again. I had to admit I had depression. It took a while to swallow the pride pill and do that.
“I became a Christian in 2006 started going to church and was accepted as me, ex-service person finding her way in life, but not fully knowing who I was and where I was going.
“In 2008 I travelled to South Africa with a group from church working with orphans who had lost one or both parents through HIV/AIDS which was an amazing opportunity and a privilege. In 2013 I went out to Kenya to another orphanage working with children aged 3-18 who were living on rubbish dumps and on the streets. That was mind blowing - how can anyone live and survive like that? We were there for two weeks as a group and I spent a further four weeks living with the kids in the orphanage. Looking back that was the best six weeks I had had since leaving the Navy.
“When I left the Navy it was difficult to see that there were other things I could do with my life, the other side of the fence. There was no one there to help me. I got a job at the Royal Military Police barracks for a while, which I loved, but the tissue damage in my back kept getting worse. I haven’t been able to work for the last five years. I’ve been in a wheelchair for just over 3 years which has had its ups and downs and I sleep in a hospital bed with a TOTO (tilt or turn over) bed system which helps to relieve the pain I suffer post SCI(spinal cord injury) I can only sleep comfortably on my left-hand side.
“SSAFA have helped me a lot. When I had just come out of hospital the chairs I had were extremely low so I contacted SSAFA to see if I could get any help getting a riser/recliner chair. I also needed help to get E-motion wheels which are battery powered wheels. These would take a lot of pressure of my wrists and shoulders when wheeling out and about. My caseworker was absolutely wonderful and she also arranged funding for me to go to Belfast for a wheelchair skills course organised by Back Up. The course gave me so much self-confidence and that was the biggest thing. I was very limited before and would only go to certain places that I knew I could get to but after Belfast my attitude was ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ I was taught how to challenge myself everyday with basic things like kerbs and steps, if I fell I was taught how to get myself back into my chair with or without the help of others. I know how to deal with things now and am much more adventurous in every day life!
“I’ve come out the other side, I have a strong faith. I’m upbeat and determined even though my life has changed. I’m lucky to have found a fantastic guy, who sees beyond the fact that I’m in a wheelchair and values me for who I am. We get married next year which is absolutely wonderful. I have days when I get completely frustrated, but my Navy background has helped me cope – you’re taught to pull yourself together and get on with the day-to-day things when you’re at sea. I do volunteer work with my church and absolutely love it. My motto for many years has always been ‘adapt and overcome’.
“The one bit of advice I’d give anyone when they leave the Forces is: ask more questions. Plan and prepare your first six months. Don't be afraid to ask for help with anything. You assume when you leave that you’ll walk into the world with so much to offer – you do have great skills but you need to learn a different way of using them.”
Janina had our backs, so we had hers. If you are serving or have ever served and need some support, pleaes get in touch: https://www.ssafa.org.uk/gotyourback