Toby Southgate, 43, joined the Royal Corps of Transport as a 16-year-old in 1989 and served in the first Gulf War, but left the Army in 1993. Dogged by ill-health, he has never found the stability which service life gave him. He has served time in prison and is currently homeless but is trying to build his own business.
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“I’m very appreciative of my time in the services. It taught me discipline, willpower and self-belief. In the Army, if you had a problem you’d go to your corporal or your sergeant. You’d get an answer and you’d get on with it. In the Army the harder you work the more you will succeed. When you come out, you know your training has given you an advantage. You feel stronger and more equipped to deal with life, but the system seems only designed to undermine you.
I’m alone a lot. I feel like no one’s got my back. You don’t have the comradeship, and you’re never likely to have it again. In civilian life everyone is too scared of losing what little they have. They’ll walk all over you. I feel isolated because no one seems to understand what I’m talking about. Things did not seem to work out for me in the Army after I came back from the Gulf. I was disillusioned by it all. If I think about it now, some of the things I saw there were horrific, but at the time it seemed normal.
I’d gone two and a half years without a single charge; then I had a whole string of charges in my last six months. I started getting ill towards the end of my service. My kidneys packed up. I went to doctors, but no one wanted to know. I did lots of different jobs when I came out - working on a tarmacking gang, driving lorries, mobile cranes - but in 2000 when I was working at a kitchen factory, I had an accident. Four months later, my back gave up and that seemed to trigger my Gulf War illness. I started getting terrible night sweats, nightmares, bed wetting, and claustrophobia.
For a few years I’d get this sickness every night. Now it’s every year but just lasts a couple of months. It normally starts in February or March. I feel like I have no control over my body thermostat. Sometimes I end up wearing thermals even in summer. Over the years I have had so many tests and had so many pints of blood taken, but no one’s ever come up with an answer. It’s easier just to get on with it. There are guys with no legs. They definitely need help. My problems are so trivial by comparison. I don’t want to take up people’s time.
I have two children, twins aged 17, but I’m not with their mother. I haven’t had a home for the last few years. I stay at different people’s homes. Sometimes I sleep in the car or sleep rough. I have lived in graveyards – anywhere as long as it’s dry. In 2013 I got sent to prison for eight months for possession of cannabis and intent to supply. I was at a friend’s house, but the weed was only for my personal use. I served two months, then got tagged.
When I came out, I got a £2,000 loan to start my own business. I rent race cars – stock cars, hot rods, banger racing – but I couldn’t keep up with the repayments. I turned over £2,400 in my first year, almost £12,000 last year. I have about 15 cars at the moment, old bangers, but no real money left, and I’m not entitled to tax credits because I don’t have a consistent income. I’d like to grow the business, but I can’t afford to employ anyone or advertise and my stock is constantly stolen. And it’s difficult when all your stuff is in bags and you don’t have a home.
Sometimes I feel like a ticking time bomb, not knowing how to release my frustrations. But I want people to see I’m doing alright for myself. At the moment I feel like a loser because I do things differently. But my goal is to get a yard, build a pallet house, look after the cars and grow the business”.