Leaving the armed forces can be far more traumatic than serving personnel could ever imagine.

Life can be hard in the services – especially for those with memories of horrific things they’ve had to deal with – but a return to civvy street can also have its own tough challenges.

One former soldier who has been through all this is Mick Riley who helped set up Tommy’s Lounge café just off St George’s Square in Huddersfield town centre where former forces personnel can meet up, although anyone is welcome to go there.

Read more: Huddersfield cafe’s owner says ‘pernicious people’ putting £50,000 investment in peril

He’s bravely spoken out about his own experiences to try to prevent veterans struggling so badly with their mental health they want to end it all.

“It’s vital there is an opportunity for men to talk about their mental health,” said Mick. “If my story gives someone the nudge they need to talk to someone before it’s too late then it will have achieved something special. I’ve lost three friends to suicide in the last month.”

Mick, 49, of Huddersfield – a former Regimental Sergeant Major in the Royal Corps of Transport – was once in charge of hundreds of soldiers. The role of Regimental Sgt Major is one of the most prestigious in the army and they are revered by both troops and officers alike, commanding a salary above £60,000 with allowances. Mick’s final role was as Command Sgt Major in Germany, the highest non-commissioned role there is and the last one in that role before the final British withdrawal.

Tommy’s Lounge cafe in Huddersfield
(Image: Andy Hirst from AH! PR)

When Mick left the army in April 2018 he had a wife and four children to support but was in for a nasty shock when he returned to civilian life.

A lorry driver by trade, Mick also has two degrees – one in leadership and management and the other in international logistics and operational planning – and so applied for 250 jobs. Yet he barely received any replies and all those applications yielded just a couple of interviews.

Mick, originally from Wallasey in Liverpool, ended up as an operations manager in a Merseyside shopping centre on just £18,000 a year.

It played havoc with his life financially, emotionally and mentally.

“It was all downhill from the moment I left the army,” he said. “My CV was really strong yet I wasn’t even getting replies to my job applications, let alone interviews. I got disheartened very quickly. I’d gone from a very responsible role to being in charge of three or four people and the massive fall in salary also got to me.

“My confidence dropped and things were not going well in every aspect of my life. In short, my mental health started to implode, so much so that one day I told my family I was going on a work-related course in London but instead went off to Wales with my camping gear, stopping on the way to buy a bottle of booze and lots of tablets.”

Mick had decided to end it all in a remote spot in the Welsh hills, but was saved by a quirk of fate.

Tommy’s Lounge owner Jennie Thorn with partner Mick Riley
(Image: Andy Hirst of AH PR)

He thought he’d set a goodbye message to appear on Facebook after his death and had intended to throw his phone into a river so no-one could trace him but he’d got the settings wrong and the message appeared instantly on Facebook.

Mick’s cousin spotted it and immediately alerted Mick’s mother who phoned him, along with a couple of other family members, and they managed to talk him back from the brink.

Mick said: “That was the kick up the a*** I needed. With mental health you’ve got to have reached the very bottom before you can start to climb back out and that night in Wales I’d reached the lowest point of all.

“I began to think of life as a military obstacle course. Some obstacles such as a 6ft wall you can just about get over yourself but when it comes to a 12ft wall you’ll need help and I needed a lot of help.”

Mick joined a veterans social group in Merseyside and got chatting to another veteran who had also been in Afghanistan and felt so much better after talking frankly to him about his experiences.

Mick said: “The other guy said our chat had done him the world of good too and that’s when the concept of peer to peer support popped into my head.”

Jennie Thorn, director of Tommy's Lounge, the veterans cafe in Huddersfield town centre
Jennie Thorn, director of Tommy’s Lounge, the veterans cafe in Huddersfield town centre
(Image: Robert Sutcliffe/Reach)

He then learned about a veterans charity called Crossroads helping veterans with homelessness, addiction and mental health problems and was quickly offered a job with them. He took it and helped the veterans to have a fresh start, sorting out rehabilitation, counselling, benefits and somewhere for them to stay.

“It was good to be helping people again,” said Mick. “We had some great success stories helping veterans who had been sleeping in doorways to get clean of drugs, stay sober and start to turn their lives around.”

After a spell as a distribution centre operations supervisor at Amazon Mick met Jennie Thorn from Mirfield who had set up a veterans support group called Behind The Heroes which took veterans into the countryside, often camping so they could talk to one another and really connect. He liked the concept and so became a volunteer.

He and Jennie became a couple and Mick went back to driving lorries to bring money in – including working for a haulage company staffed entirely by veterans – and they talked about setting up a coffee lounge for veterans.

“A lot of the times I’d met veterans alcohol was involved but we wanted to get away from that,” said Mick. “One day I just made a snap decision, sorted out a £15,000 loan and gave that to Jennie to set a place up with her mum, Sue, and now here we are with Tommy’s Lounge named after the famous Rudyard Kipling poem, Tommy.

The interior of Tommy's Lounge on Station Street
The interior of Tommy’s Lounge on Station Street
(Image: Tommy’s Lounge)

“It’s all about peer to peer support and we have dozens through the door every week and usually a few that really need help signposting them to more support such as benefits, housing and for their mental health. Some have become really socially isolated. That’s why we’re here but anyone is welcome in Tommy’s lounge. It’s a place to talk and meet people but it does rely on donations to keep going.”

All Mick’s working life had been in the army and his dad had been a soldier too. When Mick was growing up in Wallasey during his teenage years the streets there had major drug problems funded through violence, thefts and robbery.

Mick, who had worked hard at school, was keen not to fall into any temptation to get involved in drugs so joined the Army Cadets and as soon as he left school in 1991 signed up with the Royal Logistic Corps when he was 16 even though he’d never been behind the wheel of any vehicle before. By the time he was 18 was driving HGVs, including petrol tankers.

In his early army days Mick faced serious health problems when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of just 21 and underwent major surgery but within months discovered the cancer had spread and so had chemotherapy before it finally went into remission. He was awarded an MBE for spearheading a campaign urging men to check themselves for testicular cancer, helping to set up the website www.checkemlads.com

Mick served in Germany, Bosnia and Kosovo and also did three tours in Iraq – including the second Gulf war in March 2003 which led to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow – and one in Afghanistan.

He saw terrible sights on some of the tours which will always remain with him.

Other experiences also left an impact. One night in Kosovo he was in his lorry when young children knocked on the door. It was freezing yet one of them only wore a pair of shorts with nothing on his top, legs or feet and he was starting to turn blue. Mick got them into the cab, fed them sweets and Jaffa cakes, warmed them up and gave them whatever kit he could out of his bag before they went on their way.

A few days later Mick flew home for Christmas leave and during a family meal his own children were complaining they didn’t like some of the food on their plates.

“I absolutely lost it and really shouted at them,” said Mick. “Days earlier I’d been with children who had nothing and were in danger of freezing to death and then my own children in a nice warm house were complaining about their food. There’s often a complete disconnect between civilian and military life that’s so difficult to deal with at times. I think that was the start of my mental health journey.”

Tommy’s Lounge is a vital lifeline to former forces personnel and gives them a chance to talk and discuss their experiences in a safe space. Inside it’s a comfortable lounge and is furnished like a military mess featuring maps, army and RAF uniforms, berets and lots of other military memorabilia.

The café, run as a community interest company but they have now applied for charitable status, is thought to be the only place of its kind in the UK and does fundraising events to keep it going and has a gofundme page which can be found here.

One of the main fundraising events involved 15 army veterans riding on static cycles in St George’s Square next to the café, pedaling the equivalent of from Brize Norton RAF airfield in Oxfordshire to Afghanistan to raise £2,000 for Tommy’s.

Tommy’s is open from 7am to 2pm Tuesday to Friday and from 10am to 3pm on Saturdays.

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