Chris Emptage

A new beginning


 

There are worse places you could be...

 


“There are worse places you could be”, Chris remarks, as we look upon the expanse of Pem- brokeshire coastline. A desolate kind of beauty that is lonely and wind swept.

You have the sense that these kind of throw-away comments from Chris reflect his self-deprecating humour. A certain awkwardness about coming to work each day in a place where there’s such stunning natural scenery. Chris currently serves as an assistant team leader with the Prince’s Trust based in Pembroke Dock, Wales, and his three-hour commute to and from work each day takes him through some of the UK’s most unspoilt terrain.

But there’s also the simple fact that he definitely has seen worse places. Places which imprinted their horrors upon his mind and carried their memories through to the present. Bosnia, Iraq, and other distant locations have all left more than simply a stamp in the passport for Chris.

And even within this more rural county, Chris and his partner Angela now live in a place more remote than most. An old cottage set apart from neighbours and burrowed deep in the country-side. In an admission that reveals his military past, Chris states, “I like it when I can see if someone’s coming”.

Chris served 23 years in the British army, building a career as a member of the military police. His tours of duty took him around the world and involved some of the key conflict areas of the last decades.

On 11 November 2013, like the past several Remembrance Days of recent years, Chris and Angela didn’t attend a local parade or lay a wreath in person. The memories the ceremonies evoke for both of them are too raw to share in the company of others. They’ve forged their own traditions, and it’s a day they choose to be alone together. They try to savour the relative safety they feel in the remote location where they now reside.

But for many months – even years – nowhere felt safe. Modern media coverage and discussions of more recent conflicts have brought an awareness of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) into mainstream discourse. Armed with this greater understanding, you would hope we’re better equipped to strive for a better quality of emotional well-being and mental health. But for Chris and Angela, and countless others, this isn’t a theoretical exercise. They know, all too well, the deep havoc that the traumas of war can bring to the whole family.

“There are worse places you could be”, Chris remarks, as we look upon the expanse of Pem- brokeshire coastline. A desolate kind of beauty that is lonely and wind swept.

You have the sense that these kind of throw-away comments from Chris reflect his self-deprecating humour. A certain awkwardness about coming to work each day in a place where there’s such stunning natural scenery. Chris currently serves as an assistant team leader with the Prince’s Trust based in Pembroke Dock, Wales, and his three-hour commute to and from work each day takes him through some of the UK’s most unspoilt terrain.

But there’s also the simple fact that he definitely has seen worse places. Places which imprinted their horrors upon his mind and carried their memories through to the present. Bosnia, Iraq, and other distant locations have all left more than simply a stamp in the passport for Chris.

And even within this more rural county, Chris and his partner Angela now live in a place more remote than most. An old cottage set apart from neighbours and burrowed deep in the country-side. In an admission that reveals his military past, Chris states, “I like it when I can see if someone’s coming”.

Chris served 23 years in the British army, building a career as a member of the military police. His tours of duty took him around the world and involved some of the key conflict areas of the last decades.

On 11 November 2013, like the past several Remembrance Days of recent years, Chris and Angela didn’t attend a local parade or lay a wreath in person. The memories the ceremonies evoke for both of them are too raw to share in the company of others. They’ve forged their own traditions, and it’s a day they choose to be alone together. They try to savour the relative safety they feel in the remote location where they now reside.

But for many months – even years – nowhere felt safe. Modern media coverage and discussions of more recent conflicts have brought an awareness of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) into mainstream discourse. Armed with this greater understanding, you would hope we’re better equipped to strive for a better quality of emotional well-being and mental health. But for Chris and Angela, and countless others, this isn’t a theoretical exercise. They know, all too well, the deep havoc that the traumas of war can bring to the whole family.

“There are worse places you could be”, Chris remarks, as we look upon the expanse of Pem- brokeshire coastline. A desolate kind of beauty that is lonely and wind swept.

You have the sense that these kind of throw-away comments from Chris reflect his self-deprecating humour. A certain awkwardness about coming to work each day in a place where there’s such stunning natural scenery. Chris currently serves as an assistant team leader with the Prince’s Trust based in Pembroke Dock, Wales, and his three-hour commute to and from work each day takes him through some of the UK’s most unspoilt terrain.

But there’s also the simple fact that he definitely has seen worse places. Places which imprinted their horrors upon his mind and carried their memories through to the present. Bosnia, Iraq, and other distant locations have all left more than simply a stamp in the passport for Chris.

And even within this more rural county, Chris and his partner Angela now live in a place more remote than most. An old cottage set apart from neighbours and burrowed deep in the country-side. In an admission that reveals his military past, Chris states, “I like it when I can see if someone’s coming”.

Chris served 23 years in the British army, building a career as a member of the military police. His tours of duty took him around the world and involved some of the key conflict areas of the last decades.

On 11 November 2013, like the past several Remembrance Days of recent years, Chris and Angela didn’t attend a local parade or lay a wreath in person. The memories the ceremonies evoke for both of them are too raw to share in the company of others. They’ve forged their own traditions, and it’s a day they choose to be alone together. They try to savour the relative safety they feel in the remote location where they now reside.

But for many months – even years – nowhere felt safe. Modern media coverage and discussions of more recent conflicts have brought an awareness of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) into mainstream discourse. Armed with this greater understanding, you would hope we’re better equipped to strive for a better quality of emotional well-being and mental health. But for Chris and Angela, and countless others, this isn’t a theoretical exercise. They know, all too well, the deep havoc that the traumas of war can bring to the whole family.


It’s been a battle to survive under the shadow of memories that threaten to overpower life in the present. A battle that’s slowly being won as they live each day and move forward step-by-step together.

Memories of war, fear and horror used to come flooding back in the most ordinary of situations. The musty smell and the rustling sounds made by walking through autumn leaves could transport Chris instantly back to events in Bosnia. He served as part of a team that discovered and then documented a mass grave in the Drvar Valley in 1996. As he helped sift through the remains, the plastic doll heads scattered amongst the bodily decay were a vivid image that that stuck deep in Chris’ mind. Scenes that would be replayed through many dark days and nights in the subsequent years. Something that seems so benign, an innocent symbol of childhood play, became a trigger that sparked a devastating downward cycle in Chris.

The skills that made Chris an effective investigator painted in his mind the fullness of the human tragedy of that scene of execution. Families that knew what fate laid ahead as they were marched to the edge of the village under gun point, encouraged their children to bring with them toys that held sentimental value. Wanting to somehow delay the end that was inescapable, they walked hand-in-hand as families, together to their deaths. The toys survived the ravages of nature longer than human flesh that quickly decayed, and called out accusingly in their abandoned innocence.

In the face of profound injustice, Chris found ways to make even a small and practical difference. When local gangsters threatened to steal food supplies provided by British soldiers to a grandmother in a nearby village, Chris and a few men from their unit paid the thug an unofficial visit. He was left with a clear understanding of the situation. He left her alone, and the elderly woman was able to live in peace and dignity.

This deep sense of responsibility, and the conviction that people matter, stand out as themes throughout Chris’ life. In his current work with the Prince’s Trust, he has the opportu- nity and privilege to invest deeply into young lives that have faced huge difficulties. Having seen some of the worst situations that people anywhere could possibly face, he can’t abide it when people give up and surrender to their apathy. As Chris declared resolutely, “If I only had one week with my Team group, I’d want each of them to know they have worth.” This burning conviction to make a difference was formed in Chris through a season in his life where he nearly succumbed to his own inertia and the paralysis of fear.


This sense of duty towards others has sparked feelings of guilt in Chris that proved com- pletely paralysing during the darkest days of his battle with PTSD. His mind would be drawn back to the 24 Iraqi policemen who lost their lives in a market place explosion in April 2004 at Az Zbayr, as he ran in vain and tried to warn people to escape to safety. He was able to cover the body of his 60 year old translator, but many other colleagues he worked alongside and instructed lost their lives that day.

The challenge of setting aside these horrific events exposed a deep and bitter battleground within himself. The battle to choose each day to do what he can to make a positive difference. Not that long ago, PTSD left Chris completely incapacitated, frozen in inaction and fear as even the most simple tasks were overwhelming. Angela, Chris’ partner, described how she came to hate an old arm chair in their living room with a passion. She hated the chair because Chris would sit there unmoving for up to 23 hours a day, often ice-cold, unable to move to light the fire or make food. In his anger and frustration he would hit his head repeatedly against the three-foot thick stone walls of their cottage.



This deepening battle with PTSD came to a head when Chris attempted suicide through an overdose of pills, calling Angela on the phone to simply say he couldn’t face the struggle anymore. A period of being voluntarily sectioned merged into a long season of painful recovery and rehabilitation, where they often felt like they were on their own. The stark contrast from having a role within a team of fellow servicemen - to the numbing cycle of feeling useless and isolated - was a burden almost too heavy to bear. Yet they discovered anew the strength to survive each day, and slowly Chris was brought back from the brink.

Like the triggers that sparked the worst of the PTSD memories, the catalyst for change and recovery was also found in a small and unexpected moment. At the funeral of a friend, he observed how the man’s daugh- ter was able to find joy in the memories of her dad in the midst of the deep grief that weighed her down. This realisation that life is a choice that we make in the face of the most painful memories, slowly pushed Chris to a place where he now has recaptured much of his former energy and zeal for life.

The role that Chris now pursues with the Prince’s Trust is proving to be a key mile- stone in his journey to recovery and whole- ness. In spring 2013 Chris was invited to join a mentoring course sponsored by Help for Heroes, which led to working in a school with troubled kids who faced expulsion. This, in turn, led to the work he currently undertakes for the Prince’s Trust in Pembroke Docks, investing in the lives of vulnerable youth. This process of reaching out to help others showed vividly that it can often be as helpful to give therapy as it is to receive it.

In Angela’s words, “While relapse is always possible for those who suffer from PTSD, I feel we’ve moved to a much better place than I ever imagined we could be.” While Chris nurtures, coaches and challenges young people who have almost given up on themselves, Angela too has come to a place where she is able to reach out and support other Help for Heroes partners and carers.

The ending of the story hasn’t yet been written, as it will only come to fullness through the lives of those who are now being helped and touched by Chris and Angela both. But it is indeed a new beginning, and for this unexpected gift of hope you can sense they are both profoundly grateful.


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