Special investigation: Hidden epidemic of military suicides

Andrea Tierney, whose ex-army partner Simon McGovern took his own life, tells Aasma Day why she believes suicide among veterans is a huge and hidden issue

Simon McGovern and Andrea Tierney
Simon McGovern and Andrea Tierney

Former soldier Simon McGovern was a “funny, witty guy who could light up a room” and was in a loving relationship.

But ultimately he was unable to defeat the demons of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcoholism, and ended up taking his own life at the age of just 39.

His partner Andrea Tierney has now spoken out about the worst moment of her life, in the hope it helps the campaign to have veteran suicides properly reported and classified.

Simon McGovern and Andrea Tierney

Mum-of-three Andrea, 44, said: “Suicide among veterans is massive and an epidemic. These people go away and fight for their country and see some horrific things and come away with a life sentence.”

Andrea, who was born and raised in Lancashire, had been living in Catterick, North Yorkshire, where her ex-husband was in the Army and was working as a support worker for ex-military homeless with PTSD.

She said: “Simon had separated from his wife and had PTSD and ended up homeless so moved in with one of the clients I was supporting.

“I got to know Simon when I went round to see this client. Then after my marriage broke down, I moved back to Blackpool.”

Veterans In Crisis

Some months later, Simon contacted Andrea through Facebook and they got chatting. A few weeks later, she went to Catterick to meet him and their relationship blossomed.

Months later, Simon moved in with Andrea, a barber.

She said: “Simon was such a character and was a very funny, witty guy.

“He was the type of person who could light up a room and have everyone rolling around with laughter.

Simon when he was in the army

“He made me feel so protected and was like a knight in shining armour and told me he’d take care of me.”

Simon told Andrea he had PTSD and issues about his marriage breakdown. She recalls: “Simon had a bad childhood and joined the army to get away from everything.

“He told me some things about his past and army life and things he had seen. But there were other things he wanted to talk about but couldn’t.

“He used to talk about suicide a lot and was almost blasé about it.

Professor Neil Greenberg

“When he’d had a few drinks, he’d say he had nothing worth living for and felt like a failure.”

Simon, who was in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, had a dark side which became more apparent and Andrea soon realised he had an alcohol problem.

She explains: “Simon used to self-medicate with drink. He would start drinking and not stop.

“One of the first times I realised was when we went for a drink for my 40th birthday. Simon knocked back one pint, then another, then another and another.

“We went home and he ended up flipping out over something or nothing. He picked up the TV and threw it out of the bedroom window.

“It was very frightening. I told him I wasn’t having this and ordered him to leave.”

Simon left for a few days but came back promising Andrea he would stop drinking and get help. He had a few sessions with a counsellor but gradually began drinking again.

Andrea says: “There were two sides to Simon. He was absolutely lovely and caring and taught my daughter to ride her bike.

“But then it was like something would switch in his head and he’d think: ‘You don’t deserve to be happy’ and he’d turn into a tyrant.

“He admitted he feared I’d leave him because of his PTSD and issues. So he’d instigate an argument so he could walk out on me. It was his way of being in control of the situation.”

Things came to a huge culmination in June 2014 after one of Andrea’s friends came for a weekend visit with her husband. Andrea explains: “We all went to bed but Simon stayed up drinking. He came to bed about 5am and tried picking an argument. I told him I wasn’t arguing with him.”

The following day things came to a head. Andrea said: “I knew Simon was going to flip out so after my daughter was dropped off, I took her straight to my mum’s.

“Simon insisted on coming with me and when we got there, he told me I had two minutes to get back to the car.

“I took my daughter to my mum and told her Simon had lost it and something was going to happen.

“I told her to ring the police and send them to my house.”

When they arrived home, Simon punched the front door through. Police arrived and things escalated into a major incident.

Andrea remembers: “Simon was having a scuffle with a policewoman who was trying to put handcuffs on him. At some point, Simon dragged me into the house and locked the door.

“Simon then went into the loft and on to the roof and began throwing roof tiles. Police negotiators and riot police arrived and the whole street was cordoned off.”

Simon threatened to jump off the roof of their home unless they brought Andrea back. During the early stages of the seven-hour siege, he held a knife to his own throat.

Andrea says: “The police negotiators got Simon on the phone as he wanted to speak to me. Simon was crying and saying: ‘I’ve really lost you now. I can’t believe what I’ve done’.

“He eventually came down and was arrested.”

Simon was sent to prison for 20 months and Andrea had no contact with him.

When Simon came out of prison, he got a flat. He contacted Andrea begging her to see him telling her he’d changed.

Andrea met up with him as a friend and says she “stupidly thought she could make him better.” She met him a few times a week to see how things progressed. She says: “Simon was not drinking and became the old Simon I’d met.”

On the day of the tragedy, Andrea and Simon had been for lunch and it happened to be the same day as the funeral of one of Andrea’s old school friends who had taken his own life.

Andrea explains: “While we were having lunch, the wake party came into the pub. Simon and I talked about the man who had killed himself and discussed suicide and the reasons behind it. Later that evening, Simon started sending weird texts saying he knew how my old school friend felt.

Simon continued sending rambling and bizarre texts that evening and Andrea suspected he’d been drinking.

The following day, Andrea went to work and sent Simon a text message but received no reply and the message remained unread.

Andrea says: “I had a gut feeling something wasn’t right.”

The police arrived at Andrea’s workplace in Preston and asked to speak to her in private and she collapsed. Andrea says: “I remember coming round and asking ‘he’s dead isn’t he?’

“I felt like I’d been hit in the stomach and just utter helplessness and hopelessness.”

Andrea discovered Simon had taken his own life. He died on March 4, 2016.

Andrea confesses to feeling guilty to this day. “I will never know if Simon meant to do it or whether it was a cry for help which went wrong.

Staying in Lancashire with so many painful memories proved too difficult and eventually Andrea moved to Lincoln for a fresh start.

Andrea now has a new partner who is also ex-military and has PTSD, but he has completely different symptoms to the ones Simon had. Andrea explains: “If Mac is having one of his down days, he will just go out training as that’s how he channels his dark times.

“I suffer from PTSD myself now and the only reason I didn’t take my own life after Simon did is because of my children.

“I have days when I don’t want to get out of bed or talk to anyone. I suffer from terrible self-loathing and like I don’t deserve to be loved.

“I am a broken and damaged person and wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.”

Andrea turned her tragedy into something positive by offering free haircuts to veterans in Preston and Blackpool to give them a chance to talk.

Andrea is also involved with a lot of veteran support groups online and says suicide is a real issue among veterans but is a hidden problem.

She says: “Suicide among veterans is massive and an epidemic. These people go away and fight for their country and see some horrific things and come away with a life sentence.

“We need to know the true figures for veteran suicides so we can understand the extent of the problem.

“The Government might then realise there is a massive black hole when it comes to veterans and PTSD. This needs addressing and recognising as a separate entity and services should be tailor-made for this cohort of people.

“Veterans only feel safe and understood by those who have walked in their shoes and shared the same experiences.

“There is a massive difference between a civilian taking their own life and a veteran.

“Each person’s suicide reasons are different but with veterans, there are similar reasons so surely something can be identified and used as a preventative measure.

“But without these figures being properly recorded, the whole issue is being swept under the carpet.”

“Suicide is often an impulsive act and that is more likely when someone is intoxicated.”

Prof Neil Greenberg, professor of defence mental health at King’s College, London, says it is widely recognised veterans are more likely to have alcohol difficulties.

Prof Greenberg, who served in the armed forces for more than 23 years, says: “People drink more while they are in the forces and once they leave.

“There are some veterans who have severe mental health problems who feel that ending their life is the only way out.

“But there are others who are intoxicated and in the heat of the moment, they make a terrible decision.

“It is a dangerous combination in someone who is susceptible.”

Andrew Misell, a director at Alcohol Concern, says: “The issue of drinking in the armed forces is complicated and there are no simple answers.

“Drinking has been a part of military life for centuries and it’s true that drinking together helps people who will be in the firing line together to bond and work together better.

“On the other hand, all of the UK’s armed forces have taken steps in recent years to encourage soldiers, sailors and airmen to cut back on their alcohol use - for their own health and well-being and for the health and safety of those around them.

“Problems can arise too when someone leaves the services. If they’ve got used to a big drinking culture while serving, they may take those drinking habits with them into civilian life, but without all the close-knit social support they received in the forces.

“There is a growing recognition that we need to look after our service personnel when they’re in the forces, and also when they leave.”

If someone is struggling with their drinking, they should seek professional advice and support from their doctor or local alcohol service provider.

A free advice line is also available from Drinkline for those worried about their own or someone else’s drinking on: 0300 123 1110.

For more information, visit: www.alcoholconcern.org.uk