Saturday 16 February marks the third anniversary of Knowsley Veterans’ Hub, Everton in the Community’s Health and Wellbeing project, funded by the Royal British Legion, which aims to engage ex-service personnel at risk of isolation by providing sport, training and social activities.
This is the story of Ian Baillie, who says his life has been transformed by the scheme. Support The People’s Place, Everton in the Community’s proposed purpose-built mental health facility close to Goodison Park, by texting EITC31 £5 to 70070. Find out more at peoplesplace.net
Ian Baillie pauses to do the maths. “Six or seven times,” he reckons. Six or seven times, Ian Baillie has repaired his life, assembled a solid structure bound together by work, relationships and security. Six or seven times, he has reduced it all to rubble; drinking, gambling and fighting his destructive instruments of choice.
“I’d get settled with a job and money, be comfortable and happy and content, have friends and a home and good relationships,” starts Baillie.
“Then I’d find a way to destroy everything.
“I did not know there were reasons for my behaviour, I thought I was just irresponsible and careless.
“I didn’t realise but I was looking for ways to wreck what I had.
“It’s only in the past four-and-a-half years I’ve appreciated what I’ve done and why.”
The time period cited by Baillie is relevant. It is four-and-a-half years since his second suicide attempt.
Around that time, he was relating his ruinous cycle of behaviour to an army veterans’ group when one of those listening told Baillie he was exhibiting classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].
Baillie outwardly refuted the notion. It struck a chord, though. He accepts the diagnosis today, wishes “I’d known before I messed everything up”.
The ongoing tidying-up process started in similar surroundings. A poster alerting forces veterans to Everton in the Community’s [EitC] Knowsley Veterans’ Hub – specifically the newly-launched programme’s football team – piqued Baillie’s interest.
Three years later and “EitC,” says Baillie, “has given me something to live for”.
“An incentive, a bit of confidence,” he continues.
“I would sit at home at night and think, ‘Nobody has made the mistakes I have, I am the worst.
“But I have met other veterans with the same problems and issues. And who have the same hurdles to jump.
“Immediately there was a bond, a trust.
“And even at 52, I am still trying to do my bit for our football team.
“I know I am moving forward… there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
All Ian Baillie wanted was to serve in the army.
“My stepdad brought me up,” he explains. “It wasn’t a good upbringing. He wasn’t the nicest of people, not a good role model.
“But he had been in the army and used to go on about it. That planted a seed.”
Baillie is 5ft 1in and sturdily built. He owns a strength of character he is either unwilling to acknowledge or, more likely, unable to recognise.
Baillie understands, now, he is not a “bad person”. “But I made a lot of bad mistakes,” he interjects.
It is only when the device recording this interview is switched off, that Baillie talks of the 100-mile run he undertook from London to Corby in aid of a children’s hospice.
It turns out he’s completed the London Marathon on three occasions, too, raising funds for homeless charity Shelter – and, when he ran it dressed as a baby seven years ago, for a children’s cancer charity.
There is a discernible sadness in Baillie’s eyes as he recounts the end of his forces career at the age of 23, and again as he expounds on his subsequent difficulties.
That haunted look slips away, replaced by brighter features when he is prompted to detail the good times.
There is a reluctance to talk up his achievements, though: a trait which is, perhaps, a remnant of his “tough” childhood. In school, Baillie learned, it was best not to say a lot.
He found sanctuary in the Army Cadets, which he joined aged 12.
“I was bullied at school and the cadets was a way out,” says Baillie.
“We were all equal. I could be myself, instead of worrying what other people would say or do to me. I felt safe.
“I was naturally an outgoing, expressive person. In the cadets, I could communicate and be open and honest.
“I would suppress all that at school. Sometimes I’d go the opposite way and be overly outgoing to compensate.”
It required astronomical levels of resilience for Baillie to repeatedly drag himself up by the boot straps.
Those phases when he would “destroy everything” routinely ended up with periods of homelessness.
“I’d run away and leave a mess behind me,” says Baillie.
“I’d be sleeping in woods or on the streets, beating myself because of what I’d done.
“Then I’d think, ‘Right, I’m going to get a home, then a job. One step at a time.”
Baillie’s inveterate determination was invaluable when the army initially closed the door on him.
His persistence having paid off, he resolved to demonstrate his worth.
“I applied together with a friend who was 6ft-odd,” he says. “He was accepted but they said I was too short.
“I went home and actually measured myself, came back and said, ‘No I am not’
“There was nothing else, it was all I wanted. They eventually got sick of me and put me forward.
“I went to the selection centre weighing eight stone, tiny, not strong but fit.
“I didn’t care which regiment I went in but wanted to prove a point.
“There was 120 of us in the gym at Sutton Coldfield and they asked whoever wanted to be in Parachute Regiment to stand up.
“I was one of six to get on my feet. The fitness test is twice as hard as any other but I had something to prove.
“I was the only one to pass.
“I didn’t get in because I wasn’t physically strong enough. But I didn’t care. I’d done what I wanted to.”
Baillie had a second passion in life by this point. After a “bad day at school” one of his army cadet mates asked Baillie to join him for boxing training.
As soon as he stepped inside Corby Olympic Amateur Boxing Club, standing under its low ceiling and hearing the singular hum created by whirring punch bags and leather crashing into pads, Ian Baillie was at home. He experienced the sense of kinship which would register 35-or-so years later when he turned up for the first time at Knowsley Veterans’ Hub.
KVH was the brainchild of project co-ordinator Dave Curtis, who was discharged from the army after a PTSD diagnosis and whose uplifting recovery story acts as a beacon of hope for the programme’s participants.
Saturday 16 February will mark the third birthday of KVH which, via the mediums of sport, training and social activities, aims to engage and help ex-service personnel at risk of isolation.
“Every veteran will say the same,” explains Baillie. “There is an instant bond. Even if you have not served with that person, there is a trust.
“I trust every individual on the project. Everybody is so friendly and welcoming, they are all non-judgemental and patient and willing to give you time.
“They just want to help, do you know what I mean?
“To help you move forward and improve your self-esteem, so you know you are worth something. That there is a purpose.
“Anytime I need to speak to anybody, they are there to support me.
“Sometimes I’ll have a moan and say I have no friends. They will inbox me: ‘What are you talking about, stop talking rubbish, we are here’.”
Baillie was a fabulous boxer. He winces when he considers how he did not truly fulfil his talent; momentarily glows with pride when he recalls his feats in the ring.
“I had a few fights before I joined the army, then boxed for my regiment,” he says.
And how. Baillie reached the final of the British Army of the Rhine competition – contested by British servicemen in Germany and whose final was staged in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.
A flyweight with fast hands and concussive punching power, he was also a finalist in the army championships back on home soil in Aldershot.
“Boxing in the Olympic Stadium was absolutely amazing,” says Baillie.
“It was humongous, they placed two rings in the centre and the place just rose away from you as far as you could see.
“There were only a few of us there but it was incredible.
“The first time I went to the boxing club, I loved it. There is a hierarchy at school but in the club everybody was equal.
“There was no bullying, nobody to take advantage.”
Baillie was similarly at ease stationed at the army’s North Yorkshire Catterick Garrison where he completed his basic and trade training.
More than three decades later, he can recite the activities which would fill his day – and which made him feel safe. “There were rules, not like at school, and because it was hard, if you got through, you’d achieved something,” he says.
Baillie would revisit a life of “fitness drills, parades, marching, weapon training, unarmed combat and kit inspections,” when he served three months inside military prison.
“I went absent for five months,” says Baillie, inviting the question of where he spent this period.
“I haven’t got a clue, I was all over the place,” he says, the second part of this answer referring to Baillie’s mental rather than physical position.
“Two of us went, me and a mate from the same town.
“He told me the other day that I slept in some horrendous places.
“I didn’t know there were reasons for what I was doing, I thought maybe I had grown out of the army.”
Was he, perhaps, getting his own back on a life which had been unfair to him in childhood?
“Yes,” Ballie replies, with the rapier sharpness he would once reserve for an opponent pinned to the ropes.
“I had a chip on my shoulder. All the fighting, drinking, I probably got a buzz out of it.”
Baillie applied for premature voluntary release from the forces after serving his punishment.
“I was with the Queens Division at Bassingbourn barracks [which formerly housed new recruits during their initial training] for six months, then came out,” he says.
“I was 23.”
Six years earlier, Baillie had embraced army life and its “camaraderie and comradeship”. It was an “escape from home life and felt as if I was part of something,” he says. “I felt important and accepted.
Baillie’s first posting, which spanned three years at the German base of Herford with the Royal Signals, was “not challenging… comfortable”.
Too comfortable in fact. Baillie had joined the army “because I wanted to be frontline, on patrols with my rifle, how people picture a soldier.”
Baillie applied for transfer to the Royal Anglians, the regiment closest to his Northamptonshire home.
He recalls being greeted by an eerie hush when he reported to his new barracks.
“There was nobody there, except for one guard,” says Baillie.
“He told me everyone was in South Armagh and I was going the next day.
“I went from one extreme to another.”
To expand on that, Baillie was essentially trading routine duties and nights on the town for service in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.
South Armagh’s reputation as an IRA stronghold – and, as such, one of the most forbidding postings for a British soldier – led to it acquiring the nickname ‘Bandit Country’.
Baillie entered this environment forcibly suppressing the impact of a traumatic episode in his life the previous year.
Baillie’s mum, he relates, “was in bits” during the wait for news of her son.
It was his mum, too, who identified the change in Baillie when he returned home for six weeks’ leave following his four-and-half-month posting in Northern Ireland.
There was no provision of care 33 years ago for soldiers transitioning from an environment in which other human beings wanted to “blow you up or shoot you”, to the temporary humdrum of civvy street.
“My mum said I was never the same,” says Baillie.
“I was fighting, aggressive, I put my first through my mum’s front door window. I’d never have done that in a million years.
“You are going from being constantly switched on, knowing there is an enemy out there, to nothing.
“I have a lot of respect for my mum but I was swearing and lashing out.
“I didn’t hit her, nothing like that. But she was scared.
“I was angry, aggressive and paranoid. drinking constantly. Constantly on edge, panicking if I heard a car.”
Three of Baillie’s colleagues were killed in Northern Ireland.
“You lived on a hill surrounded by barbed wire, a chopper would come in, pick you up for your patrol and drop you off.
“Food and water were dropped in, there were no toilet facilities.
“I thrived on it in a way, but you are going to be scared, aren’t you?
“If you are not on the ball, you are putting your oppo’s life in danger.
“I don’t think you ever switch off, you can’t.”
Baillie woke with toothache one day. A man who didn’t flinch at being thumped in the face by adversaries in the boxing ring, the pain was driving him to tears.
He doesn’t know where he went to have the offending tooth knocked out. Only that the journey to and from his ad-hoc dentist required him to hunker down in the back of a van, a 9mm pistol held firm to his chest, his instructions ringing in his ears.
“If you don’t hear three taps before the shutter opens,” Baillie was told, “start shooting”.
Baillie has a son, John, who is 24 and plays football for AFC Rushden & Diamonds. He shies away from going to watch John play, for fear of revisiting the home town where he claims he “made a mess of everything”.
There is a relationship forming between dad and son, though. He remains in contact with his two step sisters.
And he has Knowsley Veteran’s Hub. Baillie was a member of the KVH football team which claimed its five-a-side league title following a six-month season in late 2018.
“I loved winning that,” he says.
“We weren’t the best players man for man, but we were the best team. That is the forces mentality.
“Everton in the Community has been awesome. I am still in a bad place at times and have had my moments when I’ve run away because I’m beating myself up over all the mistakes I’ve made.
“But it’s been a humongous help.
“I love coming down here. Love it.
“I struggle every day. I lie on the couch six days a week and my diet is not good.
“But knowing I can come here, if I did not have that…
“I look forward to it, so much.”
Baillie would work as a fitness instructor in the ‘good’ periods following his service. He studied his peers and amassed qualifications. It was no different from his initial army mindset: “I wanted to be the best”.
Then he would run away, swept along by his vices.
He is eager that his own mistakes be channelled into helping others avoid similar pain.
“I have completed my mental health first aid training and am doing a 10-week counselling course,” he says.
“Even though I have consistently made mistakes, I am great at giving advice to others. I love helping people.
“This is the longest I have been settled. I had one of my self-destruct modes four-and-half- years ago, I lost friends and family because of my behaviour.
“That’s when I came to Liverpool. I love the city and the people.
“I have some great friends here, they are like family and call me their brother.
“But without Dave and Knowsley Veterans’ Hub, I would be in my flat 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Every day is a battle. I’d just like to be at ease, do you know what I mean?
“But I know help is there, so it is easier at times. I am not alone and I can’t thank Everton enough for that.”
Those boxing finals, then, did Baillie lose on points, or was he knocked out?
The corners of his mouth turn upwards.
“I lost on points,” he says.
“I never get knocked out.”