When Mark Smith left the Army after six years to pursue a career in care, he never imagined that he would one day be the person relying on others to survive.
The fit, active father-of-two worked hard looking after youngsters at a children’s home, with a second job teaching English as a private tutor.
But in 2016, his life changed forever when he was diagnosed with cervical myelopathy – a condition which involves compression and injury to the spinal cord, which, over time, can cause serious disability. He was left unable to cook, clean, or walk properly, and in constant pain.
Unable to earn a living, Mark had no choice but to claim benefits and was managing fine – until the amount he received was cut by over £500 a month. Now the former driver in the Royal Corps of Transport from Hull says he is ‘starving’ as he can’t afford to buy food and ‘freezing to death’ as he has no money for heating.
“If it hadn’t been for other veterans and friends bringing food parcels round to my house I wouldn’t have been able to eat,” Mark told i. “They have been a Godsend.” Mark’s troubles began after he was diagnosed with CM in November 2016. It occurs when the discs between the vertebrae in the spine wear out, leading to bulging, or when the ligaments around the spine harden into bone.
He had been suffering from pins and needles in his hands for a number of years which had gradually gotten worse. When he began getting pains in his neck too, he was referred for an MRI scan. “I had no idea what it was when the doctor gave me the diagnosis, so began doing a lot of research,” he said. “Basically, it meant some of the discs in my neck were wearing away. Instead of my cervical spine looking like a toilet roll holder, it was egg-timer shaped.”
As a former marathon runner who belonged to a running club and enjoyed going to the gym, he soon found he was unable to exercise any more. As the pain in his neck increased, spreading to his arms, Mark found doing simple tasks like cleaning the bathroom or cooking a meal impossible.
CM can also cause tingling, numbness or weakness in various parts of the body and difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing or buttoning a shirt, as well as loss or urinary or bowel control and difficulty walking. As his condition progressed, Mark found he could no longer walk more than a few steps.
“I went from being a vibrant, sociable 45-year-old man to someone who was virtually housebound and couldn’t do much for himself any more,” he said. “My daughters – who are eleven and thirteen – would have to be brought round to me weekly just so I could see them and I’d feel so guilty not being able to take them out anywhere or do anything with them.”
The one consolation Mark had was that he could manage financially on the £778.80 a month he was getting in benefits, consisting of Employment Support Allowance (ESA), Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and severe disability premium payments.
“I wasn’t exactly flush but it paid for the gas, electricity, phone and food,” he explained. “I had to buy ready made microwave meals as I couldn’t move around for long enough to cook any more and needed a cleaner too as I wasn’t able to do any cleaning. It was enough to get by.”
In 2017 Mark had to undergo a five-hour operation to have two of the seven cervical vertebrae in his neck removed, which affected his mobility even more.
“I could literally only just walk around the corner outside before the pain became too unbearable and I’d have to go home,” he said. “I became so lonely just sitting in a chair all day and there were times I didn’t want to go on. It was only the thought of seeing my daughters at the weekends that kept me going.” Read more at: https://inews.co.uk/news/disabled-veteran-relies-on-food-donations-from-former-army-colleagues-after-benefits-cut/?fbclid=IwAR0-Y2jsKf3tgeQjamv0oF7G2hWK-WoAtxEqtDInA-0K_vaPzzwNm_W64wM
But then Mark received more bad news in November 2018 when a benefits assessor came round to review his case.
“It had taken them all that time to asses me properly,” he explained. “My doctor had already declared me unfit for work but, after carrying out a few tests to see what I could and couldn’t do, the assessor concluded that I was fit to go back to work and declared that I should be taken off ESA and put onto Jobseeker’s Allowance instead, meaning I’d have to go to the job centre regularly and apply for work to get paid the allowance.
“It was a joke. The assessor could see I was in extreme pain and couldn’t even manage most of the tasks yet deemed me fit for work.”
Eventually, Mark’s ESA was reinstated after he attended the job centre and staff saw him struggling to walk. But then, in November last year, his PIP was removed and last month his severe disability premium payments were stopped too. His ESA was reduced to £56.10 a week, leaving him with £224.40 a month to survive on – £554.40 less than he’d been previously getting.
“I have nothing to live off now,” he said. “I am appealing the decision but my appeal dates keep getting cancelled so I’m still waiting.
“In the meantime, I don’t even have £5 in the bank to buy food. I’ve been relying on support from the Hull Veterans Support Centre and various friends. The vets come round weekly and bring me food parcels and do a little bit of cleaning and I honestly would have starved by now if it hadn’t been for them.
“I can’t afford heating either, so I’m freezing to death, and the cold conditions in my house are making my neck even worse.”
Mark admitted he’d had such low moments he’d even contemplated taking his own life adding, “it is only the thought of my daughters that has stopped me.”
“It’s been months now and I’m still no closer to getting the benefits I should be getting,” he said. “I have been given another date for my appeal hearing on February 20 and if they don’t reinstate the rest of my benefits I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I can’t cover bills and food on £56.10 a week.
“It’s bad enough that I’m disabled. I’ve had half my neck removed and spend every day sat in a chair feeling desperately lonely and miserable. It’s no life. And now this. I can’t take much more.”
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