'I Was Homeless, Then I Built My Own Castle'

I decided to join the army at the age of 27. I had been running 20 miles some days and doing 10,000 press ups a week before signing up, so after six months I was scoring straight As, won best recruit at intake and joined The Second Battalion of the Royal Welsh regiment of the British Army. Within a year I was a physical training instructor (PTI); when soldiers would finish physiotherapy they would come to us to complete their rehabilitation back to full fitness. I also taught mainstream PT lessons for B (Rorkes Drift) company, Infantry Battalion. I settled into married life in the army and had two children, then went on a frontline tour of Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.

When we came back, things weren't quite the same. There's a phrase I heard, which was that it's like you didn't come back with your soul. When somebody said that, it really did cut a little bit deeper. I guess some people don't come back as happy as they once were and tend to find coping mechanisms thereafter.

After Afghanistan, I had a back injury and couldn't train anymore, give lessons or play with my children. I was in constant pain and on painkillers for a long time and that's when I tried taking an overdose. I didn't tell anybody about it for a very long time, but after that there was a change in my character, I just became completely self destructive.

I struggled with that for many years and that's kind of how I tumbled into homelessness. I left the army in 2015 and I was homeless for about two years from 2016. I sofa surfed in between but I was predominantly living in a cabin I built off the beaten track near a village in Wales called Wattsville.

Nobody at all knew where the cabin was and there was no reason for anybody to ever walk past it by accident. I had complete freedom and the opportunity to build something with my own hands, re-engage with fitness and have achievable goals every day, like trying to get a log across a field. It was extremely beneficial. And, at the same time being away from cell phones, radio and tv meant it was just back to complete basics.

The best way to describe it was like the TV shows where celebrities go to a jungle and have very little food. If they don't have anything but rice for a few weeks, and they are given a jelly bean, it's the best food they've ever had. I went through that experience at the first cabin a lot, there were times of extreme starvation, which was difficult. Sometimes I was living off a pack of oat cookies and water from the taps in people's backyards, going to the store to get a reduced sandwich at night time.

I did get back into employment, but I was aware I still had issues, so I got myself into counseling too. That's helped my train of thought improve, but even in employment I would still suffer with flashbacks.

Army Veteran Mikey Allen
Welsh army veteran Mikey Allen became homeless after leaving the army in 2015. He is now helping other veterans with his charity Endex Support Services. Courtesy of Mikey Allen

There was one particular time I was working on a building site on a wet day. I was following a digger in front of us; following the tracks of it. But when we were in Afghanistan we would tend to follow the tank tracks because if there was an improvised explosive device (IED) the tank would have triggered it. There I was on the building site following this digger and all of a sudden alarm bells began going off in my head. I couldn't move off either side of the tracks and I was extremely worried about my friends, thinking they were about to die.

Visually, I could see there was nothing wrong whatsoever; I was on a building site and everybody was laughing and smoking cigarettes, but the emotions and the response my body was going through was that I was back there, we were about to be attacked and there was about to be an explosion. Even if you do make healthy choices and manage yourself as best you can, the smallest thing can trigger a flashback. You can never completely protect yourself from it. That was the last day of work for me. I just didn't go back after that.

I had been living in the first cabin for two years on and off when it was taken down. Local officials were doing their job but it was a difficult time. I was lucky that I had re-engaged with friends and family so my father took me back into his house initially and I stayed there for a couple of weeks. That's when a local farming family came up and said they had seen the fires from my cabin for the past couple of years and understood what I had been through. They told me they had a caravan that I was welcome to use and land I could build on.

So I moved into the caravan, which was nice because they had two horses that would be looking into my window all the time, as well as donkeys, chickens and ducks. I went from being in isolation to being surrounded by animals. One of the dogs even moved into the caravan with me and there was always a queue of animals outside waiting for me.

What I've learned to do is fall forward, that's the best way to describe it. There's a lot of energy and adrenaline going through my system if I have had a flashback episode, but I may as well make the best use of the emotions. So after I moved onto the new land I did a lot of stone collecting at first. I would take a military basha, walk down the mountain and fill it up with stones. I would walk up and down all day, just working myself to the bone.

I built about 30 percent of the walls of a structure and then two gentlemen came across and said I had to take it down. They're both veterans themselves and they turned out to be from the Dry Stone Walling Association in Wales. They teach people how to do dry stone walling properly and said that if I took it down, they would come back in two weeks and show me how to do it properly. Sure enough, they came back two weeks later with some other veterans and really showed me where I had gone wrong and how to do things better. I've been friends with them ever since.

My experience with the first cabin was life changing and so I hoped that by building a second cabin, other people would have an opportunity to just have somewhere to go to. I built the cabin itself during the first nine months of 2019 and then in 2020 I made flat platforms, a chessboard and seating area and outdoor gym.

Mikey Allen's Castle in Wales
An aerial view of the castle Mikey Allen began building in 2019. The castle should be complete in April 2022. Courtesy of Mikey Allen

During the 2021 lockdown in the U.K. I started collecting more stones and one day I said that I was going to build it into a castle. I was involved with the community by then and somebody laughed at me, so that was it! It became a castle.

As the castle was being built I was introduced to a lot of really good people who I talked openly with about some of my experiences and what might be appropriate forms of help for other veterans. We started to create a small team working towards a bigger goal aside from the castle, which became my charity: Endex Support Services. We launched a GoFundMe page and have raised more than £4,000 ($5,500). Using those funds we have put 48 people through accredited mental health training courses, those have included veterans, NHS staff, bereaved families, volunteers and charity workers. And, we have been able to put seven veterans through a forestry first aid course.

During the first lockdown in 2020 the amount of people who came up to the structure was phenomenal, there would be days where there 30 to 40 people there in groups of families. It was really good to see so many people separate, but at the same time in a field together. Even now there are people there every day.

I now live at the bottom of the valley so I can see the castle from my window. And the local community can see the castle from the village and the Welsh flag flying, and they absolutely love it. If I go for a run down the street, people try to stop me to thank me. I'm jokingly seen as the King of the village! It's really sweet.

During my time at the first cabin, I lost any form of ego, I don't really need material objects anymore. All this attention is beneficial but at the same time I'm trying to manage myself the best I can and not take on too much. I only say yes to things I know I can follow through on.

I think a lot of veterans can leave the armed forces with issues but the vast majority do manage themselves in some way. Most veterans go on to do great things, but at the same time, some people don't latch onto long term goals, don't choose the right path and become self destructive. Sometimes that can lead straight off a cliff. So I think the main thing is trying to give to the veterans themselves. It's great to have big buildings, but my thoughts are that funding should go directly to the veterans.

Someone asked me recently how I have managed to do what I have done, despite the adversities I've faced. The way I describe it is that it's like being the King piece on a chessboard. Though it might sound great, the reality is that when you're the King, the other team wants to take you down as quickly as possible. And a King can only move one square at a time, so he's very limited in what he can do and without protection around him, he's really vulnerable.

I see all the pieces around me as the people around me have a variety of different amazing skill sets and experiences, all of whom are good natured and have a willingness to help towards a joint goal: to create life changing opportunities. Without them, I won't get very far.

Mikey Allen is an army veteran living in Wales. He is a director of the charity Endex Support Services. You can find out more about Endex here and the Endex Support Service GoFundMe here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.