After almost eight years in the marines, Steven Preece quit following a court martial. But adapting to life as a civilian proved a struggle, until he discovered something else to believe in. Nick Morrison reports.

BY his own admission, Steven Preece was a bit of a loose cannon. Violence and aggression came naturally to him. He didn't go looking for trouble, but he was prepared to take it on when it came looking for him.

For more than seven years, that aggression was channelled, nurtured even, in the marines. But it presented Steven with a problem. When it came time to leave the marines, the violence was still there.

"I walked out the gate and I was still a marine. You can't just switch it off," he says. "It takes a long time. Some people say two or three years, some people never change. I know a lot of people who've had difficulties with alcohol, homelessness, being mixed up, on the wrong side of things.

"I was close to being an alcoholic. It was only my strength as a marine that brought me through."

As a child growing up in the Headland in Hartlepool, with John Wayne as his hero, it had always been his ambition to be a marine. He joined at 18, one of just six to pass out from the 56 who started, underwent a brutal initiation where he was beaten up in scenes reminiscent of those of naked marines fighting exposed in newspapers last month, served with 4/5 Commando in Northern Ireland and Cyprus, and did five tours of the Arctic.

In 1988, he joined the Royal Marines police, but was court martialled after he dangled a colleague over a 40ft bridge. He was acquitted, but shortly afterwards, in May 1990, opted to leave. The story of his move to civvy street is told in his book, Always A Marine, a follow-up to Amongst the Marines, which told of life in the corps, using the pseudonym Steven Preece.

Now 41 and living in Seaton Carew, the faded scars on his forehead, chin and temple are a reminder of the battles he has fought, and not all of them from his time in the marines.

"Inevitably, soldiers of that nature are violent. There was a percentage that couldn't control their aggression, and I was one of those," he says. "They aren't all loose cannons, but I was.

"I think it was there in me anyway, I wouldn't blame the marines for it because a lot of marines weren't like that, but it is something instilled in you in basic training."

Returning to his native Hartlepool as an ex-marine, he became a target for every would-be hard man. "They never used to let me forget I was a marine. They wanted to fight me," he says.

"A lot of the time they brought trouble to me and I just didn't tolerate it. I used to beat the hell out of them and I had a really bad reputation." And it wasn't just when he was out on the town. Finding, and keeping, a job proved equally problematic.

"I was aggressive with people and the problem I had when I first came out was backstabbers, I couldn't tolerate them. I dealt with it as I dealt with it in the marines," he says.

"There was one guy who wasn't happy that I sat in a warm office and he didn't, although I had been in temperatures of minus 46 in the Arctic. Eventually I went over to his office and put him in the picture. I threatened to rip his head off.

"I found the transition very difficult. In the military, if you say be there at seven o'clock, you are there at seven o'clock. In civvy street, they might be there a bit later or they might never turn up."

Not surprisingly, his military approach did not always endear him to his colleagues, and he ended up moving from job to job. Eventually, he had to go abroad to look for work. In hindsight, it may have saved him, taking him away from the orbit of those still wanting to fight him. "It gave me time to sort my head out," he says.

He worked in Morocco and Thailand, then back in Britain on the Channel Tunnel, before returning home to wife Anne, an employment advisor who had interviewed him in a job centre. They had the first of their two sons, now aged 12 and nine, and it was while living in Hartlepool there came a pivotal moment in his life, the first time he backed away from violence.

"I looked out of the window one night and saw the car door was ajar, so I walked out in only my underpants and somebody wearing a mask was sitting in the car," he says.

"I ran at him, he was a big lad but he turned and ran, and I followed him. I could have pulled him down but I would have ripped the skin off my leg. Eventually he stopped and ripped his mask off and pulled out this chisel. For the first time in my life I hesitated. I had a wife and a young child. He was shaking, and when I thought about it afterwards, I felt he would have stuck it in me."

But it took a neck problem to tackle the last vestiges of aggression. A chiropractor told him he was suffering from stress and recommended Steven take up ninjutsu, a Japanese martial art.

"He gave me a video and I thought it didn't look like my cup of tea. My background was aggression, but I went to a session and watched," he says. Steven was quickly hooked, and started training eight hours a week.

"Basically, you react on impulse, so it is a bit like being a marine but a different approach. I was working with people who were not aggressive and I think that started to quench the fire that had burned inside me for so long."

Shortly afterwards, he went to a Remembrance Day service in Hartlepool. It had been a regular fixture for him, honouring his dead and injured comrades, but this time something was different. "I just felt out of place. I thought I didn't need to come here any more, I could remember my friends in my own way," he says.

After the service, he lingered to talk with another ex-Royal Marine. "He said, 'We will always be marines.' I thought, you might be, but I'm not. I would class myself now as a former employee of the Royal Marines."

It may only sound a matter of words, but to Steven it was a huge leap, a recognition that he had finally, more than a decade on, left the aggression and violence behind him. But it doesn't mean he renounces his time in the marines, far from it.

"The marines are the best fighting force in the world, their professionalism is second to none, the training is arduous but the goal at the end is worth it. I would recommend it to any young man.

"If I could turn the clock back I would do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing. A lot of the things I got up to and the trouble I got into was a reflection on me and not on the armed forces," he says.

Nevertheless, it took more than a decade before he found in martial arts a replacement for what he had in the marines. "When you are a soldier you are fighting for what you believe in, Queen and Country, and when you walk out it can't stop," he says.

"When they leave the armed forces, people look for something else to believe in, and a lot of people join the police because it gives them something similar. I found ninjutsu.

"But some of the best times of my life were in the marines. I absolutely loved it, I was a marine through and through. When the kids were born, my wife said, 'Is this the best day of your life?', and I said it was one of the best days. The day when I passed out was the best. I absolutely loved being in the marines. It was great being one and it was difficult not being one."

* Always a Marine: The Return to Civvy Street by Steven Preece (Mainstream, £7.99).