‘I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the man’s body as hard as I could. I aimed for the centre of mass, forcing my rifle on to him, my bayonet into him, but the gloom made it hard to know exactly where I made contact. There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade, sliding deeper, quickly disappearing. I heard the metal slice through the flesh, felt it break bone and cut gristle as it glided further in, right up to the hilt. Did I hear a small gasp from the man? I don’t know, perhaps it was the devil inside me playing with my imagination. When it could go no further, I twisted the bayonet to increase the damage.
I kicked at the body, pushing away clothing, placing my foot on his shoulder. Only then, as my eyes became accustomed to the light did I see exactly where I had struck him. The blade had entered the man’s neck at the top of the spine, the tip now protruding just below his larynx, drops of blood running down the bayonet grooves. I pulled hard and the weapon slipped out, a small piece of windpipe coming with it. I didn’t give it a second thought.
Just as we had been taught’.
Garmsir, Helmand Province, September 2006 – the stuff of nightmares. Yet mental stress makes itself known in many different ways. It is not just about waking up in the middle of the night sweating, suffering flashbacks or diving for cover every time a door is slammed. It can be more subtle than all this, less visible, but equally debilitating.
Often it will be the mundane and the bland which trigger the emotions. How can you expect soldiers who have watched helplessly as friends and colleagues are killed and maimed to get excited about running out of milk? That others can find so important something which barely registers on the Richter Scale of human suffering only risks increasing veterans’ anger and frustration and potential to react.
The Ministry of Defence have made huge strides in tackling mental illness in whatever form it appears: combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or simple mental agitation. The introduction of various mental stress lectures, the use of trauma risk management techniques on the battlefield known as TRiM, the Mental Issues Helpline: they all go some way to help an individual as he struggles with issues he may never have felt before. Charities such as Combat Stress also do excellent work. Yet having help available is one thing. Getting someone to take it up is another.
My situation was not – and is not – unique. After Op Herrick IV I needed help and all I had to do was ask for it. But in fact all I did was say nothing. I was too proud to open my mouth. As a 40 year-old captain and ex regimental sergeant major, I had it in my mind the thought that people came to me for help. Not the other way round. And so the burden would fall not on the professionals but on my family, particularly my wife.
For no matter what people tell you it is invariably your family, your friends or your partner who will first notice the subtle and not so subtle changes in the way you behave. They will be the ones woken by your shouts; who will see your nervousness in bars, markets, shops. And in most cases it will be your family who you finally open up to, be it now or later in life.
The recent articles in the Mirror, and other newspapers, which point to an increase of cases of mental disorder within the military miss a couple of important points. Firstly it is the ending of operations and campaigns that are often the trigger for mental decline. So it was with Iraq and Northern Ireland, so it will be with Afghanistan. When you are in a conflict and there is widespread public support for the troops if not for the campaign, then it is easier to rationalise your experiences. But as memories fade and history is revised it becomes harder for veterans to convince themselves that while what they did was hard, it was also for a justifiable greater good. The sacrifice meant something.
Secondly, because of the Army’s concerted effort to de-stigmatise mental health issues, people are coming forward now where they would not have done so before. The scale of the problem might appear to have grown but that could be down to it previously being hidden away.
That said, it is vital that we do not label every member of the armed forces who feels a degree of anxiety and depression as being a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. While those diagnosed with PTSD are likely to have been service personnel deployed on OP Herrick or Op Telic, the MOD concludes:
“PTSD remains a rare condition, affecting 0.3 per 1,000 strength during this three month period [October – December 2011].”
This doesn’t come as news to Dr Ian Palmer, a professor of military psychiatry quoted on the NHS website:
“There’s a myth that serving in the armed forces damages you psychologically and everyone who has served gets PTSD. They don’t. Being part of the armed forces is good for your mental health. It’s good for your employment prospects and gives you discipline. Most people don’t have problems, and for those who do there are excellent psychiatric services in the forces.”
Many people, in all walks of life, will have bouts of mental illness and many of them will get through it with relatively little or indeed no medical intervention; so too with soldiers, sailors and airmen. In many respects my colleagues and I are fortunate. We have a readymade support network of thousands of other people just like us. The problem comes when we leave military service and find ourselves isolated from those with shared experiences.
The end of my third six-month stint in Helmand also marked the completion of my thirteenth operational tour: from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan via Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Each time I headed home so too did a new set of memories, not all of them good. Each time I walked back through my front door I was a slightly different person, with a shifting attitude towards the things I had seen and done.
When I returned from my first tour of ‘Afghan’ in 2006 the events I was involved with weighed heavily on my mind, revisiting my consciousness often when I least expected them, not least the moment when I fought my way into a dark, dusty mud hut and bayoneted a man to death.
Yet two years later, back in Helmand, things were markedly different. In 2008 I led a patrol into the Green Zone in the Upper Gereskh Valley. Surrounded and outnumbered we spent four hours fighting for survival. In the end I had to call in air support to keep us alive and get us out. Back at camp I was told that the bombs I had called in and guided to their targets had killed 18 children. It was only sometime later that this hideous claim was in fact shown to be Taliban propaganda and it was a number of insurgent fighters who had in fact died not a group of innocents. The problem was, I didn’t really care either way. My priority was to my men and if they were ok, then I was ok.
So perhaps desensitisation to war and its effects is the thing we should fear most. Maybe those who display mental anguish over the horrors of what they have witnessed are actually the well-adjusted ones, the lucky ones. They have the ability to display their feelings and have the chance to be helped. Maybe it’s the men and women who claim they are immune to emotion whom we should be watching closest.