FEAR – A very personal emotion

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

Fear. You won’t hear soldiers talk about it. Fear is a taboo subject, a word suggesting weakness or worse, what they once would have called a lack of moral fibre.

An Afghan soldier in the heat of battle

Troops skirt around it, deploying instead phrases like, “that was a close one” or “that wasn’t funny” to mask the reality of what they are feeling. But the question is not whether soldiers feel fear – for they do – but how they react to it.

It can be a powerful motivator, allowing you to do things you never thought you were capable of. But fear can also be mentally and physically debilitating, preventing men from carrying out the actions needed for survival.

If you look you will see fear everywhere. I have known fear, felt it, saw it in the eyes of my men and in the faces of my enemies. It strikes without warning, not just in the heat of combat but in the quiet reflective moments when there is too much time to think.

In the heart of Helmand there is much to be fearful of: the threat of death and injury, of having seen your family, your wife and children for the last time; of letting down your friends and colleagues, your regiment, your hometown, your country.

I have felt physically sick before deploying on a routine patrol, almost debilitated with fear as I watch children and women flee an area we’ve just entered, their dispersal known as a combat indicator, it’s always a prelude to attack. But as a commander I must stand tall, continue the mission, it is the loneliest of feelings, the loneliness of command.

In the middle of winter in Southern Helmand the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields freshly ploughed and irrigated. There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view or fire. The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers’ legs into the saturated terrain

It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War.

When the bullets come there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot. As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins.

The shouts are workmanlike and purposeful, orders are given and information passed. Insurgent positions are identified and fire is returned. For most the fear has been elbowed aside, the controlled violence and frenetic activity offering an escape. However for some the fear is persistent…

Looking for combat indicators

Back home, the British public are buoyed by media stories of heroism, young men overcoming adversity, it is uplifting. And these stories are part of the picture. I witnessed such bravery on many occasions, I was instrumental in the award of 3 Military Crosses and a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to men under my command – there can be no greater honour for me that to have my soldiers recognised for what they have done.

But where is the glory for the man who has overcome the most incapacitating fear? The one who has – against every instinct – unfurled himself from a foetal position and used his inner strength to haul himself up to face the enemy?

What recognition for the soldier who has lost a colleague in horrifying circumstances and yet the very next day will return to the scene despite uncontrollable vomiting and emotional confusion?

For many of the men and women in Helmand the biggest battles every day of every week for six months and more are with themselves. Only when those are won can they turn their attentions to the enemy.

Even for me – a soldier of 30 years with 13 operational tours completed – those battles are still to be won daily, each time harder than the last and well beyond the confines of military service.

But they are never fought alone, they are fought with those who share your experiences – your friends, your colleagues, the men left and right of you when the bullets fly.

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

I woke in my camp cot sweating. Even in sleep the fear is there.

An outpost in Helmand Province

14 thoughts on “FEAR – A very personal emotion

  1. Wow! Very deep thoughts and comments very well put as only someone who’s been there and done it can. Doug, your last few articles have certainly struck a chord and hit the nail squarely on the head.

    I seem to remember being told long ago in a different campaign “when you are on an operation you don’t go sick”. I think that’s what marks out a squadie in civy street, you just appear to take it in your stride. Some of us know different. Maybe people will realise life on ops is not a video game and casualties don’t just come from physical wounds.

    • Thanks Bryn – a soldier life is to get on with it, that doesn’t mean we are neither human or don’t think about our situations. I am the first to say that I have cried with fear be that physical or fear for my men becuaue I am the man in charge.

  2. Powerful, personal, incredibly moving. Thank you for letting us in, we who will never know for ourselves the experiences you have had, and continue to have. My deepest respects, and highest regard for you and all your comrades, past present and future.

  3. Thats a very powerful comment on the personal realities of war. Hopefully it will open people’s eyes to the mental health issues surrounding young soldiers returning home after a tour.

    • I doubt it Keith, I am a blind man in the dark trying to explain what it is like being a soldier. For many it will just be a bit of moving pictures on the news, until the ned of war we will never see the end of the mental anguish I try and explain. Cheers for the comment mate.

  4. I could never ever do it and it’s why I’m so very proud of our forces and so very grateful that they do the job I couldn’t possibly do!
    I love that you have bought this to the forefront, it may just give the “ignorant” civvies among us an insight into being a soldier that goes beyond a robotic killing machine. Thank you!

  5. Pingback: NEWZ-SPOOF: Corporal Jones to take over your school! | A dragon's best friend

  6. Doug,
    thank you for this article. I’m an English teacher at Yerington High School, in Yerington, Nevada. My junior’s are reading The Red Badge of Courage and this article is one that I will share with them because it goes along with the psychological conflict that the protagonist is dealing with. The boys in the class are having a hard time connecting with the character thinking he is a coward. You’re article will help them see that it isn’t just a unrealistic character battling his thoughts and in reality all soldiers have these feelings.

      • Very well written, and captured the moments of how it actually is. Still remember those days like they were
        Roomed with you on herrick 5 fob price
        Best wishes
        J coy 42cdo

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