Trust a #journalist? You bet. The #military and the #media

Who would trust a journalist?

The temptation after the last few months of ongoing revelations about widespread phone hacking is to say no one. And yet my limited experience is to do otherwise. I have encountered, and indeed confided in, more than my fair share. And my experience overall has been positive.

The relevance of Her Majesty’s Press – the Fourth Estate – came to the forefront of my mind again last week when I saw that the Channel 4 documentary maker Sean Langan was making an appearance on the BBC, both in dramatic form – his kidnapping by the Taliban in 2008 had been turned into an hour-long feature – and confessional when he reprised his life and work in an interview with Mark Lawson.

I have nothing but admiration for Sean.

I first came across him in 2006 as we set about trying to retake the Taliban held town of Garmsir in southern Helmand. Denied access by the military, Sean hitched a ride with the Afghan security forces working along side us who had no qualms about letting a reporter seeing the reality of our squalid little war.

For the next seven days Sean was on hand to capture the horror and terror of a mission which quickly got out of hand and risked turning into a military disaster. But he did not just impassively stand back and capture events. He also became part of them, lending a hand – for example – to treat the steady stream of casualties, from both sides, who were brought into our makeshift base in the centre of the town.

I must make it clear that he was completely impartial to the various aspects of the conflict. He did not take sides and he did not help us militarily. But neither was he immune to human suffering and when necessary he mucked in to try and help alleviate it.

Most of all, he was great company. Straightforward, funny, inquisitive, Sean was everything a journalist should be.

Sean’s footage was turned into a film called Fighting the Taliban (watch on Sean’s website). It shone a bright spotlight on our military involvement in Afghanistan at a time when the MOD was doing almost everything in their power to keep activities shrouded in darkness.

Not long after getting back from Garmsir, I met another journalist, called Philip Gomm. Phil was working for ITV and we got talking at the airstrip in Bastion while we were both waiting for a flight back to Kandahar. He shared Sean’s inquisitive, straightforward nature. Still shocked by my time in Gamsir I spouted on about events there and also told him a little of my past. Patiently he listened. There and then he said that should I ever want to write a book about my experiences then I should let him know. Six months later, back at home, I started to write down my feelings about Afghanistan. I wasn’t doing it with any literary intention, but as a way of communicating what I had seen and done to my wife Margaret. It was she – having read my missives – who suggested I get in touch with Phil and see if his comments back in Helmand had been anything more than politeness. Apparently they were and some 18 months later on An Ordinary Soldier was published. I went on to work with Phil on Task Force Helmand.

Since then I have spoken to scores of journalists without trouble. It seems too that the MOD has softened its view on reporters and authors, recognising that journalists are going to run their stories anyway and that having some input offers the best chance of a balanced report while the knee-jerk “no comment” sounds defensive and suggests there is something to hide, plus risks getting the media’s backs up. Allowing journalists access to soldiers allows them to experience the hardships we face and is more likely to create empathy and understanding. The MOD also now understands that books like mine – Sniper One, Bravo Two Zero, Junior Officers’ Reading Club etc. – can be good recruiting tools.

It might be going too far to say journalists are noble people, but I have come away with a sense that as individuals they are interested in telling the truth. Of course the demands of big business and unscrupulous management means a mere reporter’s integrity is always under threat. And clearly, as within any profession, there are inherently bad apples. But I have time for journalists. Theirs can be a dirty job but someone has to do it. Just like soldiering.


‘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.

Just as we had been taught.

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.

Our Fallen – #Afghanistan. Article first published in @thetimes

To be a soldier is to face the prospect of violent death. Over time, of course, the odds of the worst happening to any individual taking the Sovereign’s shilling have ebbed and flowed. Compared to the mass sacrifice of World Wars I & II the 1970s, ‘80s and 90s were periods of relative calm. For UK troops, conflicts came and went, but despite the ferocity of the Falklands, the relentless low-level attrition of Northern Ireland, Balkan horrors and desert escapades during the First Gulf War, the majority of troops were just as likely to have avoided danger as have crossed its path. The former head of the Army, General Sir Mike Jackson, is not alone in having given a lifetime of armed service and yet not once been shot at by someone intent on doing him harm.

For the first quarter century of my own career I was in a very similar position to Sir Mike. But Afghanistan changed all that. During my three tours of ‘Afghan’ it was routinely the situation that I had to kill or be killed. And so it went for most of my colleagues. For those in the infantry the big question since 2006 – when UK troops moved into Helmand Province – has not been: will I have to fight? But rather, when will I have to fight?

My luck held. I survived. Hundreds of others – over four hundred – have not. The latest losses mean yet another grim milestone has been reached and past. For those who did not know these men and women, their names will mean little or nothing. Yet each photo published alongside a report of a fatality 4,500 miles away offers a glimpse of the human toll of the conflict.

For all the similarities between these posed pictures – invariably of smiling, confident soldiers, attired in one regimental uniform or another – they are clearly a window onto the lives of individuals. Each had their own sets of friends and relations, their own hopes and aspirations, plans for the long lives everyone of us who are in the military assume we will go on to lead, whatever the chances against it might be.

You can see that confidence about the future in the eyes. It is there alongside the pride and the courage, the commitment and integrity, the passion and the defiance. For whatever else soldiers might think when we go to places like Afghanistan it is not that we won’t come back.

Which isn’t to say we are immune from the sorrow caused by losing a close colleague.

The figure of 400 dead provides the media a ready-made peg on which to hang the latest batch of stories about our intervention in the country. There have been many similarly suitable markers since 2001 when we first entered Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attack: one dead, ten dead, a hundred, two, three hundred. You see the pattern.

Yet the Army doesn’t do milestones. It honours each death. If anyone remembers that every life lost is equally important, it is those who make up the deceased’s extended family: those in the military themselves. To us who are left behind, the hole in the ranks is all too obvious. Whatever the cause, whatever the greater good; at the most basic level soldiers – and sailors and airmen – primarily fight for each other. And the loss of a brother in arms is felt keenly whether they are the first or the fifty-first to perish in a campaign.

When I first arrived at Camp Bastion in the Summer of 2006 there were just three names inscribed on its memorial to the lost. One was familiar to me. It was that of a proud man who had repeatedly and relentlessly given his all to his country, and where he could have justifiably taken things easy he always chose the hardest route, never reluctant to put himself at risk for a cause he believed in.

By the time I left for home, seven months later, the list of the dead on the cross, crafted out of spent 30mm cannon shells, had lengthened to nineteen. Since then space on the memorial has become increasingly hard to find as more selfless individuals have given their lives. As the fatality list has swelled so has the number of people on it I regard as having been friends. Several were men of the 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment, some of whom I commanded: others colleagues from different regiments. Departing Helmand for the third time in 2011 the memorial was already well on its way to 400.

Yet it is not just the dead who should be remembered. An exacting price has also been paid by many of the living: those who receive what are called life-changing injuries.

Ministry of Defence figures show that over the past six years – essentially since UK forces moved into Helmand – 1,871 troops were admitted to field hospitals and categorized as wounded in action. Of these almost 550 were described as being seriously or very seriously hurt. Thousands more have been treated for disease and other non-combat related conditions.  As the military reduces in size these figures could quickly come to equal more than a tenth of the strength of the infantry.

In some respects it is those who return maimed who are the truest heroes. They must move on with their lives despite having had – and often continuing – to endure debilitating physical and mental pain. And for the most part they just get on with it. They don’t march down Whitehall calling for compensation, nor do they whine that they were hurt doing something our leaders shouldn’t have involved us in.

All soldiers know what the job entails. They sign up for the mayhem. Perhaps the only things they ask for in return is a degree of understanding for the job they do and recognition of the hardships they face. And when it comes to saluting sacrifice, then all those who have paid a price – whether they died or survived – are worthy of attention, no matter where they appear on a list.

Someone better and wiser than me will eventually conclude whether what we have done in Afghanistan has been for the better – though for what it is worth I take pride what we have done to build a more stable future for the citizens of this unfortunate country – yet one thing I know for sure: those who have imperiled their own safety for the benefit of others are the very best our nation has to offer.