I count myself lucky. I left with all my limbs and no nightmares. I saw burnt Iraqi bodies next to holes made by missiles, but I was expecting that. I saw flag-covered coffins carried onto planes, but I was expecting that, too. One thing shocked me in April 2003. The Royal Irish Regiment walked through Basra handing out sweets from their ration packs—small hard-boiled sweets in all different colors, nicknamed “boileys.” A young girl waved at the soldiers. Some said she was twelve, but she was ten. It’s hard to tell but she was young—and innocent. Within an hour of her waving, somebody from Saddam’s regime hung that girl from a lamppost. My diary from the day reads, “How do you murder a twelve-year-old girl? How did they not listen to her screaming for her life? How did they not stop?”
Once our veterans get over the stigma, it takes on average thirteen years for former soldiers to request help for PTSD. They have a huge support network of charities and doctors. They play computer games, they can go surfing and even take drugs—if it helps. But the girl on the lamppost had a family, too. I don’t know who they are or where they are. I don’t know if they have PTSD. I don’t know if they have nightmares.
Soldiers only see violence on operations. What about doctors, nurses, paramedics, police, and the firemen who routinely see death? The military now encourages soldiers to talk about it. The attitude of toughing it out and not seeing a doctor doesn’t always work, but then nobody wants to be called a “wretch.”
Whether it’s five percent or twenty, the majority of veterans are OK. Still they struggle to gain employment on leaving. Employers often wrongly assume that the man or woman sitting in front of them is going to go crazy, but even at five percent, would you take the risk? A lot of former soldiers don’t hanker after “normal” jobs. They still crave that feeling. Many become bodyguards as I did. They ship back out to Iraq and Afghanistan on higher tax-free wages with better weapons working for private military companies.
Before they go, they probably don’t admit to nightmares and flashbacks. Most of them come back from “the sand” perfectly fine.
And then there are others. Daniel Fitzsimons is serving twenty years in Iraq after being convicted of murdering two private soldiers. He’s been diagnosed with PTSD in the UK. PTSD hasn’t gotten Fitzsimons out of an Iraqi jail because he’s a private soldier at the Iraqi courts’ mercy.
The lawyer defending Robert Bales also reports PTSD-like symptoms. Bales is a currently serving soldier who escaped an Afghani jail on a military flight and is now at the American courts’ mercy. If he has PTSD it will be treated. I guess I’ll never know about that girl’s family. I can only guess that some people never get to escape.
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