We used to joke about PTSD in the army. We used to call it the “new backache,” meaning something doctors couldn’t prove but would get you out of work. Malingerers aren’t appreciated in the military. The ill were called the “sick, lame, and lazy” who were “on the biff.” Commanders asked to see “biff chits” for soldiers trying to get out of physical work. PTSD was the ultimate get-out-of-jail card. After seeing the head doctor, nobody could touch you.
Not knowing what PTSD actually was, some wanted PTSD on their medical records so they could get out of the war. They’d yo-yo in and out of the medical center and were called “wretches.” They were not missed when they left the army. Some loved the job so much they avoided doctors. One of the only times I found myself talking to a doctor was after receiving the anthrax vaccine. I felt fine and went off to lead an eight-mile loaded march. After two miles I fell over. The flu-like symptoms they had warned of hit me like a truck. I was bedded down for a few days, after which I got on the plane to Iraq.
Being mortared is frightening. The enemy knows where you are but you can’t see them to fire back. They rain metal bombs on you. Some of us didn’t mind this after a bit. It happened so much it got boring. Some would treat the attacks as cigarette breaks. They’d sit with Iraqis working for us and chat in broken English about Manchester United.
I miss it; I believe every soldier does. There’s something beautiful about soldiering, something you can fall desperately in love with. It’s a feeling you get. The last time I felt it, I was flying low in a helicopter over the Iraqi desert at night with a rifle in my hand. The warm air around us filled with fumes from the fuel. The rotor’s hypnotic hum was broken with radio squelches and laughing soldiers whose eyes and teeth caught the little light there was. You feel something there, and nothing compares to it ever again.
Five percent of British soldiers who served in Iraq suffered with PTSD, compared to twenty percent of the Americans who had longer tours of duty. Where we had six months they had up to fifteen. It’s hard to see soldiers break down. I only saw it once. The one soldier who I know suffered started being affected after intensive bombing.
When this soldier suffered, some idiots called him a coward. He was sent home and soon after left the military. He missed it so much he tried to get back in. He was told he’d have to be clear of PTSD before he got back in, so he’s going to do just that. He’s no coward.
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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