In acknowledgment of Mental Health Awareness Week, I am posting ‘Adjustment’ – the final chapter of my book On Afghanistan’s Plains. Twelve years on from my deployment to Afghanistan I still have occasional bad days and every so often my sleep will be punctuated by a terrifying nightmare that sees me back in the midst of the fighting in Mazdurak. The best thing about these nightmares is that in them, I am always with the truest of friends; men who I know will have my back.
The army has a policy for soldiers returning from operations, known as normalisation. The first stage of this is decompression, which involves a stopover at one of the British Sovereign base areas in Cyprus.
Decompression is a combination of military administration, organised fun and a reintroduction to alcohol consumption in a controlled environment. The whole idea is aimed at reducing post-operational stress and discipline problems by providing a pressure release before soldiers go home, the idea being to prevent them from getting into drunken fights as soon as they return. Whilst decompression may be of some benefit, I’m not convinced that it is entirely effective. More than a century may have passed since Rudyard Kipling penned ‘Tommy’, his timeless tribute to the British soldier, but single men in barracks remain unlikely plaster saints and their ‘conduck’ is definitely not always ‘fancy paints’. To use a barrelful of clichés: drink is drink, boys will be boys, the nice (and not so nice) girls will always love a soldier and their boyfriends will usually get jealous. Whether or not you let the boys have a few beers in Cyprus, there will still be hassles when they finally get back to the UK.
When we return to Browning barracks, a small welcoming committee of regimental personnel and families are there to meet us. Before I go anywhere or do anything, I have to hand in my weapon ancillaries: cleaning kit, rifle magazines, bayonet and scabbard. There is a little bit of administration to be done and then I am free to go – not on leave, but for a long weekend. Lisa drives me home where we have a small celebration of my homecoming.
As the remainder of the regiment comes home over the next two weeks, we are kept occupied with low-key work aimed at reintroducing us to normal life. There are sports competitions, social functions, a regimental photograph and a service at the garrison church. Although it is now late October and the weather is damp and cold, we continue to wear our desert combat uniforms in accordance with policy for units returning from operations. I think that this is so that we can be recognised as returning heroes. Once we have been normalised, we are free to go on leave: five weeks initially, followed by a week back at work for the army’s rituals of pre-Christmas celebrations. There is an ‘officers’ mess vs warrant officers and sergeants’ mess’ football match, ‘officers’ mess to warrant officers and sergeants’ mess’ exchange of drinks and a junior ranks’ Christmas luncheon, which sees them waited upon by the officers and sergeants. This last event usually sees more than a few Brussels sprouts being used as indirect fire. All in all, it’s good fun. After the silly season we go on leave for Christmas itself, returning to work in mid-January.
During my time off I become a house-husband, caring for my baby boy and two stepdaughters while my wife goes to work. Intending to write about my experiences, I find that between washing, cooking, cleaning, nappy changes and the school runs, my days disappear, leaving me no time to do so. I am also beginning to discover the toll that six months on operations has taken on my body, mind and spirit. I’m exhausted and find myself sleepwalking through each day, longing for the moment when I can return to bed. It is as though each of the energy slumps that I experienced following an adrenalin surge on the battlefield was a mere precursor to the fatigue I now experience. If I let myself, I could drift on a sea of exhaustion to the ends of the world and beyond. I’m utterly drained.
A few days after my return, I open my large holdall and Bergen rucksack with the intention of sorting out my kit. Opening the bags, I am hit by the unforgettable smell of Afghanistan. The musky odour of desert sand and stale sweat overpowers my senses and I am immediately transported from leafy suburbia to a dun-coloured, bomb-blasted compound in Helmand, where I am fighting to save the life of an ashen-faced youth, the air around me thick with acrid smoke and the rattle of small-arms fire carried on the breeze. The vividness of the scene that unfolded in my head having taken me by surprise, I close the bags and take a few moments to compose myself. Picking up Pandora’s holdall and rucksack, I throw them back into the box room to leave them for another day.
Over the following months, I am constantly ill. By the time of my return to work in January, I succumb to flu-like symptoms every Friday afternoon, recovering in time for work on Monday. This goes on until March, when the symptoms are so severe that I am admitted to hospital. I spend a week at Frimley Park hospital, being submitted to all the investigations that the consultant physician can think of. When all the tests come back negative, I know what I don’t have but the cause of my recurrent illness remains a mystery. I am discharged, and after a month of rest begin to feel like my old self. I am running every day and have the strength to do some gardening. I am physically on the road to recovery but, as I later discover, there are some monsters hiding in my subconscious which have yet to make their presence known.
Eighteen months post-tour, I’m plagued by nightmares and flashbacks and have developed a quick temper. I book in to see the doctor and request a referral to the mental health services. For a period of about three months, I see a civilian mental health nurse named Matt. Matt reassures me that I am not mad and have simply experienced some extreme life events. I concur. We have a few counselling sessions, and it seems that the events during the raid on Mazdurak are central to my problems. Matt asks me to write an operational-style report of the raid, the idea being to encourage me to think about the events in a dispassionate way. This leads him to take me through a program of eye-movement desensitisation therapy. Don’t ask me to explain how this works, but it does seem to be effective. During the course of the therapy it becomes apparent that the most likely cause of my symptoms was the act of burying terrifying thoughts and emotions deep into my subconscious to enable me to do my job. Although I feel much better and manage to get discharged from the psych. clinic, I’m still not fully recovered.
Four years later, I have been promoted to major and have responsibility for the management of a team of thirty military nurses working on the surgical wards of a large NHS Hospital in Portsmouth. The ward is over-stretched and under-resourced, which results in a high-stress environment; it is not uncommon for distressed male patients to cry out in pain, which transports me back to Helmand. There are days when the mental and emotional demands made upon nurses in this environment are almost on par with those of the battlefield. In my mind, Mazdurak has become the yardstick by which I measure how tough a day I’m having.
One weekend I purchase a copy of the Sunday Telegraph. In one of the supplements, there’s a piece about modern war poetry written by British soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I read the article, it emerges that there is a competition to select poems for an anthology of modern war poetry. The panel of judges will be General the Lord Dannatt (former chief of the general staff), Carol-Ann Duffy (poet laureate), Simon Duffy (former presenter of Poetry Please on BBC Radio 4) and John Jeffcock (poet, entrepreneur and former captain in the Coldstream Guards). The project is John’s brainchild. I am hooked.
I write a number of poems over the course of that weekend, the first of which tells the story of the raid on Mazdurak. It joins the action at the point after C and A have been evacuated and focusses on the hectic events in the walled garden compound. I make a couple of amendments and give it a title: ‘Care Under Fire’. Writing the poem proves cathartic and I feel that it has helped exorcise some of the demons that stayed behind to fight a rear-guard action following my time with the psych. team. I submit all my Afghanistan poems to the competition.
A poem entitled ‘In Memoriam’ is my tribute to the memory of Dave Hicks, who was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his gallantry in attempting to continue to lead the men of C Company in the defence of patrol base Inkerman, despite being mortally wounded. ‘Courageous Restraint on R&R’ seeks to put the reader into the position of a young soldier who resists the temptation to get into a bar brawl during his two weeks at home from Helmand. The poem is not written with anyone in mind, but had my nineteen-year-old self been deployed to Afghanistan, it might have been about me.
After a wait of several months, I am pleased to discover that all my poems have made the cut. Invited to attend the book launch at the Cavalry and Guards club in Piccadilly in November 2011, I have the pleasure of meeting John Jeffcock and a number of the other poets. John introduces me to a young guy named Matt, who works for BBC TV and is very keen to interview me about my poetry for the One Show, a weekday magazine show that airs at 6 p.m.
After jumping through hoops with my chain of command, Matt and his team interview me on camera and film me reading an extract from ‘Care Under Fire’. The interview airs the following day. Unfortunately Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson is also interviewed for a different topic on the same show and famously comments that public service workers who are on strike should be ‘shot in front of their families’. Whilst this has no impact on the success of the book launch, it does mean that this particular episode of the One Show never makes it onto BBC iPlayer.
Twelve months after the publication of the anthology, I receive an email from BBC Radio 4’s The Today Show, inviting me to be interviewed about modern war poetry. The email arrives on a Thursday evening and the producer wants me to come to the studio in London on Saturday morning. There isn’t enough time between the arrival of the email and the filming of the show to obtain the necessary permission from the army to be interviewed. To say that I’m disappointed is an understatement. Radio 4 is the station of choice for thinking Britain, and Today is its flagship morning current affairs show; I have been an avid listener for years. Life is too short to deal in ‘what ifs’, but I do occasionally wonder what might have happened had I been able to accept the invitation for an interview.
My time in Afghanistan has left an indelible mark upon my soul. Although there were some very near misses, I came home in one piece, which I sometimes find miraculous. To the outside world, I came home without a scratch; nevertheless, I was wounded inside. My mental wounds have largely healed, but scars will always remain. That’s the thing about scar tissue: it grows fibrous, thick and gristly to heal the wound, but never acts in quite the same way as the original tissue it replaces.