Over the last decade Britain has sent thousands of people into combat.
But what happens when these soldiers come back home, having lost their friends and killed their enemies?
That’s the question being posed by journalist and author Matthew Green in his powerful new book ‘Aftershock The Untold Story of Surviving Peace’.
With the last British troops having withdrawn from Afghanistan, Aftershock draws on their experiences, as well as those of the men and women who served in Iraq, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, to tell the story of the journey from the frontline of combat to the reality of return.
Since 2001, more than 220,000 members of the British armed forces have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistanwhere 632 service personnel died and many more were wounded.
But the figures don’t include those who are suffering the mental after-effects of combat or indeed those who have since taken their own lives.
In the spring of this year, Combat Stress, the biggest veterans’ mental health charity, reported that the number of ex-forces seeking help in the past year had risen by 26% year-on-yearan increase driven mainly by individuals who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Against this backdrop, Mr Green, 40, who has reported extensively from Helmand and Kandahar provinces in Afghanistan, has posed a simple question how does war break people, and how best might they be healed?
“This book does not intend to imply that all former combatants are psychologically damaged,”he told The Courier.
“Large numbers go on to make a smooth transition to civilian life and some see their time in the military as the highlight of their lives.
“Yet it is equally true that there are tens of thousands who have suffered serious psychological injuries over the years, and who continue to live with the consequences every day.”
Mr Green aimed to get behind the headlines and the label of post-traumatic stress disorder to get to the heart of the soldiers’ stories and the struggles of their loved ones “a hidden army of wives, partners, children and parents who are Britain’s true conscripts.”
He discovered through interviewing that many of the “real problems” happen after soldiers return home or after leaving the army which, for many, can be a “traumatic experience” in itself.
“Almost overnight the psychological scaffolding that may have sustained them since they left school is dismantled, their sense of purpose and comraderie dissolved,” he said.
“Post-Traumatic Stress can vary enormously. Explosive anger, depression and alcohol abuse are all common.
“One of the significant symptoms is flashbacks where the sufferer is catapulted back to feel as if they are back in the war situation. I spoke to a Northern Ireland veteran where a sound could throw him back to literally feeling the brickwork of Belfast streets and hearing the call sounds on his radio.
“Another guy was triggered by the smell of petrol. The fumes take him back to a desperate day rescuing casualties in a Chinook helicopter. Sounds are drowned out by the roar of the engines, his uniform is stained with blood and he is cradling an Afghan girl in his arms, a girl who will not survive.
“For another young man I spoke to it is the smell of fresh bread. This guy used to work as a cleaner at a Tesco supermarket. The smell yanked him out of the aisles and back into Helmand province. He was back on patrol where bakers were flipping loaves in the baking heat. And he had the sensation of being watched.
“It can be very debilitating. That feeling of being cut off. There were a whole range of symptoms I didn’t appreciate. In the worst cases they can become recluses. They start to push friends and family away. These people are the most difficult to reach and need help most.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, a significant part of the research carried out by Green involved interviews with former Black Watch soldiers, their families and friends.
Oxford University graduate Green, who, as a journalist, was embedded with US Marines in Iraq during 2003, first came to the Fife and Tayside region after hearing about the death of Aaron Black, a 22-year-old Black Watch veteran from Blairgowrie who joined up at 17 and committed suicide in December 2011 just seven months after leaving the army.
Nick-named ‘Blackie’ by his Royal Regiment of Scotland battalion colleagues, Aaron’s unit Two Platoon, Alpha Company was posted to Afghanistan in March 2009. Amongst them was close friend James Forrester of Methil, who had been in the battalion a couple of years longer.
After intense training, they quickly found themselves in the thick of combat against the Taliban in the baking heat of Helmand. It was a world of rocket propelled grenades (RPG), improvised explosive devices (IED) and being pinned down for hours under heavy fire, where every moment could be your last. They experienced the stresses of colleagues blown apart or badly injured in heavy fire fights. They were standing next to a friend Robert McLaren, from Mull, just minutes before he was obliterated by a Taliban mine. No significant body parts were ever found.
Aaron was watching from a rooftop when Sergeant Stuart Millar, of Inverness, and Private Kevin Elliott, of Dundee, were wiped out by a RPG and as colleagues struggled over rough ground to recover their remains on stretchers. James was given the grim task of packing away their blood-stained gear.
A total of 100 British troops were killed in 2009 and many more wounded. It became known as the British army’s bloodiest summer of the war.
Aaron was particularly badly affected by the experiences. Back in the UK, he became increasingly dependent on alcohol. He decided to leave the army and returned to Blairgowrie in May 2011. He had dreams of following the path of other ex-forces who had landed lucrative expatriate jobs protecting ships from pirates off the coast of Africa. But he struggled to adjust to civilian life.
Shortly before Christmas that year, and haunted by memories of Afghanistan and the deaths of friends, including Cupar soldier Darren Lackie (who died of mysterious head injuries whilst on holiday in Portugal in April 2011) and Methil soldier Mark Connolly (who died after being punched by a fellow squaddie at a pub in Germany), Aaron surrounded himself with treasured photographs, his army medals and a crucifix and sent a last ‘Goodbye’ text message to his mum June before taking his own life.
Getting in touch with Aaron’s mother, Green reconstructed how Aaron’s life spiralled following the death of his friend Robert McLaren until his return to Scotland. In the army his commander praised him for his courage and well controlled aggression. But in civilian life he started to lose that control.
Aaron’s friend James Forrester, now aged 27, joined up at 16 and served for seven years, including two tours of Afghanistan. He left the army three years ago.
Speaking to The Courier from his home in Methil, he believes one of the biggest obstacles to getting help to ex-forces personnel is a perception of being stigmatised.
James said: “I didn’t know what Aaron was going through. I had last seen him in the April of that year. I deployed back to Afghanistan in the September and it was when my mum told me that she had seen something on Facebook that I heard he had died.”
James, who now works as a production operator at Silberline in Leven, said any soldier who says they are not changed by combat is “lying”. He added: “You don’t come back the same as you left. People change. Some people are affected differently.”
James said he rarely talks about what he went through. If he meets up with former soldier colleagues, they might “loosen up” with some dark anecdotes after a few beers. “We might say things like ‘Do you mind the time when I almost got killed?’ that sort of thing,”he said. “You’ll not find any ex-army people without a twisted sense of humour.”
Yet to this day he cannot speak to family or civilian friends about it. “I’ve never spoken to my mum about it,”he adds.
When he first returned to Scotland he said he had “Afghan-oriented nightmares”. Before the start of his second Afghan tour, he had also sought help for a drink problem. But he claimed the army were “not interested”.
He added: “I’ve been out a couple of years now. But it’s like as soon as you sign that dotted line to say you are going, it’s like you’ve become a leper. They can’t get you out the door quick enough.
“They train you up to become a soldier. But they don’t train you down again.
“I think the military needs to take more seriously what soldiers have been through. It’s alright saying people might slip through the net, but if they are identified as someone who’s potentially got Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, why should they? I hope this book will help give the military a kick up the backside, so to speak.”
Aaron’s mum June told The Courier she hoped the book would be a “catalyst for change” to help former soldiers re-adjust to life outside of the forces.
Having previously called for a fatal accident inquiry into her son’s death, she is still waiting for someone to apologise for what happened to her son and it has made her ill.
She now has documentary evidence that there was a “systemic failure” in Aaron’s case, and that he asked for help days before exiting the army and didn’t get it.
She said: “I obtained Aaron’s confidential military medical records which painted a bleak picture of a young man desperately in need of support and assistance after he left the Black Watch. The records show that he had “depressive symptoms and trauma symptoms from Afghanistan, is still jumpy with dreams and flashbacks.”
“The records said: ‘He continues to have suicidal thinking, accepting it is worse when he has been drinking.’
“According to the records, Aaron was referred by a consultant psychiatrist to a community mental health nurse for ‘trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy’ before his discharge from the army but missed his second appointment.
“The records state that Aaron would then be referred to a mental health social worker at RAF Leuchars before he left the army.”
But Mrs Black claims that no contact was ever made with her son. After raising her son’s death with the Government, she received a letter from Mark Francois, the then Minister of State for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans, stating that Aaron was “not classified as a vulnerable service leaver and no steps were taken to formally transfer his care.”
Mrs Black said: “Aaron’s case was never followed up. I say sorry to my son every day. His picture is in my living room, and I cry. But no one else (from the military) is saying sorry. If he’d got that support in 2011, he could have still been with us today. It’s a damned shame.”
Today, there is more help out there for veterans than ever before with services improving.
In Dundee, for example, the Veterans First Point drop-in service, was set up last month by NHS Tayside under the Tayforth Veterans Project.
It’s the second part of a therapy advice network for veterans across Scotland with a hub already running with NHS Lothian. NHS Fife is also looking for Veterans First Point premises.
The one-stop shop for veterans and their families provides holistic welfare and psychological support. Free referrals can be made by anyone engaged with the patient or by patients themselves.
NHS Tayside’s Dr Alastair Hull, clinical lead with Veteran First Point in Tayside, explained that the service has been developed by veterans for veterans and is staffed by veterans.
At the core of the operation is a team of peer support workers (PSWs) who act as the listening ear to whatever needs veterans may have. The thinking is that even if the PSWs have not been on the same deployments as the veterans seeking help, they know about military life and the pressures on self and family.
It was his view that the military and the NHS needed to do more to acknowledge the support needs of veterans, and this was an important step towards that.
“I’ve worked in Tayside for 30 years and I would say that 60% of my psycho-therapy case load over the years were veterans. I would stress the majority of military veterans do not have problems. A lot of that’s down to great leadership in the military. But with this area’s strong military connections, Tayside and Fife is definitely one of the hotspots where support is needed.”
*Matthew Green’s book, ‘Aftershock: The Untold Story of Surviving Peace ‘will be launched during a public discussion event at the AK Bell Library in Perth on the evening of Wednesday October 21. The panel will include the author, Black Watch veteran James Forrester and Dr Alastair Hull.
The book will also be discussed at the Dundee Literary Festival, in association with the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, at the Bonar Hall in Dundee from 4pm to 5pm on Friday October 23.