Fri, 04 May 2001

War's mind field: Soldiers coping with mental injuries

By Sara Ebner

LONDON: It is almost 20 years since John shot the young Argentinean soldier but he can still see him, close up, in his mind's eye. "He was probably around my age. Afterwards I searched him and it turned out he wasn't armed. He didn't surrender, so I did my job. He could have had a pistol or a grenade. I didn't even consider whether he was armed or not. I just reacted to seeing him and I shot him."

John, not his real name, was 19 when he was sent to fight in the Falklands. He had joined the British Parachute Regiment two years earlier and had already had a tour of duty in Northern Ireland. But the Falklands came as a complete shock.

"I knew I was going to go to Northern Ireland, but I never thought I would ever go to war," he says. "It turned out to be very inhuman, very alien. War is not a glorious thing and anyone who makes out it is a fool."

Now 38, John has spent the last 20 years trying to recover from his army experiences. Like soldiers in conflicts before, and after, the gruesome reality of killing people, seeing your friends -- and even, as in John's case, your own brother -- blown up or shot, was all too much for him. And for almost two decades, no one wanted to help.

Linda Winn, clinical director of Combat Stress, the ex- services mental welfare society in the UK, says John's experience is typical. "We help people aged from 19 to 95," she says. "As long as people are psychologically robust enough, we take them. People may think that shell shock or flashbacks are only suffered by veterans of the world wars. But that's not true. We have a lot of younger people coming through now, from the Gulf, the Balkans and Northern Ireland."

Combat Stress aims to help these men -- and a few women -- deal with their problems at its three residential centers -- two in England and one in Scotland. "The people who come here are suffering from psychological injuries resulting from their service experience," says Winn of the 2,000 or so people Combat Stress helps annually. "Quite often they're very angry and we try to give them a feeling of control. The sooner people can be referred, the more successful the treatment."

Last month, an extreme case of what can happen to someone who was not helped made its way into the news. George Daley, 80, an ex-Royal Artillery private from the second world war, pleaded guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He had been woken from a deep sleep by fireworks and thought he had returned to the battlefields of North Africa. When his 85-year-old neighbor appeared, he was convinced she was the enemy breaking into his home and he stabbed her.

"Flashbacks can last for seconds or hours," says Winn. "And they can be triggered by so many things. They also have residual effects. Afterwards you feel disturbed and distraught.

"We have found that with ex-Far East prisoners of war, the flashbacks and nightmares are often so strong that they think people are talking to them in Japanese. Some attack their wives, thinking they are Japanese soldiers."

John, too, felt out of control. "When I returned from the Falklands, I wanted out of the army urgently," he says. "I never wanted to be put in that situation again and I left about a year afterwards." The memories, however, have remained.

"I've got no concept of time when it comes to the Falklands. It's all very blurred. I just know I left in April and came back in August. I get flashbacks and they're like a montage of events from the battles on the islands. I see them pretty much together. (the Battle of) Goose Green was a bloody battle. It was very conventional. There was bayoneting and hand-to-hand combat. Trenches were being cleared."

John was in an alcoholic haze for years. He went from one job to another, but was often drunk, violent and extremely angry. He also began to abuse drugs. And he was not the only one of his former colleagues with problems.

"When we got back, there were no offers of help," he says. "The flashbacks were triggered by a variety of things, including news items and war films, but we got no psychological help. It was OK being with my mates, but I had real problems with other people. People thought they could pick your brains for a pint of lager. Then the first question was the most insensitive you can ask anyone who's just back from combat -- if you killed anyone. That puts you in places you don't want to be. It can instantly set off a flashback."

John was violent and depressed. His behavior even led to a three- month spell in prison for violent assault. "I had no fear of anything. I wasn't scared of the police, of authority. Nothing. And of course I was suffering from awful nightmares and flashbacks. "Times have changed too," he adds. "From World War II two it seems like everybody was involved. After the war, your local bobby was also a veteran. He didn't arrest the drunken ex- soldier on the ground; he took him home and put him into bed. Nowadays there's no tolerance. I've got more in common with a pensioner who fought the Germans 60 years ago than I have with some of my own generation."

Eventually a friend told John to get help. "He was sure I had post traumatic stress disorder, but I said I was fine. He replied that nobody was safe walking down the street with me around."

John's doctor recommended a psychiatrist. That helped a little, but the treatment was stopped when the funding ran out. Finally, two years ago, John spoke to the UK war pensions agency, which recommended the residential courses run by Combat Stress (the agency funds 80 percent of the charity's costs).

"It's been pretty positive," John says. "You go on courses like anger and stress management and you feel they actually understand what you're going through. Gradually you become less angry and more at ease with yourself. You end up with a better understanding of your condition."

John is not "cured" in the sense that you can heal a physical ailment, but he has his problems more under control. "The flashbacks aren't as destructive now because I understand them better," he says. "I know what triggers to avoid -- I don't go to the pub any more, for example -- and, when they do happen, I know I'm not back in 1982. I realize it's 2001."

"I've talked to some of the old and bold from World War II and they still suffer but live with it. You've got to take what little positive there is. We've got an obligation to live a decent life for those who died -- not just the British but also the Argentineans that some of us killed."

"It'd be too easy to go through life angry and cynical. My life didn't end when I was 19 and I don't want to be coming here in 30 years' time. There's a lot more to do out there."

-- Guardian News Service