Garmsir, Helmand Province, September 2006 – the stuff of nightmares.
“Aiming at the centre of mass I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the man’s body as hard as I could. In the gloom it was hard to know exactly where I made contact.
“There was barely any resistance, the sharpened metal sliced through the flesh, broke bone and cut gristle. When it could go no further, I twisted the bayonet to increase the damage.
“Just as we had been taught.
“I kicked at the body, pushing away clothing, placing my foot on his shoulder. Only then, as my eyes became accustomed to the light did I see exactly where I had struck him. The blade had entered the man’s neck at the top of the spine, drops of blood running down the bayonet grooves. I pulled hard and the weapon slipped out. I didn’t give it a second thought.
“Just as we had been taught.”
This is my recollection of the moment when I fought my way into a dark, dusty mud hut and bayoneted a man to death.
Mental stress makes itself known in many different ways.
It is not just about waking up in the middle of the night sweating, suffering flashbacks or diving for cover every time a door is slammed. It can be more subtle than all this, less visible, but equally debilitating.
Often it will be the mundane and the bland which trigger the emotions; the crying child, a familiar smell, a word out of context or a simple avoidable argument about life’s trivial moments.
The Ministry of Defence have made huge strides in tackling mental illness in whatever form it appears: combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or simple mental agitation.
The introduction of various mental stress lectures, the use of trauma risk management techniques on the battlefield known as TRiM, the Mental Issues Helpline: they all go some way to help an individual as he struggles with issues he may never have felt before.
Charities such as Combat Stress also do excellent work but here in Northern Ireland they are completely under resourced.
Yet having help available is one thing. Getting someone to take it up is another.
My situation was not – and is not – unique. After my first tour in Afghanistan I needed help and all I had to do was ask for it, but I was too proud to ask. As a 42 year-old captain and ex regimental sergeant major, I had it in my mind the thought that people came to me for help – not the other way round. And so the burden would fall not on the professionals but on those closest to me.
For no matter what people tell you it is invariably your family, your friends or your partner who will first notice the subtle and not so subtle changes in the way you behave. They will be the ones woken by your shouts; who will see your nervousness in bars, markets, shops.
Some recent articles point to an increase of cases of mental disorder within the military but miss a couple of important points. Firstly it is the ending of operations and campaigns that are often the trigger for mental decline. So it was with Iraq and Northern Ireland, so it was with Afghanistan.
When you are in a conflict it is easier to rationalise your experiences but as memories fade and history is revised (and here in Northern Ireland history has been continuously revised), it becomes harder for veterans to convince themselves that while what they did was hard, it was also for a justifiable greater good.
Secondly, because of the Army’s concerted effort to de-stigmatise mental health issues, people are coming forward now where they would not have done so before. The scale of the problem might appear to have grown but that could be down to it previously being hidden away.
This is in stark difference to here in Northern Ireland with members of the UDR or Royal Irish who have been virtually forced into the shadows, taking with them their hidden mental scars. That said, it is vital that we do not label every member of the armed forces who feels a degree of anxiety and depression as being a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many people, in all walks of life, will have bouts of mental illness and many of them will get through it with relatively little or indeed no medical intervention; so too with soldiers, sailors and airmen.
The end of my third six-month stint in Helmand also marked the completion of my thirteenth operational tour: from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan via Bosnia, Kosovo, East Africa and Iraq.
Each time I headed home so too did a new set of memories, not all of them good. Each time I walked back through my front door I was a slightly different person, with a shifting attitude towards the things I had seen and done.
When I returned from my first tour of ‘Afghan’ in 2006 the events I was involved with weighed heavily on my mind, revisiting my consciousness often when I least expected them, not least that moment when I bayoneted a man to death.
Yet two years later things were markedly different. In 2008 I led a patrol into the Green Zone in the Upper Gereskh Valley. Surrounded and outnumbered we spent four hours fighting for survival.
In the end I had to call in air support to keep us alive and get us out.
Back at camp I was told that the bombs I had called in and guided to their targets had killed 18 children. It was only sometime later that this hideous claim was in fact shown to be Taliban propaganda by local villagers and it was a number of insurgent fighters who had in fact died.
The problem was, I didn’t really care either way. My priority was to my men and if they were ok, then I was ok.
So perhaps desensitisation to war and its effects is the thing we should fear most.
Maybe those who display mental anguish over the horrors of what they have witnessed are actually the well-adjusted ones, the lucky ones. They have the ability to display their feelings and have the chance to be helped. Maybe it’s the men and women who claim they are immune to emotion whom we should be watching closest.
As we stand yet again to remember our fallen on Remembrance Sunday it is worthwhile spending just a moment to remember those who live on but have never left the battlefield.
Those who carry the mental scars every day for the rest of their lives.
• Doug Beattie MC is an Ulster Unionist Councillor in Portadown and a former captain in the Royal Irish Regiment