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I wrote ‘Afterwards’ three years ago when we first set up our Veterans Project. As a manager of charity that has always worked at the front line of addiction, I was familiar enough with what a broken soldier looked like. Over the years I had met several. Over the years I had looked into their thousand yard stare across the counter in our reception area.
If you work in the world of heroin, you soon learn that many who seek out its warm and non judgemental embrace do so to escape the very worst of trauma. The dark places. All the way from ‘Heart of Darkness’ to ‘Apocalypse Now’.
‘The horror. The horror’.
Over these last three years, and many hours locked into those thousand yard stares, I have come to realise that I carry a small does of PTSD myself.
Hillsborough of course.
I hadn’t really noticed before. I hadn’t really given it much thought when a certain kind of sunny April afternoon and a soft spring breeze carrying the scent of cooking hot dogs would suddenly Tardis me all the way back to 15 April 1989.
I hadn’t really given much thought to the way a certain sound would suddenly throw me like a Sumo wrestler on crystal meth. It isn’t a sound you hear very often. Imagine a guy throwing a 50kg bag of flour from the back of a flat bed truck. Imagine the noise it would make as it hit the pavement. Like a dull sort of thump. It’s the same noise as a body makes when it is dropped over the kind of cages they used to have at football grounds in the 1980’s. It is the kind of noise makes that a corpse makes when it hits the gravel edging to a
South Yorkshire football
pitch. It is the kind of noise that shoots you back 23 years and puts you into
a cold sweat.
That is my very, very mild PTSD. My stuck record. My umbilical link to moments of horror.
But I am one of the lucky ones. My stare barely reaches 10 yards. Unlike Miller. You can look into his stare at the top of the page. Three days in Fallujah took him to the bottom level of hell. At dawn on day three, an LA Times photographer caught the stare on camera and froze it in time. Within days the photo had gone everywhere and Miller had become the ‘Marlboro Marine’. He got his fifteen minutes of fame and then he was sucked down into the swamp. Last time I heard, he was tearing around the middle states of American with a bunch of bikers and blotting everything out with as many drugs as could lay his hands on.
I embarked on writing ‘Afterwards’ with no proper understanding of what a back story to a thousand yard stare might look like. I have no formal training. No relevant letters after my name. All I have is the experience of talking to people. Or more to the point, of shutting my mouth and letting them talk to me. I call it ‘shut up and listen’.
Over the years I have become aware that for some reason people seem happy to re-visit their dark places with me. Why? I haven’t the first idea. I guess I have my mum and dad to thank for bringing me up never to judge anyone.
I have sat with terrorists and soldiers and those who were abused as kids. I have sat with those who have fled to the
horrors of other places. I have sat with very violent men and very broken men.
Some even call in to First Base every now and then to confess their sins. God
knows why. All I do is shut and listen. And then more often than not, I give
them a bollocking. It is what they crave deep down. A rubber stamping of what
is right and what is wrong. What is acceptable and what is unacceptable. UK
Over the years of working with Veterans, I have come to realise that the guilt is very worst of the PTSD cancer. Memories of things seen and witnessed can be hellish and harrowing, but with patient treatment, these memories can as often as not be eased. Smoothed out. Made more bearable.
The guilt is a whole different story. For who can say that what was done was OK? Not me.
I have seen this time and time again.
Para barely able to
speak as he tried to find the words to describe what he and his comrades did to
the young Argentine conscripts in the trenches of Goose Green.
With bayonets and a primordial killing fury.
Time and again he tried to find the words and time and time again he failed to find the words. Until he died and now the words will stay locked away in a dictionary forever.
A lad who is still in uniform. In
he was the man on the big gun.
On a rooftop under a blazing sun. The word came down that someone was planting
an IED as a British patrol was headed up the street below. The word came down
that he was to eliminate the threat. So he eliminated the threat. He took the
head clean off the threat. One minute there was a head. The next minute there
was no head. The patrol was made safe. The bomber was 8 years old. And now the
lad with the thousand yard stare can no longer trust himself to be alone in a
room with his young son. His son has just turned five. And in three years his
son will be eight…. Iraq
Another young lad on another big gun. Another lad under an unforgiving, merciless sun. An Afghan sun. And six hundred yards away are two men in robes outside a clay house. The word in his earpiece says that they are to be taken down. By him. By the lad from the scheme in
21 years old and four years out of school. Soldier and executioner. Bringer of
death. On the word through the earpiece. One, two. Supersonic metal and wrecked
flesh. One, two. Two departed souls on the word in the earpiece. And it turned
out that they were no more than farmers passing the time of day. It seemed OK
in the Helmand warzone. But back home in the
grey rain of Dumfries and Galloway, it no longer
seemed OK. In the empty, empty hours of the night it no longer seemed OK. He
just wanted someone to tell him that he had done the right thing. And people
did. Lots of people. Hell, I did. But he never believed any of us.
And so in the depths of yet another cold, empty night he took the pain away. For ever. He bought himself a ticket to the same place as the two farmers in white robes who had once passed the time of day together under a blazing Afghan sun. In the end the guilt ate all the way through him until it reached his unprotected soul.
‘Afterwards’ tells the stories of three Scottish squaddies who went to three different wars. They marched into the darkness and never managed to march back out again. They managed to find a way to live with the memories of what they had seen. The sights and the sounds and the smells. But the guilt was a whole different story. The guilt would never go away. No matter how much they drank or how many pills the doctor gave them. All three agreed to tell their stories to help people to understand what PTSD is really like. To show why so many who are buried by the condition just drink and drink and drink. Why they get angry over nothing at all. Why they are volatile and unpredictable and all but impossible to live with.
They were all happy with the words I used and the way I used them. They all were happy that ‘Afterwards’ represented their truth.
And once again I commend their courage for choosing to bare their fractured souls. To revisit the things they did which they have never found a way to live with. They did so out of a sense of duty and honour. They wanted to help. They wanted to contribute. They wanted to help to make things better for the soldiers of the future.
They have done. Lots of people have read ‘Afterwards’. Some have been encouraged to step out of the shadows and seek treatment. Others – families and wives and friends – have used the knowledge from the book to understand their loved ones better.
Please share the link to the Amazon Kindle store where the book is free for the next few days to anyone who you know who is in the darkness.
It might just help them to seek the light.