Wednesday, 25 June 2008


First published in June 2008, but even more relevant today.

I am doing an increasing amount of work with ex military personnel related to PTSD.
It is proving very difficult for them and for me.

One of the remits of the armed forces is the need to make men into fighting machines. I appreciate that women are also trained but for the sake of convenience 'men' will apply to all generically.

So depending on which branch of the forces is entered depends on the length of time they are trained, an infantry man- 12 weeks, a para-28 weeks and a marine commando 32 weeks. As for the SAS and the SBS they have more on top of the original training.

In those weeks the military needs the person to let go of all their soft and gentle side, to become a mean fighting machine. Someone who when asked will follow orders, be prepared to kill, to work as a team with their comrades.

The upshot of this is that the men become very fit, very hard, and are trained to a high standard to be able to without question do as they are told. The when not working then play hard as anyone who lives in a military town will probably attest to.

In some branches of the forces the training is so tough that the fall out rated is huge, as in the Marines, out of 500 that join less than 50 will actually achieve the coveted Green Beret.

The aim of young people joining up is on the whole to see the world and to see some action.

Perhaps now the getting to see the world is eclipsed by the amount of action that they will see.

I am not here to justify the wars we as a country are involved in, in fact I think they are wrong politically. But I do feel passionate about this country's need to support it's armed forces personnel, particularly on their return.

And therein lies the problem.

There isn't enough help available for the number of soldiers (another cover all term) who will return needing psychological help.

The armed forces have had a view over the years, that to be upset about what you have gone through is just part of the process, which is why it allows the hard bitten behaviour of it's personnel to go on when they are outside of their bases. The heavy drinking, fighting, shagging that goes on with the foot soldier.

However this won't do anymore, as slowly men who are now getting close to their 50's in age are starting not to be able to hold in the trauma that they went through in whatever conflict they were involved in; Ireland, The Falklands, Bosnia etc.

It is starting to affect their lives, in fact it probably always has, but when we are in our 20s and 30s we have more resilience to put away stuff that is too painful. It is only as we reach the lost decade of our 40s that it becomes so difficult to continue to deny pain.

This is not just true of the armed forces, it is no surprise that most people who seek out psychological help are in their late 30s to mid 50s. It is in our 40s when we start to question; is this all there is? that people want to reinvent themselves, to start new relationships, to not feel lost and without hope.

So it is with these men. And what therapy has to do, crudely, is break down all the long held dehumanised views and help the person get back in touch with his emotional side. That is, to smash all the extremely well built up ways of defending themselves from getting in touch with their humanity.

Before every single terrible atrocity done by a soldier in the name of war they are likely to feel utter terror for a moment, before their training kicks in and they do what they have been trained to do.

And it is that moment of fear that the soldier will feel most shame about, as it goes against what he as trained to do. The problem with this is, that before the man became a machine, he was a man.

And men bleed.... emotionally as well as actually.

What I am spending my time doing is getting these so tough men to let go of the training that they have held dear to themselves for however many years and get them not to be angry, which is the easy route for trained men to follow. The ability to fight, drink, carouse etc. What I have to do is get them to cry, and not just a few tears but to sob uncontrollably for as long as it takes for them to allow themselves to forgive themselves for that perceived moment of weakness when they felt fear.

Only when they do this can they start to integrate their whole selves. That is be someone who is at peace with their feeling side and their logical side, and not one in conflict with the other.

Added to this I may have to do some work with their partner to help them understand what process this person has gone through. Because usually prior to therapy the soldier has given their family hell for some time. It may of course be too late in many cases the partner has had enough, but if not then it is possible to get the relationship back on track.

So I'm doing this now.

My youngest son has a mate who has returned a year early from Iraq because he tried to kill himself. He tells my youngest about some of the terrible things he has been through that made him want to end his own life.

He's 23.......


blogthatmama said...

That post was very moving but also highly informative. I can't believe how long the build-up of all of the pain takes before people begin to crumble, truly terrifying how vulnerable humans become as they age.

lampworkbeader said...

It has always been that way BB. You have a difficult task ahead of you. I had an uncle who fought in the Second World War and a grandfather who survived the First and I well remember what it did to them.
Nobody tells these young men what it will be like if they actually have to fight. It is still promoted in many schools as a career with adventure. Only too late they find out the reality.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

Thank you for this BB, you know my feelings on this subject! BG x

Anonymous said...

This doesn't surprise me at all. I have always thought you have to be a certain sort of character to even want to join the army and fight but these people are brave through and through and deserve our support. I am not sure I believe you can actually make someone tough as they will always have a side to them that is feeling and perhaps weak.

CJ xx

Exmoorjane said...

Deeply thought-provoking and beautifully written. We most certainly don't treat our armed forces with anywhere near the care and respect they need (as you say, regardless of what we may feel about the specific jobs they are given to do). We all (hopefully) are appalled at the lack of vital hardware and supplies, and horrified when personnel are killed or injured. But I don't think I have ever really deeply properly thought about the longterm effects of the training they are given. Thank you for this.
I hope you are gentle with yourself - I would imagine the counselling can be pretty hard for the therapist as well as for the patient.

Frances said...

Thank you for this post.

The needs of returning soldiers is beginning to attract more and more attention over here, and I hope that will help those folks to have more help. However, more soldiers are trained up every day.

Trixie said...

Oh that last bit about your son's friend put chills down my spine.

This is the sort of thing I worry about Chief, and feel why he's dropped all contact.

Mel said...


We train them 'well'.
And then we get to untrain them, if we're fortunate......

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

The military is a cult that brain washes its members into thinking they are something that they are not... an being obedient and thoughtless killing machine.

Fern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ronjazz said...

One of the most elegantly painful pieces I've read in a long time. We have the same intensified problem here in the States, BB. When you couple that with a total lack of regard for their medical care through our Veterans Administration, you begin to wonder who the real enemy is. I urge you to take this post and submit it for consideration to a wider audience. See if anyone really is listening...It is honest and wrenching and driven by the authority of experience in your voice. I am proud of you for pushing this to light in your own way.

WesterWitch/Headmistress said...

Oh yes the men are well trained, used and then abandoned - thank goodness you are well trained and can 'help' to unravel the mess left in these men's heads. In reality this should be part of their training.

I saw a programme recently about what happens to war veterans - and like your blog it was an eye opener and a cause for concern. These men give so much - they deserve to be de-briefed not left to drown.

Pondside said...

Well said. PTSD is a huge problem here too, as our soldiers have, since the war, seen themselves as Peacekeepers. Afghanistan has changed that. My brother-in-law is over there, on the medical side, so he sees the physical and mental results on both military and civilian as all are treated at the military hospital. I can't help but worry about the level of care for the carers too.

Jim said...

I'm glad that this subject is starting to get a wider audience, though there seems to be little more appreciation for it now, than there was during WWI.

It is not just soldiers returning from war who are affected mentally, the shock of returning to civillian life after several or even many years in the forces is something that many ex soldiers never get over. Even ones who never saw conflict.

wakeupandsmellthecoffee said...

You have summed up what I have been thinking and observing. The training should not end when they are sent off to the likes of Bosnia, Iraq, etc. They need to "de-train" them as well when they are de-mobbed.

sorrow11 said...

You never tackle the easy ones do you Byrd? This was such a heartfelt and thoughtfully written piece, It broke my heart to read it. I am sure that through the ages many fine young men have been damaged by the "call of Duty", and it is so painful to realize that there are NOT enough Byrds out there waiting to help, trained to help. I echo janes sentiment,make sure that you are taking extra good care of you! whilst you deal with these tormented men.

sally in norfolk said...

very moving post....think I am glad my young son has decided not to join the army

Cait O'Connor said...

Your blog has brought tears to my eyes but I am glad you have written it. More publicity needs to be given to the horror that is war. (Our government invaded Iraq illegally,I do not call it a war).
I am deeply 'anti-war' as you may tell if you have read my blog.

'Twas ever thus.......

My husband's father was in the First World War as a very young soldier; he was lucky in that he survived with his life, but I can tell you that he became a violent alcoholic whose behaviour has blighted my husband's life and he is still affected at the age of 72! Of course his father never spoke about his war experiences - one can never speak about deeply damaging experiences.

War is an EVIL that (mostly) MEN do and the sooner humanity puts an end to it the better. Young men are brainwashed into thinking the military is somehow glamorous. The most anti-war folk are those who have seen action. Ask any one of them.

Bollinger Byrd said...

I have just got home from a conference at which my colleague and I have been trying to persuade a health authority that each surgery in the area should have a counsellor if each doctors practise. I won't know if we are successful for some time. But if we are we'll be doing our bit to spread the load.

Followed by chairing the governors meeting at school, as I passionately believe education is the answer to most things in life.

Thank you all so much for you caring comments, your outrage and your love.

And especially welcome all those people who've never been here before.

I'm sorry I can't make a seperate comment to each of you, I will visit you in the next couple of days, but for today I need to stop.

And as Jane and Sorrow have said I need to care for myself, which in part I have by reading all these wonderful comments.

Ron, I'd happily submit this somewhere if only I knew where.

with love right back

@themill said...

This resonates so deeply, as a friend's 21 year old son has just been discharged after suffering a nervous breakdown.
I am only grateful that six months travelling the world before uni seems to have changed second sons mind. He hasn't mentioned the army since he got back.
Truly appalling how we treat our soldiers.


Alas it has always been thus but the difference is that now there is some sort of attempt to de brief...I do not really believe sadly that having training someone to be a killer you can untrain them. My father was one of the first special boat services ( now sas) during the ww2 and as a child we knew never to enter a room unannounced.

Withy Brook said...

I have known people like that, unpeu. A very important piece, BB. My Father went through WW1. He was the only surviving officer in his regiment, though his 2 best friends survived. He told us very little of the war. It was late in his life that he told a story or two, including how he won the MC. But never the really bad bits. I have known a number of people who were in more or less of WW2. Some of them told nothing. No1's uncle was in WW1 and was blown up by a shell (unhurt physically) He spent the rest of his life with appalling nightmares and no self confidence. Almost unemployable.
There is so much I could say BB but none as important as you have said already.

elizabethm said...

Fascinating and moving. I am glad there are people like you working with ex-soldiers although I know there should be many more.
thank you both for doing it and for writing about it.

Milla said...

there's no learning is there. In the past, casualties were reported in their thousands per day, now one or two a day trickle through and are treated, rightly, with the respect they deserve. But PTSD has always been there - you only have to read the war poets to get that for the last century for instance. At least now there seems to be the recognition to provide outside "support" by such as yourself. GOod work girl.

trousers said...

Verrrrrry interesting post, and I think you've dealt with it neatly here (I mean that in a good way, I don't mean "neat" as in "glib"). I see no contradiction in condemning in the strongest terms the conflicts that we are involved in, but having concern for the human beings that soldiers actually are.

Incidentally there's a book called "Their Darkest Hour" which contains interviews with people involved in some of the more notorious aspects of war - and war crimes - which looks at how they reflect back on those experiences: whether they are ashamed, or try to seek to justify, or find it difficult to make any sense of it. Some are victims, some are perpetrators.

In committing (or witnessing) any number of brutal acts, how much damage does one do to oneself? I'm surprised I don't see more ex soldiers in my own line of work.

jackofall said...

I wonder, why now? There are many survivors from the first and second world wars, amongst the type of soldier you describe, who went on thereafter to live a fulfilled life without this sort of therapy, although I hasten to acknowledge that there are those who did not easily adjust to peacetime.

But why do we have to see every situation like this as something to 'correct'? Why must we make them cry now, to rediscover their sensitive side? Yes, war does terrible things to people, but so does poverty, drug abuse, natural and history is one long round of Malthusian checks and situations to which the human spirit adjusts and adapts.

As a matter of interest, how many female soldiers are amongst those that you have treated, or have known to be treated, for PTSD?

CAMILLA said...

Thanks for this post BB, I have a friend who does not want her son to join the Army although he was keen to at first.

My husband often talks about his father who served in the second world war, his ship torpedoed and only surviving soldier, then was blindfolded and going to be shot. He survived, but was a total wreck when he came back to England and had to have Psychiatric help for years.

I am completely against Wars, and think the soldiers should never have been sent into Iraq, when will this killing stop.

You are doing a great job BB in helping these people.

gemmak said...

I salute you...this post is probably the best description of cause I have read of combat PTSD. Regardless of how we feel about individual conflicts you are right, we need to do more to support our forces when they face any problems but particularly these kinds of long term psycholocical illness. In days gone they called it 'shell shock', thankfully we understand it way better nowadays but it seems the forces heirachy are still happy to live in the old days of shell shock where treating these guys/gals is concerned and it's outrageous! We cannot train them to the level of psychological 'strength' required for combat and then abandon them when that very training and the experience of combat takes it's toll!

Walker said...

You can create a killing machine and later take it apart but when you create a killer they always stay that way.They may bury it for a time but it always crawls out and depending on what they went through will magnify the intensity of their problems.
Suicide becomes their savior in their minds so as to stop the replaying fo the memories.
I have a few friends that have been around the world in some of he hot spots and they tell me sleep is their biggest problem because as bad as the day time flashbacks are, their dream are worse.

Ronjazz said...

If you want to submit this piece, my sense is a medical trade publication of some kind. Or a journal. But even your local newspaper would accept articles written by experts in their field. I'd say you qualify. Write me and we'll figure out how to do it.

Sally's Chateau said...

It's not just the emotional side either is it ? men that put their bodies through tough and unforgiving excercises only to find that once they reach their later years they actually damaged themselves in the process. They are then forgotten and cast aside.

Blossomcottage said...

A great friend of my mothers died recently, he was 97 and a war veteran of WW11. He was captured several times and tunneled out of several camps, he was know as the tunneler and wrote a book about it, he ended up in Colditz and became the rope maker. When the war finished he was unable to settle to anything and spent many years as a whaler off of South Georgia, my mother tells me many of the men who had experiences such as Johns were unable to settle after the war and like him roamed the world.
Things were bad then for those who returned and sadly 60 years on things are little better.
My last blog had a similar theme yours it better said.

Preseli Mags said...

Yes, a very moving, informative post. Sadly I covered inquests as a reporter when things had gone wrong for ex-service personnel. It is also very sad that despite this being the 21st century there still isn't enough help for mental torment as well as for physical injuries.

Faith said...

First blog of yours that I've read. Excellent. I have a nephew age 25 in Afghanistan at the moment, and also doing my family tree means I have found out how my male relatives have suffered and died through serving their country. You do an a very worthwhile job - God bless!


LittleBrownDog said...

Very moving post, BB - it's all too easy to forget about the human side of war. You are doing a very important job here.

Midnight said...

I could pick you up on a few minor issues such as the generalisation about behaviour of troops when they come back being not totally representative of all veterans. But that would be pedantic.

You rightly flag up some really important issues. I think some men struggle to cope with what they have done/seen/experienced and the military tends to have a one size fits all solution and some people fall through the gaps.

I think things are geting better thanks to people like you and to a growing recognition that the mind needs to heal just as much as the body.