I grew up in a working-class family in a small town near Auckland, New Zealand. After completing my trade apprenticeship, I ventured out to see the world. After working in a summer camp in the United States I ended up living and working in London, United Kingdom. Fueled by the horrific and disgusting attacks of 9/11 and the Bali bombing of 2002, (which killed many of my fellow countrymen), I walked into a British Army recruiting office wanting to take the fight to the enemy. At the time they had a program for Commonwealth (Former British Empire) citizens to join the British Army and I found myself shipping out to basic training in 2003. During my 13 years of service, I served as a Tank crewman, Combat Infantry, and as an Explosive detection dog Handler. The majority of my service was as a Combat Infantryman. This amazing career took me all over the world including UK, Europe, North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, including 3 combat tours of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The thrill of combat and the heartache of trauma
Although I’ve had many exposures to trauma, as most veterans and first responders will know, it’s typically one or two really shitty incidences that set the whole thing off. This obviously differs from person to person, and it can only take one traumatic event. I’m going to describe the main incidences that caused my trauma but ultimately lead to my post traumatic growth.
Helmand Provence, Afghanistan 2008-2009- After recently returning from a combat deployment in Iraq my unit was warned off for an upcoming deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan. After being selected for the coveted reconnaissance ‘Recce’ Platoon of my battalion, my unit deployed to Helmand province, a notoriously violent hotbed of Taliban activity. We were to support the battlegroup by inserting all over the Provence including the infamous Sangin valley to push back and retaking enemy held territory, as well as observe, report, and neutralize enemy IED (Improvised Explosive Device) cells and disrupt enemy supply lines. A fuckin exciting job for a newly promoted Lance-Corporal! The deployment was like nothing I had experienced before, constant war fighting, which was exactly what I was looking for upon joining the army but took it’s toll mentally. The biggest challenges mentally during that deployment was the things I could not reconcile in my head especially coming from small town NZ and having not seen how evil sick ideologies like the Taliban could be. For example, the Taliban used children as human shields when moving fighting positions as well as forcing children to become suicide bombers. The use of human excrement on IEDs to create extra infection to our guys who stood on the IED. These experiences all weighed heavily on me but the thrill of combat and not wanting to show this to my teammates or admit it to myself stopped me from seeking help once we returned. Upon returning from deployment, we underwent the usual mental health debriefs and offers of help if needed, however, the army then was a work hard play hard environment and the adage of: ‘if you’re not feeling right a few pints (or 10) with your mates will fix everything’ was the go-to answer.
Helmand Provence, Afghanistan 2011- Fast forward a couple of years and I was deploying again, this time as an Explosive Detection Dog handler. I was attached to a USAF EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) team as their HASD (High Assurance Search Dog) handler, basically my dog would search routes and paths for buried explosives which were everywhere in Helmand. During a Patrol a unit ahead of us had found a suspected IED, we were tasked to search the area and disarm any devices we found. During the search the Team lead Danny, a great leader and friend from Alabama, went forward to identify and disarm the IED. It was decided not to use the dog as we already knew the location of the device. The IED was command detonated (basically on a pull wire) while Danny was disarming it. I was about 50m away and the explosive rocked me to my core. Although I didn’t know it at the time Danny was killed instantly. A follow up small arms (rifle, machine gun) ambush was immediately initiated by the Taliban. I found myself sprinting across open ground to get to Danny praying he was still alive. Once I got to Danny it was obvious, he had not made it, but I refused to believe it. I coordinated a stretcher and started to carry Danny back through the ambush. Danny injuries were the worst I had ever seen including amputated hands and severe injuries to the face and head, unbeknown to me at the time I would see these injuries in my dreams and mind for years to come. I kept screaming at the others who were helping me carry Danny, ‘get fuckin moving, he’s still alive, let’s fuckin go!’ Only when we had extracted out of the ambush and back to a small outpost did I accept he was gone. I was cold and I was raging, all I wanted to do was go back out and kill every Taliban I saw. When the medical recovery Helicopter picked Danny up the pilots and crew chiefs dismounted and saluted his body as we loaded him on, when I saw this, I completely fell apart. So many emotions were running through me, but it was mainly anger, I couldn’t believe, even though I’d seen plenty of combat before, that the Taliban had taken a husband and father from his family all in the name of their sick, twisted ideology. The rest of that deployment continued at the same pace. Close to the end of the deployment I was in Sangin waiting for a Heli back to camp bastion as I was due to leave country soon. In Helmand Provence there is a valley that the Helmand River runs through, this area is lush green and a massive contrast to the vast desert that covers most of the rest of the Provence, this is known as the ‘green zone’ or the valley. I was talking to a US Marine who was waiting with me. As we said our goodbyes, he said something that would stick with me and was a sign of things to come. He said, ‘remember bro, you can leave the valley, but the valley will never leave you.’
The aftermath and growth
Following that deployment, I returned to my unit which was then stationed in Germany. My oldest son was born 3 days after I got home which was among the best things that have ever happened to me. However, it left no time to process the last few years of deployments and combat. During the next couple of years, I transferred from the K9 unit back to my infantry battalion and continued my career path. However, everything had changed. I was not happy, constantly angry, short-tempered, not concentrating at work, anxiety, not sleeping at night and seeing the same horrific scene during the day. I carried a huge amount of guilt, what I know now as survivor’s guilt. I keep going over and over things in my head; should I have sent the dog in first, why didn’t I do that, if I had gotten to Danny faster could I have saved him, I should have known that was a command wire IED. Even though I couldn’t see it my mates saw the change in me and so did my chain of command. At the time there was a fear of going to see a mental health professional due to the chance of being pulled off regular duty (known in the British Army as ‘jelly head’) and the future effects of having that on your medical record, therefore, many guys didn’t do that. After one-to-many episodes a trusted member of my chain of command approached me and told me it was possible to get help without losing my career and he would make sure I was not pulled off the line. I reluctantly agreed but was terrified as being a soldier was all I ever wanted to be and taking that away would have crushed me. I finally got some help, and it made a massive difference. I followed a pretty conservative treatment route with talk therapy, Cognitive behavior therapy, and EMDR. I was not prescribed any medication or medically downgraded. Bear in mind this is what worked for me and everybody has different levels of trauma and responds differently to different types of therapy. The biggest thing I learnt was to accept, allow and forgive, for anyone that’s reading this stop and read that again. This has become my mantra now. How I describe it is I was a normal person in a very abnormal situation, of course there will be trauma! War is war and unfortunately not everyone makes it out, you will lose people, there will be situations beyond your control, and you MUST ACCEPT and FORGIVE yourself. This goes not only for veterans but for the Police officers who couldn’t save their partner, that child, etc. and for the Firefighters who couldn’t get into that burning structure in time or extract the car wreck victim in time, for the EMT’s and nurses who dedicate their lives to helping and saving people, you will lose people and as long as you put into practice all the skills you have and give your best then that’s all you can do. I spent years blaming myself until with the help of great professionals and leaders I realized I did all I could have done at the time, and I need to accept, allow, and forgive that. I’ve also incorporated good exercise, cold water therapy and meditation as part of my daily toolbox, check that stuff out and see if it works for you.
I’ve since left the army and tried to find my way in the real world (civiy street) and I’m not going to lie it’s been the biggest challenge of my life. However, I’m getting there slowly but surely. I went back to school (online) and picked up a degree and am now working in the construction project management field. Do I still struggle, yes absolutely, like my mate said the valley will never leave you. But my new mission is to better understand mental health and to help our community, Military, LEO, First Responders, etc. So, I’ve decided to pursue a new career as a therapist to try and pay it forward. Plus, one of the big things I found was the lack of relatable therapists out there. For me it was hard to sit down as a 40-year-old combat veteran and talk to a 26-year-old academic about PTS! So, I want to fill that gap with someone who has walked the walk and can relate to our community. It won’t happen overnight, but I believe it’ll be worth it. I know it’s been a long one but hopefully my story has helped someone even in a small way. If you’re still serving and are reluctant to come forward through fear of losing your career, check your unit’s, department’s, station’s, etc resources or approach a trusted leader to make sure you get the help you need. Check on your teammates, smash the stigma, and keep moving forward. Love you all.