Jordan Wylie, a former soldier turned author and adventurer pens his regular column for Pathfinder below…
…some readers may find parts of this article distressing.
In my column below, I am honoured to share the thoughts and feelings of one of the finest men I have ever had the pleasure of learning from and working in my 36 years on this planet. As a young 20 year old Junior Non Commissioned Officer, I was assigned to A (xHx) Squadron, The King’s Royal Hussars as an intelligence operative where my direct boss was a man called Nick Hunter, at the time a Major and our squadron leader. Nick led by example with his words and actions every day without fail, in what for many of us would still to this day be one of the toughest periods of our lives. In the article below, Nick reflects on veterans mental health and shares some very open, honest and indeed graphic first hand experiences of the challenges he has faced leading soldiers on frontline combat operations. Please do take the time to read and digest Nick’s powerful words at a time where we commemorate our great friend LCpl Alan ‘Bracks’ Brackenbury’s tragic loss 15 years ago today. As always, our thoughts are with Alan’s family today and everyday. Gone but never ever forgotten…
It is the time of year when serving and former members of the British Army’s Cavalry units remember their fallen friends and brothers. With the anniversary of the death of Guardsman Wakefield (the first member of the 1 STAFFORDS BG killed on Op TELIC 6) this past week and the anniversary of the loss of Lance Corporal Alan Brackenbury I have been reflecting on our military service. It is a truism to say that everybody who served has felt a major impact on their lives both good and bad. There are many old soldiers who do not really understand the ‘modern’ view of PTSD or the reality of mental health associated with many veterans’ return to society. I would reflect that it has always been there but was ignored, suppressed or in the worst cases brushed under the carpet. The realities of what the more recent veteran has been through on operations since the 1990s, I would argue, have been more kinetic or harrowing than the previous cold war experiences of many.
It is fair to say that the human mind is an amazing and complex thing. Whatever the training, discipline or education of an individual there is no real way of knowing how one will respond to the individual exposure to some of the mad and awful things many of us have seen. Two different folk experiencing exactly the same set of circumstances will have very differing reactions. Often the initial response is handled by training, drills, adrenaline and discipline afforded to a group of well trained people. What is apparent is that as we move on with our lives and the close knit groups with shared experiences split up, the structure that allows the worst affected to cope is removed. There is nothing that can replace the cohesion and relationships that are built on the harsh realities of near death experiences or a continual exposure to risk (there are parallels no doubt to the service of our NHS staff in the current pandemic).
It is interesting to reflect on my own experiences of service and the type of factors that feed into the mental health issues being felt by many. That is not to say that my experiences have had a particular effect on me since I left the Army although many in my family have blamed my divorce on my military service. I confess my split from my ex-wife was much more to do with my own flaws of character rather than anything to do with operational horrors. Nor are my experiences an exhaustive list but rather my personal observations; indeed many in my peer group no doubt went through considerably more harrowing events than myself in Afghanistan.
I will start with the realities of war torn countries and human suffering. Many of us experienced the impact of the brutality of war in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and Kosovo where a seemingly well integrated society decayed into a state of anarchic conflict, pitting neighbours against each other, mainly on religious grounds. While many of us observed rather than played an active kinetic role in the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, the impact was still considerable. Ethnic cleansing and mass murder on a scale not seen in Europe since 1945 had a major effect on many of us. Body exchanges, mass graves and the aftermath of senseless killing defy comprehension to even the most hardened of us. Sometimes gruesome, sometimes personal, witnessing these events often seems to have a disproportionate effect to actual combat. In my experience, as a tank squadron leader of D Squadron King’s Royal Hussars (KRH) attached to the Irish Guards, this was brought to the fore by the brutal murder of five children in Kosovo near the town of Obilic. The children were discovered in a ditch in a meadow with a single gunshot wound to the head. We learned later that these children were driven in the open back of a pick-up truck along the ditch and shot one at a time with a gap of 20 or so yards between each murder and thrown in the ditch. It is unimaginable what they went through as they released what was about to happen to them. This gruesome scene was discovered by a Warrior crew commander in an Infantry platoon attached to my squadron. He displayed all the attributes expected of a British Army JNCO and sorted the response to the incident. It went south for him when I arrived at the scene with my Sgt Maj. It was very early on in the deployment and there was no public infrastructure left as the majority of civic roles had been filled by the recently departed Serb population. As a result, to prevent taking any of my squadron group away from their tasks, it fell to me and my Squadron HQ to collect bodies left over from the previous regimes’ activity and those that resulted from the continued bloodletting after the liberation. On that day we had arrived at the scene to remove the bodies of those poor children to the hospital on the northern edge of Pristina. The JNCO had a breakdown in front of us. The children in the ditch were of similar age to his own (six to fourteen) and the impact of having us take the situation over from him allowed it to all come out. He was returned home soon after. This was obviously a very personal reaction to a specific circumstance; something flicked a switch in this man. It could happen to anybody. There was a routine body count and there could have been many more such reactions across the squadron personnel, but we were fortunate, or were we? There may be so many demons lurking in the minds of the guys and girls deployed, I dare say most will have been hidden away and those that come to the surface often do so when an individual is in trying circumstances and only then precipitate meltdown.
It is also worthy of note that many across KRH during this deployment were exposed to the realities of dealing with corpses in varying states, from recently murdered to rather ripe. This in its own right is enough to provide some tasty ammunition for the mind to work on and conjure up disturbing memories for many. Those closest to me will know that my deployment was cut short in Kosovo due to having to hand my squadron to a more senior Major who needed the command tick for his career. Beyond the fact that this put me in a very negative frame of mind, I went to visit my parent unit also deployed in theatre and stayed in Podujevo overnight before heading back to our peacetime location of Munster in Germany. I was somewhat alarmed by comments made by the RMO who stated that I ‘stank of death’ (in reference to the fact that I had been dealing with corpses every day since entering the country) and she was concerned that I had ‘issues’. This took me aback somewhat as I had not given it a thought, indeed it is not something that I have lost a moment’s sleep over in the intervening years. This may make me sound callous but it is indicative that we all react differently to these trying times.
Moving forward in time to my next deployment, this time to Iraq again as a tank squadron leader, a different set of incidents were to further develop my experience of the mental response to operations. The training had been hard, aggressive and, dare I say it, a lot of fun and was one of the high points of my career. We had developed a very cohesive feel under the banner of ‘Nobody’s Own’ (a reference to the WW1 nickname of one of our antecedent regiments, the 20th Hussars) and were fortunate to be a very close knit group of 138 souls. The tour was pretty relentless for all and not least for the OC’s Rover group who had no respite from the daily patrols to meet folk in the border areas, villages and towns in our Area of Operations (AO). I am totally responsible for this and as a commander on operations you often find yourself driving hard to achieve your tasks with little understanding of the impact on the guys and girls you are leading. The team was strong enough to let me know when I was pushing too hard but the routine was brutal. The pressure on the Rover group was also to come into sharp focus two months into the tour.
It may be said that in order to cover all our AO the Rover group was out too much but, I would contend that to have an impact over the massive province I was responsible for, the level of patrolling was necessary. In the final analysis we were on the ground more than any other call sign in the Battlegroup (BG). Just by sheer time spent on the ground it was inevitable that something would happen involving the Rover group. There had been one attack on No 1 Coy, Coldstream Guards in which they lost Guardsman Wakefield; a really ghastly night where we, as a BG, did not get the response right. The full effect of the counter insurgency operations were yet to be felt by the BG. The first action we were engaged in was a fire fight with Iranian Border Guards in an area that has often been disputed since the Iran Iraq war. We were conducting a patrol along the border to meet the Iraqi border force when we came under fire from the Iranians. After returning fire and cognisant of the dispute over where the border lay, we withdrew in good order and carried on our patrol. The response from the Rover group was reassuring as they laid down effective and sustained fire on the Iranians during the withdrawal. I think they were buoyed from having their first exchange of fire, such is the military psyche. On the next patrol to the border we stopped a vehicle in a snap Vehicle Checkpoint (VCP) and found an arms cache in the boot. Needless to say we were becoming well versed in the process of having to call in to the Camp Abu Naji operations room using a satellite phone as the Combat Net Radio (CNR) was hopeless over the distances we were patrolling. It is one of the abiding memories of my life speaking to a Whitehall operator while in a firefight and asking to be patched through to our own BG HQ in theatre.
Two days on and we were heading to the same area for further patrols and meetings. An unremarkable day as the patrol went through the usual briefing and preparation process; a patrol of three stripped down landrovers with two crewmen on top cover in each and one of our two squadron medics in one of them. As it happened that day I was leading the patrol (we generally rotated the lead vehicle role amongst the commanders) but as we left Camp Abu Naji my vehicle had an alarm in one of the Electronic Counter Measure (ECM) systems that all vehicles carried. I communicated this over the Personal Role Radio (PRR) to the troop leader who was in the second vehicle and he took the lead role until we sorted the ECM out. It took a couple of minutes and then we rejoined the rear of the patrol. We were back together by the time we reached the gate onto the main Al Amara to Basra highway. We headed south the short distance before crossing the Athabander Bridge over the Tigris. Heading east towards the border about two miles from the bridge, a Passive Infrared sensor (PIR) initiated IED hidden in an earth bank (which are a feature of all the roads in the area) was detonated. The PIR is the motion sensor used in outside lights, the modus operandi was to focus the sensor in a beam across the road and if the beam was cut the circuit is completed initiating the charge. The charge itself was three Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFP) which in layman’s terms form a molten jet of copper that cuts through armour plate on vehicles. In this instance two of the charges did not initiate properly and formed a blanket of shrapnel, the third charge is believed to have worked.
The lead landrover was hit and drove off the road onto level waste ground adjacent to it. My Rover and the SSM’s Rover drove into depth in order to attempt to apprehend the trigger man. It became a car pursuit but with the trigger man in a very smart black 4×4 we were never going to catch it (the vehicle was subsequently found burnt out in the desert further east). With the chase abandoned the SSM and I put the cordon in place at a road junction, took some of the team to block the road on the other side of the incident and the remainder returned to the casualty vehicle. All through this I had been getting updates from the troop leader over PRR on the status of his crew and I did not like what I was hearing. There was a building feeling of dread as we ran back towards the scene.
All five of the crew were casualties. The troop leader, James Bishop, was the least badly hurt and as we approached he was trying to call in the contact report over the satellite phone as I had instructed (CNR was not even getting through the meagre 10kms or so back to Camp Abu Naji). I felt bad that I had given him this direction as he had helped extract the crew from the back of the vehicle and had multiple shrapnel wounds to his arms; he could dial but could not bend his arms and was shouting at the phone to try and convey the contact report. As we arrived we went into automatic mode and determined the injuries to each crew member (I took the phone off the troop leader and spoke to the ops room myself). It was then we had confirmation that LCpl Alan Brackenbury (Bracks) had been killed instantly by the blast (most likely from the one EFP that apparently operated correctly). Bracks had been on top cover closest to the IED and took the full blast; LCpl Dave Simcock was also on top cover and had extensive injuries to his shoulder and back; the medic, LCpl Liz Rawlinson, was sitting on the battery box sustaining blast injuries and suffering the trauma of the tangle of bodies that resulted from her comrades falling on her; Tpr Smiles was driving the vehicle and he sustained shrapnel wounds to his right hand side and neck. Sensibly the troop leader had told Tpr Smiles to stay where he was and not to move due to the concern of his neck. LCpl Simcock was laid out next to the vehicle and LCpl Liz Rawlinson was sat up against the rear wheel of the landrover. Bracks remained in the back of the vehicle. The team medic training we had all received was excellent but sometimes just does not cut it. With Liz slipping in and out of consciousness we had to coax out of her how best to treat the very large wound to LCpl Simcock’s back and shoulder.
The point of this detail is not to share a list of gruesome injuries sustained but to articulate what the various individuals faced during the incident and how this might impact those involved with the passage of time. Those who sustained injuries have had to live with them ever since and will continue to do so going forward; they also have any associated mental issues with the trauma of the event. This of course is more apparent to the medical chain and hopefully they have had the help that they need from both that source and the wider Regimental family. I would assess that there is a wider impact to those on the periphery, who would inevitably hide any impact on themselves at the time as it would seem rather churlish when others had had some substantial physical injuries. The feelings that you might expect could be guilt of the crew that were due to lead the patrol, memories of their comrade’s lifeless body or of administering first aid to friends or the loss of a comrade.
For my own part I would suggest that those drills and training do kick in and you do what has to be done. The QRF arrived and helped secure the cordon and provided more medical help, the casualties were airlifted to Basra, eventually the area was cleared and Bracks was recovered along with the vehicle. The remnant of the patrol returned to Camp Abu Naji at about 1700 hrs, having deployed at 0900 hrs. By the time the de-briefing was complete I got back to the squadron lines by 1900 hrs, at which point I had to brief the remainder of the squadron, two multiples who had also been out on patrol and were not aware of what had happened. The pressure of the day released and I confess that as I spoke to them in their accommodation I really struggled to remain composed; I am pretty sure that they knew my voice was breaking.
Late that night I asked the SSM to gather as many of the squadron as we could free from routine duties in the small medical facility. We stood around the coffin in which Bracks had been laid. I had managed to compose myself at that stage, having spoken to the BG Comd, Andrew Williams, a man I got on very well with and he was very good at easing my mounting concerns. I also had a tot of whisky in a grubby tin mug (I had a small bottle which I kept in my room for emergencies). I confess I blubbed, perhaps a testament to the loneliness of command. It had dawned on me that the loss of such a popular character in the squadron was going to have a big impact and that I needed to choose my words carefully. I stood at the head of the coffin and spoke for no more than five minutes concentrating on Bracks the man, the colleague, the subordinate and the friend. I then switched to the topic of the squadron and the need more than ever to be aware of each other and support each other in the tough times that were to follow. I finished with a statement that I felt apposite at the time and called for everybody to ‘remember the dead but to look after the living’.
The following day the squadron lined the road in camp while Bracks was carried to the helicopter for the trip to Basra and then on to the UK. It was absolutely key for me to get the squadron back to work. They responded well and after paying their respects and saying goodbye to Bracks they were back at it quickly, perhaps resentful of my drive to get on with the job but I felt it was the best medicine for us all. As it happens the next patrol that I led with my now depleted Rover group was again attacked. Another roadside bomb, but a lot less lethal; a daisy chain of half a dozen 152mm artillery rounds hidden in the earth mounds again. Fortunately they were detonated at the edge of the ECM bubble, reassuring us that the ECM worked for remote controlled IEDs. No injuries just heart palpitations followed by another long period dealing with the aftermath, evidence gathering and me doing a lot of shouting at local civic leaders. One of the greatest leadership challenges I faced in my career was keeping everybody going and remaining positive, even with a large squadron replacing my depleted Rover group this was not easy as it was seen as a bit of a poison chalice!
The last element of this tale, before I bring out the salient points on the mental impact of these occurrences, is a quick canter through other contributing factors to the minds of all of us as the tour progressed. I took the opportunity to fly to Basra with a select few of the squadron to visit the injured. I was desperate to see them having last watched them being loaded onto a helicopter. I was reassured to see how they were being treated and were entirely upbeat at that stage. It was a great boost to me. I visited the Bde HQ and KRH BG and conducted the sort of admin that is normal for a remotely deployed sub-unit. As we were waiting to return to Al Amara we were approached by the RMP SIB Sgt who had conducted the investigation into the attack. He had two paper bags in his possession which he handed to one of the Squadron NCOs. They contained the personal effects of Bracks: clothing, webbing, weapon. I confess I ‘saw red’. For those in the party this was the last thing they needed, the effects were in the same state as they had been when they were removed from Bracks’ body. I took the Sgt away and ‘explained’ what I thought of this act, he was apologetic and stated that he/they did not think – outsiders seldom do! The mood on the journey back to Al Amara was very sour indeed. Strangely we were glad when we arrived in Camp Abu Naji.
A few weeks after the loss of Bracks the intensity of operations in and around Al Amara had increased. The BG had a large grouping of two sub-units deployed into the city overnight, every night. The sub-unit commanders rotated through commanding the operation on the ground and the sub-units and multiples likewise. One night will be indelibly etched on everybody’s lives that were involved. A multiple from The Staffords C Coy were on patrol in the south east suburbs of the city when they suffered an horrific IED blast that was heard from Camp Abu Naji some miles away. Again it was activated by PIR and included three massive EFP charges. On this occasion all three functioned correctly; one hit the front wheel of the Snatch landrover, the second went through the door decapitating the Pl Comd and tearing the throat out of the driver, and the third went through the back causing catastrophic injuries to one of the guys on top cover. The normal response to the incident was initiated and the operation to clear and recover all took all night. The awful scene was bad enough but the task of recovering the remains will live with those involved always. The brutal reality of ‘bagging-up’ had to be done and is never pleasant but the poor soul who did this on a number of occasions will always be in my thoughts. Removing a young body from a vehicle and then having to retrieve the same young man’s head from the foot well surely leaves a terrible imprint. Latterly it was also realised that a young Staffords officer who had been deployed in the city that night had returned to his accommodation that he shared with two others, one now dead and the other also a casualty in hospital. Imagine the night he spent and how he felt for the rest of the tour, let alone how this has affected him since.
That is enough of the lantern swinging and sandbag pulling! I use these memories to explore and exemplify this scourge of veteran mental health. There will be many others, from many theatres, from many units that faced similar realities and all who have to cope with their own individual responses to the environment in which they served. For my own part I have been fortunate in the support I have received and I would never say that I have suffered from any mental health issues. Yes, thoughts of my service enter my head, and I think about all those I knew that have passed on, but it is an act of remembrance, not self-flagellation. I have also been lucky in that my military career progressed and after 26 years I retired to take up a position in industry and, as fortune would have it, I am moving to a new role shortly. My transition was easy so I never had reason to look back and think too hard about the memories that reside in the darker recesses of my mind. For many transition is twofold: moving from the group that you become so close to in the hard times and then when you move from the relatively familiar environment of the Army to the wider world. Both these changes present issues and if they are not detected early on some of the deeper gremlins in our memory banks can be activated. My own view is that resettlement concentrates on the adjustment of physical ‘stuff’: a job and a house, but actually success in resettlement is about a much wider range of issues that need to be reconciled. This includes some assistance, where required, with the mental health aspects of such a massive change in environment and the realities that veterans have lived with for many years. It all comes back to the same sentiment I expressed around Bracks’ coffin: the dead should be remembered but we must look after the living.