The soldier's tale: Return from Iraq

It's now five years since the Iraq war began. And ever since the first casualties started to arrive back in Britain, former paratrooper Stuart Griffiths has been documenting their struggles. Here he presents his moving portfolio
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The Independent Online

This has been a slow process – not every wounded soldier wants to talk or have their picture taken – but even as the war broke out, on 20 March 2003, I knew their stories would need to be told. These portraits are about honouring their sacrifice, but they are also a protest against the difficulties and injustices they face as they return to civilian life. I know from my own experience as a soldier how hard that readjustment can be.

In 1988 at the age of 16 I joined the Parachute Regiment, went straight to Northern Ireland and became unit photographer, taking everything from passport photos to PR shots. I was attached to the intelligence section and there I began to learn things about the way the Army worked that made me feel uncomfortable. After a few years I left the forces and moved to Brighton to do a degree in photography.

In 2000 I went to London to try to work full-time as a photographer but my accommodation fell through and I ended up on the streets. Someone gave me the number of the Ex-Forces Fellowship Centre in East London and they gave me a room that night. That's where this project really began. There were 100 ex-servicemen living there at the time and most of them were dealing with physical and psychological injuries, as well as alcohol and drug addictions.

I lived there for about a year until I moved in with my girlfriend, but I went back when the war broke out in 2003, as I thought the story of the hostel needed to be told. My original plan was to do something on the residents there, to coincide with the first anniversary of the war. This would be a kind of warning of problems up ahead, because these guys are the people that the soldiers fighting in Iraq could eventually become. Then I began photographing the Iraq veterans themselves.

I think my own soldiering background has helped them open up to me. They know I have respect and empathy for them and that is how I wanted to convey their injuries. I don't want to be brutal or sensational, but I do want to challenge the viewer with the reality of what serving your country means. We used to be saturated with television images of fighting in Iraq, but as more and more of these guys come home it all goes quiet.

Death and injury are inevitable parts of soldiering but what is different with this conflict is that it has been controversial since the start, and that hasn't been good for these veterans psychologically. It isn't about directly defending our country, so they aren't treated as war heroes in the usual sense. And they have to rely on the NHS, which can barely cope with the needs of the ordinary public, and on mental-health charities such as Combat Stress. It's a struggle for some of them even to get a war pension. There is a lot of bitterness and anger at the fact that they have given so much and are getting so little in return.

I hope with this project to be able to reach out to as many people as possible with this alternative viewpoint of the British armed forces. I support the Army, but there is no glory in war and certainly not in the way these casualties have been treated. I'm still taking these photos and will continue to do so until I know in my heart that it is time to stop. At the moment, things are still relatively recent for these guys coming back from Iraq. I just wonder where they'll be in ten years' time.

Interviews by Rhiannon Harries

Mark Dryden
Served as: Lance-corporal
Age: 31
Time in Iraq: 2003 and 2005

Mark Dryden served in Ireland and Bosnia before being sent to Iraq in 2003 and then again in 2005. During his second tour his vehicle was caught in a roadside-bomb explosion in which his comrade was killed and Dryden lost his arm. Although he says his NHS treatment in the UK has been excellent, he feels badly let down by the MoD.

After being discharged from Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, Dryden says it was nine months before the MoD got in touch to offer him care at its Hedley Court rehabilitation centre in Surrey. But things did not improve.

"They don't understand what you're suffering," he says. "I was given a prosthetic arm but I've never been shown how to use it. It's lying under my bed because I don't know what to do with it. I met some American soldiers last year andthey couldn't believe it."

Dryden has mixed feelings about his experience of the war. "I've got no regrets about joining the Army or going to Iraq or even about my injuries. It was part and parcel of doing my job – I got paid a good wage to serve my country and I'm proud of that. What I'm not proud of is the way I've been treated. The aftercare is a total disgrace." '

Jamie Cooper
Served as: Private
Age: 19
Time in Iraq: September - November 2007

Following a mortar attack on his Basra base, Jamie Cooper became the youngest soldier to be wounded in Iraq, two months into his tour. Shrapnel from the rockets sliced through his stomach, leg and hands causing massive internal injuries. After being airlifted to Selly Oak Hospital, he spent the next nine months recuperating.

It was a difficult recovery and the conditions in the NHS ward, according to Cooper, were appalling. "I was disgusted at the hospital," he says. "My colostomy bag kept bursting and at times I was left in my own faeces all night." He also caught MRSA twice, which hampered his recovery. Complaints from his parents prompted a media outcry.

Cooper has spent the past eight months at Headley Court, where his progress has amazed the doctors. "It was a shock when I started walking again, as I wasn't meant to," he says. He now hopes to be able to rejoin his unit in Germany, albeit not in a frontline capacity. "When I first got injured I wanted to quit," he says, "but what changed my mind was when I was taken back to visit all the lads. I still felt like I wanted to be part of it all." '

Andy Anthony Julien
Served as: Cavalryman
Age: 23
Time in Iraq: February 2003 - March 2003

Five days into the war, the tank in which Andy Julien was travelling was hit by friendly fire from another British tank. Two of his comrades were killed instantly and a third, Daniel Tweedy (see page 19), suffered 80 per cent burns. Julien's legs were badly damaged, but it is the psychological effects that have been harder to bear. "The physical recovery was very difficult but at the moment it's more about dealing with the mental issues. I'm still trying to get my head around it now, especially when I go back over what actually happened out there."

Julien feels that, while his colleagues were a great source of help, the MoD was less forthcoming. "The people in my regiment kept their promise and looked after me, putting me in touch with Combat Stress so I could get counselling – at one stage I was going rapidly downhill – but I wasn't prioritised because I wasn't a serving soldier. I think the MoD should have given me more support at that point, when I really needed it."

Although Julien was keen to get back into Army life as soon as possible, he was physically and mentally "downgraded" by doctors working on behalf of the MoD and medically discharged in January 2005. He is now back home in Manchester working in customer services.

Hayley Murdoch
Served as: RAF cartographer
Age: 26
Time in Iraq: February 2004 - June 2004

Hayley Murdoch severely damaged her back and hip while providing cover for a Land Rover patrol in 2004. As an RAF cartographer, she had not trained for the duty she had been performing, something she says is symptomatic of the poor way the MoD has handled both operations in Iraq and her subsequent aftercare.

"The accident was the easy bit, it was waiting for treatment back home that was a nightmare. You think things will soon get back to normal and then you get left on a shelf. No one likes to watch their life ebb away."

When Murdoch did finally manage to get treatment at the MoD's Hedley Court rehabilitation centre, she was more than satisfied with the help she received. She has taken an administrative job in the family business and still uses a walking stick occasionally, but it is the non-visiblesigns of damage that she regrets the most.

"I joined the military as an outgoing, confident person," she says, "and that really took a beating on my way out." '

Daniel Twiddy
Served as: Lance-corporal
Age: 27 years
Time in Iraq: February 2003 - March 2003

Daniel Twiddy was involved in the same friendly-fire incident as Andy Julien. He spent a month in hospital in the UK recovering from 80 per cent burns and severe shrapnel wounds to his face. "My mum says she could look straight through my nose into my mouth at first," he says. He lost all hearing in one ear and is partially deaf in the other.

Twiddy has made a good recovery – although he is still undergoing treatment for his injuries – and is working again in his own business as a plasterer.

"I'm a determined person so I've just got on with it really. The Army has been good to me – my old regiment and the British Legion have helped a lot – but the MoD don't give a shit. All I am to them is a number that they need to replace. I asked for £60 a week for a private physiotherapist and they refused. They say they've done their best by me, but it's not true."

Twiddy has no regrets about his decision to go to Iraq. "I'd be out there now with my mates if I could." '

Chris Thompson
Served as: Private
Age: 23
Time in Iraq: January 2004 - March 2004

Chris Thompson was 18 years old when his vehicle was caught in a roadside bomb explosion in Al Amarah in 2004. The device, packed with ball bearings, damaged Thompson's right foot and lower leg so severely that, by the time he was flown back to Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, doctors were forced to amputate to avoid infection.

Thompson returned home to live with his mother in Bishop Auckland to await discharge and some kind of compensation. He has been overwhelmed by the support of his local community but is less impressed by the treatment he has received from the MoD. He feels that he and many other injured soldiers have simply been abandoned.

Thompson was happy to be photographed and talk about his experiences despite the fact that he says he has been warned off talking to the press by the MoD. "I wasn't having it," he explains. "You fight for your country and then they just forget about you."

Craig Lundberg
Served as: Lance-corporal
Age: 22
Time in Iraq: 2003 and 2007

Craig "Freddie" Lundberg joined the Army after finishing his GCSEs. In 2003, shortly after his eighteenth birthday, he was sent on his first tour of duty in Iraq. Four years later he was back in Basra on his second. "It was different this time," he says. "It was a lot more dangerous."

On the night Lundberg got hit, his section was involved in an operation to arrest a group of local insurgents when they came under fire. He was hit by two rocket-propelled grenades, which caused the loss of his left eye, serious damage to his left arm and severe burns and shrapnel wounds to his face. Lundberg's right eye was also damaged, leaving him blind.

Lundberg, who has fought to remain in the Army in any capacity available to him, is devastated by the idea that British troops could soon be withdrawn. "I just think all I've done was a waste. Why has it taken me to be in this state and two of my best mates to get killed for them to say, 'Oh yeah, we're getting out now'? What difference did we make in that tour? Did we make that much of a difference that we can pull out now? I honestly don't think we did."

Lundberg and his family have since set up a charity, The Freddie Fund, which raises money for the soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.

Web exclusive As well as the moving photographs of British veterans of the Iraq war featured here, Stuart Griffiths has documented troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Click here to see our exclusive gallery with captions by the photographer and his subjects