Battling stigma: The British war artist who suffered post-traumatic stress after stint on Helmand front line

After Mark Neville spent three months in Afghanistan as an official war artist, he returned to Britain deeply troubled. In a new book, he reveals the extreme strains of working as a civilian among frontline soldiers – and how he struggled with the PTSD that ensued
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My grandfather Jack Neville was captain of a ship during the Second World War. His behaviour when he came back from four years at sea, suffering from what I now clearly recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has had an effect upon everyone in my family.

He took a lot of photographs after he returned in 1945, and when he wasn't looking through lenses, he was barking orders at his family. The impact on me of his inability to communicate in a pleasant way, coupled with this need to mediate life via a lens, somehow transmuted into my career: for the past 10 years, I have used photography in a collaborative way, intended to be of direct, practical benefit to the subject.

In October 2010, I received an email from an arts organisation called Firstsite, regarding a residency working as a war artist in Helmand. The residency was to be hosted by 16 Air Assault Brigade, the largest regiment in the British Army, otherwise known as the "paras". It had never occurred to me to work in a war zone before, but I was highly curious. Perhaps the experience would illuminate my family's difficult history and perhaps I, in turn, could provide a unique perspective on the conflict in Helmand.

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'23 Engineers, 16 Air Assault Brigade', 2010 (© Mark Neville)

In early December 2010, we arrived at Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Helmand. It was around midnight as we disembarked from the plane in a long row and were directed towards tents. The landscape looked alien; a moonscape. Orders were shouted and the incoming troops slowly dispersed, leaving me alone. I was at a loss as to what to do. I'd managed to find my kit so, with luggage on my back and in my arms, I walked off towards what I thought were tents in the distance.

After stumbling in near pitch-blackness for half-an-hour, I found a tent. I walked into the dimly lit space and saw bunk beds inside. I climbed up into the only empty bed I could see. It was about 3am. I woke at 5.30am, covered in blood. I realised it had come from my nose. Later I was to learn that nosebleeds in Helmand are common, especially for those not used to the fine dust that constitutes the sand.

The Brigade had organised a punishing itinerary of visits to different checkpoints, patrol bases, forward operating bases and compounds. Sometimes I would find myself arriving at a substantial base, inhabited by 200 paratroopers; at other times I would arrive at a very badly equipped compound made of mud, and be greeted by four guys who had been enduring very rough conditions for several months.

Whenever I arrived somewhere, I was introduced as the official war artist and, invariably, I was invited to come out on patrol by a group of soldiers who wanted to show me "the real Helmand". Patrols would last two or three hours and were often extremely frightening. I was shot at – you hear the bullets making a surreal whizzing noise as they pass – and I'd regularly hear bombs going off, both during the day and in the night. This made sleep extremely difficult, and the noise, combined with the stress of living in constant fear, meant I was continually exhausted.

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'View on Checkpoint Perkha', 2011 (© Mark Neville)

The quality of the food varied enormously. Ironically, on the larger, safer bases, where good-quality food was less needed, meals were excellent. But at the majority of the smaller bases I visited, which were hazardous and received regular enemy contact, and where conditions were physically demanding, food provision was extremely poor. It usually consisted of a ration box, meant to last the whole day, comprising a sachet of orange juice, several packs of sweets, a chewy energy bar and two meals contained in silver, heatable, plastic packages; described, variously, as paella, or spaghetti carbonara, the contents were unrecognisable.

Sleeping conditions on these bases were also rough, especially in winter. You would spend all day freezing, with perhaps an hour or two mid-afternoon when the sun would heat you. In the mornings we would awake around five or six, struggle to leave the warmth of the sleeping bag, and go to the ablutions area. There were basins for washing with flannels but the stoves used for heating the water were often broken. On one base, the shower facilities had not worked for two weeks.

I clearly remember being awoken by gunfire one night at 3am. The sounds were so loud that I rushed to try to find the gun of a nearby soldier because I was convinced someone was shooting at me. On another occasion, I was out on patrol when a huge explosion was heard. Immediately the radio operator reported that, 200 metres away, two soldiers had stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device). One had lost his legs, the other was blinded.

I was made very aware that it was important to follow in the footsteps of the troops preceding me. If I stepped left or right too far, I would be outside the area covered by the IED detector at the front. By stepping out of line to get a well-framed composition, I would not only endanger my life, but also that of the troops walking only a couple of metres from me.

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'Child, Jacket, Slaughtered Goat, Sweets, Painted Nails, Xmas Day, Helmand', 2010 (© Mark Neville)

Throughout my time in Helmand, I became increasingly aware of the chasm between what we are fed by the media and the reality: soldiers were losing limbs every day, sometimes three or four, yet these devastating injuries were barely reported in the UK; it was only if a British soldier lost his life that it would make the news. Camp Bastion was the busiest trauma hospital in the world at that time. We are now exceptionally skilled at keeping people alive, despite the most appalling wounds – one way in which the expertise of our surgeons has inadvertently helped make our presence in Afghanistan more palatable for the UK's civilian population.

There was no one to greet me when I arrived back in the UK in late February 2011. The Hercules plane, full of troops, landed in the early hours. All the soldiers were met by friends or family, while I waited alone at Brize until I was able to get the earliest bus running to Oxford station, where I got on the Glasgow train.

There was dust and dirt still on my tired boots, I was in full combat gear, and I had the 100-yard stare. Once on the train, members of the public were patting me on the back, assuming I was a returning soldier. I felt like an imposter; yet, confusingly, I also felt I deeply deserved the validation. The train attendant, upon seeing my uniform and state, upgraded me to first class and brought me a gin and tonic. Her kindness and concern, the first I had received from a woman in two months, left me sobbing hysterically. She comforted me, and slowly looked me up and down. She clearly noticed I had no insignia on my army outfit, and when she caught sight of the photographs of determined-looking Afghans on my laptop, I think she assumed I was working for special forces (who wear no insignia or rank) and that I was dealing with al-Qa'ida/Taliban suspects. She said to me: "Whatever you are working on, on your laptop, switch it off now, and try to be calm, you have just returned from a war zone."

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'View of Helmand', 2011 (© Mark Neville)

Prior to my deployment, I had made it clear to the organisation that commissioned my war residency that I would be making work which commented upon the situation as it was in Helmand and that, for the work to achieve maximum impact, it needed to be disseminated and exhibited soon after my return, like news. I had in mind the impact Martha Rosler's anti-Vietnam work had on the American public. I was also aware that on a personal level I'd need this validation of my efforts, to justify the risk and strain. It had been confirmed to me that this context would be provided within six months of my return. But there was no such exhibition opportunity when I returned – and it was to take a further three years for my work to be seen, in a solo exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

It was a missed opportunity to make a real impact upon public opinion regarding the British presence in Afghanistan during 2011. And on a purely emotional level, this agonising wait meant I felt I had to stay embedded in the war experience for three years, while I carried the work, looking for an exhibiting opportunity.

In many ways, the sense of dislocation from all familiarity is felt more acutely by photojournalists who go to war zones, and perhaps even more so by war artists, than it is by troops themselves. Soldiers have a sense of continuity between civilian life and life in the theatre of war. Their friends surround them; the fellow soldiers with whom they have trained for months, years. The training they have received has also prepared them; they know what to expect, who they can rely on.

Photojournalists usually have no extensive army training, though at least in some instances they travel to war zones accompanied by a fellow journalist or in a team of reporters. Such people are accustomed to reporting on situations of violence and trauma. Artists are not.

I experienced adjustment disorder upon my return to the UK. It took me a while, but I started not only to recognise my grandfather's behaviour in myself, I also began to have some insight into it. Initially I felt invincible. I imagined that my civilian life, my career, my friends, were a temporary reality, and that real life was the war zone.

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'Interpreter', 2011 (© Mark Neville)

Every aspect of civilian life seemed utterly banal, without meaning or substance. I started behaving extremely irrationally. I would board planes to isolated destinations where I knew no one, and strike up conversations with strangers in bars. Sometimes I would sleep rough. I started to get into arguments for no reason. I had angry outbursts, insomnia, and difficulty focusing. All the skills we need to negotiate modern civilian life, such as answering emails, doing the groceries, paying the bills, engaging in small talk, these seemed useless when I was in Helmand, and I felt them to be increasingly meaningless when I returned.

Within weeks of my return, my 10-year relationship with my partner had collapsed, friends and colleagues began noticing significant differences in my behaviour, and within six months I finally admitted to myself that I had to see my doctor in Glasgow, where I was living. I was diagnosed with PTSD. Shortly after this, I moved to London, where I was prescribed an anti-depressant, one favoured in the US for treating returning troops suffering with adjustment disorder. I took the medication for a year, accompanied by therapy, and this combination helped me get through it.

I no longer suffer with adjustment disorder. Yet I still do not believe it will ever be possible for me to return to the person I was before I went to Helmand. My feeling is that it is practically impossible to live in a war zone for several months at a time and not experience severe obstacles in readjusting to civilian life. None of the organisations involved in my deployment to Afghanistan, be they military or cultural in nature, have offered me any kind of support in terms of counselling, therapy or debriefing.

I did, however, stay in touch with many of the troops I met in Helmand, some of whom left the Army shortly after deploying to Afghanistan, and they still come to stay with me in my studio in the East End of London. This contact gave me some reassurance, both then and now. No one else here other than them could really understand what it was like out there.

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Mark Neville in Helmand, 2011 (© Mark Neville)

It is now a little over four years since I returned, and it has taken all that time to assemble the permissions, funding, images and text for Battle Against Stigma, my new book project, which has just gone to print. The first volume retells my own experience when I was sent out to Helmand, while a second volume contains written testimonies about PTSD and adjustment disorder from serving and ex-serving soldiers.

The book has been made in collaboration with Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, one of the UK's leading experts in the field of veterans' mental health, and attempts to challenge the stigma of mental-health problems in the military.

I am personally disseminating 1,000 copies free to the Defence Mental Health Services, to the Military Departments of Community Mental Health and Education Centres, to key university departments and libraries around the country, veteran mental-health charities, probation officers, prison libraries, and directly to veterans themselves.

Disturbingly, the first consignment of 500 copies delivered by the printer in Spain was seized by UK Border Force, a special branch of Customs aligned with the Home Office and Ministry of Defence. Fortunately, the second consignment from Spain of 1,000 copies came via a different route and got through to my studio, escaping seizure.

I write this from Ukraine, where I am beginning a new project about conflict. I wish there existed a better platform to discuss the complex issues surrounding warfare: better or more than the media, better or more than the art world – and the search for that platform will be a central concern both in my life and work for years to come.

I wish, too, that I had never been in a war zone. But I was, and now I feel I have no choice but to continue to make work about it.

'Battle Against Stigma' is not being commercially distributed. If you are a former serviceman or woman who feels you may be suffering with adjustment disorder, or you know someone, a friend or relation, in pain, please write to Mark Neville in confidence at info@markneville.com, and he will send you a free copy. Mark Neville is represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery, Londo

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