“I think you’ve got stress… and low mood”
The doctor nodded sagely. He was wrong. While I was stressed and low at the time these were the least of the symptoms I’d reported. By no stretch of the English language - or of medical analysis - do nightmares, broken sleep, hyper-vigilance and jumping at unexpected noises belong under the headings of stress or low mood.
In my view, that doctor was adhering to standard operating procedures amongst military quacks: if it looks like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, diagnose it down a notch or seven. Many years later, I would be escorted from military prison to Harley Street where a proper head-doctor would diagnose me – emphatically, unequivocally – as having post-traumatic stress disorder. He marvelled at the first diagnosis.
While awaiting my trial, I spoke to another doctor who told me that in military medical circles it is something of a policy to diagnose PTSD down to the next level, which is “adjustment disorder”. Why? I do not know. I suspected at the time that military wanted to avoid the financial outlay required to treat the condition. Nowadays I’m inclined to think that the army are betraying their duty of care to avoid being sued, and because of an approaching epidemic.
The Harley Street doctor had ruled PTSD. So when the time came for the military’s own prosecution report, I kept the Harley Street findings from their military psychiatrist as a test. Sure enough he seemed to be trying to talk them down. As he was winding up the assessment I ruined his day with the existing report. He read it in silence and appeared to grow more sullen with each page. He diagnosed me with adjustment disorder and, it seemed to me grudgingly, possible PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress, we should be clear, is not a gauge of toughness. The combat arms of the military – Special Forces, pilots, infantrymen - do not have a monopoly on trauma and having the condition is not a bragging point. Trauma is relative; the toughest guy in the toughest battalion can crack, while the same experience will be shrugged off by a portly, bookish army clerk. The job you do has little or no bearing on whether you are affected by what you’ve seen or experienced, regardless of whether author, SAS veteran and establishment favourite Andy McNab thinks PTSD is the new ‘bad back’ for those trying toget out of the army. The figures say otherwise and to argue this is to throw up yet another macho barrier between traumatised soldiers and treatment.
Only recently, in a BBC radio debate on Prince Harry’s blasé comparison of Xbox games to the killing of Afghans, the presenter asked me if Captain Wales could possibly get PTSD from killing people in a hi-tech Apache Helicopter. The presenter didn’t seem to be expecting a yes; but he got one. Even drone ‘pilots’ get PTSD and with a 50:1 civilian-to-insurgent kill ratio in some theatres you can understand why. That said, given that Harry’s family has its own royal doctors, I’ll save my concern for the working class soldiers who’ll have to rely on a mutilated NHS down the line.
It’s difficult to predict who will manifest PTSD. Though there are efforts within US military circles to screen and filter out those who are likely to succumb. It does make you think doesn’t it? If war is “human nature” why are so many veterans killing themselves because they can’t live with what they have seen and done?
In the US today a veteran commits suicide at an estimated rate of one per hour. There are few firm figures for British soldiers and veterans; I expect that the statistics will have to be clawed from some shrieking MOD official. What we do know is that more Falklands veterans have killed themselves since that war then died during it. Even if the military does eventually try to catch up with its obligations, this problem seems likely to get worse. If there is an average of ten to fourteen years between traumatic events and symptoms, we should be conscious that the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq is coming.
After my misdiagnosis by the military, I went back to self-medicating with booze in my room. One of the other blokes in my dilapidated accommodation block knocked on my door. He had just moved back into the block after his latest broken marriage. I related the story to him and he tapped his head. “You’re a bit mad is all” He offered in true squaddie style.
“I was driving and I hit a kid on tour; we couldn’t stop in case we got ambushed. Still messes with me.’
‘Did you tell them?” I asked him.
“Yeah” he said “…but they just keep sending me back on tour.”
The image used to illustrate this article is not a picture of the author