'I walked out covered in a young girl's blood': one soldier's struggle with PTSD, and the Ministry of Defence

'They don’t care. The fact that you have fought for your country, done three combat tours, that counts for nothing.'

Dean Upson
Former Corporal in 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD)
Monday 22 August 2016 00:00
Dean Upson started suffering PTSD while serving with a medical emergency reaction team in Afghanistan
Dean Upson started suffering PTSD while serving with a medical emergency reaction team in Afghanistan

They handed her to me, a young girl, four or five maybe, to hold in my arms.

She was a mess, a lot of abdominal injuries – one casualty among many hit by a suicide bomb in an Afghan market place.

She didn’t make a sound, just tucked her arms into my body armour and held on, like a limpet.

I talked to her, made funny noises, did whatever I could to reassure her, although I’m sure she didn’t understand a word. And when we landed at Camp Bastion, because I had carried her back like this, I went into the trauma room with her.

I don’t know how many injured local nationals there were, but walking into that room was like walking into an abattoir.

She wouldn’t let go of me. They had to pop my body armour off before they could prise her off.

I walked out of there covered in a young girl’s blood.

Someone once explained to me that PTSD is like a pint glass slowly being filled.

I had been on TELIC I, the invasion of Iraq. It was war. It was what you expected: “We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys, let’s go.”

But the pint glass gets a little fuller.

I went to Afghanistan, 2006, Helmand – very kinetic, a stand-up fight, firing your weapon, coming under fire. It is addictive, very addictive, exhilarating.

But the pint glass is filling up the whole time.

And in late 2008, on my second Afghan tour, the pint glass was spilling over.

I was attached to a MERT (Medical emergency reaction team), as part of an explosive ordnance disposal unit, in case IED [improvised explosive device] or mine clearance was needed when the helicopter got to the casualty. No such clearance work was ever needed. Instead, I was in the Chinook, doing whatever I could to help the miracle workers, the incredible medical guys: holding hands, pushing fluids into people. Plugging holes.

I remember a young female American soldier. She was so badly burned that we only knew she was a woman when we noticed she was wearing a bra. Sometimes, you’d go out on six or seven jobs in a single day.

Two days before I left for Christmas R&R [rest and recuperation], we had a young Commando with a gunshot wound to the head. Incredibly, when we got to him, he was still alive. We dropped him off at Kandahar, but when we landed at Bastion, we were informed he had died. I walked into my tent covered head to toe in blood, slumped in my chair, and wept.

That had been my staff sergeant’s first medical evacuation job. He asked if they were all that bad. I told him that was one of the better ones. But it was the one that finished me.

The PTSD started manifesting itself while I was still on my tour. I told no one. I didn’t want to be the lunatic in the troop. Weakness in the forces, you don’t do it. And as an old-style NCO [non-commissioned officer], a leader, you can’t do it. You just try to crack on as best you can. Until you are in complete crisis.

Which is why, five to 10 years from now, there’s going to be a tidal wave of guys like me, coming forward saying they are suffering.

And there are more psychological injuries than anything else. Hundreds of guys were made amputees in Afghanistan – a large number but how many guys are out there with psychological injuries? The psychological injuries are the worst. They say that more Falklands veterans killed themselves than guys who died in combat.

If you’ve had your leg blown off, you can get a prosthetic leg. If you have got PTSD, what can they do about your head?

Afghan troops deployed to counter Taliban in Helmand

Back in England, I was all over the place: nightmares, flashbacks, crying like a little girl with a scraped knee.

I made two attempts on my life in 2009. I’ve made three suicide attempts altogether. You don't sleep, you feel hopeless, reliving stuff you don’t want to think about. You want it to stop. Suicide is something I think about daily.

I was put on sick leave, but in June 2011 I was medically discharged.

I’m 36 now. I’d gone into the recruiting office when I was 17 and a half, on a lunch break from working as a builder’s labourer. My dad had done it, my granddad had done it. I thought I’d give it a go – even if I really wanted to be an archaeologist.

I loved it. You know what? You get to do a lot of good. In Kosovo I helped build and run a refugee camp for thousands of refugees.

And it’s the guys around you, the camaraderie, that makes the British Army the best in the world. No matter how bad things are, they’ll always crack a joke. And last week, when they found out I was having a wobble – bad flashbacks – the guys from my old unit were phoning me up, from Malawi one of them. The support they have offered me has been amazing.

But the senior officers, I’ve known some who can reel off the names of those who got physical injuries, but haven’t got a clue who the guys with PTSD are.

And the politicians … Yes, every soldier signs on that dotted line wanting to go to war, to fight the bad guys and feel what war is like, whatever they may say to the contrary. But the politicians who order them to fight, they’ve no real grasp of the mental strain involved. And how many of their sons and daughters do you see going to war?

Afghanistan: Tens of thousands flee Helmand's fighting

It’s the same with society at large. They’ll see the guy on crutches, the guy in a wheelchair and understand. But then they’ll look at you and say “What’s wrong with him? He looks fine.” If they can’t see it, they’re not interested.

Nor is anyone involved with Armed Forces compensation. The visible injuries that they can’t argue with, the lost limbs, they will pay for straight away. But the non-visible injuries, they don’t want to give you a thing. They will fight and question everything. They will even try everything they can to discharge you before you get your diagnosis of PTSD.

I’ve known guys discharged on the grounds of “personality defect” or “burn out”. Because they didn’t get their diagnosis of PTSD before they were discharged, they got nothing. My initial compensation payment was £3,000 a joke. With that and a medical discharge payment based on my length of service I was left with £30,000.

£30,000. After 14 years’ service, tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and an entire life messed up by PTSD. What was I supposed to do? It wasn’t as if I could go into full-time employment in another job in my state. I tried. I lasted three months.

I would phone the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme in tears, explaining my situation, saying “Look, I’ve tried to kill myself.” I was just told: “We’ll pass it on.”

They don’t care. The fact that you have fought for your country, done three combat tours, that counts for nothing. You have to fight for everything. Which I did. I eventually got the maximum award – more than £160,000. But it took four years, and the involvement of lawyers.

Yes, at least I have my money now. But I would rather have my career and, above all, my health. So why am I telling you all this, why am I reliving everything? Because I want people to know this stuff is happening.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme had awarded more than £600m since 2005 and that service personnel were encouraged to submit claims so they could be properly considered: “We are absolutely committed to the mental health of our armed forces and this increase in successful claims shows our campaigns are encouraging those who need help to come forward to get the compensation they deserve.”

The young Afghan girl survived.

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