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It's all in the Mind!

What made an armed forces veteran sit in his car at three in the morning with a gas pipe fed into the back window breathing the poisonous fumes until unconscious ready to end it all?

Combat Stress - Veterans Mental Health Charity

After leaving the British Army, I struggled to integrate into civilian life, in fact, I still find it difficult today. I had been living in a world unlike no other with a camaraderie of brotherhood unmatched in anything that I have experienced or will ever experience again. We 'Band of Brothers' laughed together, fought together and trusted each other with our very own lives.

I entered Civvy Street cautiously and didn't know what to expect. Very nervous of my new surroundings I rented a small apartment nearby the barracks, subliminally it made me feel safe and still part of the unique brotherhood. Reality check! I was now a civilian, living in London which boasts a large population but now very much alone and isolated from my military family.

Landing my first job with a financial trading company wasn't difficult. In the army, we put 150% into everything we did so I applied the same principles here. There was, however, an immediate problem, they didn't speak my language. Not that they were foreign or anything Its just that their choice of words, laughter and jokes were totally alien to mine.

Six months passed and I still hadn't adjusted to civilian life, not one jot. Going to work was becoming boring, unadventurous, and I needed to find something to stimulate my appetite, something to keep me motivated yet I found nothing.

The military has a drill for everything, and if ever in doubt you simply applied the rules of engagement. You never needed to think for yourself as there was always someone higher in rank doing the thinking for you. Now things were very much different, no one checking to see if you were ok, nobody watching your back and no after work social plans with my colleagues.

Needing a solution to my problem I remembered a trusted old army ally that always got us through the good and bad times, Mr, Alcohol! Unless we were on operational tours, we drank. Whenever we won competitions our reward was always crates of beer, we drank whenever there was an opportunity or excuse to do so. It helped us cope in the past so perhaps it would help me now, so I drank, every single night of the week. But I didn't find what I was looking for, there was no answer, no quick fix, nothing, I began to slide downhill and fast.

Paranoia began to take over my life I couldn't get out the habit of searching my car for explosive devices. I had done this for nearly 12 years while serving in the military and was now doing it robotically as a civilian. During my years of service, the IRA had now resorted to planting IED's (improvised explosive device) underneath the cars of off-duty soldiers in mainland Britain. When you entered military bases, you had your car searched, after shopping and before entering the car you searched it, it became part of your life.

In those early days of civilian life I couldn't have a serious relationship for more than a few months, when women got too close I pushed them away. They didn't understand me, told me I was odd and cold, but I cared not. Preferring my company to others I began to go deep inside of myself. I became withdrawn, my mind was doing overtime, always thinking, thinking, thinking!

Then one day out of the blue while having a pint in a bar in Hammersmith London I began to cry, out of nowhere, tears rolling down my face. An image of a distraught woman whose husband had been executed by the IRA suddenly came into my mind. I suddenly remembered an incident from a tour of Northern Ireland, an event that I had never given a second thought all these years later until now.

During my second tour of Northern Ireland, we were tasked with protecting soft targets. The IRA had been murdering off-duty policemen, soldiers, and government officials. Driving around one morning we were flagged down by a very distraught woman, screaming. I was the first soldier to step out the back of our patrol vehicle. She ran up to me crying hysterically. She kept putting her hands on my combat jacket frantically trying to explain that her husband had been shot dead in the garage nearby. I remember my reaction being one of little empathy, and more concerned about the safety of my rifle in front of me and her being a little too close for comfort.

As I cried those tears, I wanted to hug the ghostly image. I wanted to tell her that it would all be ok. I then started to think again, if only we had gotten there a few minutes earlier. Why hadn't we got there earlier, was it our fault, was it my fault, what could we have done to stop it. Other images of the tour of no real significance were now starting to fill my mind. They invaded my dreams, my personal life my soul. The voices began telling that I was guilty! Guilty of failing, failing myself, my comrades my family, I wanted to run but had nowhere to hide.

My life changed significantly. I became careless and erratic but didn't care. I was lonely inside a prisoner to my thoughts. Without any other alternative, it was time to act, to punish myself for negligence, and to terminate my existence. I was after all only following orders to do so, but unlike the orders I was used to in the army this time they were coming from within my head.

The 'Mind' is indeed a peculiar thing. It can be our best friend or our worst enemy, we listen to it all the time when in doubt we ask it questions and value its opinion. Then, without warning it can strike, telling you that you're useless and pathetic, pretending to feel sorry for you, encouraging you to do things out of character. Me, I listened!

After my first suicide attempt, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and locked away for ten weeks. I was always happy go lucky without a care in the world, and now look at me, but why, how did I end up like this? After thousands of hours of counseling, many misdiagnosis, and medication trials I finally knew what was wrong with me - Hypervigilance and severe PTSD.

This blog won't detail bombings and shootings, it won't profess to claim any acts or tales of heroism. It will, however, give the reader an insight into a world of hate for one another so dark and disturbing that it almost bordered on satanic. Just being exposed to the life there, it was almost impossible to stop one's own mind being sucked into the vacuum of hopelessness and despair!

Northern Ireland took many lives, she breathed death on her citizens for many years. We in the mainland enjoyed life, we lived comfortably and took our safety for granted, those poor souls across the Irish Sea endured daily bombings, shootings, riots, hate, hate, hate. This was the British Government's embarrassment and dirty washing and we the soldiers were tasked as its cleaners. They called it 'The Troubles.'

I suffered in silence with 'Mind Junk' for nearly 13 years. Perhaps writing this blog will help me deal with the past, heal my heart and give hope to others that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Names have been changed to respect personal privacy.

Early Life

Born in Catterick military hospital I was certainly no stranger to military life. My Dad served with the 1st Battalion the Queens Lancashire Regiment (QLR's). I was fortunate to travel the world with my brothers and sisters we were known as 'pads brats' (slang for army kids). I went to schools in Malta, West Germany and Cyprus to name a few. We loved the life, and we loved the regiment they were the best days of my life.

The cap badge of the Queens Lancashire Regiment

October 1983, I was 20 years old when I first went to Woolwich, South London to begin basic training with the Royal Artillery. I was incredibly excited to finally becoming a professional soldier, to follow in the footsteps of my long family tradition.

Six weeks into basic training, we were awoken suddenly. The DS (Directing Staff) were screaming running about everywhere desperately trying to get us to vacate the accommodation block. We looked at each other bewildered and thought the DS were throwing another annoying training surprise attack at the expense of us gullible recruits. Suited up in mess dress, and incredibly drunk they bellowed out their orders to us to get out of the block. We were young impressionable NIGS (new intake gunners) more concerned at dress uniformity, to worry about some unconfirmed threat that a bomb had gone off.

It was Saturday the 10th December 1983 when the bomb went off. The explosion injured five people and caused minor damage to the building. It exploded leaving a crater 15 feet (4.6 m) deep. The Scottish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the bombing, stating "more will follow", although Scotland Yard believed that the IRA was behind the attack. The IRA later admitted responsibility for the attack. It was my welcome to the British Army and the realisation that someone was trying to kill soldiers and that now included me!

1983 Royal Artillery bombing

Read more here:

Woolwich Garrison was no stranger to terrorist bombs, the Kings Arms pub across the road from the camp where off-duty soldiers drank had been hit years earlier. A bomb made of 6lb of gelignite with the addition of shrapnel was thrown through the window of the bar on 7 November 1974. Two people died in the explosion, Gunner Richard Dunne, aged 42, of the Royal Artillery and Alan Horsley, a sales clerk aged 20. Responsibility for this bombing was subsequently claimed by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The Kings Arms 1 Francis St Woolwich.

I was now experiencing the realism first hand of the IRA. I knew about their cause as my father has served many tours in the province with the QLR.s during the seventies. They were hard bloody tours with the loss of life on both sides. When a QLR soldier fell on the streets, we the kids felt it too, we had grown up with the QLR, we knew the guys, and they were our family and we loved them. I remember those days dad going away on tour for months on end, and I remember my Irish Catholic Nan giving him hell in the kitchen for ‘fighting our own' as she put it. It used to confuse me, why was Grandma so angry at the situation in the Northern Ireland, we were after all from Lancashire, weren't we?

Looking for work, many Irish immigrants came over from Ireland at the turn of the last century, naturally and over time they fully integrated into Lancashire life. As a kid, Nan often talked about the 'old country', how it was and how the British had gone in and taken everything. The Irish songs she used to sing us, I was naïve, uneducated and unconcerned about the war there and, to be honest, is it really going to affect me? The tales of Ireland sounded a million years away. But it did affect me and many others lads from the old English mill towns with high Irish population, I later found out that some guys after serving in Northern Ireland their families never spoke to them again.

April 1984, proud to have passed out of training, I was now fully immersed in my gunnery course. I got summoned to the Troop office by the Section Sergeant. He asked me some rather strange questions about my family. After training, I was supposed to be posted to 50 Missile Regiment, West Germany. They were a regiment of Lance Missiles with nuclear warheads and based in Minden with the American armed forces. One of the questions, I was asked do I have any Irish family. The question seemed odd, but I had nothing to hide and replied very proudly "yes", I thought of the love that I had for Nan back home and suddenly how much I missed her. I had to fill in some security forms detailing my family, rather perplexed I just got on with it and thought nothing more.

Several weeks passed, and I was once again summoned to the Troop office this time to see the Troop officer, Major Boyle. "Johnson, you've failed the vetting I've canceled your posting to 50, no soldiers with ‘Mick' (derogatory word for Irish) family connections can serve there, choose another regiment." I hated Major Boyle, he singled me out from the early days of training and always gave me a hard time, he made it very clear I wasn't his favourite.

During basic training, we were out on a squad run. The guy next to me was talking to someone near to him, Major Boyle appeared from nowhere and suddenly screamed in my face, "Johnson, stop fucking talking ", my jaw dropped in surprise. I immediately protested my innocence, "Not me Sir", Boyle summoned one of the NCOs (Non-commissioned officers) over, "Bombardier, when we get back to camp jail this fucking lying bastard". I was naturally upset and had put everything into training.

Until recent times, the British Army was quite significant in size, and they could be choosy who they kept on. Training squads were made up of 70 recruits, and typically only 30 guys ever passed out as soldiers. You could be booted out at any time and for anything. Most discharged along the way others were “back-squadded”, (a process that involves repeating relevant aspects of training), and now without any fault of mine my card was marked.

Part Two to follow........Off to the regiment!

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