How a veteran soldier's bloody nightmares lost their power
Monday, March 28, 2016
How a veteran soldier's bloody nightmares lost their power
by WMNJBayley | Link to Article
Royal Marine Commandos under attack from 107mm rockets, rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire.
Cornwall’s highly-skilled mental health teams work in the community at all levels. Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust’s veterans service treats former personnel with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health problems. Jackie Butler talks to David, a soldier whose treatment has defused the debilitating impact of traumas he had carried for decades.
The brutal and tragic scenes 59-year-old David experienced as a young soldier will forever be etched on his soul. Through the years they have played out in his dreams like trailers from a violent action movie, embellished by the physical sensations, the sounds, tastes and smells that only one who had been there could know.
For decades he buried the trauma of them deep inside; they were heartbreaking secrets that he felt he couldn’t share with anyone. Whenever they tried to surface, he would force them down, slamming the lid shut and carry on, like the hardened fighting machine he was trained to be.
“I had an unshakeable belief that I was tougher than that, and it was all part and parcel of the job,” says David.
Then one day last year they erupted like a volcano, spilling out into the hardworking, increasingly stressful, everyday life that David had carved out on civvy street. He found himself literally shaking and weeping in the grip of blood-soaked flashbacks that tormented him, day and night.
“I was afraid to go to sleep and I didn’t want to wake up. I kept hearing and seeing these terrible things and I couldn’t stop them,” he says. “And I was full of self-loathing for being so weak.”
The invincible soldier needed urgent help.
Supported by his health service employers, who encouraged him to take sick leave for stress, David went to see his GP and started on an anti-stress course. As the weekly sessions progressed, he began to suspect he could be experiencing post traumatic stress. He’d had a six-session course of counselling back in 1996, when his partner at the time was concerned about his bad dreams. He recalls a moment when a tsunami of emotion burst out as he voiced some of the stories, but they were never truly addressed and he was declared “cured”.
This time, helped by his sister, who David describes as “a tower of strength”, he eventually found his way to Cornwall’s Veterans Service, encouraged by its specialist nature.
“I didn’t realise it was part of the mental health team, or I would have baulked at that,” he admits. “And I was somewhat dismayed to discover that it was run by a woman. How would she understand soldiers?”
David was quick to eat his words when he encountered Debra Fenton, a senior nurse and therapist with a particular interest in trauma, who set up the specialist service at the end of 2008 and has treated hundreds of veterans since – the vast majority of them men.
“From the first session she was no nonsense and she seemed to have an excellent insight into the military aspect of PTSD,” he says.
“Debra knew how to get to the stuff that I had carried locked up for years – things I had never even revealed to my family. She knew just the right questions to ask. I was very impressed with her and so was my sister. I immediately felt I could trust her. She unpicked my emotions and found I was full of anger, sorrow, fear and guilt. I hadn’t realised I felt guilty.”
After initial assessment and a few sessions of deep and focused questioning, David says Debra suggested trying a therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming) which has been shown to be very effective in cases of trauma.
Discovered by accident in the 1980s by American psychologist Dr Francine Shapiro, and subsequently put through scientific scrutiny, it’s a method that involves the patient focusing on the worst aspects of the memories they find most distressing, while making side-to-side eye movements, and sometimes, other sensory movements, guided by their therapist. The premise is that particularly unpleasant experiences, and the triggers for their recall, can overwhelm the brain, which is then unable to process them adequately. How it works is still not fully understood, although the patient following the rapid side-to-side movement of the therapist’s fingers is believed to replicate the processing qualities of REM sleep, when vivid dreaming takes place.
“I was definitely sceptical, but I was astonished when just one session had such a profound effect on me, says David. “The memory of those events is still crystal clear and always will be, but the guilt and the pain of them has gone.”
He’s willing to share his stories now, in the knowledge that he can do so safely, and in the hope that revealing his experiences of treatment might encourage other service veterans to come forward.
As he talks a tear occasionally comes to David’s eye and this once hard-as-nails man makes no attempt to hide it.
He was born into a military household at St Eval in Cornwall. His father was in the RAF and served with Bomber Command during the Second World War; his mother had been in the Wrens, and the Forces link goes back through the generations on both sides of the family.
The family moved around a lot, following his father’s postings – Northern Ireland, Scotland, Singapore. Unlike his brother and sister, David says he was a “pretty weird, highly-strung kid”, who didn’t make friends easily. When he was 14, his adored father died suddenly from a “massive coronary” at the age of 50.
Shortly afterwards he swore allegiance to Queen and country and embarked on his military career with the Infantry Junior Leaders Battalion, a training school for the British Army’s future NCOs and warrant officers. Before transferring into active service, aged just 17.
In 1977 on his second tour of duty in Northern Ireland, an opportunist IRA sniper ambushed his company’s convoy on the Falls Road in Belfast, killing two soldiers and injuring many more. There was a lot of blood on the road.
“A very very dear friend of mine died in that ambush. He was killed instantly, a bullet through the head,” says David.
“I went to see him and he was lying on a stretcher on his back; there was a feint look of surprise on his face. I remember looking down at him, thinking I should be crying and wondering why I wasn’t. There was a complete lack of emotion,” he recalls.
Fast forward two years and David volunteered to go out to Southern Rhodesia during the turbulent period of transition to black majority rule and the formation of Zimbabwe. He could not imagine he would be going into what he saw as the heart of a brutal war zone without becoming involved in action and he wanted to fight. He had channelled his buried feelings into a burning hatred of all terrorists.
Instead, David says he became part of a “peace-keeping” force that bore silent witness to appalling atrocities, standing by while women were butchered, village chiefs mutilated in front of their families by political rebel troops. His nightmares were haunted by the buzzing made by clouds of flies swarming around the dead bodies.
“We saw many, many things out there and we were asked not to report them. We didn’t do a damn thing about it, nothing at all,” says David. “I came back disgusted at what our Government had done. I guess that added another layer of trauma. I felt shameful, disgusted and dirty, so I bought myself out of the Army and walked out the gates of the Light Infantry.”
But he was still a soldier to the core and joined a mercenary force in the Middle East.
“I went to fight someone else’s war. In the course of 24 hours I saw a number of children killed in a rocket attack and I killed four men,” says David. “We saw the rockets hit and we got there as soon as we could but there was nothing we could do; there were no lives we could save.
“The next day a group of us loaded up with weapons and went looking for somebody to pay for that attack. We found around 60 to 80 militia men who were clearly on their way to the next kibbutz. Who knows what they were going to do next? We slaughtered every last one of them. We were very angry men.”
David’s stories are chilling, but Debra frequently listens to harrowing tales like these. At any one time she has a caseload of between 38 and 42 veterans of assorted ages, treating them until they are ready to be discharged, some, like David, after just a few sessions, others after several years of treatment. Her youngest client was 19 and the oldest a Second World War veteran aged 98.
While using the same treatments she would offer to civilians, she understands the nature of a military veteran’s conditioning and the importance of making access to her service as easy as possible."