RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Archive for the tag “Afghanistan”

A million miles away…

Two years ago, not far from today’s date, this photograph was taken.

Image

I posted it this morning over on Twitter, with the caption ‘This feels like it was a million years ago and a million miles away…’ And it does. At times I look at pictures like this one and don’t even think that it is me. It is a million miles away from where I am right now; both in terms of physical location, and state of mind…

For me it sums up my tour in Afghanistan. In the picture I am hot, sweaty; covered from head to foot in protective gear; helmet, glasses, body armour, blast pants, gloves, boots… carrying my rifle, ammunition, equipment, food, water. I had just completed a patrol from one Check Point to another and we had just come out of a field of corn. Hence my less than happy expression – tired, tired beyond belief. Wondering what the hell I am doing there, why is someone snapping my picture, why had I chosen to come out ‘here’ and do this?

The cornfields out there are a little bit of hell on earth. Sown randomly by hand, they are not the lines and lines of straight seeded stalks we see in the UK. They grow in clumps, they grow in deep mud, they grow densely and tall. They are humid, trapping the hot air, and killing any chance of a breeze. The mud sucks in your feet and saps your energy with each attempt to pull it out of the deep mire that rises above the top of your boots. It seeps into your socks and wets your feet with foul smelling filth and stains your trousers and slowly, through capillary action rises up your legs, like kitchen towel sucking up a spill of water.

Your breath is ragged, you fight your way through tree like stalks of corn that swing in your face from the man in front. You put your head down, spot where your feet are placed, avoiding the roots that tangle you and trip you on each step. You push your rifle out and use it as a virtual snow-plough to furrow a way through the eight foot high plants. You smash it down and out of your way and out of the way of the man behind – if you can – venting your hatred of the bloody stuff, of the bloody country and of the bloody people that put it there and those that made you walk through it.

You have to go through it because, despite the pain and the heat and the discomfort, it’s the safest way to on foot. The random path you take through it can’t be guessed by the enemy and they can’t place IED’s there. There would be no point. You are as safe as you can be in there – from the IEDs – as it is possible to be in that country, but you wonder again and again, with every slog of each step of each leg…is it worth it? Is it worth this pain.

And you then start to wonder is any of it worth it? Is my presence here, in this place that has seen so much war and death and pain, going to make any difference? Am I – or the rest of the people with me – going to make this place better? What have we got that makes us different from the rest? How can I, one man, make a difference to all this? The enemy are fighting for their homeland, for their god, for their families. They don’t want us there. They would happily kill us in any way they could. They follow no rules, they have no code of honour. They don’t differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. They fight their dirty little war in their own way; one moment with a gun, the next with a bomb, the next they drop their weapons and hide amongst the local population and pretend to be farmers… How do you fight that? How do you make a difference to that?

What is the point? They will be there when we are gone. We have the watches, but they have the time. We have dates set for pull outs, for ending the war without actually winning – just transferring the fight to someone else. We might talk of progress and transition and change, but will we have made any difference to this place? Other than prolonging the fight and fuelling the fighters and the hatred.

But then…you finish your patrol and you stand or sit with your comrades and friends. You laugh about what you have just done and what you have just been through. You realise that of all the places there are in the world, none of them are like this. You are doing something that so few people have ever done, or ever will do that you are perversely privileged. And you are doing it with the best bunch of people in the whole world.

You are sharing something that will stay with you forever. They are seeing you at your rawest, where you can’t hide the real you that is deep inside, suppressed by the day to day walls that we build around ourselves. When you are in this place, you don’t have the energy to maintain yourself and the wall, so the wall falls away. They see you, and you see yourself for what you really are…and yet…they say nothing. You say nothing about others. You laugh, you joke, you banter, but you never say the real things…what you have seen people do, how you see people react.

And eventually you leave it. You go home and you try to file it away, order it. Process it. And you think about how you were and what you considered when you were in that place. And you think about the people who died and were injured and you still wonder…what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Did I make the world better?

I helped to build a school.. I helped to build wells and sluice gates and bridges and repair mosques and houses. We provided security – of sorts – but if we were not there would we our security have been required? Were we a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did our presence bring the enemy there to fight us? Did the people want or need us there? Would they not have built schools and wells and bridges eventually anyway?

We will never know. We were there. I was there. I was tired and doubtful and stressed and scared and in the worst place in the world, but I was also alive and sure and happy and safe and in the best place in the world. For all the questions I have in my mind, for all the heartache and doubt that I have for the the future I know, I know, that I loved being there. I would be back there now, just to feel that excitement and adventure and the life coursing through my veins every time I stepped foot outside the Check Point gates. Each time my doubted my very existence each time I struggled with the heat and the conditions and the locals and the terrain, I was at least alive. I was more than existing. I was trying to make a difference, and I am sure that in some way, some how, I did.

It might not have been to the lives of the Afghan people, but it certainly made a difference to me.  I am a very different person to the man who went out there in March 2011.  I am not sure if I am a better man, but I am certainly a different one. 

The Fog of…Life…

I’ve hinted at this in a couple of blogs in the past, but I need to just say this…because, well I don’t know, I just need to Say it I guess.

For the past year, in fact longer really, I have suffered with depression. Not sad. Not a bit down. Not upset. But proper, clinical depression, diagnosed and treated by doctors, mental health workers and medicines.

It kind of all started when I came back from Afghanistan. Where I didn’t particularly see anything that upsetting, or got traumatised or anything, but rather got to see myself for who and what I was. (More on that later…) But I came back and I was angry. Angry and everything, everybody, the whole world. The crapness of it, the materialism of it, the emptiness of it. The fact that people moan about the quality of the coffee they buy in a cafe (and yes I do that too), when there is so much MORE going on in the world. I was angry at myself for not being in control of my anger, angry at my wife for, well, being my wife (‘how could she possibly want to be married to me, a grumpy, miserable, moaning fool?’). Angry at my three year old daughter for being three, angry at my eldest son and daughter for having a life built up without me in it.

Anger turned to general grumpiness and a feeling of being low ALL THE TIME and there being no respite from it. I felt out of control at work, where, to be honest not a lot was going on and I had a lot of time to spare. I was very negative and very closed off. I would be judgemental, closed off and…miserable. Just miserable.

And as I said, I would take it all out on my family. Waves of anger would explode out of me. Followed quickly by anger at myself for exploding and being unable to control myself. And after that followed a wave of self loathing and miserableness and yes, sitting at the top of the stairs sobbing into my hands covering my face. This became a regular habit of mine…hands in front of my face, almost trying to hide from the shame I felt at myself. That and rubbing my hand across my forehead…and this became my poker ‘tell’.

I, my wife and my even my three year old daughter would know when I was getting stressed because I would do just that. My right hand would rub over my forehead; fingers and thumb moving together almost like the mouth of a vice closing. And it felt like a vice was closing on me…Stress, pressure which could be brought on by anything.

It was, to be honest a fucking nightmare. A waking nightmare which never seemed to end. Sleep was a slight relief, when I could get it. I was tired, dog tired, permanently tired, tired beyond all understanding of tiredness, and I would get to sleep fairly quickly, but oh! the early mornings. Awake at 5-5:30 everyday. Every day.

Life for me, and everyone who knew me, who interacted with me, who crossed my path, was horrible. I was horrible. And after a particularly bad weekend where I picked on everyone, I decided that enough was enough. I had to go to get help.

And I went to see a lovely RAF doctor who was just the nicest person. I talked, she listened, she spoke a little and listened more. I must have been in there for 40 minutes (sorry to whoever was behind me in the appointments) but I came out feeling better. Better because I had told someone.

I left there and went back to work where I said to my boss, I went to the docs this morning and it turns out I am mental. And he was wonderful. ‘Well, there’s nothing going on today, go home, spend some time just trying to think and sort your head out a little,’ he said. And I did.

And I then wasted a lot of time trying to think. Think about why I was depressed. Why it was happening to me. Why I felt the way I did. And it was a waste of time. There was no one reason. With the help of that doctor, a CPN and eventually some Citalopram, I’ve come to realise that it was just a combination of everything that had made me feel so irrational for so long. I’d come to feel that I wasn’t good enough, and my actions were those of someone who wasn’t a good husband and good father, and so my thoughts reinforced my feelings of not being good enough. My experience of being in Afghanistan made me see that I was nothing special. I was just another guy out there, who was, to be frank out of his depth for a lot of the time.

I felt almost embarrassed by my blogging out there, that they made me seem to be some sort of hero, that I was better than others, when I just wasn’t. They were stronger than me, fitter, braver, more heroic…normal people, but just better than me. And my embarrassment was demonstrated by that habit of putting my hands in front of my face…of trying to hide. If I can’t see the world, then the world can’t see me…or so my failed logic would go.

All through my depression, it’s never felt the same way as others when I read about their experiences. I do feel down and sad, but when they describe it as a veil of darkness over them, of it being a cave they are forced in, that is much different to me. I feel like it is a fog. A fog enveloping me, closing around me. I know the normal world is out there, somewhere, just out of reach and out of sight, but I can’t see it. I can’t find it. A thick pea soup of depression is hiding me from it and it from me. I know that the way I feel is temporary and that I can fight it and I can, and will eventually blow the fog away, but it’s so bloody hard to do so. Even after nearly 9 months of taking the medication, it’s still, sometimes just as hard as it was.

Too much has been going on recently for me to stop taking the Citalopram yet, and that’s a bugger, because the major side-effects of the tablets (google them!) are a fucker. I’ve taken voluntary redundancy, moved house, got a disabled wife to care for, a three year old who is lovely, but who is hard work, no real job, a mortgage to get and pay for…money issues going on…lots and lots to try to deal with, lots that could plunge me downward again so I can’t deal with life without them just yet.

I am one in three. Because one in three of us will have a mental health issue at sometime in our lifetime. But I still feel alone and often unable to cope, and that I want to hide from the world by just walking my dog in the Shropshire countryside. I want to get better, and be ‘normal’ again, if I could ever figure out what normal is, but it still feels so very far off.

The fog is still about me, some days it’s thicker than others, some days it’s almost a sunny day, but it’s always a bit misty. But in all my thinking about my depression, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s pointless trying to ask ‘Why?’ There are lots of reasons, but the main one is that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain. Brain chemicals that I don’t understand are not going to the right places and it has the result of making me feel angry, out of control, worthless, useless, inferior…depressed.

But it’s pointless and a simple waste of my time to ask why. I just have to get on with making myself…allowing myself…to feel better, that eventually I will come out of this…that it is actually even more pointless to feel angry, inferior and depressed. But simply stopping feeling that way is not so easy, but I know that with the help, love and support of my family, I will do it. I might have been angry at them outwardly…but in reality I was really angry at myself. And that’s not fair on them, and worse, its not fair on me.

Scared of the Dark…

Can you try something for me? Just do this and then read on…Count to twenty. Easy. Quick isn’t it?

Now do the same thing again, but with your eyes closed.

Felt longer didn’t it. Time seems to slow down when your are in the dark. I’m sure you counted as quickly, and I am sure it took about the same time for you to count up to 20, but in the dark…it just felt longer.

Longer. But it was only about 15-20 seconds. But just imagine a lifetime of it. Imagine everyday being dark and black. Seeing nothing; being blind.  Not only would you miss the beauty that is all around us in this fabulous world, but the time you are spending in it feels longer. More time to see…nothing.

I remember being in Afghan, and we would discuss possible and potential injuries. Particularly after someone had been in an IED explosion or in a shooting incident. It’s natural to talk about it. And one day the topic of conversation after an Afghan Soldier had been airlifted out to go to the hospital at Bastion, fell to the macabre. If you were injured…what sort of injury could you cope with and what couldn’t you cope with. Lots of people, buoyed by the news of the new prosthetic limbs said they could probably cope with losing a leg, less people thought that they could manage without an arm…but the one that surprised me…and it was the one that I said I really couldn’t cope with would be losing sight.

It was a real fear of a lot of the lads. And a real fear of mine. Still is. You see, if I were to be brutally honest I would say that the biggest fear I have in the world is dark enclosed places. Some people it’s spiders, some heights, some people it’s even clowns. But me the dark. And team that with an enclosed place and I am absolutely quaking.

I once had to face this fear. When I was a trainee in the RAF, we went away to an outward bound, adventure training place in Mid-Wales, where you get to do all sorts of great activities. Climbing, hill-walking, canoeing…and caving. In an old slate mine which is entered by a long narrow tunnel often filled quite deeply with water.

The aim of the exercise is to practice your group’s communication and team-working skills. And the instructors take you down the tunnel and then before you enter the cave system, they take your head-torches off you. They then split you into two groups and give one group the torches and the other group the batteries. You are then led about the cave system and left on your own. You then need to join together into the two small groups and then find the other group and get the batteries/torch so you can see in the dark.

Dark.

It’s not just dark; it’s absolutely pitched black. Blacker than night. Blacker than…well, bloody dark anyway. It could be the brightest summer’s day outside, but absolutely no light will penetrate into the mine. To say you can’t see your hand in front of your face would be an understatement. Blacker even than a Catholic Priest’s socks.

And you stumble around inside shouting out for the rest of your team. You wave your hands in front of you in an attempt to avoid hitting the walls. You duck your head to protect it from the roof of the caves. You take tiny, tiny steps, feeling your way along, almost shuffling, hardly moving. Your breath is faster, you are on the edge of panic. You desperately reach out for something…anything that is vaguely human. Looking for the reassurance of the touch of another living being, and when you find one, by shouting and directing yourself to the sounds of his or her voice, you grasp them tightly, and you never, ever want to let go. You don’t want to be left. Alone. In the dark.

And eventually you find the other people and your get the task done and you turn the head-torches on. And then you can see in the dark. Relief. Relaxation. Calm. Your blood pressure and your stress levels drop instantly. And then you look about and see that even though you thought that the roof was very low and you would bang your head, the cave is actually massive. Like a cathedral. Huge high walls, easily 60-70 feet up. And where you expected the walls and floor to be jagged and cluttered, and you constantly thought you were going to trip and fall, they are smooth and flat and safe.

You were in no real danger. You wouldn’t have hurt yourself. You were only really afraid of the unknown. Of what you couldn’t see.

We rely on our sight. We take it for granted. We use it to give us frames of reference and safety in the real world without thinking about it. We even use the language of sight without realising it…’Watch out’…’I see what you mean’…’I don’t like the look of that’…and we go about our lives not really thinking, or maybe not wanting to think about not being able to see.

And when you are faced with the possibility of losing your sight, like we were in the arbitrary world of the IED in Afghan, or when other soldiers, sailors and airmen have been faced with that in the past, the fear becomes greater. I remember one lad who was often the lead man in a patrol. Often he would volunteer to go first and prove the route, look for the ground-sign and analyse the floor in front of him searching for clues that the enemy could have planted an IED on the path. This didn’t scare him, but what did scare him was the thought that if he saw what might be an IED he would have to determine if it was or not by getting down on the floor, and getting up close to the potential device and see if it was a bomb or if it was just some rubbish or just a stone. Because he was scared about his eyes. Losing his sight.

Like me, it was the one thing he would not have been able to cope with losing. And thankfully neither of us did. We both came home fine, without our worst fears coming to life.

But sadly that is not always the case. Throughout history, wars have damaged people’s eyes, and men and women returning from conflict have faced a future of stumbling about in the darkness. But thankfully like in the cave, there are people there for them. People who they are able to reach out to and hold and gain help and comfort. Someone who they can hold onto and who will not leave them alone.

Since the end of the First World War, St Dunstan’s which has recently changed it’s name to Blind Veterans UK, has offered help and advice and support to any ex-servicemen and women who have lost their sight. In fact it doesn’t matter when someone served or how they lost their sight; a REME engineer blinded by a sniper in Iraq, a National Serviceman in the Canal Zone of the 1950’s with a glaucoma or an ex-sailor who served in the Falklands, blinded by a car accident, as long as they have served they won’t be alone, Blind Veterans UK will be there to support them.

And like in the cave I found myself in, it is really reassuring to know that there is always going to be someone there to help. That there will be no one alone in the dark.

If you would like to read more about Blind Veterans UK or help them in their work by donating to their campaign, then please have a look at their website at http://www.blindveterans.org.uk and read about the amazing work they do to support Blind Veterans.

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