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How a middle-class squaddie's life collapsed after Afghanistan

11 May 2019 Daily Mail Online

We had survived the war. We were going home. In those final weeks before leaving Afghanistan, my comrades and I were inseparable. We knew that once we arrived back in the UK, things would not be the same again. We would always be friends, but the bonds would be looser. Our relationships would be concerned with talk about rugby and women, not life and death.

We knew this, and we feared it. Like lovers on a summer holiday, our affair was finite. And so we spent every minute of our final days at Camp Bastion in each other’s presence, basking in that unspoken comradeship.

Like several of my mates, I had volunteered to stay on with our sister battalion for a second tour. The idea of never being in conflict again left me feeling hollow. The request was approved, then overturned. I felt sick with jealousy of the soldiers who would be involved and sick with hate for the men who had denied my wish.

Geraint Jones, pictured: 'Like several of my mates, I had volunteered to stay on with our sister battalion for a second tour. The idea of never being in conflict again left me feeling hollow'

I hate them still. More so than the enemy. At least with the Taliban, I knew where I stood. The day we landed on British soil in February 2010, we were taken by bus to our camp. Many families were waiting. I’d told mine not to come. They’d see me soon enough.

We formed ranks outside the camp and marched through the gates behind a Warrior armoured vehicle, the assembled families clapping, smiling and crying. I felt no such relief, or elation. My war was over and for the first time in years I could see no future tours. There was now a timetable in place bringing an end to operations in Afghanistan. No further opportunities to pull the trigger and become the soldier that I had always longed to be. I collected my car keys from the guardroom and drove home to Wales. I was bitter, angry and lost.

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Most of what happened at the beginning of my return home is a blur to me now. I can’t remember if I was an idiot from the moment I landed back in the UK, or if it took time for that egg to hatch.

I do remember my first night out with civilian friends. One of them asked if I had lost comrades, and I tried to tell him about Private Brown, who had died after a Taliban IED (improvised explosive device) detonated beneath our Warrior. I’d been the first one to get to him.

The conversation didn’t go well. It was the first time I’d tried to speak about it in any depth and with the words came tears.

Geraint Jones, pictured on patrol in Afghanistan, said: 'I had volunteered to stay on with our sister battalion for a second tour. The idea of never being in conflict again left me feeling hollow'

One of my friends noticed and made a joke. I threw a glass at his face and left. Walking alone in town, I came across a friend who’d been a Para. He was known for trouble, and was barred from most of the pubs and clubs.

‘I’ll get you in,’ I promised, and did. But we had barely walked up the club’s stairs and on to the dancefloor when someone bumped hard into my friend and gave him a dirty look. I didn’t wait to see what happened next. I just hit the guy. A second later there was a bouncer’s arm round my throat.

‘I’m sorry,’ I told him, and meant it. ‘I’m sorry.’

I’m not certain what happened next. At some point I found myself tucked behind a row of bins, crying uncontrollably. Against my wishes, someone called my mum.

She arrived to collect me and I knew at that point that I had failed. I had failed as a man. I was still the toddler who cried for his mother when he fell down. When the drink and the tears had cleared my system, I simply felt hollow. I knew what I was. Weak and pathetic. And angry – about so many things.

The people at home, for one. I was angry because they didn’t understand the reality of the situation in Afghanistan, or they simply didn’t care. I was angry at the Government and the Army.

Things were not going well in Afghanistan. I knew that people had died in vain, or due to poor decision-making and equipment.

But more often than not, my anger was directed at myself. I was angry that I hadn’t done more on tour. I was angry that I felt apathetic about being home. Sometimes my family were the ones to suffer my rage. Sometimes they were the ones I was trying to protect. A honked horn at my mother when she was driving would see me fly out of the car door, telling the other driver to get out of the car and fight.

Royal Marines from 42 Commando Mortar Troop, carrying out a night fire mission using 'Illume' rounds in Now Zad, Afghanistan

The need to shoot before the enemy did had leaked into every aspect of my life. In the months following my return to the UK, I was argumentative, violent and unpredictable.

In the spring of 2011, I left the Army for good. After fighting a war, I had no interest in spending the rest of my life on exercises.

Instead, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, trying my hand at screenplays. Without considering such issues as ‘budget’ or ‘cash forecast’, I rented a holiday property in Malibu, California.

It was beautiful. The weather was beautiful and the women were beautiful. I was earning good money as a private security contractor. It should have been everything I wanted. Except that it wasn’t.

The feeling had come over me slowly, like a glacier, but by the end of 2012 I was fully submerged under the ice, firmly in the grip of depression. With no idea how to proceed, I reached out to the constant saviour of the lost and the pained. At the age of 29, I turned to drugs and that crutch eventually became an addiction. I had become one of those people my parents warned me about. The type of person they promised me would be excommunicated from the family should I ever fall so low.

Face-covered militants who they say are members of the Taliban, pose with RPG and AK47, in Zabul province, southern of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006

Well, Mum and Dad, I fell. I fell hard. Coke. MDMA. Weed. Ketamine. Alcohol – don’t kid yourself that booze is not a drug.

I made a friend in Malibu who smoked drugs by day and snorted them at night. He was successful – very successful – and perhaps I didn’t see the danger. But I did see the opportunity to feel something. To overcome the nagging malaise that was telling me that I would never experience highs like I had done in combat. I didn’t become an addict straight away. For the most part, alcohol had been doing a perfectly good job of drowning out the noise: the feelings that could quickly pull me down into depression.

And what were those feelings? Of course, there were the vivid images of Brown. And the knowledge that other comrades had died. There was the sense that I was drifting, devoid of purpose now my short combat career had come to an end.

I missed my friends but, above all, my depression came from the fact that I hated myself. I hated myself because I was often staying in Malibu and had a steady stream of beautiful women interested in me, and what was I doing? Feeling sorry for myself. It felt like a betrayal of Brown, and all my comrades, living or dead.

When I left the Army in 2011, I had worked my way through the women of my home town of Wrexham like the flu. But by the spring of 2014, when I was in the US, I had almost given up on taking girls home – not because of any enlightened attitude about casual sex, but because most of the time I failed to perform.

My self-loathing had reached the point where a gorgeous woman could be throwing herself at me and I would convince myself that I was unworthy.

‘You’re weak and pathetic. If you were a man you wouldn’t be thinking this way. Brown’s death wouldn’t bother you. None of it would bother you. You’re no soldier.’

Such was the track that played inside my mind. It convinced me that I was nothing but a burden on those that mattered to me.

Finally I realised that drugs were not the only option open to me. There was suicide.

There are worse places for a breakdown than Ibiza, right? Which is what happened to me in the June of 2016. Long since unable to afford my long vacations in California, I was back in my mother’s home in the UK. Ibiza offered the promise of cheap flights and readily available drugs.

Geraint Jones (pictured), said: 'In the spring of 2011, I left the Army for good. After fighting a war, I had no interest in spending the rest of my life on exercises'

It was the day before my flight that I heard the news that Corporal Bailey, a comrade from Afghanistan, had killed himself. Slit his own throat.

What drives a man to do that? I knew Bailey was troubled. In Iraq, he had tried and failed to save the life of his best friend. I thought back to Afghanistan, where he had helped me with Brown’s grievous injuries. Bailey had quietly told me at the time that Brown wouldn’t pull through, hoping to prepare me for the worst.

I hadn’t listened, and I was wrong. Brown died. Now, after a long fight with heroin that came from the same fields where we had fought, Bailey was gone, too.

It shook me. It shook me harder than I could ever have imagined. After that I thought about suicide daily. I knew that veterans who killed themselves often did it years after they had stopped fighting. A few years ago, it had never entered my mind. Now, unless I clouded my thoughts with drugs, it was ever-present.

When my friends left Ibiza to go home, I stayed on, begging, borrowing and stealing so that I could get my hands on whatever drug was cheapest. My days were spent alone, drifting in and out of a tranquillised stupor.

In my lucid moments, I thought only of death. I knew that, worse than doing wrong by myself, I had done wrong by my friends and family. My parents had worked hard to provide me with love and money and sent me off to university, and here I was, a pathetic druggy who couldn’t even muster up the decency to kill himself.

And even if I did, I knew that my death would scar my family. Possibly break my mother. I would be dead, but no less a burden. I would hang around my family’s neck for life, dragging them down with me.

A year earlier, a comrade from the Territorial Army had died of wounds sustained in Afghanistan. Affectionately known as Pudding, this warrior had faced surgery after surgery with the same bravery as he’d faced the enemy. He had fought for his life, and here I was, waving the white flag on my own. My cowardice made me sick.

Suddenly I knew I had to do something. I stayed in Ibiza until my money ran out completely. There was no other option now. I did not want to die like Bailey, and so I would go home. I had hit rock bottom, and I would beg for help.

It was the kind of meal I would usually wolf down in moments at home. But instead, I simply looked at my plate. The reason wasn’t the company. I couldn’t have asked for better. To my left was my long-suffering mother, as strong as Mrs Thatcher, as kind as Mother Teresa. To my right was my youngest brother, best friend and comic.

So why was I looking at the knife in my hand and thinking about ramming it into my own throat? I didn’t want that thought, but it wouldn’t leave me.

I was as blessed as it was possible to be, and in a moment that should have been nothing but joy I could only think of killing myself. Shame and sadness overcame me.

I tried to speak, to join in the conversation, but all that came out was a choke. I knew then that I was about to be overwhelmed, and so I moved quickly away from the table, touching my mum on the shoulder to let her know the reason why. She understood – it wasn’t the first time this had happened. I went upstairs into the darkness, closing the door to the landing and sitting back against it. In the black, I cried.

The day of my therapy sessions with NHS Veterans Wales quite often ended like this – not a surprise, as the whole point was to dig out and talk about uncomfortable memories.

But today I had been left feeling entirely devoid of hope.

I had by now been officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. ‘Why haven’t you tried antidepressants?’ the doctor had asked me.

‘Because I don’t want to get addicted to them,’ I told him, hearing the irony in every word.

The doc explained that they would take the edge of my anxiety in public places. Less anxiety = less desire to drink. Less drink = no drugs. No drugs = less depression. Less depression = fewer suicidal thoughts. It sounded like a pretty straightforward formula.

In the end, though, it wasn’t pills that saved me. I survived because of family, friends, counselling and comrades. Mark, my therapist from NHS Veterans Wales, is a big part of the reason I’m still here today, and why I’m now able to work full-time as a successful author.

It was Mark who taught me new ways to process thoughts. Ways to challenge my brain when it was refusing to switch out of war-fighting mode.

I look after my body, too. As a soldier, I was outdoors much of the time, and recently I’ve made the effort to reconnect with nature – forests, beaches and mountains – and take in the detail. Marvel at life. Run and walk. Think of how small my problems are in the context of the planet.

If this sounds like hippy hocus-pocus, then maybe it is, but it works. On days when I have been outdoors AND hit the gym, my mind is bulletproof.

I hope at least one veteran will benefit from reading about my experiences. The road out of darkness is not an easy one. But if you wanted life to be easy, you wouldn’t have become a soldier, would you?

So march on for your family and comrades. Keep fighting your battles, and stare down your demons with the same ferocity as you showed the enemy.

Like me, you will be glad that you did. 

  • Brothers In Arms, by Geraint Jones, is published by Macmillan on May 16, priced £18.99. Offer price £15.19 (20 per cent discount, with free p&p) until May 19. Pre-order at mailshop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640. Spend £30 and get free premium delivery. The Royal British Legion helpline for veterans is 0808 802 8080.

 

Original Link: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7018767/How-middle-class-squaddies-life-collapsed-Afghanistan.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490

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