BBC OnePanorama


Last Updated: Sunday, 17 July 2005, 20:54 GMT 21:54 UK
Shocked by war

Robert Ryan, a former infantry officer
Panorama: Shock troops
Sunday 17 July 2005
2215 BST, BBC One
When Robert Ryan was 27 he experienced the brutal reality of ethnic cleansing. The memories of its horrors are still alive for him 13 years on.

In April 1993 more than 100 men, women and children were slaughtered in the Bosnian village of Ahmicz. It was Captain Ryan's responsibility to organise their burial. He remembers the details with precision - tractors dug a trench 40 yards long and 6 feet deep to accommodate the dead, who were covered in large rolls of plastic.

"I didn't think I was going to be there to bury other people's husbands and wives and children, who were not even combatants."

As part of a film entitled "Shock troops", about former members of the armed forces and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, BBC's Panorama programme has followed Robert's story and his search for treatment.

For Ryan, a Captain in the Cheshire Regiment, who had come to Bosnia as UN peacekeepers, the result of his experiences was catastrophic.

My mind was constantly fighting with the trauma of seeing these terrible things. I think my mind turned me into somebody else
Robert Ryan, on the effects of witnessing ethnic cleansing as an army officer in Bosnia
"What I thought was that what we did was a waste of time, we'd allowed these people to die that we didn't help, and therefore as a person I felt worthless and I'd joined this wonderful organisation, knights in shining armour to help, and then it was all shattered. My illusions of what an army officer was and what I was in the army for were taken away. So my mind was constantly fighting with the trauma of seeing these terrible things. I think my mind turned me into somebody else."

In the months before the massacre Ryan had faced danger many times. He was mentioned in despatches after leading a UN convoy that came under fire.

"When I first realised I'm coming pretty close to death, when there are bullets whizzing past your ears, you start to think much more about your own death, and that had a big effect on me."

The effects at first were physical; severe headaches. On his regiment's return to their HQ in Germany the situation became more serious. He began drinking heavily to cope with his emotions, but became a danger to himself and others. He felt suicidal.

"I opened my cupboard doors and there were 50 live hand grenades in there and I said look, you have to be mad to have these. I wanted help basically."

"People say 'Why would you ever want to kill yourself?' Well, I still don't know but at the time I certainly did want to, I wanted to sort of get rid of the pain I suppose."

Captain Ryan says he sought help and it wasn't forthcoming.

"I spoke to a few people and said I need help, I wasn't quiet about it, I knew that there was a problem."

The crisis reached a pitch - and made newspaper headlines - when he felled former "It's a Knockout" presenter Stuart Hall at a regimental dinner. After he came round Hall went to see his assailant:

"He was in a terrible state. Several of his fellow officers were standing around. One explained to me that he was suicidal; he'd been affected by the events up in Bosnia. When you see Europeans hung, drawn and quartered, and children murdered, it's not very pleasant, and he was obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress."

I went three times for one hour each time, and then he said: 'You're fine son, off you go.'
Robert Ryan on his initial experience with psychiatric help
Ryan did eventually get to see a psychiatrist, but he says that he didn't get the right treatment.

"I went three times for one hour each time, and then he said: 'You're fine son, off you go.' It wasn't until months later that I found out that he was treating me for alcoholism and he basically told me stop drinking, which I did, and if you can stop drinking for three months you're going to be okay. Well I did, but I certainly wasn't okay in my head. I was just treated for the wrong thing."

"When the army treated me, and they never said I had post-traumatic stress disorder, they sort of just let me go."

Disillusioned, Ryan resigned his commission and ended a nine-year career. Since then he has dealt with his demons by first returning to run a business in Sarajevo - the capital of the country which brought him such pain.

Now he runs convoys through Iraq with danger his constant ally. But it was only when he arrived at Heathrow on 5 June 2005, that he began a journey of discovery which ended with treatment for his psychological wounds.

He sought treatment from consultant psychiatrist Professor Gordon Turnbull, an expert in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Prof Turnbull was clear Ryan had developed PTSD and afterwards the former British Army captain underwent an intensive week of treatment.

The Ministry of Defence say they do not comment on individual cases because of confidentiality. According to Group Captain Frank McManus, an MoD spokesman, in a general interview on the issue for the programme:

"If individuals come forward with problems, or if they are recognised as having problems, they are dealt with appropriately and fairly."

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