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Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Tuesday, 7 October 2008 12:46 UK

Life after war


Jack demonstrates his bravery by providing cover as open ground is crossed

By Ben Anderson
BBC News

After a tough tour of duty in Afghanistan, Jack Mizon returned a troubled man, struggling to stay on the rails back in a British barracks. But can we expect soldiers to go from firefights straight back to ordinary life?

Jack Mizon, a 23-year-old from Tottenham, was a Lance Corporal with the Queen's Company, the Grenadier Guards, and last year served for six months in Helmand, Afghanistan's violent province.

I spent two months in Helmand during that tour, and by the end, two of the unit's 36 men were dead, and 15 seriously injured. Jack, while physically unharmed, was a changed man.

Jack: A Soldier's Story which will be broadcast on BBC Three on 7 October at 2100 BST
Or catch up with the BBC's iPlayer

After the first battle, which had gone very well, he seemed to love life as a soldier. "It was fun," he said, still out of breath. "Everyone's alive. Sweating, but alive. Next time will be good."

But within a month, the talk had changed drastically.

Jack was out on a patrol when an IED (improvised explosive device) was detonated just metres from him, badly wounding one of his friends.

A week later he was in a convoy hit by a suicide bomber. The driver was killed and all of Jack's other comrades were seriously injured - he was the only one that walked away unscathed.

Jack talks about seeing his friends and colleagues wounded and killed

This was just before an eight-hour battle, which led to several days of constant fighting to clear the town of Adin Zai. Visibly exhausted and shaken, he said: "I expected it to be bad, but this last two weeks has been really bad. I want to go home."

Readjusting to the often mundane life back on barracks was always going to be difficult after that. One of his best friends, Guardsman Ryan Lloyd, could see that Jack found it difficult.

"The first few weeks it was a struggle for him, definitely. You've gone from having all the responsibility in the world over there - people's lives depend on it - and then you come back and you're just a name and number again. It's hard to get your head round it."

Jack was sent to one trauma management session. He says he told the psychiatrist that he was having anger problems, seething with rage in an empty room for no reason. "I felt like I was going to explode all the time, I couldn't even speak to people."

Policeman assaulted

He says he was told he was fine, and everything he was experiencing was normal, but after some pushing Jack was granted another session. But due to the army psychiatrist being on holiday and other complications, he would have to wait six weeks.

It was during this time that Jack got into trouble. Not long after getting a special commendation for bravery, he got into two fights, one involving a police officer, and immediately went awol, fleeing Britain for Canada. He gave himself up a few weeks later.

Jack learns he will be mentioned in dispatches for his bravery in Afghanistan

At his court case, the judge said that Jack's actions - assaulting a police officer and beating up an Aldershot man who challenged him - were unforgivable. His family, friends and commanding officers were convinced he was going to prison for at least three years. But he was spared jail thanks to the testimonies of his bravery, and given one last chance.

Jack's captain, Major Martin David, who is about to receive a military cross for his actions in Afghanistan, puts Jack's problems down to "ill discipline and alcohol". When he took charge of Jack's regiment, he was told the lance corporal was the worst "drama merchant who would bring him nothing but trouble". Before Afghanistan, Jack had two previous convictions for violence.

Jack's friend, Guardsman Lloyd, says he is not surprised when soldiers like Jack resort to violence.

"For the last eight months, all you've been told to do and taught to is fight and kill. Let's make no bones about it, our job over there, we go out and people die, whether it be us or the enemy. And you get back to the UK and there's going to be things that spill over, blatantly, especially when the beer is flowing. You can't just forget about what we've been through."

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us
George Orwell

A senior soldier who knew Jack well says, off the record, "we train these men to never back down from any confrontation, no matter what the odds".

But even if Jack hadn't got into those two fights, it could still seem clear that, he, like many others, would have been traumatised by his battlefield experiences.

Many experts who deal with troubled soldiers argue that it's imperative they be given counselling even if they don't seek it. They say it takes a soldier with psychological problems an average of 10 years to admit they need help, by which time they have often gone through a serious problem like drug addiction, alcoholism, depression or divorce.

The Ministry of Defence says it has robust systems in place to treat and prevent stress disorders. "Counselling is available to service personnel and troops receive pre- and post-deployment briefings to help recognise the signs of stress disorder," said a spokesman, adding that decompression periods follow a tour of duty so that "personnel can unwind mentally and physically and talk to colleagues about their experiences in theatre".

Jack talks about the difficulty of readjusting to life back home after Afghanistan

But soldiers complain that these "decompression periods" are woefully inadequate. One soldier described his Cyprus decompression as "24 hours for us to get drunk and beat each other up".

The MoD also insists that medical discharge from the armed forces because of psychological illness is low.

"Out of around 180,000 regular service personnel only about 150 - or less than 0.1% - are discharged annually for mental health reasons, whatever the cause. Of the less than 0.1%, around 20-25 each year meet the criteria to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder."

This doesn't tally at all with what I saw in Afghanistan.

If my experience is at all typical, then I would put the number suffering PTSD much higher. Jack's case perhaps illustrates that if a soldier shows any signs of PTSD, or has had experiences that might contribute towards it, he should be forced to get help, or at the very last be properly evaluated.

The dangers are clear. More soldiers from the Falklands war committed suicide than were killed by the enemy. Over 1,000 of the UK's homeless are ex-forces.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As a father of two serving personnel, I would like to say how proud I would be if Jack and his mates were my sons. They are civilised young men behaving with courage and honour in an uncivilised arena and cannot be expected to be both at the same time. I thought the imposition of community service was a farce considering the service he had already performed in war zones. He should have been admonished with respect by the court.
Graham Thomas, Coventry

I had been a prison officer until I retired, and had dealt with many ex military men serving periods in prison, and treated and helped many of these guys to understand how they felt. To a man they had not received help from the services. I had ex military men serving with me, these guys had a wealth of experience and helped many men come to terms with the loss of good mates. The prisoners for the most part were very good and worked on team projects to great effect. But back in civilian life, no such team spirit was felt by these men.
Will Bloxidge, Bicester Oxon

Please send my best wishes to Jack. I watched this last night and suddenly became bluntly aware of how difficult the circumstances are for our troops over in Afghanistan. Those awful conditions can only serve to develop a certain mindset that is based on fear, rage and confusion when they get back to the UK. I hope the military forces with all its fanfare in its advertising campaign takes seriously and acts responsibly for the inevitable conditions of PTSD. Yes, it is part of the job and yes, I am sure that there is training in how to deal with stress, but it is during and after these tours that it would seem they are allowed to fall. Jack is an individual case but being told he would have to wait six weeks to see the psychiatrist is woefully inadequate. There is a duty of care that needs to be addressed. Brushing painful emotions under the carpet with beer binges is not the answer.
Marc, Camborne, Cornwall

The way we treat returning soldiers in this country is disgusting. So many young people going through the horrors and seeing the sights they do - that we read about in the comfort of our own homes - they return here and are abandoned - we should be ashamed. How can you switch off and continue, some of these kids are not long out of school and should be helped to re-adjust.
Christine Moore, Newton Stewart

The soldiers are in a lose-lose position. War is ugly. We want people to do the nasty jobs we deem required (we sent them there, didn't we?) while we pretend it isn't happening. Training young, impressionable lads to stand up under fire, shoot someone while looking in their eyes and look after their mates is not something you just turn off. If they need trained to go there, we should offer just as intensive de-training - not re-training - for the return to civilian life. We owe them that. But I guess money is the problem, again - another area where a city bonus might be better spent.
Ben Wire, Durham

The change from war to peace has always brought problems for the soldiers who have gone through the wars and the civilians who have watched from a distance. It was the same with the American soldiers after our Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam. The ability to look at each other and simply talk about the difficulties is the first step. That's why the Germans still have unit organizations for WWII veterans that meet regularly, and in the US there are groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars where a new veteran can go to simply feel the support of others who have felt the same turmoil. Going it alone only tears you up inside.
Christopher, Roanoke, Virginia

April 1994. Somewhere in Turkey. My commanding called me coldly into his office. We all thought I was in for a stripping down for my pranking and larking. He bluntly announced that my father had passed away last night. I gave off an instant of sadness and brushed it away as tomorrow I was off for Iraq. Finally I didn't go in and was sent to France on compassionate leave for a week. Instead of flying into Iraq I flew home. The same evening I learnt that something had happened in Northern Iraq: the helicopters which I should have taken were mis-identified and got shot down by two USAF fighters. Two choppers, the crew, comrades. I was devastated. I lost my father and the following day I lose my comrades. The pranking got smothered and the larking died away. Back from com-leave I was sent out into Iraq to evaluate the debris of the two choppers. There was not much left. I had to take snapshots for the board of inquiry. In the foreground of one is a boot. The owner died bare-footed and I found that unfair. I cried many tears for those who died through a messed-up visual ident. My CO was useless, my company WO was nonexistent and my family looked at me as if I had come back from hell. All this post-trauma help was nonexistent or my hierarchy thought it wasn't necessary. Even today I still have bouts of tears. Every anniversary is a day before, during and after of silence, sadness, dismay. I hate myself: I should have been with them. I bear the burden of tears and cries from families and friends. We go to war but never talk about the battle. When we go through things like that I believe we underestimate ourselves, we hate ourselves for having "missed it". We are never, never the same. Time, love and understanding may help to soothe the pains, but the scars are deep down and will never heal.
Frederick, Paris/France

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