Ten years after Afghanistan: do soldiers struggle with what they leave or what they come back to?

Dominic Nicholls
·13-min read
Soldiers from D Company, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, deploy in Helmand on Op Herrick 13. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
Soldiers from D Company, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, deploy in Helmand on Op Herrick 13. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

Ten years ago this month I deployed to Afghanistan on my last operational tour as a British army officer.

Nothing on that tour was any more dangerous or troubling than anything else I experienced in my career, but even after a decade it still sticks out as one of the most intense periods of my life. 

I left the army five years after Operation Herrick 13. Transitioning back to civilian life has not been without its difficulties.

Home life was fine, as was becoming a father, but work felt flat and directionless. I struggled not to react to behaviour and values at odds with those of the close-knit teams I was used to in the army.

I eventually spoke to a counsellor. It seems that after 23 years in the army I am very drawn to risk, adrenaline and conflict.

Perfect for a defence correspondent, or a nightmare for an editor?

Am I missing the single-minded focus of operations? Are the characteristics that enabled me to thrive in the military utterly incompatible with civilian life?

I thought I’d better ask those that were in Afghanistan at the same time as me.

I served on Operation Herrick 13, from September 2010 to April 2011. Seen here on the right, with a mate.
I served on Operation Herrick 13, from September 2010 to April 2011. Seen here on the right, with a mate.

'Still adjusting every day'

 Johnny Mercer, veterans minister, 39, said he was “still adjusting every day” to life after the intensity of combat.

The minister, who served three tours of Afghanistan, overlapping with me on the last one, said deploying on operations “makes you realise how so much of life comes down to luck.”

“You could be patrolling next to a guy and a random burst of gunfire hits him, not you. How do you rationalise that? You can’t.

“It makes you lose your fear. Now, I’m not worried about not being liked, but I worry about other things around family life. I get annoyed when the kids argue about which breakfast cereal to buy. It’s stupid stuff like home insurance that keeps me awake nowadays.”

General Sir Cedric Delves awards then-Major Dom Nicholls his Operational Service Medal for service in Afghanistan, on top of Pen-Y-Fan, Brecon Beacons, Wales. Photo taken June 2011. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
General Sir Cedric Delves awards then-Major Dom Nicholls his Operational Service Medal for service in Afghanistan, on top of Pen-Y-Fan, Brecon Beacons, Wales. Photo taken June 2011. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

Toby, another friend, said he reflects a lot on his military service, particularly the “very clear purpose” of our tour in Afghanistan.

“We all knew what we were pushing towards. That’s something that doesn’t often exist away from that environment. That makes working with people much more difficult.

“It’s rare to find that common cause. That’s when I feel like I’m on my own or I’m pushing against people.” 

He looks back on the decisions he made during the operation. “I constantly question: ‘Was that the right decision?’ I know at the time it was right. I made all of those decisions without doubts at the time. With the benefit of hindsight and mature consideration, I wonder: ‘Did I convince myself that was right?’ That plays a bit more on my mind.

“Is it guilt? Is that the right word? There were things out of my control that went wrong, for which I have massive regrets.

“You’re young, you’re part of the big machine, are you really doing the right thing as opposed to doing what you always do?”

I don’t know if he is describing guilt, doubt or healthy self-reflection. What I do know though, is that a man who considers these thoughts a decade later, who examines his actions and motivations, is absolutely the right person to have been placed under such pressure in the first place. 

The strong moral core that I remember so well, as tough as the Aberdeen granite near his home in Scotland, is still very much in evidence. So is his sense of mischief.

“To be out on a limb, on your own, is exciting. That’s the thrill of soldiering.”

A Trojan vehicle belonging to 5 Armoured Engineer Squadron, cuts through the Helmand dust. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
A Trojan vehicle belonging to 5 Armoured Engineer Squadron, cuts through the Helmand dust. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

A time to look back on with 'immense pride'

For those who take their responsibilities seriously, being part of the ‘big, green machine’ can be an additional source of stress. There is only so much an individual can do. 

Operation Herrick 13 was Matt’s fourth tour of Afghanistan.

He says the lack of consistency in the strategic approach to the war over the previous five years had been “devastating on my morale”. 

“Objectives and plans that were bought with the lives of soldiers were discarded months later, not to mention the fatigue and wariness of the Afghans as they once again changed tack to support the new Task Force’s plan.”

However, he says the “air of positivity” in the deployed force was infectious and he looks back on his time in the country “with immense pride". 

“The ability to keep going and achieve things not thought possible was inspiring. Every set-back was met with greater desire to overcome the challenges. A few weeks in such an environment really is akin to years of routine work and life, and that’s something I miss.”

Our conversation has a sting in the tail: “Last year I had dinner in London with an Afghan I worked with there and asked if the place was better than before we went,” Matt says. “He did not answer."

Fusilier John Bryant. an 18 year old soldier from A Company, 2nd Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers, in the compound where he served on Op Herrick 13.  - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
Fusilier John Bryant. an 18 year old soldier from A Company, 2nd Battalion The Royal Highland Fusiliers, in the compound where he served on Op Herrick 13. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

Thrown to the lions

It does not surprise me how so little of the stress my friends describe comes from enemy action. Most is rooted in self-induced or system-induced pressure.

Tom, an Apache attack helicopter pilot, told me: “I think of those six months a lot”. 

“Of all the events in your life, going to war is always going to feature as one of the more significant. I don’t think it changed me, but it certainly affected me.”

Discussing that tour will trigger “replays” he says. “I will not sleep well for a few nights.”

“It’s the same if anyone asks me a serious question. The intensity and immediacy of my reply surprises them and generally causes me a period of preoccupation until the thoughts and memories settle back to their rightful places.

“A source of enormous stress for me was my chain of command which... on one significant occasion threw me to the lions. Justice was sweet, the enquiry which followed was confused as to what the alleged issue was and [they] congratulated me on a job well done. 

“This one incident and the anger and disbelief that came from it still lingers.” 

He remembers what he calls his “bad judgements”. I would say they were decisions taken with the best of intentions, given the situation and available information at the time.

He describes escorting a Chinook helicopter carrying the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) to collect an injured American soldier. The wounded man was collected and the helicopter headed to Camp Bastion, the main British base in the area where specialist medical facilities were located. Tom’s Apache, call-sign UGLY FIVE ZERO, peeled off to attack a High Value Target (HVT) that had just been spotted. 

“The Americans called up again to say they had another casualty coming to the same Helicopter Landing Site (HLS) and could the Chinook come back? I decided not to call the Chinook back, thinking it better not to extend the flight time for the first casualty, but told the Chinook to drop off and come back for the second casualty.  

“The delay was long enough for the second casualty to bleed out on the HLS and become a Hero (a US Marine Corps term for a dead marine).”

Tom remembers the radio call vividly: “UGLY FIVE ZERO, this is EL ZEE 77, casualty two is now a Hero, no need for the MERT, we’ll send him back on this evening's resupply flight."

“A sandstorm prevented me from making any useful contribution to the HVT engagement. I didn’t help anyone that day.”

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment react to a Taliban ambush. Helmand, southern Afghanistan. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment react to a Taliban ambush. Helmand, southern Afghanistan. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

At other times he would race towards a location where troops were in contact with the enemy. 

Dialling into the radio frequency of the soldiers under fire he would often hear instant screaming and uncontrolled shouting. 

“UGLY FIVE ZERO we’re f****** going down, you better f****** save us, just f****** shoot the b*******!”.  

“The background was generally punctuated with clicks, whizzes and thuds of incoming rounds lacking the boom of outgoing fire. 

“The words: ‘FOXTROT42, we have you visual, we have 1400 rounds of 30 mil cannon, four hellfire and three hours play time, just talk us on to him or tell us where we can put warning shots’ tended to calm the situation.

“If that all worked, and you dug them out of the s***, the sense of elation was huge. The best was when the JTAC (Joint Terminal Air Controller – the person on the ground directing fire from fighter jets and helicopter gunships) in question came in through Bastion on R&R and popped in to say thank you. Those moments were powerful.

“Back home I didn’t communicate well. It was only when, a year later, sleep became interrupted and tears were unexplained that I put my hand up. 

“The team at Colchester mental health unit were the best. The cognitive therapy seemed a bit quirky for an alpha soldier but I gave it a go and it certainly helped.”

A soldier sets up his bed on an overnight Combat Logistics Patrol, somewhere in the Helmand desert. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
A soldier sets up his bed on an overnight Combat Logistics Patrol, somewhere in the Helmand desert. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

'The lights had gone off behind their eyes'

A lot of my friends say it is sometimes difficult to relate to others without similar experiences.

James speaks most openly about that time with people he served with, sometimes to his wife’s annoyance. 

“They’re the ones that you trust, the ones that you listen to. They’re the ones who understand your context. You can’t say: ‘You wouldn’t understand’. Of course they understand, they were there with you.”

He says he was “twitching” on his return from Afghanistan. The troops under his command suffered 18 per cent life changing injuries on that tour but he managed to bring everybody home. 

“I wasn’t expecting to,” he says. “You know everybody’s name, the names of their kids. You feel the ownership of all that.”

However, speaking later to injured soldiers that had served in his squadron, either in rehabilitation units or at home undergoing long-term medical treatments, was hard. 

“The lights had gone off behind their eyes, because they’re clinically depressed and they’ve been told their careers are coming to an end. 

“I was being treated for PTSD [and] the thing that really bothered me was that feeling of responsibility for people I really gave a s*** about and the unwillingness to put that down.”

He set up Mission Motorsport, a charity that uses the automotive industry to help those affected by military operations. He says it is the “dividend” borne of the profound trauma he experienced.

“It’s no longer so visceral. It fades and that’s ok. It’s natural to be shaped by the things you’ve experienced, it would be inhuman if you weren’t. Herrick 13 was a traumatic event in the lives of many people who were on it.”

James says it is not always helpful to follow ‘post-trauma’ with ‘stress disorder’ and that by viewing these experiences instead through the lens of post-traumatic growth “you can be better as a result of these things”.

“You can be more balanced, with a broader world-view. You can be more patient. You can hold your family more dearly. You can care more about the plight of other people. You can be a better individual.

“I firmly believe post-traumatic growth is something we should be promoting in our people.”

Afghan soldiers working and fighting alongside British forces, rest after a day's patrol through Helmand.  - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
Afghan soldiers working and fighting alongside British forces, rest after a day's patrol through Helmand. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

Focusing on post-traumatic growth

Josh Goldberg of the veteran-led Boulder Crest Foundation, based in the US state of Virginia, says focusing on post-traumatic growth, rather than a specific diagnosis of PTSD – which many people may not suffer – is a better way to help individuals who have experienced extremely stressful episodes in their lives. 

Post-traumatic growth, a term first coined in 1995 by Dr Richard Tedeschi of the University of North Carolina, suggests that an individual’s struggle to make sense of life after a trauma often causes changes that enable their lives to be “more authentic, fulfilling and purposeful” than before, Mr Goldberg says.

“It’s not that trauma is good, it’s not, but it’s also inevitable in all our lives, especially in the warrior class – people who sublimate instincts of self-preservation to protect and serve other people – and you will encounter trauma on that journey.”

The intent of creating a diagnosis of PTSD, so that treatments could be better directed, was sound, but the label has overtaken the purpose. 

The core symptoms of PTSD – hyperawareness, intolerance to mistakes, a sense of numbness and disconnection, being quick to anger – are all helpful self-preservation tools for a soldier on a battlefield, but do not translate well to life back home.

Soldiers from the Female Engagement Team work with Afghan locals at a veterinary surgery. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
Soldiers from the Female Engagement Team work with Afghan locals at a veterinary surgery. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

Some veterans struggle to get past these feelings to the idea that “something good can happen next, or that their experiences may have value and not just be a dark period that I hope to never revisit,” Mr Goldberg says.

“The question is: Are you struggling because of what you’re coming back from, or what you’re coming back to?

“They have to grapple with the randomness of life, the fragility of it all. The seeds are planted for post-traumatic growth in a warzone, but if you don’t nurture them you just tear them out.”

He cites the example of the 591 US prisoners of war from the notorious Hoa Lo prison, immortalised as the Hanoi Hilton, during the Vietnam War. 

Released in 1973, some after nearly nine years’ captivity, the men's families were warned to expect psychotic and infantile behaviour. Instead, a study a year after their return found that 80 per cent of the men were emotionally stronger than before their capture. 

As the sun set over Helmand ten years ago, every soldier not on essential duty gathered in their base at Lashkar Gar and paid respect to Corporal David Barnsdale, killed in action in Helmand.  - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright
As the sun set over Helmand ten years ago, every soldier not on essential duty gathered in their base at Lashkar Gar and paid respect to Corporal David Barnsdale, killed in action in Helmand. - Rupert Frere RLC/Crown Copyright

“It was a crucible experience. No mental health professionals, just guys having to figure it out.

“These fighter pilots didn’t aspire to get shot down, that wasn’t the plan! Yet somehow they had the wherewithal to say: ‘This is the fate I’ve been dealt and it will make me, not break me’.

“Post-traumatic growth is both a process and an outcome.”

In the decade since I served in Afghanistan I’ve learnt two big lessons: to reflect, to set that period in the correct context, and try to learn from the experience. Anything less is a wasted opportunity at best and potentially damaging at worst. And to not be afraid to seek help, even if that's just talking to your idiot mates.

 “Don’t ever be shy of getting help," Tom, one of my oldest friends, agrees.

"Better still, get help as a matter of course before you need it.”