I’ve been working with soldiers and their children for the last few years, as a researcher and as a writer. It has been instructive, about the world I live in as much as the one they do. For a year I worked as a researcher for a university, part of a team that evaluated a drug and alcohol recovery scheme run exclusively for ex-service personnel. It meant travelling around the north interviewing mostly former soldiers who had significant problems with alcohol abuse. Many had been through other programmes that hadn’t worked and most put it down to civilians’ lack of understanding of their experiences and culture, the absence of the camaraderie that soldiers possess, people asking them questions such as Did you ever kill anyone?
Though many had left the army years before the soldier was still present and their continued drinking was testament to that. Most said the army had taught them to drink from a young age, from their twelve weeks basic training. To not go to the bar each evening, to not even drink copiously, would leave a recruit open to ridicule, to bullying from the outset, and bullying in the army isn’t like bullying at the council. People spoke of drinking rituals, one involving a glass boot filled with three different coloured liquors.
‘There were people no one wanted to run behind the next morning because they were bound to puke.’
There was for some veterans a trigger, a particular experience, usually during combat that intensified their drinking. One man, whose drinking had cost him his family, spoke to me about his experience in Basra, Iraq.
‘Nothing could have prepared us for that. For what happened. The training we did. Running round the Brecon Beacons with a pack on your back? I was put in charge of prisoners and I couldn’t cope.’
For others no one incident was cited but there was the obvious sustained stress of tours in Northern Ireland, or in Bosnia, Iraq etc.
‘Ireland, seen a few killed. Falklands, seen a lot killed.’
As well as combat fatigue there is also combat regret. One veteran began an interview by stating, ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew what I’d done.’ Another,
‘In the last five years…it’s been coming back to me, what I did, and why I didn’t question it, but that was your military for you. It’s later on in life I’ve learned to question what actions I did when I was a lot younger, then the dreams started coming. Think the spring just broke.’
A recurring theme was how little preparation there was for life after the army. The army breaks down the civilian to create the solider but not the other way round. Most expressed disappointment and antipathy with the individualism of civilian life. There’s no respect, no discipline, no camaraderie, it’s all backstabbing. The discreet programme they were part of was comparatively successful because of the values that the army had taught them. They supported one another to a degree they would not have done had they not been former soldiers. They organised their own events and each local group had their selected champions who seemed akin to corporals. Their humour was predictably tough, their outlook more stoical than most, as one veteran remarked,
‘In the dictionary the word sympathy is somewhere between shite and suicide.’
They talked a great deal about the strength of comradeship amongst soldiers about friendship, pals, having one another’s back in general and specifically on patrol; how much they missed those bonds. They disliked the boastfulness, the shallow egotism of civilian life. At the conference to launch the report’s findings, an employment worker remarked that one of the problems that former soldiers had in finding work was their reluctance, their refusal even, to sell themselves. Sadly true perhaps, but for me that was an asset that they possessed and the rest of us didn’t. Even though during that time I was the paid observer and they the problematical subject, there was some things about them I envied.
A year prior I was commissioned to write a play for Burnley Youth Theatre to commemorate the First World War. The project would also involve working with children from Preston Barracks, home of the Lancashire Regiment. My first thought was, how am I going to do this without derivation? After Oh What a Lovely War the most well-known stage play concerning WW1 is The Accrington Pals, the story of the Lancashire Regiment at the Somme. So I went to Gallipoli, to Cape Helles where six Lancashire fusiliers won VCs on the same morning and I went to an imaginary munitions factory. The young people from Burnley Youth Theatre were terrific as I already knew, the children from the barracks, who had never been in a play before, also. They had taken the greater step and soldiers and family members from the barracks attended the shows and I sensed there was more than family pride at work, both in the performances and in the audience. A little later an army welfare worker contacted me to say they wanted to make a film about the impact of soldiering upon soldiers’ children. It wasn’t something that Arts Council England was going to throw money at so it took some time to raise the money, but we’ve recently started work on the project.
The barracks have a youth club and it is there that I work with the children to devise, to write dialogue and poetry for the film. A few things have struck me at the outset. Firstly, how much their education is disrupted by families repeatedly moving home. An eleven year old I spoke to was currently on her sixth school, starting a seventh in September. This is not unusual. Also, the number of children whose fathers had experienced combat.
‘My daddy was shot and he almost died but’s he’s better now.’
‘My dad was in Afghanistan and in a jeep behind another jeep and a boy came up to the one in front and blew himself up and my dad got out to help the people that were injured.’
‘I’ve seen some medals round the house, I don’t know what he did for them, but his knee doesn’t work properly now. He says he won’t have me joining the army because it’s dangerous and he’s thinking about getting out.’
Children are without their fathers for long periods of time during which their fathers are in harm’s way. The children talk a lot about missing friends they made at previous postings. A couple of children said they were frightened of terrorists killing their fathers in the UK. One lad said he was getting in fights at school because his father was a soldier but wouldn’t say exactly why. And there is also resilience and pride. One youngster said that moving around the UK and abroad was interesting and she was smarter and stronger for it. Being an army kid is special and early days it may be, but there is agreement that whilst the narrative of what will probably be a twenty minute film, will deal with separation and anxiety, the tone will not be one of pathos but rather validation if not celebration.
During the Blair years there was an overt attempt to promote the armed forces in the context of the unpopular war in Iraq. Soldiers seemed to be popping up at presentations at half-time, Crufts and elsewhere, a tin rattled for Help the Heroes in every shopping centre. The veterans I spoke to during the research project wanted no part of that but neither did they want the grief they got from the Stop The War crowd on Poppy Day. They desired a degree of respect and meaningful employment. The employment they had come from had been overwhelmingly physical, the terrain of work beyond it, increasingly non-physical, requiring ‘soft skills’. Like a lot of working class men in mid-life, they don’t fit in any more.
More than anything they wanted what is increasingly rare in Britain today: solidarity at work and in their community, which is why they hung out with their old comrades, drinking or struggling not to drink. Many of them were in the process of repairing relationships with their own children. Former soldiers are far more likely than other occupations to commit crime, in particular violent crime. They are more likely to become homeless and experience poor mental health. Assisting veterans adjust to civilians life isn’t just about putting them at the front of the job centre queue. It might be about recognising that they have different values, values that should not be seen as redundant or to be mocked even, but might in fact be worth learning from.
He meets his regiment mates every week,
not at the Legion – not no more after what he said
to a former officer there.
They make plans over pints to occupy themselves,
short hikes and long distance footpaths
days plotted from a to b.
He’s worked out how to go from Sheffield to London by bus,
the routes, times, numbers all listed,
he briefs them on the expense the excursion will incur.
Under his shirt his back wears a relief map
of burns where a petrol bomb splashed across him
one Saturday in Derry.
They sit at the back of the bus sipping cans,
talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland,
what that Asian lad said to him on Poppy Day,
about six am on the parade ground
before he became someone else’s job
and had to rely on people who don’t show up on time.