Figures from the Ministry of Defence suggest more than 2,000 men and women have returned from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering post traumatic stress disorder, but former officer Kevin Ivison says the true figure is far higher.
The son of a soldier who had grown up on bases in Germany, Ivison joined the army as a teenager and soon after decided to specialise in bomb disposal, becoming an ammunition technical officer, or ATO.
Ivison said: “The point of the army is to attack and defeat the enemy, but an ATO is to there to defend,” he said. “I don’t see myself as a warrior, never have done. Bomb disposal gives you all the excitement and adrenaline of soldiering, but your job is to save lives which I found much easier to reconcile.”
Speaking now, Ivison seems a typical former soldier: upright, smart, surely-spoken with the clipped tones of an officer, but barely a year ago was driven to the edge by PTSD.
After tours in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland, Ivison was posted in 2005 to al-Amarah in British-held southern Iraq. He faced hostile locals, frequent insurgent attacks, and the constant threat from shrieking rocket attacks. “The first couple of months of my tour was thrilling,” Ivison recalls, “I loved the buzz of being around soldiers and making a positive difference. But I got ground down a lot by those rocket attacks – 77 in three months there.” Incredibly, the rockets claimed no lives but the noise, fear, and feeling of helplessness saw several soldiers withdrawn with psychological problems.
Only a few weeks before his tour’s end, Ivison was frayed. “I couldn’t control my hands from shaking,” he says, and at this point he faced his most serious test. A patrol struck an improvised bomb on Red One – the name given to one of the main routes from the town – and Ivison rushed to investigate. But with his electronic jamming equipment and robot used to investigate devices from safety broken – in one case for lack of a £10 power cable, Ivison had no choice but to make what ATOs call “the long walk” towards the second bomb, aware there might be other devices designed to kill him and other rescuers. Convinced he was going to die, Ivison passed his final messages for his family to his teammate and faced the bomb alone.
Though he successfully defused it, he was left a mental and physical wreck.
Months after returning to Germany from Iraq, he sought help from Army doctors after experiencing uncontrollable rage, isolation, nightmares and depression – at one point even hallucinating his friend killed on the patrol that day, Captain Rich Holmes.
“I knew I had a significant problem that needed help,” he recalls. But despite approaching three army doctors, he was told only to ‘wait it out’ for nine months. Only after leaving the Army in 2008 was he able to start receiving NHS treatment.
After six months of cognitive behavioural therapy he is recovering. “It’s been life-changing. Within a session or two I felt like a different person. It allowed me to go over my memories and feelings of the day, put things in the right order and come to terms with what I’d seen – particularly the image of my friend Rich lying on the floor. I now remember it differently to how I did at the time. I think my brain was overwhelmed and unable to process things then.”
The extent to which Ivison’s brain had tried to shut out his experiences is seen in the photographs he showed to others – though one contained a body, he couldn’t ‘see’ it until it was pointed out to him.
He says: “I’m much better than I was, but I’m never going to get over it completely. I came back from Iraq, but my reactions are still those of a man who believes he is in a combat zone.”
Receiving the George Medal for bravery for his actions that day helped him feel he had done the right thing at Red One, and marked a turning point.
But he still suffers the fallout: noise makes him violently angry, as does acts of selfishness, while film, images or music related to conflict and loss leaves him incredibly upset. “It’s placed a lot of things off-limits to me,” he says. “Sounds, smells, images. It’s still here with me.”
Now married with a son a few weeks old, he was worried about his fitness for fatherhood. “It did concern me because of the tiredness and crying. But it’s been nothing but an amazing experience.”
The calamitous effects of untreated PTSD is storing up terrible future damage for society, Ivison warns. With more troops including reservists on operations, the Army has to prevent it from becoming an epidemic.
“I had a stable upbringing, wonderful family, good education. I’m relatively articulate, but I couldn’t get treatment from the army,” he says. “How difficult must it be for a young guy, broken home, less education, perhaps not willing or able to express himself freely? It took me four years to get help, but they say the average time is 14 years. It just isn’t easy enough to get treatment.”
Perhaps they are listening: after the charity Combat Stress reported an increase in referrals of 72 per cent, the government this month announced it would introduce psychological screening for returning troops to identify those most at risk.
“But we need to recognise the scale of the problem,” Ivison says. “Unless we acknowledge that we won’t get the political, public or financial support to tackle it.”
In the meantime, Ivison says, of his original team of five, he and two others have left the army and been treated for PTSD. One has gone on to retrain as an officer. “And another has just been told by an army doctor to sit it out for nine months and see.”
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, August 2010]