Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Ex-RAF Veteran Talks About His Experience
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD for short, is a type of anxiety disorder caused by a singular or series of traumatic events. The sufferer often relives these events through nightmares and flashbacks, which can lead to the sufferer feeling isolated and tormented.
Although military combat is the main traumatic event associated with PTSD, there are a number of other situations that can cause it. These include serious accidents, physical or sexual abuse or assault, being held hostage, witnessing violence or abuse, or experiencing a natural disaster. The symptoms can come about straight after the event, or quietly fester and traumatise its victim several years later.
PTSD is receiving an increasing awareness and is now widely recognised as a serious anxiety disorder as opposed to a sign of weakness. Even soap operas have started introducing storylines in which PTSD is a subject. However, the problem with soap opera storylines is that they only just scratch the surface. The 2016 documentary film, Thank You For Your Service, offered a whole lot more than soaps could. It was distressingly raw and honest about the consequences of the currently understaffed mental health care services offered to veterans in the US. And yet it was necessary to make people understand the seriousness of PTSD.
My dear friend, Alan Mudge, was an armourer during his time in the RAF. He was kind enough to agree to talk to you all about his personal experience suffering from PTSD.
Here is his story:
PTSD in the British Armed Forces - A Personal View
Let us first look at warfare in the 20th Century and see how the condition now known as PTSD was viewed.
During the First World War (1914-1918), the military top brass had very little time for the soldier who, through mental stress, could no longer fulfil his obligation as a fighting man.
306 British soldiers were shot at dawn having been found guilty by court-martial of cowardice in the face of the enemy. No thought was given to their previous conduct in combat or to their mental state. The Generals felt that the best way to keep the soldiers' minds on their job was to execute those convicted. The convicted man was led out, secured to a stake and following a few meaningless words from the padre was executed by firing squad. If the rounds from the rifles had not killed him, the prisoner was given the coup de grace by the officer in charge of the firing squad. Namely, the officer put a bullet into the dying prisoner's head to finish him off.
Many years later, all 306 men were given a posthumous pardon by Queen Elizabeth II.
During the Second World War (1939-1945), this total lack of understanding of mental stress continued. This was especially apparent in the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command. Aircrew who could no longer fulfil their duty as mental stress took over were accused of Lack of Moral Fibre; in other words, cowardice. This was a punitive designation applied to aircrew who refused to fly on operations.
2337 members of RAF aircrew were officially designated as having LMF. Officers lost their commission and flying brevet. Sergeants and Flight Sergeants also lost their flying brevet, were reduced to the rank of Aircraftsman 2nd. Class and given menial tasks such as latrine cleaners.
On one occasion, the base Commander had the entire unit paraded and formed into a hollow square. The convicted aircrew member was marched into the centre of the square, where he was publicly humiliated by having his flying brevet and rank chevrons ripped from his uniform – an inhumane method of total degradation to a man already suffering from mental trauma. In many incidences, RAF medical psychiatrists tried to intervene but were not listened to.
Following this background of what we now know to be PTSD, here is my own story.
The first 25 years of my working life were as a weapons and explosives engineer (armourer) in the Royal Air Force. I was employed in armament engineering workshops, explosives storage areas, or on flying squadrons.
During 1961/62 while serving with the Far East Air Force I spent eighteen months on Bomb Disposal. My air base had been well fought over by Japanese and Allied forces during the Second World War. In the early 1960's the base was being totally modernised and many pieces of unexploded ordnance, both Japanese and Allied, were being dug up by the contractors. I was a member of a BD team put together to make these various pieces of ordnance safe by destroying them using explosive demolition charges – an interesting job and part of my specification as an RAF armourer.
Once, I had to make "the long walk" when explosive items being destroyed failed to explode. Walk to the demolition trench, find out why this had happened, rectify it and then demolish. Under a tropical sun and sweating not just from the heat, I remembered the words of my instructor: "Following observance of the safety time, you WALK to the item being destroyed, sort out the problem and then WALK back to the demolition point."
Fast forward now to 1977-1980, I was based in West Germany during the Cold War, running my own section in the armament engineering workshops. However, along with many other armourers, I also had a "war post" if the Cold War became hot. I was a Combat Explosives Engineer, highly trained in the handling of demolition explosives to be used to destroy technical installations, fuel dumps, aircraft etc. to deny them to the Warsaw Pact Forces. Once again, it was part of my specification as an armourer.
In 1980, I left the world of armament behind, moving onto other types of employment, but still keeping close contact with the RAF. In 1985, I returned as a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Volunteer Reserve, serving for a further seven years, but not as an armourer.
Fast forward to 2011, by now 71 years old. From 1980 until then, I had no mental problems linked with my past RAF life involving bomb disposal, or as a combat explosives engineer. THEN, THE NIGHTMARES STARTED.
I began to dream about events involving demolition, initially fairly straightforward. Safety distances, demolition trench, preparing the demolition charges for use and attaching them to the item to be destroyed. From there on it all went wrong when I realised that I was about to blow myself up and went into panic mode, my dream turning into a nightmare.
In my disturbed sleep, I would start shouting and screaming, thrashing around in bed. My wife, Lesley, would wake me up just before I destroyed myself in a blast of explosives, and I'd be wringing with the sweat of fear. She would calm me down, I would have a hot drink and settle down once more. But not too soon – just in case the nightmare continued and I was killed.
It is often said that if you dream of falling from a cliff, but wake up before you hit the ground, everything is fine. However, if you hit the ground, your mental state will react with your heartbeat causing a massive heart attack. I would have been in that situation.
For the next few years these nightmares occurred at infrequent intervals but as they didn't interfere with my daily life, I just accepted them. At the same time I was a Royal British Legion Welfare Case Worker, visiting former ex-service personnel who were applying for grants for such things as white goods, or in the case of those who were disabled, the issue of disability aids or house improvements to make life a little easier. A number of my clients were suffering from PTSD, caused by service in the Second Iraq War or Afghanistan. Naturally, when they found out that I was also ex-service they wanted to talk about their experiences.
This made my nightmares worse, forcing me to give up this voluntary work which I enjoyed so much, being able to assist my fellow ex-service personnel. But, I also realised that my own mental health was at risk and something had to be done.
In my local town, there is an ex-services charity organisation called Bridge for Heroes. It comprises of an excellent joint services military museum but also has a corner devoted to PTSD where veterans can get together and discuss their mental problems over a coffee and biscuits. I spent a good few hours there and felt much better in my own mind, but sporadically the nightmares still continued. It was a saving grace that my long-suffering wife supported me 100%, waking me, calming me and ensuring that I finally drifted into a peaceful sleep. I owe her a very large debt.
The time came when I had to take some positive action, as this situation could not be allowed to go on. So in October 2016, I made an appointment to see my GP. I immediately struck gold; he turned out to be an advisor to Special Forces and the British Army on PTSD. He gave me far more than the ten minutes per patient, first of all taking me through my service career and the reason for the nightmares. Following this lengthy question and answer discussion, he devised some simple mental exercises based on music association. We went through them a number of times until I had them firmly fixed in my mind. I've been practising these exercises ever since that appointment and have been nightmare free.
It is now eight months further forward, so am I cured? It would seem so. My general demeanour to life is optimistic rather than pessimistic, so perhaps this also played some part in my recovery. I hope so because I have no wish to return to that situation of mentally playing out a scenario where I could literally frighten myself to death.
One final point, PTSD has played a big part in the media in reference to our armed forces. However, it also applies to the emergency services, hospitals, anywhere where people are exposed to extreme, life-threatening situations because they cannot just switch off once their shift is over. PTSD can also apply to the citizen going about his or her daily affairs and is caught up in an event such as a terrorist attack. We are all potentially subject to this very unpleasant mental illness. Great work is being done by the medical profession to combat this, but there is still some way to go when it comes to the really serious cases. Mine was relatively straightforward; there are many that are not, where the people suffering PTSD turn to alcohol or drugs or a combination of both, trying to find a way out. Those people are making a cry for help which requires good one-to-one counselling on a regular basis, plus stopping their dependency on alcohol and drugs. None of this must be seen as a stigma but as a genuine case of mental illness and it must be treated as such. If there is a will from our NHS to get to grips with this, life can become better for the many who are diagnosed with PTSD.
– Alan Mudge
Do NOT Suffer in Silence
The greatest advice anyone can give a person struggling with PTSD is to not suffer alone. Reach out to your doctor, friends, family, and get help as soon as possible. As Alan has mentioned, PTSD is understood much better today, and services are becoming better tailored to fight it.
For more information on PTSD and treatments, please have a look at ptsduk.org. PTSD UK is a charity dedicated to raising awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder for anyone affected and was founded by Jacqui Suttie in 2015 after her own struggle with the disorder. The site is jam-packed with information detailing what PTSD is, providing a number of different treatment ideas that could help treat PTSD, and also offering advice to friends and family of PTSD sufferers.
Mind is another mental health charity that has a lot of information about PTSD, and regularly update their site with further information and stories from sufferers of the disorder.
If you have any suggestions for future articles you would like to read, let me know in the comments section below.
And in the meantime, keep smiling.
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© 2018 Claire Miller