The pain, the alcohol, the suicidal thoughts and a sense of shame. These are the effects on a soldier when he is informed that he is a liability and he must return home, which in turn, means he would have to leave his brothers in arms fighting on the frontline.
This week, I spoke with a fellow veteran and an old loyal friend who I served with in Afghanistan. This was the first time that we had spoken since coming home from Afghan which was five years ago.
I knew that this loyal friend was struggling with the transition from soldier to civilian but I failed to support him early on. It is only now, five years later that I am fully aware of the true pain that he has been battling through since the day of his injury.
“Scruffy and unwashed, the army might just be what this lad needs”
This was how Matt O’Rourke was portrayed when he first enlisted into the Royal Artillery in 2000. After a short four-year service, Matt decided that the Royal Artillery was not for him, so as a result, he terminated his service in 2004.
Be that as it may, his desire for army life soon ignited once again. When the ‘7/7 bombings’ occurred in London, Matt O’Rourke was inspired to rejoin Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Although, due to the recession at the time, the British Army was not recruiting. Meanwhile, Matt would have to continue his work within the security industry and industrial roofing.
In 2006, Matt succeeded in joining the TA (Territorial Army) in the hope that this would be an alternative route back into the regular army. Albeit, five years passed serving in the TA and then In 2011, Matt O’Rourke was mobilised and deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan with the first battalion of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
“We patrolled over to Loy-Mandeh and we were engaged by the Taliban from fifty meters away. The enemy was firing at us from between two compounds, so I made an attempt to look for a possible flanking opportunity, however, I found a suspicious item that had the potential to be an IED. This gave us only two options, to pull back or to advance forward”.
“As we advanced towards the Taliban, they opened up and started hammering us with 7.62mm rounds, so I took a knee and fired back. We suppressed the Taliban as we peeled back into cover, however when I jumped into the ditch, I somehow injured my back”.
“On our return to the CP (Checkpoint), I found great difficulty in removing my body armour and I was hunched over in chronic pain. I remained on the ground but took five days off to rest my back. I then proceeded on a further three more patrols but I just couldn’t keep up with the multiple because of the pain in my back. It was then that my commander told me that I had become a liability. I didn’t want to hear it, that was f**king heartbreaking“.
I can completely understand how this would knock a soldier’s pride and dignity, especially when you love the army as much as Matt did. When all you want to do is operate alongside your muckers but then to be told the heartbreaking truth that you are a liability, I can only imagine this to be more painful than the injury itself.
“It was breaking my heart, I cried every single night because all I wanted, was to deploy back on the ground with my multiple. Needless to say that when the doctor told me that I would be returning home, I f**king snapped”
“I was pissing and s**ting my pants regularly, the whole of my left side was completely numb and both of my legs were tingling. They sent me home on a stretcher whilst the men around me had such injuries like being shot in the face, another man had been shot in the chest and another guy had half of his hand blown off. Yet, here I was with all my limbs intact and I was the one who was on the stretcher. I felt like I had let my cap badge down“.
Imagine being in the same position as a soldier who is being sent home from Afghanistan knowing that your best friends are still fighting on the frontline. I know that my mind would not be at ease as I am sure that Matt’s mind was in pieces.
“As far as I was concerned, I had failed which is why I couldn’t bring myself to tell my family that I was coming home”.
How did you cope with this unforeseen situation when you did finally arrive home?
“I moved out from living with my family for eighteen months because of the comfort I found in alcohol. One time when I was drunk, I set fire to my own flat and then I smashed up my wife’s flat.
I am by no means proud of my actions, I just didn’t want to be at home, I wanted to be with the men back in Afghan. Every time I tried to sleep, I couldn’t help but think about Afghanistan”.
What about the injury to your back, how severe was it?
“The doctor said that my back was in a s**t state. I had a third of the depth of each disc for the entire length of my spine. I burst one disc, torn another and put a disc out. I was then put in for an operation which was on the 27th of September and the significance of that date was that this date was exactly one year from the day that I initially deployed to Afghanistan”.
I realise that your injury is not a typically visible injury from war like most war casualties. For example, amputations, frag and gunshot wounds.
“I’m constantly struggling to prove to people that I had a genuine injury, no one believed me until I had to go in for an operation. I’ve lost 67% flexibility in my spine and 16% feeling in my left side”.
So after having these operations, are you confident to state that you are in the process of getting back on your feet?
“I’ve had a lot of help with everything and especially from Help for Heroes. Help for Heroes can turn your negatives into positives. Recently, I’ve had a lot of help from ‘Combat Stress” and although I didn’t want to hear it, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I know I struggle but I didn’t want to be diagnosed with that, I don’t want what comes with it. I did my shooting course with Help for Heroes because I want my firearms license to go hand in hand with my games keeping course but the diagnoses of PTSD may affect this”
“I feel like they have tried to diagnose the PTSD before justifying it. It’s not post traumatic, it’s just how I told my wife. I told her, I don’t want you to understand my problems, I want you to understand that I have problems“.
What sort of problems do you feel you have?
“As a twenty-seven-year-old man who had put his whole life into the army and had made many sacrifices to succeed and then to hear that you are now a liability is devastating. I know the truth, I just can’t accept it, I was a liability and I had to go”
“Because of this, I now find myself in a constant battle with my own suicidal thoughts. Suicide is sometimes very attractive and I occasionally consider what would be the best way to go. Nevertheless, the soldier in us continues to fight through. I think as a soldier we would rather struggle than give up”.
The veterans suicide rate is high, far too high, in fact, it’s always one veteran too high. I wish I could just get through to other veterans and tell them all individually that suicide is not the only way out. I’ve had suicidal thoughts myself during the transition from soldier to civilian, nonetheless, I have never been so grateful for my life as I am now.
If you are personally struggling with suicidal thoughts, please, for f**k sake, reach out and talk to someone! Talking about it is the best thing you can do and I truly believe in that. If you are a veteran reading this, then I suggest that you talk to another veteran because veterans get it and you will be surprised when you realise they understands you.
I understand that Matt is not feeling himself from time to time and I want him to know that he is not alone. I felt like he deserved an opportunity to send a message out to other veterans and this is what he had to say:
“If you are finding it hard and it’s not working out in ‘civvy street’, join the TA because it’s the army but on your own terms. Be proud and don’t be disillusioned.” – Matt O’Rourke
I want to thank Matt O’Rourke for sharing such personally matters with us. The truth is, there are far too many veterans out there who probably feel Matt’s pain and I wish I could help every single one of them but I feel that I do not have the wisdom to bring these veterans on and I certainly can’t do it alone.
Therefore, if you know a veteran who seems to be struggling with mental health issues, please, don’t try to understand his problems but understand that he or she has problems. Try to encourage them to talk about it if you can but most importantly, do not give up on them.
Thank you for taking the time to read this week’s blog as it does mean a lot to these veterans and I.
We appreciate your support.
Please feel free to share some advice in the comments below.
Take care of each other – Jamie and featured veteran, Matt O’Rourke
A personal message to Matt O’Rourke: Matt, don’t feel like you let anyone down out there. You installed confidence in me as my point man. Your diligence and professionalism reassured me when we operated on the ground. It was just bad luck that you happened to injure your back, it wasn’t your fault and we don’t hold any blame on you. You’re a cracking bloke and I am honoured to have met you.
Soldier to Civi has got your back