From THE SUNDAY TIMES magazine, 5 Oct 03
Simon Weston's new book, Moving On, was published on Thursday
It was a while after the explosion when I started to get depressed; three years or more before the flashbacks started. My skin was still distorting, I kept getting infections and I couldn’t do anything for myself, but it was what was going on in my head that was unbearable. I felt so guilty. These boys were dying, my hands were injured, I couldn’t breathe. It was 21 years ago and I still think: “If I could have just got one person out, I'd feel better."
All your training gives you is a split second of reaction time - it can't prepare you for the sights and the smells and the sounds of enemy attack. I used to associate most smells with childhood. Now my strongest sense memories are surrounding death. Nobody can tell you how blood smells, or what it feels like to be engulfed in the thick pall of burning flesh. You can't describe the sound of thousands of men all screaming at once. You’ve no idea that when a bomb explodes you won't be able to breathe because the fire uses up all the oxygen.
It was the colours that stayed with me the longest. The deep, swirling reds and oranges and yellows of the fire. When your life is threatened, everything is slowed down - enhanced, even. It takes for ever to hit the floor and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
At the time I didn't feel any pain, as my body was pumping so much adrenaline. And anyway, all the nerve endings had been blown away. The body can take so much, yet the mind can take so little. Getting hurt is a risk you take when you accept the Queen's shilling. I never gave a sod about my injuries, but the mental scars are something else. I had more than 70 operations on my body and yet nobody ever asked me: “Simon, what is going on in your head?"
Back home, I was filled with self loathing - drinking too much, waking up at night because I was still on fire, hearing the screams of people dying around me. The worst thing about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is that the nightmares also happen in the day, so your entire life is filled with horror, like a living nightmare. The darkness inside was so bad, I could lose a whole weekend and not remember a thing. I was an incredibly sad, lonely person for a hell of a long time. Until one day, on my own in my room, I decided to end it. I tried to top myself with a crossbow - cocked it and everything - but my damaged hands weren't strong enough to pull the twine back on the bow and the damn thing nearly took my fingers off.
People hardly recall the Falklands war now. I’ve lost my grandfather, I've lost my father. I was devastated, but that was a normal response to loss. PTSD is an ongoing response to an experience that is not normal. A friend of mine, Pierre, a medic, joined up. Now a sudden noise, the smell of a log fire, unhinges him. He says his mind's "a locked box with all the beasties still in it”. lf it wasn't for his wife, he would have topped himself years ago.
I'm certain more British servicemen have committed suicide since the Falklands war than were killed during it - 255 were killed in action. It was the mental anguish at what they'd seen, and the guilt that they survived when their mates didn't, which killed them.
The MoD and the government don't want to acknowledge any of this, purely because it would cost them money. More than 2,000 veterans added their names to a class action, suing the MoD for failing to detect and treat mental trauma in service people returning from war. In May, the judge ruled that the MoD and army weren't negligent because PTSD wasn't established to have existed before 1987 by the British. What kind of proof do they need? We've had two world wars, the Gulf, Bosnia. There are thousands of PTSD cases in the US, some still with symptoms after 40 years. Specialists in PTSD from the US were asked to testify but none came. Trust me, it looks like the block came from the highest government level. Bush and Blair worked out between them that opening the floodgates on this one would not be a good thing. The judgment concluded that any new PTSD cases have to be treated by the NHS. The NHS can't deal with a simple hernia operation. How will it find the expertise and the resources to treat men whose minds have been ravaged by war?
I still had problems with PTSD after 10 years. I have mood swings now, a huge dark hole you can't get out of. I talk to my wife, but I hold back because I don't want to upset her. I talk to my mates who were there. There's strength in our shared experience, but soldiers don't cry. We’re sarcastic, crude - offensive, even. Strangely, it helps. There was a fabulous quote on a lavvy wall in one military barracks. Roosevelt, I think. It went: "For those of us who have known combat, life has a flavour that the protected will never know". I hang on to that. I've come to see that what I have - my life, my wife, my children - is more precious in the light of what was lost.