Bush Jnr's Iraq: Added to massive civilian bloodshed, comes horrendous cannon fodder injury Print E-mail
 Pakistan -- May 18, 2006 Thursday Rabi-us-Sani 19, 1427

Walking wounded

The Iraq war is a conflict unlike any other. An unknown and unseen enemy, no safe-zone and no defined battleground have created uniquely damaging cocktail of psychological stresses, with suicide and depression among returning armed forces soaring. Mark Townsend meets some of the men and women for whom the war will never end
She would appear in his dreams every night, her tiny body swinging above the crowd that had lynched her for accepting sweets from a passing soldier. Peter Mahoney would never forget the noose digging into her narrow neck –– her blank stare through the suffocating heat of a March afternoon in southern Iraq.

One damp Cumbrian morning 15 months later, Mahoney methodically dressed himself in full military regalia, shaved off his hair and marched to his garage on Carlisle’s Botcherby estate. There, the father-of-four attached a hosepipe to the exhaust and unfurled it inside the family’s navy-blue Rover. He was found slumped face down by his wife, Donna. Sprawled beside him were mementos of happier times: faded pictures of their beaming children, Valentine’s cards they had traded during 22 years of marriage.

Mahoney left his favourite leather jacket for Matthew, 21, and Arsenal memorabilia for Ben, 11. Nineteen-year-old Ashley acquired a pair of earrings bearing the red cross of St George, representing the country their father once so proudly served in Iraq. Nothing though was left behind for Vicky, their youngest. Demonised by his nightmares, the reservist could no longer communicate with his own daughter.

Mahoney entered Iraq on the evening of 21 March 2003, moving north under a kaleidoscope of tracer and rocket fire. That same night, the world gazed in shock as Baghdad shuddered under George Bush’s promise to unleash a military might never before seen on the face of the planet. Hampered by a murky definition of success, its exit strategy shrouded in fog, Britain’s role in a £5.5bn campaign remains a matter for fierce debate.

Less examined is the price paid by the British men and women actually involved in the conflict. At the time of writing, 103 British service personnel have died, leaving behind 38 widows and 65 fatherless children. We also know another 4,300 UK men and women have been evacuated back to Britain from its baking battlefields. But such statistics can seldom tell the whole story, nor explain Iraq's injurious impact on the minds of so many.

In Mahoney’s suicide the conflict’s many stresses are most profoundly articulated. In his final weeks, Donna recalls how the 45-year-old became plagued by the belief that too many were making sacrifices in a war that had gone wrong. “He began to believe the war was purely about oil and what a terrible, futile, waste of life it all was. I suppose he saw too many bad things... the little girl, the general suffering,” she said.

More broadly Mahoney’s decision challenges the common assumption that those who go to war are simply doing their job. Sometimes, even soldiers can be damaged in a way that cannot be repaired. Mahoney’s decline is far from unique. At least 21 British Iraq veterans are suspected of committing suicide, equal to 20 per cent of the total casualties recognised as having died in the three-year campaign. While the Ministry of Defence’s official Iraq death toll of 103 includes five suspected suicides, it has emerged that another 13 are believed to have taken their lives after returning from the conflict.

Another three, including Mahoney, left the services before killing themselves. Iraq has prompted more than three times as many British service personnel to commit suicide than were killed by enemy action before Saddam’s statue was toppled in May 2003. But the statistic’s true significance is more shocking still: it reveals that proportionately more British Iraq veterans have killed themselves than Iraq veterans in the US, where the issue so perturbed the Pentagon that a special inquiry was ordered into high suicide rates among those who had served in Iraq.

Across the Atlantic, military psychiatrists anticipate that a fifth of servicemen and women returning from Iraq will experience some form of psychiatric disorder. Here, 1,400 have so far required counselling for trauma. The government’s first-ever audit into the mental equilibrium of the armed forces in Iraq will shortly confirm that thousands more will follow.

Each war carries its own medical signature. The trench warfare of the First World War produced shell shock, while the Second World War’s prolonged tours induced a numbing exhaustion known as combat fatigue. Later, Vietnam would give us post traumatic stress disorder. A series of mystery illnesses affecting thousands from the 1991 Iraq conflict gave birth to Gulf war syndrome, a catch-all phrase to explain ailments linked to soldiers’ multiple vaccine injections and exposure to nerve gas.

Now, Britain has a new psychosis among its armed forces. Historians will surely one day refer to an ‘Iraq syndrome’. Already the condition can be seen in the lively Internet threads of battle-scarred veterans questioning why they are there. It, too, can be witnessed in those who sit in cafes with their backs to the walls, those who can be whisked, in an instant, by a car backfiring to a long night in Maysan province. Before Iraq, Bonfire Night was Mahoney’s favourite family outing. Upon his return, the whoosh of minirockets left him quaking behind the settee.

Nobody understands what triggers Post-traumatic stress disorder; why some succumb and others remain seemingly immune. Certainly, answers cannot be found in Britain’s Iraq death toll. The British army suffered 3.6 fatalities a day during the Falklands conflict, compared to only one every 11 days in Iraq, yet the cerebral fallout of the latter already appears dozens of times greater. Psychiatrists believe Iraq’s omnipresent dangers are exerting a uniquely damaging effect: suicide bombers, unknown and unseen enemies, a hostile land with no safe zone and no defined battleground.

David Corrigan waited outside the local Tesco’s as night fell over Catterick. Two days earlier he was on the frontline of Iraq. Now he could barely walk, his ruptured knee the size of a grapefruit following a serious fall. Earlier that day, the 40-year-old had landed at RAF Halton, near Luton, to discover he would have to hitch home. As the first drops of rain fell, Corporal Corrigan pondered how he would complete the 70 miles back home.

No one had told his wife he was injured, let alone back. Neither had he been offered full medical treatment for an injury that has left him disabled. His mind wandered over a 22-year career in the regular and territorial army; the joy at being named a champion recruit in the mid-eighties, his distinguished service with the paratroopers, including a tour of Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles.

Like Mahoney, it was the image of a child entangled in the horrors of war that would haunt him. Again it was a sight that reminded him of his own daughter. On the night of April 8 2003, Corrigan’s regiment stumbled across a vicious fire fight at Adaiya, southern Iraq. During the chaos, he remembers the mangled torso of a small girl being loaded into a military ambulance. “She was the same age as my daughter at the time, about two-and-a-half. She had lost all her limbs and was bleeding massively. She never made it.”

Private Mark Dobson picked Corrigan up the day the reservist returned from Iraq. For those that knew the pair, Dobson’s mercy mission was no surprise. Together, they were as thick as thieves, with Corrigan naming Dobson as his best man when he married Marie, and later pronouncing him godfather to his daughter Anomi. But Iraq had scarred Dobson, too. Almost two years after picking up his closest friend in Catterick, the 41-year-old from Darlington would kill himself in his Basra bed. His suicide note described the ‘evil world’ encountered in Iraq. ‘Sorry to let you down lads,’ it concluded.

Mahoney, too, left a letter apologising for his suicide. Unlike Corrigan’s homecoming, however, his was a euphoric occasion with the entire family dancing around the four candles of Vicky’s birthday cake in an unbridled double celebration. They would never be as happy again. Precisely one year later, Donna remembers having to coerce her husband downstairs just to say hello to his daughter on her big day.

Alone with his nightmares, Mahoney could not reconcile his memories of Iraq with the mundanity of civvy street. Ultimately, Mahoney found that the mind cannot fold away some images as neatly as the desert fatigues he wore that summer’s morning in his Rover.

Donna believes that if her husband had received counselling, their children would have a father. An MoD leaflet on psychological therapy was found ripped to shreds beneath his body. Unlike regulars, reservists are not obliged to receive counselling.

Three months before Mahoney’s suicide, the MoD closed its last dedicated centre for treating psychiatric illness, based, of all places, in Catterick. Despite the billions ploughed into the conflict, no special budget has been set aside to offer counselling to reservists such as Mahoney. The number of psychiatric nurses stationed in Iraq has, though, increased by 50 per cent to 120 since the conflict began –– a tacit admission, perhaps, of a mounting problem.

Donna Mahoney is determined to keep the debate over soldiers’ mental health alive. Soon, the 42-year-old will make history by becoming the first Iraq widow to sue the government over her husband’s death. Alleging the MoD’s lack of care, her legal action poses the government vexing questions over what remains a hidden cost of the conflict.

Iraq syndrome does not discriminate. Young and old alike are found among its victims. Royal Engineer Eddie Hosdell, a 21-year-old from Hull, marked his anniversary of service in Iraq by leaping from the Humber Bridge. Dobson was considered a battle-hardened recruit and a father figure among his regiment. The pressures of Iraq can corrupt personalities beyond recognition.

By the end, Private Mahoney had degenerated into a volatile character prone to violence. Lance Corporal David Atkinson returned deeply troubled by Iraq and raped and murdered Sally Geeson, 21, after she left a Cambridge pub in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2005, before immolating himself.

By and large, though, Britain does not expect post-traumatic stress syndrome among its returning soldiers. Unlike the United States, where Vietnam’s legacy scorched the issue of soldiers’ suffering into the national psyche, the condition here remains viewed with unease. Instead, soldiers are expected to dutifully shoulder the most traumatic dynamic imaginable –– to kill or be killed. Scrutinise the Internet chatrooms where service personnel swap stories and it is hard to avoid the consensus that many have had enough of feeling unloved amid the animosity of Iraq.

An online military poll started when Britain’s casualty count stood at 87 –– May 2005 –– reveals that 84 per cent believe the armed forces should withdraw. Some, though, harbour faith. One RAF officer, invigorated by the large turnout of last year’s elections, believes coalition forces must remain for the ‘sake of democracy’. Now new local elections loom in Iraq. Their outcome will prove pivotal; an escalation in violence will further cloud Britain’s exit strategy.

But already Afghanistan looms, an equally ambitious deployment that has heaved further strain on Britain’s overstretched armed forces. As hundreds more British troops arrive this month, those already positioned in the restive south of the country concede escalating demands are eroding an already fragile morale.

Elsewhere, the Territorial Army has shrunk to its smallest since being founded 99 years ago. Just 35,000 remain, compared to 59,000 six years ago. Even so, the MoD insists the armed forces remain at virtually full fighting strength and morale is buoyant. Psychiatric illnesses are treated seriously, adds the MoD. Shadow defence secretary Dr Liam Fox is among a growing chorus who fear the government is asking too much from an institution increasingly wearied from waging an unpopular war. ‘We’ve seen gaps between tours of duty decline, divorce rates rise and morale from many parts of our armed forces begin to drop. Overstretch has a large impact on their welfare and unfortunately it is inevitable that recruitment starts to suffer.’

With senior officers predicting casualties in Helmand as inevitable, forces’ families will spend another summer praying they never hear the dreaded knock on the door. Maureen Shearer received hers just after 9am on July 16 last year. Her son Richard had been killed by a roadside bomb beside his Land Rover. The MoD report into the second lieutenant’s death expressed concern over the vehicle’s vulnerability, but explained an armoured carrier would have ‘antagonised’ locals.

As it was, locals are suspected of guiding Richard to the place where he died. Not a single resident left their homes to help following the explosion. That her son died so unloved by the people he hoped to liberate has haunted Maureen ever since. So, too, her son’s decision to leave the ‘much better equipped’ French Foreign Legion because the 25-year-old wanted to serve his country.

Army wives slowly resent their husbands disappearing to places they may never return from. Donna Mahoney admits that in the weeks that followed 21 March 2003, the uncertainty over her husband’s welfare became so acute she felt jealousy when the coffins of dead soldiers began arriving back at RAF Brize Norton –– at least then the worrying would be over. As always, it is the children who suffer most. Some fail to even recognise their fathers after long tours away. Some never get the chance.

For Shearer, Corrigan and the Mahoneys, such progress seems as distant as it is intangible. So too for Albert Thomson, whose life would change irrevocably one evening in the desert of southern Iraq five days after ‘shock and awe’ visited Baghdad.

Thomson had survived another long day of fighting when a colleague inexplicably opened fire on the sergeant. He remembers a burning sensation, then a dullness creeping down his body. By the time the 37-year-old reached the medical tent, he had haemorrhaged so much blood that a saline solution was practically all that pumped through his arteries. “There was a numbing feeling, but the real pain was in my hand where a finger was almost shot off, hanging there like a lump. I expected danger, but not to be shot by one of your own.”

The young father would never walk with his own feet again. Days later, Thomson’s left leg was amputated two inches above his knee amid reports that the army had neither the expertise nor the equipment to save his limb. Three years on, his sacrifice remains unacknowledged by the army he joined as an eager 18-year-old. The MoD has yet to officially offer its condolences.

The man who shot Thomson has never made contact, let alone said sorry. From the family home near Spalding, in Lincolnshire, Thomson reflects grimly on receiving ‘battlefield immunity’ forms before service. “It soon dawned on me why the army encouraged us to take out as much life insurance as possible. They never accepted responsibility, yet they still talk about being one big family.” Thomson learned the hard way that the only support he could count upon was that of his wife Michelle and Luke, their son, who was 18 months old when Dad nearly died at a time when the war felt fresh and Britain still believed in a brief skirmish.

Three years on and Iraq’s deteriorating stability points only to a messy, controversial withdrawal. If there is a lesson to be learned, then it is that future conflicts should not be defined during war itself, but rather by what happens after a regime is destroyed. But Iraq also offers another grim reminder, if ever one was required, of the psychological impact of war upon those who serve.

Just before he headed north on the night of 21 March 2003, Mahoney sent his wife a letter. As usual, it talked about how he was missing the children and of his dreams for ‘when we get old and dotty’ together. But soon those dreams would become nightmares, until finally even the future was crushed by the horrors of the past.­ Dawn/Observer Service