MAJOR TOM OAKLEY. COMPANY COMMANDER 1ST BATTALION IRISH GUARDS
Back in December, I was at a dinner party with some of my oldest friends from university, when one of them turned to me and remarked that she often forgets that I am in the Army.
This simple comment lodged in my brain for the rest of the dinner and I realised that I have experienced things that they thankfully never would. I have seen men die, both friends and foes. I have lost friends and had to go to the funerals of people who passed far too early, their lives barely begun. I have seen parts of the world that the people around the dinner table that night would never visit. I have seen the simple dignity of a mother in Baghdad, trying to raise her family amongst the chaos of civil war, intermittent electricity, water and food supplies, all while her house is being searched by strange men, from a strange land with strange voices and guns in their hands. I have seen men do unspeakably cruel things to one another in the name of their religions. I have met amazing people from all over the world and had the privilege of serving with some of the most professional and interesting people, most of whom have had to overcome incredible hardships in their own lives. I could have said all of this to my friends, I could have tried to make them understand the things that I have seen and done. Instead, I lied. I shrugged and laughed it off with a silly joke. And in doing so, I perpetuated a simple truth, that all soldiers lie.
But why do we lie?
We lie, because of the things that those of us who have experienced war have seen and done. War is a screaming, chaotic bedlam of noise, a visceral and shocking assault on the senses that leaves you numbed in its wake, struggling to articulate what you have seen and heard and lived through. It is violence and loss, bravery and friendship, heroism and cowardice in unbalanced measures.
As suddenly as it has begun, it is over, receding like the tide going out and leaving a high tide line of emotional and physical flotsam in its wake. But the silence that follows the noise can be just as deafening. Left alone with your thoughts, struggling to process all of the things you have seen and done. For some it is struggling with the act of taking another human life. For others it is dealing with the loss of a friend, coming to the realisation that the person you were talking to that morning will not be waking up in the camp cot next to you ever again. Some feel the creeping guilt of having survived where others did not. That quiet, shameful, elation at having walked away from something that others didn’t.
Some have been injured, their life changed in small or large ways. For the lucky few, it is a close brush with mortality, a gunshot wound to a non-vital area, that leaves little damage but a lasting appreciation of the fragility of life. For a sadly larger majority, it is the life shattering injuries of lost limbs, burns and mental trauma. Injuries that no amount of surgery will every fix and the realisation that life will never be the same again.
Soldiers lie because we need to tell ourselves, and those around us, a comforting narrative. One that explains the truth of what we have seen, done or experienced, in a way that makes it seem that it wasn’t actually all that bad. The lies that we tell about our experiences are our protection, they are curative and comforting. They are not born out of arrogance or self-aggrandisement, they are just ways to talk about something that is beyond the understanding of most people who live in a world where casual, shocking violence is thankfully rare and people are not insulated from an early age against tragic loss. Lies are a coping strategy to insulate survivors against the madness and chaos of war. They are a way to make the experiences feel like it had a point to it, that there was value in the actions that were taken. They make the experiences better for those who go through hell and come out the other side. If lying to ourselves and others is the first step on the road to recovery, then empathy, understanding and support is the next. You will never be able to walk a mile in our shoes, and I suggest that you don’t try, but you can offer your support. You can talk to a soldier about their experiences, both to allow them to process things and to educate yourself on what they have done. Sometimes they may not want to talk, and that is OK too, just be there for them if they need you.
I have sought professional help in the past to process my experiences and it was worth every penny. I am in the fortunate position where I can afford to pay for my own therapy, but others are not. And that is where charities like Back on Track come in. By offering to support soldiers with their physical and mental recovery, they are offering a vital lifeline to men and women in need, be that through surgical interventions or mentally supportive activities such as Go-Karting.
Everyone is busy and everyone has a lot going on in their lives, especially during these difficult times. If you have the time and you know a soldier or someone who has been through a traumatic experience, talk to them. If you don’t have time, then please support those who do by donating to charity.