Injured First World War soldier
I worked as a journalist for one of the country’s leading news websites for four years during the height of the conflict in Afghanistan.
Not once did I see a report which conveyed the unvarnished horror of what was happening to our young men as honestly and powerfully as the clinical description by a medical journal that follows.
"The most common injury resulting from an IED is traumatic or immediate surgical amputation of the legs. Shrapnel is blasted upwards and outwards and can cause extensive damage including abdominal injuries, trauma to upper limbs including amputation, extensive soft tissue damage or burns, bony fractures from being flung away from the blast and facial injuries including penetrating eye injuries.
“Wounds need to be constantly inspected and remain open for long periods of time, often weeks after injury. The patient may require surgical debridement every 48 to 72 hours.
“Patients may experience disorientation as they wake up from sedation and this may be accompanied by flashbacks of their experiences, the incident or colleagues being injured. There are degrees of flashbacks, from disorientation that simply require reassurance to more severe hallucinations. Patients may believe they are being held captive by the Taliban, groping for weapons or trying to jump out of bed to escape.”
Nursing Times, 7 January 2011
'The brightest and the best'
What I did see – and was required to produce – were short reports “marking” each new death.
The content of these initial reports were entirely made up of information provided by the Ministry of Defence press office.
This included a vague statement of the circumstances of his death, such as “came under enemy fire” or “killed by roadside bomb”, the general region in which he was killed, along with his name, age, rank and regiment. There might also be a photograph of the young man, taken while he was still alive and in dress uniform.
Soon afterwards the MoD press office would provide a list of approved quotes that we would weave into updates of the article.
Here are typical examples.
"A spokesman said the soldier was 'the brightest and the best" who had "died defending his comrades'."
"Those who served alongside him were privileged and feel his loss most deeply. Our prayers and thoughts are with his family at this extremely difficult time."
The article would rarely be published as a lead story. Very soon afterwards the news agenda would move on.
Later, when the bodies arrived back by military aircraft, we would report on the mourning wives and families lining the streets, showing pictures of spotless black funeral cars, carrying pristine coffins draped in immaculately-folded union flags.
This is what I saw
I decided that if it was impossible to report on the reality of how these men died I would report on the consequences of the injuries for the men who lived.
But I soon found out that serving soldiers are not allowed to speak to the press unless given permission by their chain of command. For those who have been catastrophically wounded, the best care available was at the military rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey. Headley Court only offered care to serving soldiers.
The MoD told me that repercussions for soldiers speaking to the press without clearance would not be "substantial" and that in any case twice a year the press are invited to meet injured personnel at an honours ceremony.
I went to one, it was heavily stage-managed, not a situation where you could speak privately with a soldier about his experiences. I wondered whether someone who was angry and resentful about what had happened to them would have been invited in the first place.
I was also told that very understandably many recently-injured men do not want to face the glare of the press when they are so damaged and fragile and that it was the duty of the MoD to protect them from that intrusion.
The images of wounded soldiers we most-often see are those that accompany charity expeditions and fundraising events, once they are feeling much stronger and on their way to recovery. Images of smiling veterans, their blasted and shredded limbs now replaced by neat, hi-tech prosthetics.
I felt that as a journalist I was being shown a sanitised version of reality. So one day I decided to go to the hospital injured men were flown back to from Afghanistan and just walk in. Not as a journalist. Just as someone who cared and needed to see the truth behind the press releases.
This is what I saw.
I saw a man being pushed in a wheelchair backwards along the hospital corridor, his shoulders were draped in a white medical blanket, but I could still see the back of his head.
All but a few tufts of hair had been seared off, the skin was blotched and peeling, his head a round swollen lump.
Walking along beside him was a soldier in Army fatigues, facing him as the wheelchair rolled backwards along the corridor, was a woman with dark hair talking quietly to him, she looked straight at his face, pretending not to notice what was in front of her.
As he was wheeled past, his face came into view. I quickly looked away. His lips and eyelids were swollen and protruding, as if they had been turned inside out. The soft internal skin a puss yellow colour. His mouth was slightly open, taught with silent pain. Where his eyes should have been, there were two black holes in the bloated red and pink flesh of his face.
His features were almost too destroyed to make out any expression, but as I snatched another glimpse at the three black slits of his eyes and mouth, I could see they were frozen in a stunned, bewildered agony.
I remember looking down and noticing one of his hands poking from beneath the white blanket, resting on the material of his hospital-issue pyjamas, it looked like a withered and charred claw. I suddenly realised the reason they were pushing him backwards was so he didn’t have to see the expressions on people's faces as they saw him coming.
This is what’s still happening to the young men we still send to war. It’s time to take a long, hard look.
By Dan Bell
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