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Broken by war: the Army reservist still battling with combat stress - and worried about declining mental health support for the growing ranks of part-time soldiers
15/01/2014

Independent

At two o’clock in the afternoon, Jake Wood releases the three heavy locks that protect his flat, which he calls his “gilded cage”. The door opens to reveal an unshaven face and tired eyes. Wood can’t remember the last night he slept well. It takes him several hours each morning to face the day.

“Most people forget what their nightmares are about after a few minutes,” he says inside his flat, where he lives alone. “I don’t. They pretty much always involve killing – either people being killed or me killing people.”

A little over six years ago, Wood, who is 40 and lives in London, saw life through the sights of a heavy machine gun from a remote hill-top hut in Afghanistan. He says he and his comrades kept score of downed Taliban militants on a wooden beam.

“But it doesn’t matter how many you’ve killed,” he adds. “If you’ve killed, you’ve killed.” The horror of friends dying in front of him would further fuel his nightmares.

Weeks later, Wood parachuted back into his other life – as an analyst at an investment bank in Canary Wharf in East London. He describes himself then as “a suited employee of a bank masquerading as a soldier, or was it the other way round?” At his desk, his increasingly dissonant lives became unbearable. As bosses fired off new, alien acronyms, a pre-crash banking industry revealed to Wood a lack of everything he felt had sustained him in the army – honour, trust, purpose.

“I was surrounded by people who had no idea what I’d been doing and seeing, and probably didn’t care,” Wood says. “I started having the same reaction to stress as I was having in Afghanistan. This grey fog would come down and I’d get really stressed until my brain said, that’s enough, and I stared blankly into space. I’d shut down.”

There are new reasons you should worry about Wood. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a debilitating mental condition once known as shell shock that can affect every aspect of a veteran’s life. Last weekend, the Ministry of Defence launched a £3m recruitment drive for more than 10,000 new soldiers as it tries desperately to boost the Army Reserve, formerly known as the Territorial Army, from 19,000 troops to 30,000 by 2020. At the same time, it is cutting the regular army from 102,000 to 82,000 troops.

Part-timers are becoming central to a more integrated (and cheaper) fighting force. Senior military figures worry about the impact of such changes on our defence capability; the head of Britain’s Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Houghton, said last month that the military risks becoming a “hollow force”. For Jake Wood, and for leading experts in military mental health, what’s more critical is the effect of the changes on the well-being of reservists – and a level of support that they say is falling.

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