Families driven to breaking point by strain of caring for husbands back from Afghanistan.
Nikita Dallison was only 20 minutes into the three-hour drive to her parents’ house in Bedfordshire when she felt an inexplicable urge to make a U-turn. Her husband, Luke, a military policeman in the Royal Air Force, had seemed unusually upbeat of late, but Dallison could not ignore the dread stabbing at her core.
Her intuition was proved correct when she reached their home at RAF Shawbury and found her husband crouched by the bins in the kitchen, methodically cutting into his forearm with a razor blade. He had found just the right angle to open a vein.
“There was blood everywhere,” said Dallison, 27, recalling the incident of spring 2015. “I know I shouldn’t but I just started punching him in the head and screaming at him, I was so mad at him. He was crying: all he could say was, ‘Why did you come back?’”
Across Britain, women are banding together to demand adequate treatment for partners whose military careers have been cut short by post-traumatic stress disorder sustained in Afghanistan.
As those who cared for husbands bearing psychological injuries from Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf, Bosnia, Iraq, and other deployments well know, finding the right help can be an exhausting, all-consuming, lonely and expensive ordeal.
“Families are being driven to breaking point,” said Sue Boardman-McInally, founder of Combat PTSD Angels, whose husband served in Northern Ireland. In six years, her network has grown from a handful of members to 350.
Until recently, the shattering impact of PTSD on families has barely been acknowledged outside close-knit military communities, as many women are loth to speak out for fear of upsetting volatile husbands or subjecting their children to greater stress.
Advocates for better services also face another problem: emphasising the plight of the most severe cases might reinforce damaging stereotypes that can make it harder for the majority of ex-forces personnel to readjust to civilian life.
Nevertheless, over the past year, in interviews and audio diaries recorded for a BBC radio documentary, The Enemy Within, women decided to open up about the realities of caring for partners who suddenly seem like strangers.
“All I did was say, ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ and he just grabbed me by the throat and he picked me up off the floor and was squeezing my neck with one hand,” Dallison said. “I’ve never seen anyone’s eyes like that in my life – he had no idea it was me,” she said, adding that her husband – a 32-year-old corporal – had never shown such behaviour before Afghanistan.
Luke and Nikita Dallison earlier in their marriage. Photograph: Courtesy of Luke and Nikita Dallison
Dallison and her peers have seen first-hand how trauma can cause physical changes in the body and brain that drive flashbacks, gut-twisting anxiety, emotional numbness or surges of uncontrollable aggression.
With proper care, people with PTSD can often make remarkable recoveries. But veterans can easily develop addictions as they try to blot out their symptoms, and many cannot accept that they are unwell. Spouses then face a dilemma: stay in impossible relationships, and try to shield their children, or abandon partners to implode.
The number of personnel discharged because of PTSD has grown markedly as operations have wound down in Afghanistan: from 50 in 2011-12 to 189 last year. Taking a broader perspective, data from the King’s Centre for Military Health Research suggests that almost 40,000 veterans of the 758,000 regulars who served from 1991-2014 are likely to suffer from PTSD.
Although there is evidence that the PTSD stigma in the forces is eroding, many personnel are reluctant to seek help. Karen Smith, whose husband was medically discharged as a result of PTSD in 2014 after serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, recalled disparaging remarks made by his army colleagues. “There’s no doubt the attitude was, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you’,” Smith said. “I felt isolated and helpless.”
Night terrors aggravate the strains. A woman, who asked to be identified as Alison, said she survived on a few hours’ sleep because her husband, Ben, who served as a medic in Afghanistan, would re-enact ambushes in his dreams.
“I’ve been treated for gunshot wounds at three in the morning. I’ve had him shouting, ‘Hang on! It’s OK! I’ve called for backup!’” she said. “It’s absolutely terrifying because it’s always in the back of your mind: ‘What happens if in one of his dreams I’m the enemy?’”
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on individual cases, but says servicemen and women can access support at mental health clinics on military bases.
When personnel leave the forces, their care shifts to the overstretched NHS. Although the health service is working to improve its support for veterans, Ben’s case illustrates a glaring gap: in-patient clinics capable of providing specialised, long-term trauma therapy.
Ben attended a six-week residential PTSD programme at the charity Combat Stress, but he subsequently deteriorated and was admitted to an NHS psychiatric ward.
“I cannot believe the British public could accept that somebody who has fought for their country should be sectioned because there is nowhere to send them,” said Gilly Norton, founder of the charity Supporting Wounded Veterans, which has since helped Ben to access a unit at the Maudsley hospital. “It would be wonderful if the charities could get together to address this problem.”
With Luke Dallison’s 12-year career about to end because of a combination of his PTSD and back injuries, his wife hopes the groundswell of demands for better support may eventually spare others from a similar precipice.
“He just thinks he’s a weak person and in his own words he’s ‘pathetic’,” Nikita Dallison said. “I know that when this horrible monster takes over, it’s not my husband.”
The Enemy Within is on BBC Radio 3 at 9.30pm on Saturday. Matthew Green’s book Aftershock: Fighting War, Surviving Trauma, and Finding Peace is published by Portobello.
The Afghan Tribune | The Guardian | Published: March 4, 2017, 11:24 AM