'You can teach a man to kill but not to see dying'


Ex-soldier wins award for speaking frankly and forcefully on the mental distress of war veterans. Hear him talk about combat stress in this audio clip.


Mark Gould The Guardian, Wednesday October 10 2007


This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday October 10 2007 on p7 of the Society news & features section. It was last updated at 10:42 on October 10 2007.

The Sir Galahad on fire in the Falklands. Photograph: PA

The air is blue with cigarette smoke and swearing as Chris Duggan recalls the smell of his injured comrades: "If you imagine burnt pork and plastic; I can still taste it." Flashbacks are common symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but Duggan, a Falklands war veteran, wasn't diagnosed until 1990, eight years after the conflict. By then his mood swings and aggression had destroyed his marriage and nearly killed him.

Tonight, his courage in talking about his illness in Combat Stress, a BBC Radio Wales programme, and his calls for more support for ex-forces' personnel, is being recognised when he receives the Speaking Out award at the annual Mental Health Media Awards.

Duggan joined the Welsh Guards when he was 16 and served in Northern Ireland and Cyprus before the Falklands. Sitting in his house on a Swansea council estate, he takes alternate pulls on his asthma inhaler and a roll-up cigarette as he tells how he lost 48 friends and colleagues when the landing ship Sir Galahad, packed with troops and ammunition, was bombed and caught fire in San Carlos Water.

"On the 8th of June, 1982, me and a couple of others were on a 'foraging' expedition, scrounging some fags and booze for our boys," he recalls. "We heard 'all hands' and we went up to the field hospital. These helicopters were coming in and we were asked to help get the boys off. We didn't know who they were or what had happened, but when they opened the doors the stench was horrendous."

Over the next few days, the full toll became clear. Duggan says: "In Northern Ireland, we had deaths, but it was one at a time - terrible, but you could handle it. But these were very close friends of mine, many I had known since 1970."

After Argentina's surrender, it was Duggan's job to sort through the dead men's kit so that personal effects and clothing could be sent to their families. By August, he was back in England and on five weeks' leave - no counselling, no debriefing. Indeed, the regiment was told by its new commanding officer to "forget the Falklands".

When Duggan left the army in 1986, things were wrong. "I was a bit psycho," he says. "I was verbally aggressive, very uncooperative. I was arguing with the wife, and eventually we divorced. I decided to change the kitchen around one day, get all new stuff, so I threw everything out of the window. I was 10 storeys up in a flat. I poured brandy all over the video and it melted. I flooded the bathroom."

It was then his neighbour kicked the door down and took Duggan to the GP, who prescribed antidepressants. Duggan didn't take the drugs, and things worsened - uncontrollable fits of crying, bouts of violence, and hallucinations. "For a short time, I would see people who died on the ship. [One] driving a fucking milkfloat. [One] a policeman in Swansea."

Eventually, he was hospitalised and prescribed tranquillisers and antidepressants, but there was never any exploration of his military experiences. In 1990, after a hospital appointment was cancelled Duggan simply drifted away from the NHS. He met an army mate and they got talking about his experiences. "He said: 'You've got the same as me, PTSD'.

"He told me I should see his doctor - Jonathan Bisson, a consultant psychiatrist at University hospital Cardiff and a specialist in PTSD. I have been under him now for 13 years. He recognised PTSD straight away and put me on [the antidepressant] Seroxat. I have been on it ever since."

Bisson also referred Duggan to Combat Stress, the ex-services mental health charity which runs three homes and provides respite, welfare and treatment and support for families. Duggan is now a vocal campaigner for Combat Stress and for better access to psychiatric help for service personnel. He feels Combat Stress should be running forces' mental health services rather than the NHS which is, he believes, "too clinical", or the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is "too authoritarian".

Duggan says Combat Stress has been vital over the last few months since the death of his partner of 17 years. "I have been a bit volatile, but Combat Stress people understand," he says. "You go there for a couple of weeks and you are among friends, from the cleaners to the top man, and the banter is great. Combat Stress is not publicised enough, especially now there are more guys needing help who have been to Afghanistan and Iraq."

He is grateful for today's award but embarrassed at the public acclaim. "I am not brave," he insists. "My goal is to make people aware there is help out there."

In June this year, on the 25th anniversary of the conflict, Falklands' veterans were told by the MoD that they can access mental health assessments under the medical assessment programme, which was set up in 1993 to help servicemen returning from the first Gulf war. But Duggan can hear the sound of stable doors being slammed. He says: "There were 256 British fatalities in the Falklands, but there have been well over 300 suicides since. There was one three weeks ago. You hear of so many taking to drugs or alcohol."

He is not certain there will ever be a foolproof way of protecting soldiers from mental illness. "You teach a man to kill, but you can't teach a man to die or see death and dying," he says. "Nothing can prepare you for that. Coming back [from conflict] everyone should have a psychological debrief. It should be like shearing sheep - everyone goes through the gate."

Until that happens, there are more battles. He produces a letter setting out the NHS charter that promises service personnel priority treatment. He says: "I have a hearing aid that broke. I rang the hospital which said it didn't have any record of me having one. They said I had to go to my GP. So I have to go through all this shit again to get a hearing aid. And it's happening to a lot of ex-forces' guys. I have been waiting 15 years to get a new kneecap because I have arthritis due to injuries in service."

He cackles, takes another drag on his cigarette, and delivers his verdict on the establishment: "In the end, it comes down to: 'That's it, Tommy Atkins. Give us your rifle back and fuck off.'"