The hidden echoes of injury in Afghanistan

Stewart saw action in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, but the biggest danger he would face were the memories he took home with him.

On a bright clear day Stewart sat on the beach outside his house, thinking about swimming out into the sea until he didn’t have the strength to swim back.

In the house behind him were his two children and his wife.

From basic to Bosnia

Stewart grew up wanting to join the Royal Marines, just like his grandad. But when he went to sign up at the age of 17 he was told that he was underweight, so Stewart joined the Army instead.

Stewart's grandfather in his Royal Marine uniform.

Stewarts grandfather in his Royal Marine uniform.

He completed his basic training and joined the Welsh Guards. Just before his 18th birthday, Stewart found himself in Bosnia.

“That was a massive culture shock, just all the things I took for granted, like roads. I wasn’t allowed to buy a pint but there I was taking weapons off men who used to be in the Bosnian and Serbian Army.”

Into danger

In 2003 Stewart heard that he was going to be deployed to Iraq.

“The first thing I did was call my mum to tell her I was going. I think I rang her for comfort.”

Though Iraq felt more real than his previous deployments, he still didn’t have a sense of danger. He had a going away party the night before he left.

“It felt more exciting than daunting. In training, we talked about the danger; you’d have someone playing at being shot in the leg and we’d have to deal with it. But it was never real. Even though we were hearing about people being shot and seeing the coffins coming back – it still didn’t register how dangerous the place was.”

“That’s when it became a question of not if, but when something would happen to the lads.”

It wasn’t until Stewart was out there that things became real.

“One of the lads was in a Land Rover when they got hit by an IED. I remember the vehicle coming back in and there were blood spots on the Land Rover where he’d been sitting.

“That’s when it became a question of not if, but when something would happen to the lads. I made a decision back then on what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, what I wanted to do when I got home.”

Luckily Stewart made it through the rest of the tour unscathed. His unit was flown back into Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and the air of relief at nearly being home was palpable.

“When were allowed to go back home I think everyone smashed the motorway at 100 miles an hour to get home to their families.

“I remember coming home, walking into the house and seeing my wife at the kitchen table. As I walked up to her, she was speechless, and I got down on one knee and I asked her to marry me.

“Luckily for me she said yes.”

Injury in Afghanistan

Time passed and life was good for Stewart. He became a father for the second time, and he started doing courses. He was able to take his children to school and live a normal life, and then came the news that troops were going to be sent to Afghanistan.

Stewart with his youngest daughter. 

Stewart with his youngest daughter.

Stewart was recalled to his battalion and was told that he was going to deploy with eleven others in 2012 in a Police Mentor Advisory Group (PMAG) role.

“During that tour,” Stewart says, “It was going really well. The police were listening to what we were saying, taking on the medical and patrol lessons. The rapport was fantastic, we’d have laughs and share meals.

Stewart on deployment in Afghanistan.

Stewart on deployment in Afghanistan.

“Then on July 1 we went on a late afternoon patrol. We had a team of eight as we were undermanned at the time, and four lads went into the compound while I and three others waited outside.

“At this time, we didn’t know if the lads were dead or not.”

“We then heard a gun blast, and it became apparent that there was only one guy waiting in the compound. He was dressed as an Afghan policeman but he was a Taliban fighter, and he’d shot and killed three of our guys and severely injured our platoon commander.

“At this time, we didn’t know if the lads were dead or not. We were giving them first aid and got them on the chopper to Camp Bastion. But when we got back to a safe location we found out that they’d all been pronounced dead on arrival at Bastion.”

Stewart as pallbearer carries a fallen soldier. 

Stewart as pallbearer carries a fallen soldier.

Despite this blow to their team, they still had a job to carry out. But things weren’t going so well anymore. Stewart and his team started getting sent into traps by the locals.

They were travelling down the 611, the main road that went through Sangin to Kajaki, when an IED went off under their vehicle.

Everything went dark

Stewart was flown back to Birmingham with damaged frontal, temporal and optical lobes.

“The doctor came in,” says Stewart, “and told me ‘You’re going to be deaf in your right ear and partially in your left. We should be able to get you some sight back in your left eye with some steroids, and when the IED went off your legs clapped together and shot your testicles up into your stomach.’”

It was a long period of recovery for Stewart, but he found that as he got better physically he became worse mentally. He was shouting at the kids and arguing with his wife.

“I was asking my wife to leave me. I was massively negative to be around at the time, but I didn’t realise it. I felt like I was in a massive amount of pain.

“I was too scared to sleep because I was having nightmares that were so frightening I was wetting myself.”

This is when Stewart went out to the beach, looked at sea and thought about swimming out until he couldn’t swim back.

“I thought about my girls growing up without me and being bullied at school because I’m not there.”

There are not many lives that can point to such a knife edge, such a point where it could go either way. Stewart had faced so much in Afghanistan and overcome injury, but now risked losing it all.

With the waves crashing onto the beach in front of him, he was saved by the thought of his little daughters.

“I thought about my girls growing up without me, being bullied at school because I’m not there.”

So Stewart turned around, walked back into the kitchen and told his wife what he was thinking.

She immediately called 999 and got him admitted to a local mental health unit.

“It was from there that I started to accept it. Until you want to get better, you can’t start doing something about it and get better.”

A new generation of veterans needs your support

 Stewart was diagnosed with mental illness in 2012.

With help from The Legion, he’s now taking on challenges like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Your donations help us to be there for people like Stewart.

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