Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Veterans Of The War On Terror

Here is the text from an interview I conducted with Stuart Griffiths, a photographer who documents with portraits the human effects of those that the Allied forces send to fight the war on terror. Stuart is an articulate, kind and funny man with a great sense of purpose. Transcribing some of the victims interviews was not easy.

Stuart Griffiths Interview:

Vice: Hi Stuart how did you first become interested in taking photographs?
Stuart Griffiths: I had always had an interest in photography that I had picked up from my stepfather who was a keen amateur photographer. He bought me my first camera when I was 18. While I was on patrol in West Belfast I would keep this instamatic camera in my chest webbing and document without really knowing anything about documentation. I was just known for being the guy with the camera. I ended up becoming the Battalion photographer. They sent me on a course and the more I learned the more I became addicted to it.

What made you move from a career in the army to a career in photography?
Although it sounds ironic now I also had a desire to see more combat. I was serving in the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute regiment so we were pretty highly trained; we had been due to do a tour of the Gulf but that never came to pass. We just kept getting sent to Ireland, I served several tours in West Belfast and East Tyrone. I eventually quit due to an increasing interest in photography. The more I got into photography the less I wanted to be a soldier.

What happened when you ditched the uniform for the camera?
After I passed out I moved to Brighton I studied and built up a network of people who introduced me to photographers like Bresson, Don McCullin and Eugene Smith. When I first moved to London though I was homeless and living rough. There was a Big Issue seller I encountered in a passage in Victoria and he told me that if I had no place to go and I was an ex soldier I should call the Ex-Service Fellowship Centre. Every soldier that leaves the army is given a little red book as proof of service and I had that with me so I went down there and they sorted me a bed in a hostel Limehouse.

How did the concept for your current project come about?
Living in the hostel I was surrounded by the homeless veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as some older Falklands vets who were displaying symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and were finding it very difficult to adjust to normal civilian life. Being an ex-serviceman myself I had great empathy towards these guys. Instead of actually going and shooting out there I thought that shooting the effects of the homecoming would prove a more powerful, harrowing and truer portrayal of the effect of the war on terror on the average soldier. It was also semi autobiographical as it also represented my feelings towards the conflict.

How have you encountered the veterans that you have shot?
I got in touch with many of them through my old service network. Once you meet one vet they will tell you their story and that will lead to the next story. There is lot of trust involved. They feel that they can open up to me because they know that I understand what they have been through and what they continue to go through. Systematic distrust of the media is implanted in soldiers. You have to go through the chain of command and if you don’t abide by those rules you know that you will get a knock on the door from the man in the pin stripe suit from Vauxhall.

What are your personal feelings on the war on terror?
The armed forces are the industry of violence and death. They have a job to do and you cannot blame them for doing their job. It is the politicians who are to blame for making the decisions that lead those men to war. I am opposed to both wars. Afghanistan because there now seems to be no justifiable strategy or long term plan and Iraq because we should never have been there in the first place.

Are these feelings shared by the veterans that you encounter?
They feel let down and they are suffering disproportionate to what they have given. Many of them are suffering from PTSD and have not been looked after by the army. Many of them are also from small towns outside of London where they do not have the facilities to care for them properly. Many of the vets I first encountered in the homeless hostels were 10 or 15 years out of the army and that was when PTSD really sets in. The soldiers I have been photographing for this project are freshly out of service. Fuck knows what is in store for them. It scares me and as a photographer I feel a responsibility to highlight their situation. As the war on terror drags on the number of men out there like this increases. For every soldier killed five are wounded. There is a lot of shit going down.

Andy Julien

Andy Julien was 18 years old and had been serving in Iraq for two months with the Queens Royal Lancers when his Challenger tank came under fire south of Basra. Andy and Lance-Corporal Daniel Twiddy had been asleep on top of the tank when they came under attack. An eyewitness later described to a MoD board of enquiry how after hearing “the boom of a heavy weapon and a bright flash of light” the tank had become “an exploding ball of fire”. Andy and Daniel were thrown to the ground engulfed in flames. Two of their fellow soldiers were killed inside the tank on impact.

Andy’s tank had come under fire from fellow Allied troops. This friendly-fire incident was caused by what was described in the enquiry as a “catalogue of errors”. Despite the errors Combat Immunity protects the identities of those responsible for the attack and no one has been charged. It is believed that since the incident members of the firing tank have been promoted.

After having incorrectly informed his parents of his death, the MoD flew Andy back to Broomfield Hospital in Essex. Andy’s mother and father did not initially recognize the swollen, bloody body that they were told was there son. After twenty operations and six months in a wheelchair Andy was medically discharged from the army without even being offered a desk job. Having waited almost two years on a GP’s waiting list to have his uncontrollable fits of anger diagnosed it was only when Andy began work at the phone company 02 that he was provided with counselling and informed that he had PTSD

Daniel Twiddy

“Five days into the war in Iraq on March 2003 I was blown off the top of my Challenger II tank outside Basra by a round of friendly fire. It was a 120mm high-explosive squash-head shell from another British tank. I remember bursting into flames as a second round impacted on the turret of the vehicle, killing two of my colleagues. I remember being on my hands and knees, on fire, screaming and thinking I was going to die.”

“ I awoke a month later in Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford. Initially my parents couldn’t identify the swollen bundle of bones, scarred flesh and gauze in the bed next to the life-support machine. My skin was burnt to 80 per cent and there was a large hole in my face. I consider myself very lucky. I’ve been a gunner myself and when you hit hard targets like tanks, it’s unbelievable. 120mm high explosive squash heads are designed for bunkers and large targets. They fired two. That's how lucky I was”.

“When I joined the British Army I respected the MoD and respected that it was their care of duty to support you through thick and thin. When you're at the passing off parade and they say: “not only is your son part of our family, you're all part of our family now”, it's bollocks, total shit. As soon as something like this happens, they toss you aside like a number. They’re not bothered about you. Physically, I can heal up. What hurts the most is that I’ve been left. I’ll always remember what they’ve done to me. It’s something that should never have happened, friendly fire. So their care of duty should be looking after me. They won't admit it. That’s what makes me angry, they won't admit they’ve messed up”.

Mark Drydon

“During my second tour of Iraq in 2005 I was on a bog standard routine patrol. It was a Sunday. Friday’s in Iraq are fairly quiet because everyone goes to mosques so a Sunday for Iraqi’s is a fairly normal working day. This particular Sunday when we got there though there was no one of the street. It was like the Iraqi people knew what was going to happen. The road we drove up is usually one of the busiest roads in Basra but there were no kids, no cars, nothing. Suddenly there were two explosions. The first one exploded in the engine block of the ‘snatch’ vehicle, the second came through my door. It happened in seconds, everything slowed down from the point of the second explosion going off. I knew I was badly injured. Everything was like slow motion TV. I was sent back to the MRS (medical recovery station) in a hotel in Basra where they can stabilise you and get you ready for the helicopter evacuation to the main hospital. I was heli-lifted from there up to Shiba Air Hospital in Basra.”

“I don’t think that the British public have slagged the army off, they slagged off the government for sending us and now it’s like, why are we still out there? Why are we still getting killed and injured? I’d already done the war fighting phase in Iraq in 2003, I’ve been to Bosnia, Kosovo, done two tours of Ireland but I was more scared to go back to Iraq in 2005 than I ever was in my life. I even changed my life insurance and made sure my will was bang up to date before I went out there. After seeing all the news of people getting blown up, people getting killed and this that and other and I was like, is this really the place to be? When I look back to Northern Ireland in 1970’s Iraq is very similar. I think we will be there for another 10-15 years at least.”

David McGough

David McGough was one of the first British soldiers to arrive in Iraq as a Lance Corporal in the Medical Corps at the age of 21. “We did exactly what the other soldiers did, patrols and stuff. The difference with medics is we see the after-effects of war as well. We see the casualties. We have to deal with the carnage and death and destruction”. David would spend 17 hours a day dressing bodies blown apart by shrapnel and ordnance, sewing the living dead back together and watching others die in the intensifying sectarian war that followed Saddam Hussein’s removal from power.

He particularly recalls one incident: “She was about 8 or 9, a little girl, her family had died. We were trying to do a nice thing by giving her water and bits of chocolate. We saw a militia hanging her in an alleyway. We had to make the decision whether to go in and save her and cause a riot and have more people dying, or just allow one person to die”. She hung. “When the guys left, we took her down and buried her but that’s on my conscience. Most 21 year olds are out getting pissed. I’ve got that on my conscience and I will till I die”.

After initially suffering lack of sleep and coughing up blood David was prescribed Prozac by his GP and told by his military doctor that it was ‘all in his head’. He was eventually medically discharged after six months and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder a year later. With daily structure removed, McGough’s weight plummeted, he could not sleep, and he broke up with his girlfriend. He says former colleagues were told not to speak to him. “My OCD got really bad, I was bleaching myself and wouldn't got out of the house. There was no contact and everything was failing around me and I felt like shit. The nightmares would make me go into the bathroom, lock the door and cry for hours”. David has attempted suicide twice. Once with a knife and once with a gun that misfired.

Dave Hart

“I had been with the TA for years when the call came through that there would be opportunities to serve in Afghanistan. I had already done a tour in South Armagh and I had really enjoyed it. It re-affirmed why I joined in the first place, doing the job for real. So I signed up for Afghanistan straight up”.

“The patrol that day was nothing out of the ordinary. There were four vehicles in the patrol and I was in the first vehicle, which was a stripped down Land rover. A suicide bomber had tried to get into Bagram US airbase, which was a few miles from us but came to a Vehicle Check Point (VCP), so he decided to turn around. We had a couple of UN compounds down the road from us and he probably wanted to hit one of those compounds, but he came across us instead and we seemed too much of a target to miss.”

“I don’t remember much after that. I have been told that I was blown out the vehicle. The driver was killed instantly, my mate Dave was in the passenger seat and lost his eye. The road on which we were attacked was like the M4 in Kabul. It’s a busy road and I was on the floor on fire. A couple of UN workers came over and doused the fire. My platoon Sergeant flagged down a vehicle at gunpoint and threw us all in the back and got us to the multi national camp in 7 minutes which was good for me, as I had already lost 8 pints of blood. A couple of more minutes and it would have been the end for me.”

“Next I came round in Germany. That Dia-Morphine is pretty good stuff, I was off my tits for a while before I fell into a coma for about 2 and a half weeks. I was in Germany for 2 months and was then flown back to the UK and taken to Selly Oak in Birmingham. It was a real comedown; really piss poor to be honest. I went from intensive care in Germany with 6 nurses to Selly Oak where you’re dumped in bed for three days, seen by a consultant then cheers off you go. And then I got MRSA.”

Andy Barlow

“Growing up as a kind in Bolton I would always see the Corps Of Drums and always fancied the military so as soon as I was done at school I joined up at 16. I had done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq but it was on my second tour of Afghanistan that the incident happened.”

“We were giving overhead protection when we saw that an illegal Vehicle Check Point had been set up on the other side of the mountain. We sent a patrol to check on it but as they went down they side of the mountain we heard a big explosion. One of our guy’s right legs had been blown off midway. We all knew that it was a mine incident from there on. The lads went down to give medical support and someone got on the radio asking for a chopper when Corporal Pearson walked backwards and set a mine off that took his leg as well. I began to tourniquet him when two other soldiers joined me, my friend Mark Wright and a medic. For about an hour we waited. When the chopper finally came in another mine was set off by a rock. That mine hit Mark, I was knocked back 6 foot with shrapnel injuries to my arm and the medic had also been hit. As I took a step towards Mark another mine blew my foot clean off”.

“Mark passed away in the Chinook. He was next to me on the flight in a body bag. I knew that I was going to get my leg amputated; the fact that we had waited so long meant that gangrene quickly set in. I flew back to the UK and straight into Birmingham Airport where they took me to Selly Oak Hospital. At the time Selly Oak were not prepared for as many casualties. One of the main problems was being on a ward with civilians. Civvies are the last people you want to see after something like that and the staff did not know how to treat or handle you”.

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