You may not know who I am but you may have heard my voice on TV a few years ago. It was 2006 when a video spread around the world of British soldiers beating Iraqi youth in Al Amara, Iraq, during Operation Telic 3. A corporal in Her Majesty's 1st Light Infantry Battalion, I was behind the camera, filming the 2004 incident.
Those two minutes of video ruined my life. I still have a tough time watching it today and can't believe what I said. I was a different person. I'm not trying to excuse my comments -- they were inappropriate and regrettable -- but I want to explain them. During the riots on the streets of Al Amara, we soldiers didn't have food. We didn't have water. We were working non-stop. Going through these conditions brought out the worst in me. I wouldn't wish that situation on anyone.
I was a disgraced soldier in the public eye, thanks to the British tabloids and the British government, which used me as a scapegoat. But I was not a disgraceful soldier. I loved the army and would have done anything for my country, having served honorably for about 12 years. Shortly after the military cleared me of any wrongdoing in 2007, I left the military. I had served two tours in Northern Ireland and a tour in Sierra Leone; I had seen enough of war.
And especially that war, I felt like I had been put in an unacceptable situation in Iraq. I shouldn't have been in Iraq. No foreign troops (British, American, etc.) should have been in that country. I didn't join the Army to fight against children but that's what I did. It's not something you often hear about in the media, but the enemy in Iraq uses women and children to fight for them. The youth in Al Amara were throwing grenades at us. It's sickening and I felt shame and guilt for having to fight children.
After the scandal broke, I decided to leave the Army. I approached some filmmakers in my hometown in Cornwall to help document what I went through. They followed me for 18 months, from the time I got out of the military. During this time I kept video diaries to chart my thoughts and feelings, and through this process my emotional frustrations came across -I would be fine one minute and then red with anger the next. In November 2009, they released a 68-minute documentary titled Diary of a Disgraced Soldier. It was greatly received at the 2009 Cornwall Film Festival. Making the documentary has been a cathartic process that may well have saved my life.
Much of the documentary focuses on how I deal with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without proper medical support from the British government. I was dealing with shame, anger and depression. I ended up homeless, living out of my car for six weeks and dealt with spiraling debt. I survived on little food and water. I began to lose weight and shut myself off from society.
For many of my fellow soldiers, alcohol was a way of escaping reality. Most just drowned themselves in alcohol but since drinking excessively is practically standard Army procedure, the chain of command never notices when someone is depressed.
For me, the hardest thing about PTSD was the thoughts that would keep coming into my mind. It was worse late at night without the distractions of work. In the darkness and silence, it was horrific. I never felt more isolated in all my life.
The imagery of Iraq that bombarded my mind was so detailed that I could paint scenes from my mind. I knew the color of cars, the height of buildings. I could smell the dead people we had shot. I could see the bodies and the thick congealed blood on the floor. It was like a fish had been gutted. I could see the dead Iraqi soldiers, their eyes staring at me, and I was powerless in my dreams to fight back any threat. I was in such a helpless state.
At some points, I became suicidal. I thought the best action I could have taken was to end my own life. I was crying at least 10 times a day. "Why me?" I asked myself. My life was truly hell. This, I soon realized this was my punishment for my actions in Iraq.
Fortunately, my friends and family helped me escape from my painful situation. I moved into my mother's house and I started to eat again. I finally started thinking clearly again. But I still kept thinking about that man I killed in Iraq. He would visit me in my dreams and I would wake up at 3 a.m. and not sleep until the next day. I felt he wanted answers from me. He asked me why I had bragged about killing him. I asked myself these questions every day.
I found an outlet to express myself. I paint. I write poetry. I write and perform music. I've formed an organization with other veterans called Voices of War so that we veterans can have our voices heard.
Today, I've united with other soldiers groups, like Iraq Veterans Against the War, in my opposition to the war in Iraq. But most important to me is getting proper care for veterans like myself who put their lives on the line and then come home without support. I've connected with groups like Talking2Minds (http://www.talking2minds.co.uk/) that have helped me and other veterans deal with PTSD.
I've found that talking with my fellow soldiers about our service in Iraq has been helpful because I can relate to them. They know what the war was like over there and they knew how it felt to be in the action. Other veterans have also seen my film and it's rewarding to see them enjoy it. I hope to produce more documentaries on the war, PTSD and other related issues.
I will continue to improve my art and music so I can be a benefit to society by informing soldiers and civilians about PTSD and war. Turning the camera on in Iraq led to the worst part of my life but turning it back on when I came home has helped me to change my life for the better.