AN IRAQ war veteran has revealed his shocking story battling PTSD following service in warzones. The following in an extract from the book “The Battle Within: A Soldiers Story.”
Neil Spencer, 39 revealed: “It was 2019, and I’m sat with my mental health therapist. We are about to try a process called EMDR. He starts by asking me to let my mind drift back to a stressful event in my life.
I was lying alone in the ditch. The blast wave from the bomb had thrown me a few metres. My back was smashed and blood was squirting from my ulnar artery. Bits of flesh were now hanging from my left forearm. I knew there were dead bodies scattered across the ground around me.
Damn, I thought, I’m only 23. I’m to young to die.
My hand is shaking as I try to get my field dressing out. I’m scared as I’m losing blood fast. I knew If they attacked us again, I’m done.
Although this was a time of great trauma, when I look back, My life had never been easy.
I was Born in Newport, South Wales. Although I was raised in a loving working class family, most of my childhood was a misery.
My mother worked in retail management while my father had his own business as a car upholster.
With my mother just 20 hours old.
Family life at home was good. My parents were both firm but fair. They were both professional people. The only downside they were heavy drinkers. Something I would later follow in life.
I was very lucky that I wasn’t raised in a broken home. But still my childhood was anything but easy.
From the age of 8 I suffered from horrendous school bullying. I wasn’t a bullied kid. I was the bullied kid.
I was short, skinny and a loner. I was just easy prey
As a 10 year old. I remember crying alone in the bathroom during the summer holidays before I joined high school. I was crying because I knew the bullying was to continue. Crying because I had no one to back me up.
The bullying left a deep emotional impact so much I ended up wetting the bed every single night. Sometimes even 3 times a night until I was about 11 or 12 years old.
When I joined high school, I was correct, The bullying did continue. Almost everyday I was kicked, thrown, punched and had threats made against me. My personal kit was often thrown out of windows or smashed up.
I would have to hide and wait for the bullies to board the school bus before I made my way home. It was the only way I could avoid getting a kicking after school.
Some of the bullying got very physical, including one incident when I was grabbed by a number of lads, pinned down and had a clipper lighter heated up and burned deep into the back of my hand.
As for a girlfriend, forget it. I was lucky if I got so much as a smile from a girl. I was told I was gay by family members and friends due to my lack of involvement with girls. At one point I was left questioning myself. Am I really gay. Do these people really know me better than I know myself.
The thing is, if people keep telling you something eventually you start to believe it.
My confidence hit rock bottom.
As a result of this emotional stress. I suffered from anxiety. My concentration in class declined and so did my work.
Instead of listening, I became the class clown. I was the lad sticking pencils in his ears and launching rubbers across the classroom from a ruler. I thought if I make people laugh then they won’t pick on me. It didn’t work.
Everyone thought I was dumb. Teachers, other pupils, my family and myself.
I was never encouraged to succeed at anything. School reports and parents evenings just become a time of dread. The teachers would all say the same thing.
“Neil can produce good work when he wants to, but he’s very easily distracted”
Needless to say, I ended up leaving school at 16 with no qualifications, no confidence and no future goals, and probably the maturity of someone many years younger. I had no positive memories of school and most of my life by this point had been full of constant criticism and humiliation.
After working for minimum wage for a number of recruitment agencies, I managed to pass my driving test.
Although I was old enough to drive, I just wasn’t mature enough. I was just a kid behind the wheel of a car.
Within 9 months of driving, I’d had many close encounters with other vehicles and had been pulled over by the police more times than I can remember. My luck eventually run out when i smashed my car into a roundabout at high speed.
After a court case that went on for over 6 months. I was finally convicted in Newport magistrates of dangerous driving. I received a instant 12 month driving ban. A extended retest followed by a large fine. I walked out of court a embarrassment to myself and my family.
Although i didn’t know it at the time. The driving ban was the best thing that could of happened to me. It was a wake up call. I had been given another chance at life. Next time I might not have been so lucky and could of killed someone. I would then be spending many years behind bars.
It was time for me to grow up. I had a lot to prove. Not just to myself, but to all the doubters I’d faced over the years. I’d been known as a quiter as I never stuck at anything. I knew this mindset had to change.
I joined the local gym and started training twice a day. I was running in the mornings, and then hitting the weights in the evening. I was soon strong, very fit and confident.
After finally paying off my court fines, I then enlisted into the British Army.
After 6 months of training I passed the combat infantryman’s course, and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Feeling proud. I was finally making something of my life.
The Army wasn’t my ideal job. I would of much preferred a career in the police force, but my lack of education would of prevented that.
The British Army gives many a new life. Its not a job, but a lifestyle. Even if you come from nothing, and had the worst upbringing. It gives you a family, job security and some real life lessons.
In the Army, I was no longer a clown, but a listener. I soon realized I wasn’t as dumb as everyone had made out. I just needed to listen more and stop acting like a kid.
Fast forward. I was now 23 years old, and I’d been in the Army for just 2 short years. I actually achieved more in that short space of time than I had in the 20 odd years as a civilian.
Within weeks of joining my Regiment I took part in the 2002 National fire strikes and attended a two week parachute course. I then transferred to the mortar platoon. I had also trained as a combat team medic, and had also had the joy of spending 3 months in Canada.
For the very first time in my life I felt immensely proud of myself and happy. Nobody had dragged me into the Army careers office that day, I did it off my own back. I passed out of training, and I earned my right to be there. I felt I was sticking two fingers up to all those that doubted my ability.
Now with my mother back home in remission of cancer (she was diagnosed 6 weeks into my Army training) I had zero worries in life.
I was a young fit soldier, full of determination and looking forward to a full military career. I was even considering having a go at the tough SAS selection course.
Before this could happen, a 6 month tour in Iraq was planned.
Now the Iraq tour was something I was excited about. This wasn’t some act of bravado, it’s the truth. It’s much like a runner training for a marathon. After many months of training in all weathers, you just want to run the race for real.
Iraq was my Marathon!
Having been in a number of dangerous situations throughout my life. I literally believed I was invincible. I was about to find out I wasn’t.
Just 3 weeks into my first combat tour. I was caught up in one of the worst suicide bomb attacks the British Army had faced during the Iraq campaign.
With team mates a few days before the bombings.
A morning when 5 suicide car bombs exploded at different locations around Basra. 3 separate car bombs targeted police stations around the city during the morning rush hour.
More than 60 people were killed including a number of young schoolchildren that were on a passing bus.
The first suicide bomb at the entrance to Chindit camp. Iraq police looking over the carnage.
A forth attack came at 08:15 at Chindit camp in Az Zabour were I was based.
After dealing with the horrific aftermath of the first car bomb, I was then confronted by another. A vehicle packed with explosives was racing towards me at speed and exploded just 20ft away.
The second suicide bomb. It was this device that blew up just 20ft from me. The impact was like being hit by a train.
The impact was like being hit by a train. This immense blast wave smashed into back and threw me about 5 metres into a ditch while shrapnel ripped into my left forearm like a hot knife through butter. My ulnar artery and nerve were completely severed and bits of flesh left hanging from my arm.
The badly charred facial remains of the second suicide bomber. A graphic reminder that war is not a video game.
A number of Iraq civilians now lay dead around me with over 30 wounded.
I was medically evacuated back to the UK for treatment and downgraded.
Due to a number of administration blunders I got lost in the military process and failed on all levels from welfare to paperwork to the administration of service Medals.
I could only feel envy as I watched others continue with their careers while I was just thrown to the side and forgotten about.
With my mother and father on my wedding day, June 2005. It was just a year after the suicide bombing and the very last photo I had with my mother. Just 13 weeks after this photo she passed away from incurable cancer. She was 48 years young.
As stressful as this already was. The next couple of years would test my mental resilience to the limit, possibly beyond.
Age 24 and just a year after the bombing, I got married. Then just 4 months later, I sadly lost my mother after her cancer came back incurable.
Age 25. I lost my grandfather and my military career was also terminated. After just 4 years service, my life’s dream and financial stability were now over.
Age 26, I went through a marriage breakup and fell into a dark hole of alcohol abuse, depression and rage. I had lost 3 stone in just a couple of months and was now drinking up to four litres of whisky a week. I ended up in a world I know longer recognised.
At my lowest point I was drinking around 4 litres of whiskey a week. It was a world I no longer understood.
I was sat in my flat having drunk a bottle of scotch and was thinking of starting another. I was rattling my brain. I couldn’t understand how I had lost everything.
I had built myself up from a insecure childish boy with no positive future and into a man with a everything to live for. But in just 3 short years it was all gone. I was soon back on my arse.
I somehow managed to bounce back, meet someone else and start a family. But once again at age 32 I hit rock bottom from the long term effects of working in Solitary. My young son ended up on life support and I faced some serious financial problems.
To make things worse myself, my wife and children went through 3 years of bullying, threats, and damage to our property by a certain individual.
As a way out. I turned to fitness training. While qualifying as a fitness instructor, I managed to raise thousands for local and military charities by undertaking a series of solo endurance challenges that would test even the fittest of individuals.
From half marathons with a 50lb bergen to 100km speed marches to 16 hours non stop on a treadmill.
For me physical training is a way out.
Long walks over the mountains are a great way to clear your head.
As a young soldier I was very fit as my job required just that. As an adult I use it to keep myself sane.
It was at the age of 36 when I was hit the hardest. My father was diagnosed with lung and secondary brain cancer. It was to far advanced for any treatment to be of use.
Training for the 16 hour nonstop treadmill speed march.
I could only look on as my father declined over a short number of weeks. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but he was a hero to me, and if I was 10% of the man he was. I would be proud.
To be at his bedside and holding his hand as he took his last breath is a image and feeling that I can’t describe. A large part of me died that day.
My father at my book launch June 2016. Unbeknown he was already riddled with incurable lung and brain cancer. He passed away a few months later age 58.
As a young man I was very naive. Most people have a plan in life. You know, how they see their future. It’s just sometimes things don’t turn out how they hope.
I had visions of my parents living till old age, and spending time with their grandchildren, but I would never of believed by the age of 36 I would of lost both of them to Cancer. Life can be very cruel.
The truth is. It doesn’t matter how positive a person you are, in life bad things can and do happen. More often than not to the very best of us.
Your life and change, for better or for worse before your very eyes, trust me on this.
When times are tough. It’s often very difficult to see a way out. It almost feels like a black cloud is following you everywhere, just waiting to mess up your day. Give it time because this cloud will eventually pass.
For many, suicide seems the only way out. But remember suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
I will openly say that suicide has crossed my mind on many occasions. I’ve even thought about how I would go about it. But there is help available. Just reach out to the services because that’s what they are there for.
Something to think about.
Remember the power of words. I call it the wall effect.
For example. If you kick a wall just once, not much will happen. But if you kick it everyday, eventually the mortar beings to loosen and the wall will collapse.
The same applies to a human mind with words. If you keep telling a child they are stupid or worthless, they will grow up believing just that. They will aways doubt their abilities.
Of course children need to be told when they are right or wrong, but always remember to give praise when its due. Its very important.
Unfortunately success always seems to be measured by the physical. The things you can put under a microscope and examine.
It would be deemed as someone with many academic qualifications. A nice house, nice car and a healthy bank balance to be more successful than someone without.
But we can all be successful when life goes our way.
A 50 year old gaining their first GCSE is just as successful as a 22 year old gaining a degree. It’s not aways about the award, but the obstacles overcome to get there.
Usain Bolt is the greatest sprinter the world has seen, but even he wouldn’t look as impressive over the 100 meters if he had hurdles in his path. It doesn’t make him any less of a champion.
When you are young and healthy. You might feel you have all the time in the world. You don’t! Tomorrow is never promised for anyone.
Know your worth. Know your capable of more than people tell you.
You are a warrior!!