Lost in Helmand

The mother of a dead officer relates how hard it is to handle death—for soldiers too
December 10, 2012
Mark Evison in Afghanistan (photo: Biteback Publishing & The Robson Press)
As British soldiers continue to die in Afghanistan, arguments are intensifying about whether they should stay until 2014, as stated, and whether further deaths before that exit will have been justified by any gains. Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat peer and former special forces officer, wrote in November that “The only rational policy now is to leave quickly, in good order and in the company of our allies.” The strategy was “divided, cacophonous, chaotic,” he said, and the mission was not worth the life of another soldier.But General Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato commander in Afghanistan, retorted in The Times that “now is not the time to cut and run,” and that security in the country was improving.“We can be proud of significant success,” said Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander, Europe, calling for the alliance to “remain committed, albeit in a reduced capacity.”As this argument becomes louder, one mother records the way in which she dealt with the death of her son in Helmand. My son’s death in Afghanistan was one of many, both in this conflict and in others. But for me at the time it was the only death. Where does the journey begin? At its most prosaic, it should be the April leaves around the front door, the brief kiss, the perfunctory “see you in six months.” We had spent Easter together. Immediately after that weekend, on 13th April 2009, Mark went away to his other world of soldiering. He had been cautious about telling me exactly the dangers of where he was going, underplaying them, or perhaps he did not know. Much later I understood what a challenge it had been. His letter sent on 28th April read: “Sorry we were unable to speak properly a couple of nights ago… Things here are great. We have now settled into the fort and are awaiting 10 Afghan National Army bods as well as an interpreter before we can patrol to our full extent. The poppy harvest is still ongoing but coming to a close and the fighting season is supposedly about to start, could be interesting for a few weeks. We have bought a turkey off a local farmer and he will be included on the BBQ on Sunday night which will be my first fresh meat in two weeks. On top of that next Sunday is my shower day and so double-whammy. Can’t wait. It’s funny how the smallest things like a shower you really miss when it is not on tap.” I was so keen for contact, for a little reassurance that my world and his were still touching, overlapping. I sent him weekly parcels: custard, suntan lotion, cake, sweets, noodles, bits of his childhood to make him know that his mother was still there. It was a beautiful early May morning when I heard. I had been to get the paper from the local shop and as I turned into the drive I saw a casually dressed man apparently loitering, talking to a neighbour. “Can I help?” I asked. He said he was a major in the army. “I have a son in the army.” “I know. Would you mind if we went inside to speak?” As we walked down the path I said I hoped nothing was wrong, but he was non-committal. We went into my back room, the large angled windows overlooking the garden. He introduced himself: Major Ransom, a casualty notification officer. He said that Mark had been shot, very seriously injured. He could tell me nothing more, except that Mark was priority one to be flown back to England, and that I would have a visiting officer to help me who would come later in the day. I have no memory of Major Ransom going but I don’t think he was there for long. The weekend moved slowly. No more information, except that Mark was stable and on life support in Camp Bastion field hospital. But he did not come home. Then I heard that he had been shot in the shoulder. The subclavian artery of his right arm was injured. There was a suggestion of internal damage, perhaps lungs and liver. I printed off pages from the internet about the subclavian artery, a large important artery in his shoulder feeding his arm, and wondered if his injuries would be too serious to allow him a life, or if his life could be lived without an arm, damaged forever. Finally, late that afternoon, I was told that he was to be flown back to Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, an NHS hospital that had trauma facilities and expertise in treating injured soldiers. The next day we were allowed to visit Mark. The consultant was stuffy and formal, doing his job to explain. My daughter sat with me, then left, unable to stay. The consultant said that there was only a very small chance that Mark was not brain-dead, that at present his body was slowed by large amounts of pain medication and that they would have to withdraw this, and then carry out brain stem tests the next day to see if there was any response. He explained that the brain stem—the conduit to the brain, the messaging centre—was probably gone, and that the chance of recovery was very small. He said it would be unfair to Mark if we left him on life support machines, as he would deteriorate but not wake up. I was aware of a huge thirst as he spoke, wanting many glasses of water. I felt drained, empty of life, still clinging to that small chance, unable to accept death. There was Mark—my Markie, the Mark I knew, despite the tubes and the huge wound in his side, apparently raw flesh taped over with see-through dressing, and his swollen right arm high in a solid plastic sling. Several of Mark’s friends came to Birmingham from London, and even one from Hong Kong who left as soon as he heard of Mark’s injury, telling work and his girlfriend as he booked a flight in the taxi. It is hard to describe the upset of Mark’s friends who visited his bedside, talking to him and playing his “awful” music to him to get him to stir before we switched off the machines. On Tuesday Mark’s father, David, and I sat in clinical silence whilst the two consultants carried out brain stem tests, explaining what they were doing in flat, perfunctory voices. It was calm and light in the room as they tried to get a reaction from him and his brain, any flicker of life. This was the first time I realised he was dead, the first time there was no hope. David did the second set of tests with them, without me—I could not bear watching his still, unresponsive body. We all said goodbye to Mark, privately, in and out of the room in turn. At about 11am we switched off the machines. I watched the spirit leave Mark in less than a second as his face changed. We were bringing our son’s life to an end. But there was no life there to be had; it had all gone. Mourning is a very strange process. It is so painful, the rational self struggling with the emotional self. The rational self hardly gets a look in. After Mark’s death I became like a child wanting something so badly, not able to let go. Sometimes I simply preferred to believe that, magically, he had not gone. I had “lost” him, why could he not come back? I work as a psychologist with cancer patients, and as with Mark’s fellow soldiers, I had to get back to it. I had to be able to talk to patients without that awful hot surge of uncontrollable tears that I knew so well; I needed to be cool and rational for them, my head in control and my heart dampened and yet not too saddened. How to do it? * * * I did not choose, I did not decide. But perhaps years of training and experience dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients and listening to awful stories have taught me that it does not work to sweep trauma and sadness under the carpet. It is better to have it out, face it, to kill it early and effectively with words. As well as the sadness of loss, I had the upset of knowing how Mark had died. I could not talk to close family about it; I did not want them to have to deal with my pain and even know how Mark died. I went to two army padres and my GP, men who were professionally used to hearing such things. They listened, and I noticed that with each episode a specific upset would fade in a day or two, as my rational self struggled to gain control. Yes, I could understand that even a small amount of morphine could help desensitise Mark to the pain; I could understand that he was a brave young man and that rugby injuries had been part of his life. I was even told by a doctor friend that dying from bleeding was a preferred death for the early Greeks; they noticed the pleasantness of being light-headed. So I dealt with those very tangible shocks by talking, and that put them in a place where they no longer hurt. I did three other things which might have helped. The weekend before Mark’s arrival at Selly Oak, when he was still on life support in Bastion, I took to my safe place, my May garden. It was exuberant with new life, welcoming the warm, hopeful joy of summer. Four days later we switched off Mark’s life support machines. That time was dry, automatic, painful beyond my capacity to believe, and so surreal. Exactly one year later, as the garden identically remembered that day’s joy of a year ago, those memories came back, stored in some concrete vault in my mind. Smells, sounds, impressions, just as they had been. I felt trapped by my brain, those memories, those feelings, unable to function again. For some reason I decided to take to pen and paper as the only way I could get some relief. That was helpful; it gave me time to reflect, time to weep, and I used it many times later. I often met another mother and a wife, both also mourning loved ones lost in the same war. Talking to them was strangely comforting. I could see the madness of my own grief in theirs; they went through the same irrational struggles between their heads and their hearts. But most of all we could be honest with each other, more honest than with others in our lives; and we understood each other. Most powerfully, I talked to Mark’s soldiers. Five of them separately and very bravely met me, prepared to talk to the mother of their dead leader. It was not easy, for them or for me. This felt very close, and I cried, unable to control myself for them. I realised then how painful it was to them too, how they had no one to share this with, how they just needed to let their thinking selves peek into this emotional box unfrightened and let something out, crying as they did so. It felt so important to me and to them. They had been with Mark and knew how it was, they could understand how I was, and that powerful place was shared. But this experience allowed me partially to understand the army’s stiff upper lip approach to death. Two of the men were subsequently diagnosed with PTSD, but the others also silently suffered symptoms: nightmares, flashbacks, replaying what happened and other ways it could have been, unable to get relief. Talking and words were not part of their training, their culture, and often not part of their childhoods. The words were hard to find. Some time later, I was told that before the four-day coroner’s inquest in July 2010, the soldiers had been cautioned about talking to me and telling me too much. How short-sighted that was, how lacking in understanding. So what is the answer? For the soldiers in combat, I can see the problem. They need to get on, to normalise and almost trivialise death. Mark’s platoon were in that patrol base in Helmand province when they heard that Mark had died in hospital. Some sobbed quietly; they all built a wonderful wooden cross and stone memorial to him, and then they took to their guns, blasting the Taliban “for Mr Evison,” expressing their rage about it. But I could see that they needed to talk more, even to allow themselves to cry as they had with me. The army and the soldiers themselves were perhaps uncomfortable with that, in that very male environment. Mark would have let them talk, understood that they should do so, encouraged them, and that is partly why they admired him. What about other mothers, other wives, other loss? The answer has to be honesty, talking and time. When that is completely understood, that lifelong shackle “the stiff upper lip” may finally be abandoned, and grief dealt with as it comes along in its ravaging fury, until it is tamed. The person cannot come back, and when the heart has wept and can accept that, the head will understand.

I will never get over Mark’s death. But I can talk about it without crying, even the tough bits; and I have been able to get on with my life, as Mark would have wished.