John Meighan in January, 2010, a few weeks after what he hopes will be his final suicide attempt. All photos courtesy of Mark Townsend.
Mark Townsend's brilliant book Point Man tells the story of Kenny Meighan, a young infantry soldier in the British army. Kenny, who comes from a long line of soldiers, started his combat career in Iraq in 2005. But the book focuses on his time in Afghanistan's Helmand province as the British army's longest serving point man – the most exposed and dangerous position in a military patrol, the soldier who roams some distance ahead of the patrol as a lookout.
Kenny’s father John, who served in Northern Ireland and the first Iraq war, plays second lead in Point Man. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following his discharge, John’s treatment was deemed to be too expensive by the government and he ended up spending time in prison, mental institutions and, absurdly, the Priory.
Among many things, Townsend’s book looks at what it means for a soldier to kill another soldier, at what battle feels like and at what it's like to come home having witnessed things most people don't even see in their worst nightmares. It tells of a government willing to send young men and women to war, but unwilling to help them once they come home.
I interviewed both John and Kenny. Below, John tells me about his time as a soldier, trying to kill himself, seeking out fights with bouncers and the misery he lived in following his discharge from the army.
You can read the interview with Kenny, John's son, here.
John as a young soldier in 1990.
VICE: Hi John. Why did you join the army? And how important was the military history your family has?
John Meighan: I was brought up with stories from my grandfather in the First and Second World War, and I grew up and watched all the war movies, like The Bridge Over the River Kwai. That glamourised war for me, but you don’t realise the damage war does to people when you’re that age.
Exactly. One thing your son asked me was that I didn't glamourise war in his interview. Is there ever a glamorous side to it?
No, there’s no glamour in war, there’s just dead people and damaged people.
As a soldier, you have to always get things right. In Northern Ireland, you were in a situation where it was very hard to see your enemy – how much pressure were you feeling there in terms of, “We’ve got to get this fucking right”?
That’s the thing – we weren't fighting a normal war where both sides were wearing uniforms and shooting at each other. We had this thing called the "yellow card", which had a set of rules and regulations on it about when you could and couldn't open fire. If you went outside the realms of the yellow card, you'd have found yourself in the fucking dock being charged with attempted murder. We're human beings and we make mistakes, but we had to get it right 100 percent of the time.
Having spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland, how did you find it fighting in Iraq?
As soon as I got off the aircraft in Kuwait, we had a Scud attack. We could tell it was a different type of war, and in that airport you could see every type of fighter aircraft you could think of, every type of armoured vehicle and tank. You name it, it was there.
There's a scene in the book where you see dead Iraqi civilians. Is that something you hadn’t really seen before?
Well, I’d seen dead bodies in Northern Ireland, but you never saw it on that scale. When someone got killed in Ireland it was a bit more clinical; the police were there because you were living in a more civilised society. Northern Ireland wasn’t a war, really – when someone was shot in Northern Ireland it was automatically handed over to the police. In the Gulf it was a war, and instead of talking about one or two getting killed it was thousands.
John with his children in 1987.
Am I right in thinking it affected you so much because they were civilians?
They weren’t all civilians, but when the ground war started, the Iraqis used a load of civilians as human shields on the vehicles. When the aircrafts did their job, they thought it was the Iraqi army being dealt with. But when you got to the ground, you realised there were hundreds of fucking civilians among the Iraqi soldiers. I’ve never once in my life thought that the British army would go out and kill civilians. The Americans don’t have a great track record; they’ll shoot first and ask questions later. But I don’t believe for one minute that when the British aircraft attacked they knew that they were firing at civilians.
It seems as though the army provided you with a sense of purpose, but then the way you were treated when you got out of the army was awful.
Let’s put that record straight: it wasn’t the army that let us down, it’s the government and politicians who let us down. Once you leave the army, the army has no control over what treatment you get and how your life should pan out. When I left the army, I left with terrible post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it was left to the NHS to pick up the pieces. The NHS weren’t ready for that and I had nowhere to go, which was the government’s fault.
So you were hardly given any help with your PTSD when you left the army?
Yeah, I mean, I was diagnosed with PTSD in 1995 or 1996 and I didn’t get any help for about eight or nine years. I was left with a diagnosis, but I wasn’t given any psychiatric help. I went to a psychiatrist who said I needed treatment, but it’s an 18-month wait, so all the while my mental state was getting worse and worse. And my way of dealing with it was drinking; I drank to blot out the memories and the horrors of what I’d seen.
What was it that you were remembering?
Well, I used to get out of my bed because I had terrible nightmares. The Iraqis would come around my bed and they had no lips. I used to get another nightmare when I was on patrol with my friend and, although a bomb never went off, in my nightmares the bomb went off. It just got worse and worse and worse. When I was walking down the streets of Glasgow I’d sometimes get a flashback, and for me, I was back patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland.
The memorial to John’s friend Big Jim, who was executed by IRA gunmen, in the grounds of St Mary’s church, Essex.
Your friend in Northern Ireland, was that the Jim who's mentioned in the book?
Yeah, big Jim.
Were you with Jim when he died?
No, we were landing on the Irish border and we had intelligence from special branch saying that one of the checkpoints might be getting attacked by the IRA; we just didn’t know which one. We looked at the map and saw one checkpoint that was closest to the border, so we thought that was the one that was going to be attacked. I briefed the soldiers that day because we were reinforcing the checkpoint. They were going to get killed that day whatever I did, but I was riddled with fucking guilt and blamed myself. 'Was there anything else that I could have done to prevent them boys from dying?' And I carried that about with me for years. It wasn’t until I left the army that it got more involved. That's called survivor guilt, I suppose.
So you’re carrying around all this guilt and no one's helping you.
Yeah, it's a known fact that the government haven’t got anything in place to deal with traumatised soldiers. I get treatment once a month – they come to my house and see me. For every one soldier who gets killed in the battlefield, there will be at least five who are mentally traumatised. The government doesn’t give a flying fuck.
It seemed, from the book, that you were seeking a form of punishment from people.
There was a lot of self-hatred there. I became horrible to live with, I had violent outbursts with my temper and my wife had to walk on eggshells. Anything would upset me, from the news to the price of a loaf of bread. I was just very unhappy and I was unbearable to live with. I drank and didn’t give a fuck about anyone.
And this was all because there was no one there to help you?
I felt that I’d been betrayed and that I wasn’t getting the help that I needed. The only release I got was from drinking and that only helped me up to a certain point. But when I went to the point of oblivion with alcohol, that’s when all the silliness started and I took overdoses. My wife put up with hell. She had to get four ambulances to come and take me away to hospitals. I’d be OK for a couple of weeks or months, then it would carry on and go to a different threshold. I would go out looking for un-winnable fights with bouncers, hoping they would beat me to death because I didn’t want to live with myself. I wanted to die.
John's medal collection.
Does this mean you were fighting a lot with people you didn’t know?
Yeah, that was when we moved to Blackpool. I did it about four or five times, maybe. I’d go up to some bouncers and just smack one of them because I knew that they’d kick the shit out of me, and I was hoping that they’d kill me. With hindsight, I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to live in the misery I was living in.
At what point did you start to feel less like this?
I think it was after I came out of prison.
Can you explain how you ended up in prison?
I was at my wits' end because my PTSD had gone to another threshold and I felt like I was beginning to totally lose control of my mind – I was afraid I was going to end up hurting someone. I ended up drinking and making two petrol bombs out of white spirit. My wife and children were upstairs watching TV, but I phoned the police and told them that I was holding them at knifepoint. Unbeknownst to me, my wife had already phoned the police. The court ordered six psychiatric reports, which all came back stating broadly the same thing: that I had clinical depression and combat PTSD. The judge then sectioned me under the mental health act, but the primary care trust refused the funding.
The first Christmas I was in prison, the judge managed to get me moved to a hospital in North Wales that specialised in PTSD. I was in there for two weeks and the funding ran out. The judge had no choice but to send me to Blackpool Victoria Hospital. I was among schizophrenics, which was actually more damaging than being in prison. I felt like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was sent to prison for five and a half years, then I appealed and it was reduced to three and a half years.
I was then transferred to The Priory – the hospital where all the stars go – but what flummoxed me was that in North Wales with Dr Jones, who specialised in PTSD, I would have got a full set of treatment for £9,000. Instead, it cost them £74,000 to send me to the fucking Priory. And they don’t even specialise in PTSD, they deal with drug and alcohol addiction and mild depression. So you go from a place that's set up to deal with people like you to being in a place next to Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. I was sitting in group therapy one day with a woman who was depressed because one of her horses wouldn’t foal.
John with his son Kenny in 2003, six months before he was sent to prison.
What? And you were meant to say, “Yeah, I'm depressed because I've seen dead bodies”?
If I'd have listened to them and opened up in group therapy, that woman would have ended up in a much worse state.
Was being in The Priory just one long series of instances like that?
It was a beautiful place, but I wasn’t getting the treatment. I spent four and a half months in there, and when I was released I was in this rundown flat in Blackpool. There was no heating, so I'd sit with my fucking sleeping bag around my shoulders trying to keep warm. I started drinking again because I was left to deal with it on my own.
Am I right in thinking you feel differently now?
I can cope with it a lot better. I can sit in my flat for about five or six weeks and I won’t hear from anyone or see anyone. The thing keeping my head above the water is the fear of ever going back to prison, and I'm fighting against alcoholism on a day-to-day basis.
And it’s still fucking hard, I'd imagine.
I’m still on medication, but I get very tearful and very lonely. What I tend to do is put on a different face when I'm out so that people don’t see the state I’m in. I’ve got my public face and my private face.
I understand that.
But when it comes down to it, I’m still very unwell. I'm not in a relationship, my girlfriend and me split up about two years ago. I don’t like anyone cuddling me or kissing me. I love, but I don’t know how to show love any more. I’ve become desensitised.
After all this, do you regret joining the army?
No, I would join the army tomorrow. I would do it all over again, but I'd do it differently, if you know what I mean?
How would you do it differently?
I always wanted to be a soldier for as long as I can remember. I joined the cadets when I was 13, the TA when I was 17 and the army when I was 21 until I was 35. Soldiering was in my blood. I’m not griping about going to war, but if you're willing to go and give the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the country, you should be helped, because you will be mentally damaged. Someone should be there to fix us because we were willing to fucking die for the country.
That's what I said to Kenny, and this is what Mark’s book are about – a country that’s willing to send people like you and your son to fight in questionable wars, to ask them to make the ultimate sacrifice. And then, once they've come home, to leave them high and dry. It’s kind of staggering.
That’s right. And if the book can prevent other guys going through what we're going through, then we've achieved something. People need to be made aware that not only this government, but also previous governments, have let the armed forces down. We are soldiers. It’s politicians who cause wars and send us to wars. We don’t cause wars, we go and fight them and possibly die in them. It’s politicians who make them, not the soldiers.
Thanks very much for talking to me, John.
You can read the interview with Kenny, John's son, here.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow
More British soldiers at war:
Watch - Afghanistan in the UK