Life After War: Haunted by Helmand

Wednesday 23 January 2013, 16:47

Michael Price Michael Price Producer

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From time to time I would have to ask if we could stop the interview. 

I would suggest they put the kettle on or claim I needed to rest my shoulder from the weight of the camera.

Sometimes they would ask me to stop filming because they knew they were going to cry. It could catch up with me as I drove home afterwards.

As the producer on the film Life After War: Haunted by Helmand, I had entered a world where right at the centre there was a blankness. A numbing pain. One of the mothers referred to it as a desolation.

In what remains the worst attack on a British foot patrol in the history of the Afghan campaign, on 10 July 2009 five members from the same platoon were killed.

  Officer Alex Horsfall visits the National Memorial Arboretum 'It's a date that you actually remember more than your birthday': Officer Alex Horsfall

The bond within these platoons is particularly intense. The attack still sends shock waves through the young men who survived and the relatives of those killed.

Some carry wounds in their minds, or in medical parlance they have post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

I wanted to tell their story. Better still, I wanted them to tell their story. To this end, I entered their lives very quietly.

I wanted them to see me as someone they could talk to, as someone who would listen, and I wanted them to be comfortable with the small camera on my shoulder.

For some of the grander shoots we hired an expert craft cameraman, but my aim generally was for the audience to feel like they had dropped in on an honest, intimate conversation. 

I wanted them to hear these young men talk openly about how they live with the pain. Luckily for me, we had a brilliant team on the project here at BBC Northern Ireland

Film making is a team sport, and everyone was superb.  The film is the result of all our efforts.

I began last May by getting to know some of those who had survived the attack. We would meet in pubs and cafes and front rooms and just chat. I had a notebook out but no camera.

I think the time I spent embedded with British forces in Helmand in 2009 and 2011 helped me connect with them. 

I understand soldiers’ lingo and have some appreciation, to a tiny extent really, about what they had experienced out there.

My aim was for them to relax around the camera, to have them talk to me and forget that it was there.

So over a cup of tea perhaps, I showed them how it worked and what the buttons did, and they would start to lose their fear of being filmed.

And then we would start talking about anything and I would raise it to my shoulder and start recording.

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On a day out with Sherly and Matthew, Holty confesses he feels more alone now he's home

It would vary as to how long it would take before they forgot it was there. Some were instantly comfortable with it, but for others it took a few days.

Then most of them would then talk and talk and talk. And sometimes they could not.

I would arrive at their house as planned, knock on the door, and when they answered see the blankness in their eyes. If they were up to it I might do a bit of filming. 

The silences would say more than their words. Some days I left the camera in the boot and we just had a chat.

The last thing I wanted to do was take them back to the day of the attack and cause them additional pain. I would just ask them about how they were doing now. 

Some could take us back there. For others it would have been too much.

There was plenty of laughter along the way. Army banter is like a tonic they conjure up to boost morale. They were very funny when they wanted to be. The camera would wobble as my shoulders shook. Surviving members of 9 Platoon in black tie at their reunion Members of 9 Platoon get together for a black tie reunion

But it was tough as well. The hardest interviews were those with Allan’s mother and sister. 

Even in the edit weeks later, as we stitched the pictures together, I could not watch them back without getting a lump in my throat.

Allan had been 18 when he was out in Helmand in 2009 with his platoon. He survived the day of the attacks and all the other IEDs and bullets and rockets during that grisly tour.

The way his mother and sister talked about him he was still around. They told me about his humour and his foibles, his generosity and his love of life. I got to know him through their stories.

I started to think he would suddenly walk in, crack open a beer and give us all a big grin. We would laugh at what they remembered.

But they also talked about how he was changed by Helmand. It was all too much for Allan.

On 2 May 2011, nearly 18 months after he got back, at the age of 20, he took his own life. I was looking into his mother’s eyes as she told me this. The pain uncurled within her and I put the camera down.

Michael Price filmed and produced Life After Death: Haunted by Helmand.

Life After Death: Haunted by Helmand is on Wednesday, 23 January at 9pm on BBC Three. For further programme times, please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

If you, or someone you know, is affected by the issues raised in this programme, please see the information and support page for details of organisations which can help (available until Monday, 4 March).

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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    Comment number 1.

    Very touching and informative to watch. Whilst it offered a partial insight into the impact PTSD can have upon lives I feel compelled to comment. I often hear people say that there is not enough help readily available to service personnel & veterans, indeed tonight's viewing seemed to reinforce this throughout the programme. The heart breaking thing is there IS help available but outside the MOD remit. There are charities and organisations who work tirelessly to help people just like the lads I watched tonight. The problem, in my opinion, is lack of awareness and lack of signposting to external organisations (particularly those with a specialty in the field of PTSD). One if them is listed on here and the only signpost tonight was a flash of a wristband. Just a minute or 2 of airtime could have been so valuable to the viewers, especially those suffering as we speak. I have personal experience of living with a relative with PTSD. The help is out there. Google Talking2Minds they are in my personal opinion, amazing. Mrs F (ex forces daughter & forces wife)

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    Comment number 2.

    Thank you so much for highlighting PTSD- as a forces wife and mother I've seen first hand the destruction PTSD can do to a family.

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    Comment number 3.

    I found the program an emotional watch, however I do not think it touched on nearly enough about PTSD and the help that is available. I see you added a link to varies charities and organisations to this page but no mention during the program. Talking2Minds have research data and evidence of their achievements in this area. They have help many people who suffer from PTSD. yet you failed to inform the public of such a lifeline. I am a mother of two serving soldiers and have seen the devastation it can cause within families because of the lack of help, support and education on this debilitating mental illness. It was not mentioned neither that Combat stress have long waiting lists of up to 8 months (even though it is funded by the MOD, so the funds should be there as it is their responsibility to supply on demand) They will also not take on anyone who has a drink or drug issue, yet the majority of ex services use these tools as a coping mechanism. They will also not take on anyone who has a mental illness running alongside PTSD IE: Schizophrenia. So who are they actually helping? The easy cases to make their statistics look good? If you take for example the Falklands, 255 soldiers were killed in conflict and a further 263 (Recorded) took their own lives after the war had ended, you can see it is a real problem and now we are coming to the end of the conflict in Afghan, how many more suicides will there be and how many people are still out there suffering from their own personal nightmare? You don't have to be alone in this, you can start living again. Visit Talking2Minds veterans helping veterans.

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    Comment number 4.

    I'm a Falklands Veteran and a Sir Gallahad survivor who suffered Complex Military PTSD..
    I attended Combat Stress twice.. and was expelled because I had the bare faced cheek to ask for actual treatment and not just guided meditations and coach trips out to Ironbridg etc.. tut tut tut..I saw the shrink there for a grand total of 3 minutes.. what a money pit that place is..
    However.. I attended a Change program with Talking2Mindsend with a Veteran who was also a sufferer, of my own chosing, which was a one to one person centred and continues session (without revisiting my traumas) until I was ready to change (which I did within 2 days) and no longer suffer the symptoms of PTSD, as opposed to the Trauma based interventions offered at Combat Stress which are session based, leaving the sufferer retraumatised untill the next session.
    So BBC.. I would be grateful if you would enter into this Blog and explain to me why it was that you excluded comment about Talking2Minds..?

    For anyone who is following this thread who is or knows someone who suffers with a dibilitating dissorder as a result of experiancing extremely extraordinary events... please contact Talking2Minds for peace of mind
    End X

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Just saw your show.
    Very Powerful!
    We wish you guys the best of luck!
    Peace & Love,
    G & K

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Very moving programme. Well done to Michael Price for keeping it low key and personal, and respect to the lads for taking part and agreeing to share their pain on camera. Although not a PTSD sufferer I have Asperger’s and depression which can leave me feeling totally alone – a life lived in limbo - sometimes it was just too difficult to watch as it was like looking in the mirror… especially when Kevin talked about not having any plans or not wanting to make new friends… when you can’t see past tomorrow – what’s the point?

    Any plans for a follow-up programme? What happened next, how are the lads doing now? And more widely, what is being done to help our troops on their return to cope with the mental stresses of combat. Having to wait for up to 2 years for treatment via the NHS is just not good enough (I know!). Would be good to know what I could do to help – how can we make sure the services available are properly signposted? Are there any ways to volunteer? Just having someone to chat to over a coffee, or someone who will listen and not judge - it can make all the difference. No-one should feel so alone that they feel the only way to escape the pain is to end their own life…

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Thank you taking the time to watch the film and read my blog, and thank you as well for your comments.

    Please accept my apologies for not replying earlier, but I have caught up in an edit on another film.

    Proud2bMrsF (#1), DMT (#3) and medicinebear (#4) - I wanted to respond to your point about Talking2Minds. Sadly, we did not have chance in this film to explore and evaluate the treatment offered by charities specialising in veterans’ mental health.

    During our time spent with our former soldiers they did not approach the charity Talking2Minds, and so we did not feature it in the film.

    However, at the end of the film we put up a helpline number which directed callers to a number of charities, including Talking2Minds. As you have mentioned, there is also a link at the end of this blog post for the programme’s information and support page: (available until Monday, 4 March). Clicking on that will take you to a list of charities, again including Talking2Minds.

    MrFish, you will be pleased to hear that the last I heard the lads were doing fine, and some of them have been surprised by the wave of support that has flowed their way since the film went out. I would suggest that you contact any of the charities on the programme support page and ask whether you can help. At the moment, it is probably a little premature to start thinking of a follow up programme, but further on down the line I think it may be interesting to find out how they fared and whether there were any more reunions.

    Thank you again for your interest in the film.

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    Comment number 8.

    Thank you for this documentary as those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice are names that will be remembered yet we must never forget those that have also returned and suffered sacrifices in other ways. I was very moved by the events of that day and the trauma that it had on all involved. It goes without saying that I cannot relate to what these brave band of brothers went through but also what they are still going through.
    I would like to inquire as to if this documentary is available on DVD as my brother, who is serving in the Australian Air Force, and is the father of one of the soldiers killed on that fateful day in July 2009, has not seen this programme and would very much like to watch this documentary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Hello Nick Wheeler #8,
    Just to answer your question, I've checked with BBC Worldwide and I'm afraid there are no plans at present for Life After War: Haunted By Helmand to be released for sale on DVD. Thank you for posting your comment on the blog.


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