By James (whose last name has been removed for his safety and that of his family), a former Corporal in the Ulster Defense Regiment, and Peggy Simpson
*This is an article from the Summer 2020 issue of Combat Stress.
While serving in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles” in the 1980s, James and his family faced death threats. James himself faced two targeted attempts on his life. The horrors of living, first as a child and then into adulthood, with the war on his own doorstep, still haunt him in the form of Complex PTSD.
“I am sharing my story to let people know that help and hope are available for those suffering from this mental illness. I feel compelled to reach out to all who are facing it in whatever form it might present itself. Don’t continue to live in the darkness of depression! I want others to know that they too can survive and live a fuller life – a life well worth living.”
James was born in a beautiful little village north of Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1958. The first nine years of his life were idyllic; however, in 1967, his childhood was brutally shattered by his best friend’s older brother, an unwanted sexual predator. Experiencing abuse from him for nearly three years left an indelible impact on his life.
The Troubles Begin
In 1969 when James was only 11 years old, the Northern Ireland conflict began. This conflict was also known as “The Troubles.” Peace walls were built between the Protestants and Catholics following the Northern Ireland riots. Originally, they were supposed to be temporary, but since they were considered effective, they became permanent. Most of these so-called peace walls were located in Belfast. Unfortunately, this caused an even deeper chasm between Protestants and Catholics.
All too soon James would personally see the remains of dead bodies barely covered with blankets, as soldiers and police officers scoured the area in search of booby-trap devices. He would see fires raging, as hijacked cars, buses, and trucks were torched.
“I began to realize that ‘war’ was no longer a game that children played; the conflict in Northern Ireland was deadly serious. Just a child, I began taking an interest in the early evening news bulletins. One of the effects of this horrible conflict was that it made young people grow up too quickly. I watched television pictures of the devastation caused by explosives and bombings which wreaked havoc on the center of Belfast and other towns and villages. Some of these pictures captured my imagination and I became mesmerized, desperate to understand what was happening and why. However, much of what I saw on TV was beyond my comprehension, particularly the political arguments, which just seemed boring. My innocence, however, would not last long.”
On other occasions, he would see Catholics and Protestants at loggerheads, building barricades and throwing stones, bricks, and gas bombs at those whom they considered to be enemies, purely because of their religion. These were seen as two religions, although they were all Christians… like brother fighting brother.
“The IRA was basically a terrorist organization; the Protestant extremists were no better. The ferocity of their anger and the hatred in their eyes has remained with me through the years.”
In March of 1971, when James was only 13, he and his friend, while looking for wild horses to ride bareback, witnessed three unarmed Scottish Soldiers brutally murdered by the Provisional IRA. Two of the three were teenage brothers; another horror permanently imprinted in his mind. No child should live through this!
Conflict, Conflict Everywhere
James and his family lived across and down the street from his aunt and uncle, who helped to raise him and his sisters. When he was 14, his Uncle Bob asked James to deliver some racing pigeons for him. James happily took the pigeons on the 5-mile bus ride to the pigeon center where they were ringed. While on the bus, a group of boys asked him what religion he was. Without thinking, he said he was “Protestant.” Suddenly they began attacking him.
“They stabbed me in my upper mouth and killed all of my uncle’s pigeons. I received 16 stitches at the hospital. For months after the attack, I couldn’t close my eyes without envisioning the faces of my attackers, and I experienced my first panic attack. The mental and emotional scars are still deep!”
As “The Troubles” raged on, James’ Protestant father and Catholic mother were abducted and tortured merely because they were different “religions.” His father was taken to a house and beaten. His mother was severely beaten and tied to a lamppost, tarred, and feathered.
“My younger sister and I found her! My mother’s injuries contributed to her death months later. Sadly, these experiences were too much for my sister. One morning I received a call saying she hadn’t turned up for work. I went to her house and found her dead on her bed after taking an overdose. She was only 19.”
James enlisted in the UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) in March of 1980. At the height of “The Troubles” in the 1980s; he was deployed as a soldier in Belfast and the border areas as part of the clean-up operation. Everywhere the police went, those in the UDR went too, as a means of protecting them. As James explains:
“We were subjected to terrible violence. I witnessed multiple bomb explosions, found the mutilated bodies of informers who had been subjected to long periods of torture, and close friends were blown up and killed.”
Unlike British troops from England who stayed in the barracks, those in the Ulster Defense Regiment had to return to their homes each night. As a result, James was in constant fear of his life.
“The first thing I would do once I got home was to remove my rifle from the trunk of my car for protection. It seems unbelievable now. I went to bed with my handgun under my pillow every night. It was always cocked. There was a bullet inside 24/7. I never cleared it. I always had it ready in case a knock came to the door. Likewise, the rifle I used on duty laid under my bed, loaded and ready. If I had a bath or went to the bathroom, I had my handgun on me.
“The nights were so very dark. The lighting was curbed because of “The Troubles”. Without cell phones back then, it was a nightmare. I would put empty beer tins on a string hanging from my back gate so they would rattle if anyone tried to get in. Every morning I searched under my car for bombs, not knowing who might be waiting for me.”
On duty in Belfast on the border area, one’s life was always in danger. James was not the only one who felt the constant fear and pressure of service in Northern Ireland. Several members of his regiment committed suicide, including a few of his friends.
“Serving in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, there were constant death threats. I had two targeted attempts on my life.
“The first attempt occurred when I was off duty in Belfast at a local pub. A neighbor invited me to attend a gathering at a nearby flat. When we arrived, there were only two people there. Feeling that something wasn’t right, I decided to leave. As I was leaving, I heard people running up the stairs. I quickly found my way onto a fire escape. Afterward, the police informed me that my neighbor was actually a ‘sleeper agent’ from the IRA, living in the Protestant community – and I was on their hit list! Looking back, I believe God was protecting me.
“The second attempt was when I was driving home from the military base one evening after a 24-hour stint. I got into my car at about 5:45 AM. On my journey home, looking in my rearview mirror I noticed a vehicle tailing me, accelerating until it was dangerously close. As the car pulled up, a person in the passenger seat aimed a handgun out the window. I heard two shots and instantly grabbed my handgun. I turned to shoot back and lost control of my vehicle. It overturned, landing upside down. As I tried to get out of my car, an elderly woman appeared suddenly, watching me. Sirens wailed and the two men who were chasing me took off. The elderly lady helped me out of my car. When the police arrived, they found one bullet hole in the rear bumper of my crashed car. They wanted a statement from the lady who’d assisted me, but she was gone. I still yearn to know her name to thank her for saving my life.
“Since the place of the crash was in the Catholic section of Belfast, I wonder if she might have been a loving Catholic who cared enough to help but was afraid to stay because of the animosity between Catholics and Protestants…or did God send an angel to help and protect me? Whoever she was, it was a miracle that she was there. I could have been finished off by those pursuing me. As a result of the injuries I incurred from the crash, I spent two weeks in the military hospital, seriously injured but grateful I hadn’t become another fatality of a senseless war. I made the difficult decision to leave the Forces, but the horrors I’d experienced continued to haunt me. My Catholic wife received death threats from the Protestant community where we lived, leaving us in constant fear, and straining our relationship. Despairing one night while my wife was upstairs bathing the children, I attempted suicide. But as she came down the stairs, my gun jammed. She saw everything. Our relationship was never the same again. My entire family life in Northern Ireland was complex and in constant jeopardy.”
Eventually, James’ marriage fell apart and he moved to England. For the safety of his two children and ex-wife, he didn’t maintain contact and he hasn’t seen them since.
James was discharged from the UDR in 1985 at his own request.
Life After the Military
James went on to remarry and have three more children, all the while continuing to struggle with the anxiety, fears and depression that accompany an illness he did not know how to name. By 2016 he desperately needed help. His wife worked hard to pay their rent and debts, but he was unable to work. Help for Heroes told him about a military charity, which helped immensely.
Having been so kindly aided, James has a burning desire for others to understand what various charities do to help when you need it. The National Health System in the UK has provided him with amazing support.
“Finally, after suffering from flashbacks, anxiety, and depression for most of my life, I received a proper diagnosis in 2018 at the age of 60: Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD). I have no doubt been suffering from it for most of my life. Certainly, there is no aspect of my life that has gone untouched by this illness. And I know others suffer, too. I’ve learned there should be no shame nor guilt; mental illness is just that – an illness. You break a leg you fix it. Same here.”
(Editor’s Note: PTSD and CPTSD are not forms of mental illness, but psychological injuries resulting from exposure to the trauma of often extreme proportions, as in the case of James.)
Of course, setting a broken leg and working through the tangled maze of CPTSD are very different procedures, with a different timetable for each individual.
“For me, there is no healing, but there are things I can do to ensure that I never have to suffer as I did before being diagnosed with CPTSD. I’m no longer at the mercy of my disorder and I would not be here today had I not had the proper diagnosis and treatment.”
Into the Future
When James left the regiment, he did not receive any help. Support systems weren’t available. Too many people then – and now – suffer in silence and don’t know where to turn. Many of these victims are Military Veterans. They served their country; they deserve help. It begs the questions: How can these resources become more accessible and how can we erase the stigma associated with mental health? Not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the world?
James’ CPTSD was triggered by more than just a few traumatic events, from childhood and well into adulthood. There are numerous other events which intrude on his thoughts and leave him feeling anxious, fearful, and in a dark place. Some events remain unprocessed and impact his mood and motivation, sometimes daily. In the past, he used alcohol to numb his pain and to avoid intrusive memories, flashbacks, and nightmares. With the help of God and having finally been diagnosed with CPTSD and learning coping skills, he’s no longer at the mercy of his disorder. Fifty years from the start of “The Troubles,” James now feels he has the confidence to tell his story.
“It’s difficult, but I’m getting there. Lots of things are still triggers, like children playing and screaming in the street. As I said, for me there is no total cure, no full healing, but there are things I can do to ensure that I never have to suffer as I did before. And I’m certain I would not be here today had it not been for Almighty God looking over and protecting me. Why me and not my sister and my mother? I lean on Jeremiah 29:11 which says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
“I believe God’s mission for me is to be able to help others see that there is light ahead. I hope by walking alongside others who are in the healing process, to guide those in need to quality services, we will all become OVERCOMERS!”
While in the UDR, the military regularly recited Psalm 91:4-6, which reads:
He will cover you with His feathers,
and under His wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
To this day, James continues to repeat this Psalm, which gives him great comfort.
As of 2020, James has begun to walk alongside other Veterans in the United Kingdom, listening to their stories and sharing his story with them. Thanks are to God for His protection throughout James’ life.