I will never forget holding that dying girl of seven in my arms ...

As part of the Johnston Press Investigations Team series on suicide among military veterans, UUP MLA and former Royal Irish Regiment Captain Doug Beattie MC opens up about his own mental stresses

As we leave the Twelfth fortnight behind us people will reflect on the good, the bad and the ugly of those 14 days.

UUP MLA Capt Doug Beattie MC with his team while serving in Afghanistan. Two of them were later killed.

UUP MLA Capt Doug Beattie MC with his team while serving in Afghanistan. Two of them were later killed.

For me the 12th July will always throw up memories of 2008 and the day a 15-year-old suicide bomber struck my unfortified base in Marjah, southern Afghanistan.

The resulting explosion was devastating and its outcomes horrific; far too graphic to pen for this article.

Equally horrific were the scenes as my small team of five soldiers and one interpreter desperately tried to save the lives of those injured in the blast while picking up the pieces of those that did not survive.

17,000 veterans in NI have mental health issues, says charity chief

This was the third suicide bombing incident I had been involved in and its long term effects are still felt by me today.

I find it difficult to be in crowds, even small ones, something that makes the Twelfth celebrations and other gatherings particularly difficult.

I relive the events of that day not in the form of flashbacks – a term a find a cliché – but real living memories, the sounds, the smells, the coppery taste of blood, the laboured movements of carrying dead weight and the frustration and anger felt trying to get others to understand the situation in all the confusion.

A picture of my small team taken just after the incident closed shows the stress and strains in the men’s faces and prompts negative not positive memories.

This is coupled with the knowledge that two of the six were later killed in action including my good friend Jon Mathews.

Of course it’s not just the actions and effects of the enemy that brings memories flooding back but my own actions and those of the men and women I commanded.

Holding a young seven-year-old girl in your arms as her life ebbed away would be traumatic for anyone, but knowing that her injuries – although not attributable to me – were attributable to others I served alongside.

An accident but an accident with terrible consequences.

I have never shied away from my actions whilst in the military, I have never hidden from what I have seen and done which, in some ways, has helped me cope.

But the spectre of mental health problems have hung over me every time I completed a tour of duty and even more since I left front line soldiering.

My admission of suffering mental stress has at times brought negative responses on social media. Where you would expect understanding when you lay your mental health problems bare I found some used it as a method to attack me personally.

In this divided society and my political position I guess I have to expect that. But this is a personal not political testimony, it is written in the hope it will help other people understand and lift the stigma of talking about mental health.

For me the problem has always been about seeking out help. Even when I understood I was in a place where – in my mind – the next logical step would be to end my life, I was never able to ask for help.

This was nothing more than a thought or a series of thoughts and I never made any preparations to commit suicide. But having those thoughts can and does spiral into depression, isolation and feelings of worthlessness.

I have never been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and for me that is a small victory.

It means I have been able to overcome the problems I have suffered but at the same time I know friends and colleagues who have been diagnosed with PTSD and have found acknowledgment and diagnosis extremely helpful.

Maybe I do have PTSD, maybe in the future it will manifest itself beyond my own ability to cope.

Who knows, but right now I can cope and in that I know I am one of the lucky ones. For PTSD is not just a military issue, anyone can suffer; nurses, firefighters, police, members of the public including women who have gone through a traumatic birth, those involved in road traffic collisions or those affected by crime.

In the end my issues are based around incidents I have been involved in, some suppressed, others in the open to be judged. They will never leave me nor will the memory of my friend Jon or that little girl I held in my arms – Shabia.

17,000 veterans in NI have mental health issues, says charity chief

HELPLINE NUMBERS;-

UDR/RI aftercare: 9042 0145

UDR Ben Fund: 028 9042 0652

Royal Irish Ben Fund: 9042 0629

Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation): 0808 1914218

The Samaritans: 116123

Lifeline NI 0808 808 8000

Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650

Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212

Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619

Help for Heroes: 01980 844280

RBL: 0808 802 8080

Beyond B’field: 028 91 228 389