When I was asked to write this piece I thought long and hard about it. It is very difficult to exactly pin down what a modern man is. Gone are the stereotype divides betwixt the sexes; or at least we are getting that way I hope.
And hopefully some of man’s traits are going that way too. Chiefly among them the natural if misguided trait that mental health is something not to be discussed.
We are all formed by our own experiences. Growing up I was taught that mental health was not really a thing. “Stress” was a bit of a joke in my household; although looking back it would have been more helpful to recognise this earlier I think.
I carried these misguided views directly into the military – perhaps one of the most guilty parties when it came to talking about mental health. And perhaps in my early years of training before operations, it could afford to be. But combat changes a lot in people.
I remember a few cases in particular. I had a dear friend – a Corporal in the Royal Military Police. He had a difficult job; he was required to collect evidence from targets that I had engaged, using swabs and special cameras that recorded people’s identities. We made as light as we could of a rather disturbing job.
The British Army had finally given us some better body armour that was effective, building on the initial disaster of Combat Body armour, which was better at keeping the body in one piece, than anything penetrating it. One day we were sent some additional Kevlar plates to put in our side pouches, to complement and front and back plate.
With all my radios and optical gear for identifying and hitting targets, I felt I had enough to carry as it was, and valued speed over the ground above protection, and so declined to use them. My friend popped them in for our next patrol.
During the next patrol we were heavily ambushed. We took multiple casualties – three successive ‘man down’ calls after the initial burst of fire. I grabbed one of the casualties who had been shot in the shoulder – he was limp and passing in and out of consciousness. I looked over to see one of the other casualties was my friend. He didn’t seem to be bleeding, but was staring into space, in a daze.
Someone else got to him, and dragged him around in a truck and we fought our way back to base. Once back in base we treated the casualties (no-one died), and lined them up to get them on the chinook and back to Camp Bastion for onward treatment.
The Corporal was in tears. Someone told me what had happened. He had been shot, and it had bounced off the side-plate he had put in that morning. He was physically unharmed, but something had snapped in his head, and he was unresponsive. I went over to him, knelt down and cuddled him into my shoulder.
Mental health is exactly the same as physical health – he was mentally injured by the experience. He wasn’t weak – he had experienced far worse and we had laughed about it. Something had snapped in him and he needed treatment like any other injury. I defy anyone who experiences things like this to not feel the “burning injustices”. as the Prime Minster says, of not treating mental and physical health the same.
There was nothing ‘un-manly’ about what happened to this brave Royal Military Policeman that day. There was nothing un-manly in his tears, or indeed in our embrace or that of his colleagues clearly worried about his condition. Were we modern men? Well we have come a long way from how we used to treat this sort of thing, with a bullet at dawn from your ‘comrades’.
But look around society today, and there is still an awful long way to go. Parity of esteem is a good start; but it must be matched by parity of provision and something close to parity of funding. Esteem means nothing, unless it is backed up by these two.