Afghanistan veteran: War with Taliban may be over but my war with PTSD will go on forever

A Newtownards soldier who helped overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan says they might be in charge now - but for those that beat them, the cost was so high that “our war is never going to end”.

Paul Johnston, 36, from Newtownards served three tours in Afghanistan with the Royal Irish and says the manner of western withdrawal has been a 'betrayal' for British and Afghan families whose loved ones gave their lives to defeat the Taliban.
Paul Johnston, 36, from Newtownards served three tours in Afghanistan with the Royal Irish and says the manner of western withdrawal has been a 'betrayal' for British and Afghan families whose loved ones gave their lives to defeat the Taliban.

Thirty Six-year-old Paul Johnston, who served with the Royal Irish in some of the most brutal battles against the Taliban, now suffers severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and says: “I will never be able live an ordinary life again”.

He was speaking as it was revealed that two British nationals, and the child of another British national, died in the suicide bomb attack on Afghans trying to flee the Taliban at Kabul airport on Thursday.At least 95 people were killed and more than 150 were injured. The US, which is running the airport, is withdrawing its troops by 31 August, while Britain’s evacuation effort in Kabul has entered its final hours.

Paul Johnston was among the first troops on the ground to make initial contact with the Taliban in Helmand Province in 2006 and was among 70 soldiers who fought 500 Taliban over 55 days in the notorious battle of Musa Qala in 2006.

Taliban fighters stand guard outside the airport after Thursday's deadly attacks, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021. Two suicide bombers and gunmen attacked crowds of Afghans flocking to Kabul's airport Thursday, transforming a scene of desperation into one of horror in the waning days of an airlift for those fleeing the Taliban takeover. (AP Photo/Wali Sabawoon)

Overall he served three tours totalling a year and four months in the country.

But seeing the Taliban overthrow the Afghan government in a matter of weeks has had a serious impact on him and his fellow veterans.

“At first it was a lot of anger, because I feel we made a major contribution in the evolution of Afghanistan,” he told the News Letter. “I was one of the first troops into Helmand province and we were actually fighting a war. And as the tours progressed the fighting was scaling down and we were providing security for the projects like building schools and fixing wells and bridges.

“In the space of five years I saw the improvements. You could see the kids going to school, you could see the impact of the work that we were doing.

“And now that anger turns to sadness because all we think of now is my friends who lost their lives - and my friends in the Afghan army and police who lost their lives.

“All their families for all these years have been clinging onto the hope that their loved ones died for something - to make Afghanistan a better place.

“And now it is my opinion that the hope these families have been clinging onto has gone - all because of the betrayal by President [Joe] Biden.

“Boris Johnston and the international community as a whole have left the people of Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban.”

He is not clear how this could have been avoided, but is certain it was possible and that it was up to world leaders to come up with the answers.

“The answers they have given are basically a betrayal.”

He had five friends killed in Afghanistan and four took their own lives after returning.

Now he suffers from severe PTSD, in the form of constant flashbacks and severe nightmares.

“The war might be over and the Taliban might be in charge but for the ones that served there, our war is never going to end. I will never be able to live an ordinary life again”.

He notes that the Royal Irish were among the first troops to engage the Taliban in Helmand province in 2006 and were among the last to serve in Kabul. 

“The people of Northern Ireland should be very proud of the Royal Irish, Irish Guards and other regiments with Northern Ireland elements that served there. So they should feel the same anger I feel about the betrayal - and most importantly - the sadness of all the loved ones of those from Northern Ireland who died.”

Another NI veteran who served is ‘Robert’, also 36, a former Royal Marine from Belfast who served in Afghanistan for six months in 2007. 

“Me and a mate are going to England this weekend to visit mothers of fellas that were killed,” he said. “It is just disgusting the way they have done this [withdrawal].”

From 2004-2017 he lost 12 friends from the Marines who were either shot or killed by suicide bombers in Afghanistan

Another three who served there took their own lives years later. Colleagues had no idea they were struggling.

“Everyone just keeps it to themselves,” he says.

The manner of the US withdrawal is what prompted him to visit the mothers of his deceased friends.

“It is because we were just deserted by the Americans. British soldiers still out there feel deserted by the Americans.”

Before he arrived in Afghanistan he feels they were misled by the media about the Taliban.

“The media told us that these people were not afraid to die. But I am telling you the people we captured were that scared they were [soiling] themselves.

“If they were not scared to die there would be suicide bombings every day. But they were scared to die.

“It gave the Taliban a mystique that was far from reality. If they had captured us they would have cut us up into pieces. But when we captured them we handed them over to the authorities for interrogation.”

He feels the ordinary Afghan people will be ones who will suffer the most.

“The Afghans were nice people. It [the withdrawl] made me feel bad because - especially the women - it is going to be terrible for them. It really made us question the value of what we had done there.”

Now that the Taliban has retaken the country he feels like his friends gave up their lives for nothing. 

“I don’t think we have achieved anything. We were achieving brilliant things out there, but after Biden came in it has just been shocking. He is an absolute waste of space.”This the consensus of all his veteran friends. 

“They all served in Afghanistan and they are all raging.”They are angry with their own government too but most of all with the US.

“I am pretty annoyed. I have gone back on the drink.”

He had been off alcohol for a month.

Robert has complex PTSD and hypervigilance, a common mental problem suffered by veterans. Psychologically, he is always expecting to come under attack.

“In 14 years I have had about four good dreams. Every night I have the same nightmare - the Taliban coming at me. I am shooting at them but they won’t die, they just keep coming.

“You smell something and it brings it back or you see something out of the corner of your eye and it brings it all back. When you drive under a bridge on the motorway you expect an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) because that is where they used to plant them.” 

He left the marines 14 years ago and later worked in private security for several years. When he returned to NI he took a civilian job for three years.

“And then my head went again and I haven’t been working since.”

He is surviving on basic Universal Credit and has been refused disability payments.

He was married with children but - like many other service personnel - the PTSD he acquired while serving his country led to the breakdown of his marriage.

Robert McCartney, chairman of Ards veterans charity Beyond the Battlefield, says calls for help from NI veterans have trebled since the chaos began in Afghanistan. Out of the 30,000 NI personnel who served in Afghanistan, he says, 16% will suffer PTSD symptoms as a result of events this month, 4% of whom will be severe cases.

“That means 300-360 extra cases of people seeking help due to the Afghanistan situation.” He says that almost 60 veterans from NI have taken their own lives since they returned.

The NI personnel who died in Afghanistan are Channing Day a young woman from Comber; David Dalzell, 20 years old, from Bangor in County Down; Aaron McCormick, 22 years old, from Macosquin in County Londonderry; Stephen McKee, 27 years old, from Banbridge in County Down; Nigel Moffett, 29 years old, from Belfast; David Patton, 38, from Aghadowey in County Antrim; Neal Turkington, 26, from Craigavon in County Armagh, Stephen Walker, from Lisburn, 42 years old, and Captain Mark Hale, 42 years old, from Dromara in County Down.

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