by John Mayhead
It took over 15 months of training before the British Army let me loose on real soldiers: a year at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst followed by a three-month stint at the Infantry Battle School. Even after I’d finished the formal element of my training and arrived at my regiment, my non-commissioned officers made it clear that I still had a lot to learn. They were right.
One thing that the formal training did exceptionally well was to instil certain values, pride and loyalty above all. From day one, I was told stories of how my predecessors had stood and fought against the odds, fighting for Queen, country and the Regiment. I was taught that ‘selfless commitment’ was at the heart of every good soldier, that sometimes sacrifice was necessary for the greater good.
Fast forward nineteen years to the end of my service, and I attended a short resettlement course in preparation for civilian life. I don’t remember any of it, but to be honest I wasn’t really that interested. My final period in the military had not been good, and I was looking forward to starting the rest of my life. I predicted that my erratic mental state would settle and the confidence, skills and values I’d learnt in the Army would allow me to overcome any challenge.
There’s a great book called The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters. If you want to know why you act the way you do, I implore you to read it. One of his theories is that some people have what he calls the ‘Snow White Complex’. He explains that many of us have been brought up on fairy tales where the good guys always win in the end and the witch always gets her comeuppance. This affects us so much that when things don’t work out in real life, we feel a huge sense of unfairness.
When, for me, civilian life actually made my mental state worse and the Army went on its way without a thought for me, I admit I was doing my best impression of a Disney princess. I felt it was unfair: they owed me, I should be getting better. In the years that followed, I cut off pretty much all contact with the Army and anyone connected with it. I avoided reunions, ignored messages from former colleagues and even came off social media. I wanted to disappear, convinced these people were part of the problem. I was so wrong, on so many levels.
I now think I understand. There are two armies, and I mistook them for one big entity. The first is the organisation itself: the Machine. In my 15-month training, I was indoctrinated. I needed to be, because the Machine’s job is, like a tenacious virus, is to keep itself alive at any cost. It needed to know that I would stand and fight for the colours even if it meant losing my life. It needed to be sure that I would leave my wife and young children at home to deploy to a bomb-infested desert for six months. It required me to act against my better instincts because a guy wearing a bigger badge told me to. It impressed on me that loyalty to the machine was the most honourable pathway: dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. It offered rank, medals and a sense of pride in return.
The second army was the group of soldiers I served with. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t like some of them and some of them didn’t like me, but there were many, many of them that I have the utmost respect and love for. These are the guys I know would have died for me, and me for them, if the chips were down. Not for the Machine, just for each other.
I’m writing this in a hotel lobby near Los Angeles airport, surrounded by the team who will complete all 1,000 miles of the Walk of America. Three served in the US military, four of us in the UK armed forces. None of us knew each other previously and all of our experiences were different, and yet we’ve immediately bonded. As Larry Hinkle, an ex- USMC veteran said last night, we already know the others “have our six”; in other words, mutual trust is already there in spades.
By separating myself from the men and women I served with, I took away one of my strongest support networks. Just as I know without question the Walk of America team will look after each other during the hard times to come, the amazing messages I’ve received from ex- comrades since I started talking openly about my own problems have reiterated what a hugely powerful team we still are. Some of these people are offering support, others acknowledging their own problems for the first time, showing that if we’re open and honest we can, as a group, really help each other or guide each other to professional support. It has been absolutely humbling.
All this has been the result of a short TV interview and an online article. Think what the Walk of America can achieve: fourteen weeks, with Prince Harry as a patron and the story of a team of comrades looking after each other through an intense physical challenge walking across America. This expedition isn’t about highlighting the shortcomings of the ‘Machine’ in dealing with the soldiers that were broken in service, but about empowering veterans, their family and the wider population to discuss military mental health issues openly. It’s about acknowledging the massive collective power of this group, who instinctively look after each other, and the way they can help those affected not just recover from trauma but use the power of their experiences to thrive. It is also about raising money to enable charities like Walking with the Wounded to support them in their ongoing ventures. It’s intensely exciting, and I’m hugely proud to be a part of it.