Afghanistan war: The British veterans who felt abandoned after risking their lives

ITV News Correspondent Paul Davies speaks to Afghanistan veterans struggling to cope after life in the army

In 2006, the soldiers of C Company, 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, posed for a photo at their base in Sangin in Afghanistan's Helmand Province. At that time, Sangin was the most dangerous place on earth, the centre of British forces' fight against the Taliban. The Paras were sent to Helmand Province after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a response to the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The campaign lasted 20 years and cost the lives of 457 British soldiers. ITV News has tried to trace the people on the C Company photograph 15 years on to tell their stories, in our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline.

By ITV News Senior News Editor Paul Tyson

Where are they now? Of the men in the photograph of C Company below, about 25 are still in the army, most nearing the end of their military careers. At least 20 more are working for private security firms, many in the Middle East. The rest are in 'Civvy Street'.

C Company posed for this photograph ahead of their tour in Afghanistan in 2006.

Leaving the army for normal civilian life was never easy. For soldiers who experience sustained combat, as in Afghanistan, it can be harder still.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) offers a resettlement package with advice on job-seeking and grants for training courses, but veterans feel much more could be done.

We asked 35 of the people in our photo whether the resettlement support they received was adequate - not a single person agreed that it was.

Doug Hook joined C Company in Sangin straight from basic training and was wounded but returned after surgery to see out the rest of his tour.

He is now a photojournalist: “I’m in America now, in Massachussetts and I know American veterans; the support they get from the US Government after they leave the military is phenomenal, not just with university (the US Government pays veterans’ university fees in full) but with everything. They are just so much further ahead.”

'They are so much further ahead when it comes to the unseen injuries soldiers sustain', Doug Hook on how the US treats its veterans

Semi Wara recalled the feeling of abandonment he experienced when he left barracks for the last time.

He said: “For me, personally, as soon as you left that was ‘boom’ the door just shuts, shuts right there and then, that’s it for you.

"In fact you feel like you’ve been betrayed, you’ve done all your bit for the army then all of a sudden - closed! I think maybe the support is better nowadays.”

Semi Wara in Sangin, Helmand Province.

Soldiers entering the civilian job market are intelligent, physically fit, highly-motivated, self-disciplined and have a wealth of directly transferable skills - so why is adapting to 'Civvy Street' so hard?

Partly, it is the loss of identity - soldiers all fit somewhere in the hierarchy of an organisation where their achievements are clear, and valued.

Kyle Deerans was a Parachute Regiment sniper. He is now by any definition a succesful man. He owns a private school, is a director of a security company and lives in an upmarket suburb of Johannesburg with his young family.

But, he said: “When you leave the army you go from hero to zero, all of a sudden all the things that you’ve done doesn’t really mean anything… that was very difficult for me and I know if was difficult for many of the guys.”

Kyle Deerans was a sniper in C Company.

In the Army your bills are paid, debts managed, taxes calculated and you are surrounded by a support network of people who know what you have been through.

There is a whole culture with its own traditions, dress code, language and a set of values - teamwork, loyalty, self-sacrifice - that are not always helpful in civilian life.

For those who have fought in Britain’s wars, the culture shock can be stronger still.

Euan Goodman served in Iraq and Afghanistan: “You’re never really a civilian, you can never go back.

I think you can get over the social anxiety of not being in the military any more and I think there is an [added] degree of undiagnosed anxiety for those who have served on recent operations, because you are a goldfish outside of your bowl in a world that doesn’t quite understand what you’ve been through… or doesn’t want to know.”

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It is important to note that most veterans do well in civilian life.

The employment rate for the soldiers in our photograph is similar to the pre-Covid national average.

Of the 64 veterans for whom we have data, most are employed in private sector managerial/supervisory roles or the blue light emergency services, especially paramedics.

Among the other professions represented are personal trainers, professional drivers, successful entrepreneurs, a sales executive, a journalist and a priest, the Reverend Adrian Teare, who has worked with the NHS throughout the Covid pandemic as Lead Chaplain to the Royal Surrey Hospital.

Adrian Teare is now a priest.

For most on Civvy Street, the army remains a big part of their life.

James Tedham is a climbing instructor in the Scottish Highlands: “The funny thing about having been in the army is that it never leaves you, it’s something that people judge you by and have expectations of you because of it.

"It’s funny how a decision that you make as quite a young man can live with you forever, having been a Para you will always be an ex-Para.”

'Veterans are young guys': James Tedham says he believes too many people think of veterans as far older than many really are

In the United States, as well as the “phenomenal” government support that Afghanistan veterans enjoy, there is a level of public recognition that does not exist in the UK. Should it?

Euan Goodman says: “It is nice when it happens, when someone actually connects with you and says thanks for what you did but at the same time it doesn’t feel very British.

"Don’t get me wrong, it’s incredibly flattering on the rare occasions it happens but I don’t think anyone in the British armed forces ever expects that.

"I don’t feel like I sacrificed anything, I didn’t, I’m still here, I’m still alive, there are others who paid the ultimate sacrifice so I don’t feel like there is any sacrifice personally, I loved my time in the military and I would do it all again if I could.”

Read more stories from our series Afghanistan: Photo From The Frontline