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A difficult subject

Posted by Tania Kindersley
Tania Kindersley
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on Wednesday, 07 August 2013
I’ve written here before about the work I do at HorseBack UK. It is an organisation which takes wounded veterans, puts them together with American Quarter Horses in the wide Scottish hills, and builds confidence and hope for a meaningful future. It’s very difficult coming out of the institutional nature of the services into civilian life at the best of times; if there are legs missing, or Post-Traumatic Stress so acute that sleep is a fleeting luxury, it is even harder. HorseBack addresses some of those difficulties.

I’ve been volunteering for them for about eight months. I am used to things which once disconcerted me. I’ve never been good at disability; I even dislike the word, although I cannot think of a better one. I had all that very British embarrassment when faced with a person with bits missing. I always felt as if I were in a Bateman cartoon, constantly on the verge of making a shattering gaffe. It’s a don’t mention the war scenario. Now, I am quite accustomed to talking to men with no legs. I know not to do the pity face; I no longer have the acute uncertainty of where to look.

But occasionally, even though I have grown used to the rhythms of military jargon, the sensibilities of those who have served (the blackest of black humour is a trademark), I get brought up short. This morning I spoke to a gentleman who said, quite matter of factly, as if he were remarking on the weather: ‘I was blown up three times.’ It’s not just that; I work every day with a Royal Marine who was blown up twice in Afghanistan. It’s that the being blown up three times was the least bad thing that had happened.

Not all of the veterans can tell you their story. Some of them still cannot give it words. It’s too hard. Some of them will, though. This particular story was so relentless, so filled with horror, that I did have to remind myself to keep my face still. They don’t want a big reaction. They don’t want open mouths and frowns of shock and wide eyes of outrage. As I hear things which make my very brain stretch and snap in incomprehension, I breathe slowly and stand still, and let the thing unfold. I think, and I am guessing now, that what some of them need is just to be heard, to have a witness.

I use my imagination for a living; it is the muscle I work every day. It’s in pretty good shape. What I am hearing is so far beyond my imagining that it makes my puny neuronal paths look like amateur hour. I keep my voice low and ironic and matter of fact. I nod and let the story come. ‘Sometimes,’ says the gentleman, ‘it is easier to talk to a stranger.’ At least I understand that. I want to say I am sorry, but that is beyond inadequate. I want to say I feel privileged that he chose to tell me all this, but that would sound girlish and stupid.

‘Everyone has a story,’ he says, at last. ‘Well, yes,’ I say. ‘But you sort of win the story Olympics.’ I pause. I say, with another dose of low irony: ‘It’s not a very pretty prize.’

The blue Scottish hills

As he tells me all this, we are standing in peaceful woodland, with the blue Scottish hills stretching away to the horizon. Every day, I go out under the benign gaze of these mountains, surrounded by quiet and beauty and the gentle sounds of nature. This morning, as I rode my mare, a buzzard was circling, letting out its mournful cry. The swifts and swallows flew low over the paddock, letting out their own sweet song. Crickets jumped in the grass, the dog found a thrilling stick, the horse let out a low, contented whicker. My daily life is about as far from the dust of Helmand as it can get.

I don’t quite know what to do with this sort of story. But I wanted to record that it was told. The war is not on the front pages any more. There are other more urgent headlines. But the fighting is still going on, its effect is still rippling out, the lives which have been changed by combat are still being put back together. There is that haunting line in the Ode of Remembrance which goes: at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them. I think it is important to remember.

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