Life at the Tip of a Spear Part Six: Living after war

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Nearly a year ago, my editor asked if I’d be interested in interviewing Garth Jones, a former British SAS soldier and security contractor who’d worked extensively in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the sixth and final installment of our chats together, and offers a very personal glimpse into the consequences of a life spent in warzones.

Click here for parts one, two, three, four and five.

Brett Hamm: Do you sleep well?

Garth Jones: I sleep light, or not at all.

BH: Have you always been like that?

GJ: No. Recently I wake a lot. Part of that’s because of the kids, or work, but to be honest, I sleep light. It’s one of those ‘you’ve got used to sleeping with one eye open’ gigs. After a while it is hard to shake. Katie [Garth’s wife] doesn’t get to sleep well either.  Take’s her a long time. But when she goes under, she’s out. With me, it’s the other way around.

BH: What about when you were a kid or a teenager?

GJ: I used to sleep like a log.

BH: And now not so much.

GJ: Naw! Terrible. This is part of why my current job [Garth is now the Global Incident Manager for a major bank] suits me so much, I don’t mind getting phoned at three in the morning and have to jump up, spin up a critical incident management process and get people moving, because I’m used to doing it. But from a point of view of general calmness, I’m not there yet.

BH: You mentioned that you were going to see a psychologist. If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fair enough. But you’re undergoing some kind of treatment for a diagnosed…

GJ: Combat stress disorder (C.S.D).

BH: So you’re in a process of trying to get through that?

GJ: It’s a non-invasive, non-medicated, conceptualised treatment that has evolved from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, specific to combat trauma. It’s based around helping individuals to understand how to cope. Like no one’s gonna fix anything for you. You need to recognise everything from your anger management to your perception of what triggers you—then work on it. There were days, not too far back, where I pretty much would have a complete loathing and disgust for everybody, to days where I’d just be the happiest man.

BH: So big swings…

GJ: Extremes. It’s just typical…the typical response to the lifestyle that I had, which is extremes. Feeling very down and pissed off and not very happy with life and being part of a greedy, fat society. I was, at times, a bitter, anti-establishment, combat stressed, depressed person, to the next minute loving the fact that I live in a nice weatherboard house and you know, I am actually a fat cat. It’s a conflict of interest in my mind that really everybody should be helping everybody else, but that’s a bit hypocritical, because I don’t want to help everybody else. I’ll waive the flag, but I pretty much won’t do anything else about it.

But that’s changing. I’ve started…I’ve got to do more. The first thing is helping myself, and then helping other people comes with that. So, to sort of frame it, has it been a disturbing experience for me from my mind or sanity perspective? Yes, but to have a label to start from is good.

BH: What do you mean?

GJ: Well, just to understand, to realise that you’re not going insane.

BH: Well, everybody’s insane.

GJ: Well, that’s my point. It’s the level of insanity and is it acceptable? It’s not even a level of sanity, it’s a level of insanity! It stems from being able to cope with the fact that if something is frustrating me, to understand why and then address that. For example, if I’m on the phone and somebody puts me on hold for forty-five minutes, I’m gonna get angry. Now I have learned to put the phone down, then ring ‘em back later, calmer! Or if I’m in traffic, not getting angry about it…much.

Put it like this: places where I’m helpless and not in control, I get angry because I’ve spent the last twenty odd years being in control and not being helpless. To us helpless is failure. Helpless is vulnerable. So, for example, I won’t run out of petrol on the highway between Baghdad and Tikrit, because I’ve got a car behind me with other petrol in it, or I have 500 USD sewn into my belt if I get pinched. I have a back up for a back up for a back up. I always have an element of control option. You can’t do that in everyday life. And that shits me. Hence why I’ve chosen my job, which is all about giving people alternatives, workarounds, backups, restoring the status quo, as soon as possible, because it comes easy.

So, in a nutshell, we’re on a different journey now. Or I’m on a different journey. And that’s dealing with and repairing some of the things that occurred. And also, dealing with the fact that at some point someone might dangle the carrot in front of me again.

BH: Would you be tempted?

GJ: Depends. I won’t deny that I’ve put the feelers out.

BH: Didn’t you say that Rick [Garth’s boss in Iraq and Afghanistan] had been in touch recently?

GJ: Yeah, I’ve been in touch with him again. It’s almost like I can’t stay away from it. Because you still—every now and then that little golden egg comes along and someone says, ‘Look, this has got about 5 years work in it. You can be paid $200,000 – $300,000 tax free a year.’ And you think, ‘Okay, that’s twelve years in my current job, you know. But now I actually say, ‘Okay, what’s the risk?’

BH: Is it the money, or is it the being there?

GJ: It’s a bit of both, but there’s a third element to it. And that’s about being lazy in society. It’s about having no dependencies, a transient lifestyle—including relationships—and everything is a quick kill. So if I want something, I go out and buy it. I don’t have to save for it.

If I want to earn $100,000 I’ll just go put my arse on the line in a war zone, and get it. It’s not about planning, it’s not about a slow trudge through life like everyone else has to do. Get it, grab it. And that probably comes back from my dad who was exactly the same and taught me if you want £20,000 to buy that plant [gestures hypothetically to a jade tree that sits on my desk] and you think ‘In five years I’ll buy it’, or ‘I can go to that guy and borrow £20,000 pounds or take a risk.’

BH: Is that your biological dad or your stepdad?

GJ: My biological dad. And the interesting thing about that is, it’s kind of ‘Yeah that’s cool,’ but it doesn’t really wash in the great scheme of things. Because borrowing twenty grand or taking the risk to buy that plant is not really the issue. The first question I should be asking is ‘It’s a nice plant, but do I really need a plant?’

BH: But the whole world faces this problem. Every single person faces that problem.

GJ: Absolutely. And the paradox is there is a guy sat out there in a low budget flat with one chair sat in front of a portable TV and $200,000 in the bank. Then there’s another guy who’s sat in the swankiest pad with a Porsche outside, fuck-all in the fridge and a couple hundred thousand dollars debt. Who’s happier? Neither of them. They’re living an ethos. They’re living a mantra. They have chosen that life.

BH: Do you find it hard to deal with general Western society and the rest of the crap that goes with it? Do you find it odd after living so long in areas where your concern is just staying alive or keeping somebody else alive?

GJ: Yeah. Where your main worry is ‘Have I got enough ammunition to fight out of a situation?’ My life was basically [Garth points to his day sack]…actually it was that bag. My life was in that bag. And I could survive out of it anywhere in the Middle East. At any point if I had to literally walk out of the car and walk 100 miles across the desert, I would end up with that bag on my shoulder and live outta that bag. Life is simple. It’s a single point and it’s simple, I had control.

Now clutter it up with ‘Hold on, I gotta pay a rental bill on it’ or ‘I’ve gotta pay some guy rent to be allowed to walk that 100 miles and I gotta pay some guy when I get there.’ You know, all this bureaucratic shit that allows me to exist in the First World…

BH: But doesn’t everybody feel like that to a certain extent?

GJ: They do, but I think it’s something we’re going to end up paying for. Especially Gen Y, because we’re seeing more and more people who don’t want to jump through hoops. But society needs you to fear not jumping through the hoops, therefore the majority will. The repercussions of not jumping through the hoops are a disconnection notice from the gas company, or an employer who’s not happy with you. Are these big things in the great scheme?

Conform or fail is what Gen Y’s been told. And a lot of Gen Y is saying ‘I’m not going to conform, but I’m not gonna fail.’ They’re trying to make their own way.

BH: I think, society is just like this and there are constant currents that go back till the dawn of time. You know, Artistotle saying the fucking youth of today, they don’t know shit, they don’t respect their elders, etc. I think that thing of youth and adulthood and the big swing—the way the hippies of yesterday are the yuppies of today, and then their kids are becoming not exactly hippies but we’ve got Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Melbourne, blah blah blah. And all these people saying ‘We’ve been told there’s more to life than going out and getting a job, and making some money.’ You’re brought up to believe that you gotta go out and do something more. And you can’t.

GJ: Exactly. It’s sacrifice. Like someone would say to me, ‘I was a merchant banker but now I run an NGO in Somalia,’ and I’ll say to them ‘Are you happy? You live in a fucking porta-cabin in a secure compound in Mogadishu, you’re sweating your arse off all day, your wife and kids are probably stuck in Dubai in some piss hole. You’re kids are going to a school that they hate. Are you really happy with your life choice? To achieve what?’ To turn around and say ‘I didn’t conform, man. I’m fucking cool.’

You know what? You should have stayed a merchant banker, then gave an NGO a ton of money every year, or adopted at least one child and gave them a chance instead.

BH: Is that what you believe?

GJ: Yeah because you go with what’s best for you. And what we were doing, in reality for my wife and I, was not best for us. There are people—I know people who have been doing it for twenty, thirty years—it was best for them. For us, we were designed to have that experience, but I’m not designed to work in an office from nine to five, but I’ll do it.

I’ll do it because I’ve now got responsibilities. And I struggle with it, but I think we’re there now. I have the utmost respect for those people that have not had the choice, and do it everyday, living is hard, not conforming is easy. What am I going to do with that? I’m gonna use it as a launch board for something else.

B: For yourself or for your kids?

G: For me and Katie and the kids.

We are becoming a technology reliant race. I was watching Wall-E the other week with all the fat people living on the spaceship and that’s actually where we’re going. But there’s still gonna be murderers, war, chaos, atrocity, and people that will want to ‘feel’ protected, and there’s still going to be people who just want to blow shit up.

BH: Do you think those kind of impulses are eradicable or do you think that’s just ‘people are animals and that’s the way it goes’?

GJ: It’s human nature. I’ve seen it, the basest forms of it. If you look at human nature where you’ve got a woman that’s got to decide to leave a three-month old baby by the side of the road so she can keep her two-year-old alive and keep walking, that’s the sort of decisions that people in the First World have no fucking idea about making. Whereas there are people in other countries, on this planet right now, are making those decisions daily. And that’s basic human nature. It’s survival. It’s programming.

I mean people say it starts with the parents and I’d actually advocate that it does start with the parents. But what do the children learn from their parents? You get two unique human beings come together, you’re going to get a unique product of behavior. You’re not going to be able to reproduce it. You can have guidelines, you can have social pressures put on to them, you can have conformism, you can have law, you can have everything else. But I often liken it to this—and this is where Katie gets a bit funny about it: we are a species of primate that developed opposable thumbs and an intelligence that allowed us to design our environments, tools to support our survivability, and our inherent nature to destroy each other. And that’s all we are.

We’re not God’s fucking creation. Were we put here by aliens? I don’t really care, because if you sit us in a room—here’s the thing: Sit a man naked in a room with a monkey and a bowl of food—they only get one bowl of food a day between them—and I guarantee you that man will have killed that fucking monkey and will be eating that food within a day.

BH: Well, you know, Nietzsche right? “Man’s just a rope stretched over an abyss.”

GJ: Exactly!

BH: We’re a bridge, not an end. Something else is coming.

GJ: Exactly! And what is it? These are all things that are based on the saying ‘life’s about the journey, not the destination’, and it’s like well, I don’t have a fucking destination. My destination is a hole in the ground eventually. That’s the only destination there is.

It’s all about romance and expectations of beautiful, nice beaches and beautiful oceans, and all this shit. And that’s why we go on holidays for our two weeks off a year that our employer allows us to. And what do we do? We just jump right into another fucking industry and put more money into that to give us the illusion that we’re taking a break.

Am I having a problem conforming? Yes. Is it going to be a problem that’s going to be a major showstopper? No. My senses will be dulled to the point where I’ll embrace the idea that I need to concentrate on a three-year old and a one-and-a-half year old, and a wife that loves me, and that they need me more than I need to satisfy my arguments with life.

BH: Is it a hard thing to come to terms with between those two?

GJ: Huge, huge. Yeah, it was. It’s not so bad now. It’s just a case of…I think it comes with age. And it sounds like a cliché, but the older you get the more wise you get.

BH: The older you get, you realise you know nothing.

GJ: Exactly! On my unique journey, I have learned the basic rule to always protect who and what I love, the rest is…gravy. The funny thing is you end up being happy knowing you know nothing. [Laughs].


When I sent Garth the transcript of this final interview, he responded with the following, rather fitting, concluding message:

GJ: I will be ‘getting back in line’ as is expected of me, but I’ll leave your readers with this thought: Not to be all Johnny Cash about it, but we take risks and make choices every day in our lives, so make your choices and if you fuck it up, then suck it up, pay your dues, and move on.

I guess I’ve learned that to move forward you don’t necessarily have to be moving upward. Spare a thought for the thousands of men, women and children out there in the world right now who are on the C.S.D. journey. I’m learning and adapting, I will be next to you in the crowd, on the train, in the queues, observing, calculating, evaluating the war zones and the chaos. I always have the choice. I am everywhere. I am nowhere.

Call sign SIERRA 18…OUT!

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