When I was at RAF Coningsby, I was the personnel officer for about 2000 people. I covered all things to do with Human Resources, including careers, law and basic admin. It was an incredibly busy job, and I often worked 10 hour days, taking stuff back to the Mess to do in the evenings. On one of those evenings, my friend from Air Traffic rang to say that a Phantom had disappeared form the radar over the North Sea, and that I should stand by to send signals to Group and Strike Command. After a tense hour, it was declared an aircraft loss, and the wheels were set in motion. The Squadron Commander set out to tell the next of kin, and I started to send signals. By the end of the evening, wreckage had been seen on the water, and we knew we'd lost them.
The next few days were difficult, because I had to deal with al my usual work in addition to setting up a Board of Enquiry on the station. There was a massive salvage operation going on in the North Sea, and the ships had found what they thought was the crash site. They were bringing up bits of aircraft to the surface, which would be used by the Accident Investigation Board to determine the cause of the crash.
After about five days, during the early evening, a call came through to say that the salvage team had found both the bodies and also the classified documents that every fighter aircraft carries. Somehow, and how is a blur, I was asked to go and identify the men and bring back the docs. I set off with the Corporal medic and a driver - we had to travel to Grimsby docks, where the salvage vessel was waiting for us. It was dark and it was drizzling with rain.
We found the docks, and eventually found the ship - it was huge. Enormous spotlights illuminated the deck, where there were bits of twisted metal from the Phantom. The only bit I could identify was the hook used to snag aircraft on the wire if they overshoot. Everything else was a jumble. I went on board and found the Captain and we had a short chat. He gave me the documents, then went off to see about the remains. When he returned, he had a black bin liner, which he handed me. I didn't know what it was so I looked inside. There was part of a naked leg, a piece of torso, other body parts and seaweed. And a hand. And crabs. I was struck dumb but all my training clicked in, so I didn't lose it or panic - instead, I gave the bag to the medic, explaining what was in it, and telling him to take it back to the transport. I thanked the Captain and went to find my oppos.
We decided to take the remains to the morgue in Grimsby. By this time, it was about midnight, and when we found the morgue, it was deserted. We rang the bell, and after an age, a man with a wall eye came to the door. I explained what had happened and gave him the bag of bits. We left and went back to Coningsby.
In any other organisation, I think, there would have been some kind of debrief about what we had done - a chance to express horror and sadness, and to have some sort of effective supervision. Not in the RAF, there wasn't. I was expected to get on with my job immediately and not to have any feelings about what had happened. I was shocked by the lack of compassion - these dead men had been my friends. We had got drunk together and worked together. It wasn't only that - the culture was macho and officers were trained to get on with it regardless. So I got on with it and swallowed the anguish and the shock.
Needless to say, it had to come to somewhere, and years later, it started to form part of a recurring nightmare. They began about 10 years ago. In the dream, I am walking along a highway with sinister trees on either side of me. I am afraid. Suddenly, the wind gets up. I look ahead, and see things flying towards me. I suddenly realise that the things are bits of putrefying flesh. They hit me in the face and I can taste rotting meat. At that stage, I usually wake up, but I can still see the bits of body in the air around me. I can still smell the decay - once you have smelled a dead body, you never forget it. I have to try to ground myself at that stage, but it's not easy to do.
I had therapy to deal with the nightmares and it worked for a while, but during this episode, they have come back. Hence my psychology referral. Apparently, last time I had them dreams, I would imagine the bodies to be inside a bubble, and then blow them away. That must have worked, because it's only recently that they have returned. This time, I've developed a strategy with Kate's help - she told me to visualise the bodies strongly before I go to sleep. Apparently, that works for some people. I've added my own extras - I imagine the bodies to have furry ears and nice whiskers, so as to take the sting out of them. Oddly enough, it seems to have worked, as I haven't had a nightmare for 4 days now.
There you have it - the reasons and the results of trauma. I hope this ha
I spent 16 years in the RAF defending the Free World , then got bunged out unceremoniously for being bipolar. I and was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD. Funny old world, isn't it?