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As A Teenage Soldier I Was Numb, Focused On War And Ready To Kill The Enemy

13/06/2017 17:52
The Sharrocks Family

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I grew up in a military family. My dad was in the army and I was constantly surrounded by army life.

The Iraq war was in the news and I remember seeing a documentary on it. I thought joining the army was the most noble thing a person can do. Little did I know the psychological damage that decision 10 years ago would have on my life.

On 5 November 2006, aged 17, I began my army training.

It was a shock. People were hyper aggressive, my head was shaved, my clothes were taken. I was taught that civilians are the lowest of the low and leaving would be failure.

If anyone did anything wrong during the first six months, there was a brutal punishment. It is not just you who gets punished but the whole group - you become indoctrinated with a collective mentality. It puts fear into you and people were easily ostracised.

wayne sharrocks

I went from a civilian with my own thoughts and feelings straight from school into someone who followed orders without question.

You are taught to be focused on war and killing an enemy. By the time I finished training, just aged 17, that is the mindset I had.

It is nerve-wracking when you first join the battalion and there is heavy scrutiny on new recruits. I remember one guy who was late for something once - instantly he was targeted and a real bullying mentality grew.

By deployment time civilian life is flushed out of you.

The training is done so well that when I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 with the Special Forces Support Group. I was shocked how little feeling I had. I was 19 and numb.

In 2011 I was deployed on a second tour. We were sent to a compound and would patrol the same area for hours at a time.

wayne sharrocks

A month after arriving one of our battalion stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) and he was killed. I was stood right next to him. Ten days after that, someone in front of me stepped on another IED, and that is when I got injured.

The psychological effects of my army training were so deep that it rewired the way I thought and felt. I'd seen many things during my time in the army but it took something like that to snap me out of that mindset.

The guy in front of me lost his legs and I was sent back to the UK. I wasn't meant to be in the sun for two years because of my skin injuries.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is very clever; there is no mention of war or death or injury in those shiny, new adverts.

There was a running joke in my battalion, many of whom also signed up at 16 or 17. We'd joke: "they didn't tell you this in the careers office, you didn't see this in the adverts". It is portrayed as "for the adventure, for the travel" attracting young men from lower economic backgrounds and with little education. Happy Meals are there to inject the idea that McDonald's is a fun, happy place for kids and the same tactic is used by the British Army. Think of Action Man, MoD-approved toy sets, army fun days for children - all done to inject the idea that the army is fun. But when you join at 16 or 17 you go through real intense psychological change, become ultra-loyal and this fight or flight mechanism is manipulated - you are conditioned to fight, it becomes normal. So, you go through years of mental bombardment as a teenager and I had become blinkered to army life. I think it is why people struggle so much when leaving. I left the army in 2013. I was going to go into personal training but my social skills weren't great - I felt so different to other people. I had no experience of civilian life. When you leave, you realise: "I have to pay rent, I have to pay bills." I was shocked going to the dentist and it not being free. I took a job in a factory. I went from being a lance corporal in a warzone to something completely different. When I worked there the Territorial Army visited to encourage workers to enrol. A colleague told them about my past and they offered me £10,000 to re-join because they know you have no money when you leave. It is like offering heroin to an addict.

wayne sharrocks

During that period, I had a lot of battles about re-joining, not that I wanted to, but because I thought that was the only way to survive. I completed the paperwork three times but never sent it. It was a hard place psychologically to be in.

I left the factory and went to university to study film-making, something I am passionate about, but arriving there was different still.

It is a whole new spectrum of people. My mood started getting very low and depressed because of this sense I could not survive without the army.

When you leave, support is cut completely. There is nothing offered to you and I know a lot of people need it. I was doing well at university but I was still feeling very depressed and I had to leave because I couldn't function properly. It felt like I was imploding.

That is when I decided to seek help. I realised I had a massive issue and I started counselling and eventually, over time I got better. I spoke to other people who had left and they were feeling the same.

But the military is very machoistic and you don't want to be seen as suffering.

I now work in a hospital and am hoping to make a crowdfunded film focused on mental health issues in the armed forces.

Joining at 16 is massively psychologically damaging and issues of PTSD, suicide and depression are major issues for veterans, and more so for teenage recruits.

I think it is hugely important the recruitment age is raised. I now work with Veterans for Peace as a volunteer educating young people on the realities of war and support advocacy group Child Soldiers International, who recently launched its Declare18! campaign, to get governments to raise the age to 18.

The UK and Belarus are the only countries in Europe who still recruit 16-year-old soldiers.

There are 177 countries in the world with national armies and 43 still recruit children. The US, Germany and Australia are all countries who recruit 17-year-olds.

If young people want to join the armed forces, then starting at 18 is not going to deprive them of a career but will allow them to make clearer life decisions.

As someone who knows first-hand the psychological damage that comes from joining the army at a young age, I know how real the problems are.

You cannot vote at 16 and make an informed decision about how the country is run but the government allows you to decide the rest of your life, be open to psychological conditioning, train to kill and risk your life in a war. It needs to change.

Life Less Ordinary is a weekly blog series from The Huffington Post UK that showcases weird and wonderful life experiences. If you've got something extraordinary to share please email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com with LLO in the subject line.

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