International Writers Magazine: Lifestories: Gulf War
morning Sister Williams" said Toby Mills from his chair by
"Good morning Corporal Mills" replied Anne Williams
as she walked towards him, carrying the breakfast tray with which
she always greeted him first thing every day.
may I call you Anne, Sister Williams?" continued Mills as
he had done for the last twelve days.
"On the day
you say goodbye to me Corporal Mills" came the response, almost
comic vaudeville style.
Toby had been victim, during Operation Desert Storm, to a friendly
fire incident on January 14 1991. Treated at a Field Hospital
in Kuwait, but not debriefed then, due to a preliminary diagnosis of
PTSD, he had been moved to this Military Medical Facility near Bristol
on March 14. He was now under the personal care of Sister Anne Williams,
a senior psychiatric nurse, because his consultant psychiatrist had
been unable to achieve any form of breakthrough with him. Although it
was nearly a month since the Gulf War ceasefire, Toby, for part of the
time anyway, still believed he was at war.
Toby Mills, at twenty-nine, a tall gangly man with short ginger hair
and a friendly open face, was a corporal in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Posted to Kuwait, as part of the UN coalition forces, following the
invasion of that country by Iraq, he had commanded a British Warrior
Infantry Fighting Vehicle which carried a crew of three and seven fully
The incident had involved two Warriors being misidentified
by an American A-10 tank-buster aircraft, which had attacked them, destroying
Tobys Warrior, severely damaging the other and leaving nine dead
soldiers and several injured. The dead had not included Toby, who had
been let-off with several broken fingers and facial lacerations.
Since the incident, Tobys mind continually shifted between the
present and the attack. The present was his hospital room, which he
never seemed inclined to leave. It had an ensuite bathroom, writing
table and two chairs and one window which had bright yellow curtains
and offered a wonderful view of the Mendips. The attack was behind his
Sister Anne Williams had, according to her charges, the patience of
Job and the judgment of Solomon, and was also possessed of startlingly
bright blue eyes which seemed to transfix any object in her gaze. She,
due to a particular empathy she achieved with patients, had become an
additional provider of therapy to the facilitys mental disorder
Sister Williams it was who had first discovered Tobys secret door.
She had been talking to him, during one of their exploratory conversations,
when she had noticed a change in the way his eyes were focusing and
his facial expression indicated a sudden and strange tenseness. She
had said to him "Is something wrong?" and hed replied
"Atkins, get your fucking head and shoulders below turret pronto
and you too Johnson, one of the bastards is right up our backsides".
She had realised he was not with her at that moment but
had been totally unprepared for his return when, seconds
later, hed said " Sorry Sister, what did you say?" She
had recognised a classic symptom of PTSD, the flashback,
where a previous traumatic event intrudes into present life.
She was well aware, that when a flashback occurs in the mind of a PTSD
patient, the event seems so real its as if the person is actually
experiencing the trauma all over again and cannot differentiate reality
from memory. Sister Williams had even treated some patients who, after
returning from a journey into the past, still had enough of it in their
mind to be able to discuss the details with someone who had witnessed
She had reminded Toby of what he had said and had asked him whether
he recognised her description.
"Oh yes" he replied, "I go back there".
"How" she asked.
"Im not exactly sure what takes me back, but I hear a plane
and, in my mind, I see a very small door at the end of a tunnel. I walk
towards it, open the door and Im back in the turret with Atkins
the gunner and Johnson the driver".
"What happens then?" asked Sister Anne.
"I see an aircraft approaching in what I take to be a strafing
run and I order Atkins and Johnson to get below the turret".
"Why?" asked Sister Anne.
"Standard procedure" replied Mills, "to get everyone
inside to safety"
"What about you, do you get below the turret?"
"No time" he said, as his eyes lost their focus and she guessed
he was back behind his secret door. When he had come back, a short while
later, Sister Anne had told him it was lunchtime and that his tray would
be up shortly.
Her sessions with Toby usually only lasted from mid morning to lunchtime.
He seemed to get tired, so that on most afternoons, he dozed and watched
his small television set. Occasionally, Sister Anne found him staring,
almost trancelike, out of his window.
Every morning since breaching his barrier, Anne Williams had watched
him change and go through his secret door, and when he had returned,
she repeated her questions, eliciting exactly the same responses from
Mills every time. Somehow, he never managed to get past the answer that
there was no time for him to leave the turret.
After four days of this routine she had resolved to alter her questions.
Where she had previously asked him why he had given the order to leave
the turret, she asked instead "What happened to Atkins and Johnson?"
"They died" he said.
"How?" she asked.
"The shells destroyed the IFV and everyone except me. The seven
soldiers were deep inside, but If I hadnt given that order, perhaps
Atkins and Johnson would have lived, like me."
"But the order was standard procedure" she said.
"Yes, but I survived and they didnt" he countered "and
I should be gone with all nine of them", then back he went through
his secret door. This was the first time Toby had admitted to any feeling
of guilt. Sister Williams waited for his return then told him it was
That same afternoon she called the headquarters of Tobys regiment,
asking questions of his commanding officer, about the incident and particularly
the deaths, only to be told that not all nine were from Tobys
On the next day, Sister Anne, given support by the psychiatrist, prepared
to risk a plan shed conceived, following her call to Tobys
regiment. She started as soon as she saw Tobys eyes glaze.
"Is something wrong?" she asked, exactly as always.
"Atkins, get your fucking head and shoulders below turret pronto
and you too Johnson, one of the bastards is right up our backsides"
Anne knew she had to time her next remark exactly right, so in a voice
she hoped and prayed might pass for Atkins she yelled "No time,
no time" . Mills eyes opened as though hed been slapped
hard and he looked dazed and uncertain, so different from his usual
"Lunch," Sister Williams announced, even though it was only
11.45. "How about coming down to the cafeteria with me for a change,
Toby looked puzzled, appeared to think about it, then very slowly, got
up from his chair, walked over to Sister Williams and said "OK".
For the following three days Sister Williams and Corporal Mills talked
constantly about the nine men who had died and how Toby had believed,
wrongly as it turned out, that they were all from his Warrior. The reason
that his vehicle had only seven dead was because Toby had never had
the time to give the order to get below. Sister Williams had guessed
right and his secret door remained firmly locked.
On his last day, Sister Williams and Toby went back to his room after
lunch to find two soldiers waiting for them. "Hi Corp" said
"Hi Corp" said Johnson.
"Back to barracks" said Atkins.
"Yes" said Johnson, "back to barracks".
Toby Mills packed his belongings and the four of them walked down the
stairs to the main entrance where a car was waiting. Toby turned to
In May 1991, Toby Mills was granted a medical discharge and he made
the decision to retrain as a nurse. At the same time Privates Atkins
and Johnson were promoted to Corporals and transferred to tank duties.
On March 17 2003, Toby Mills returned to the MMF in Bristol to take
up a position as a Senior Psychiatric Nurse.
On March 24, one week later and less than a month into the 2nd Gulf
War, two members of a British tank crew, Sergeant David Atkins and Corporal
Mike Johnson, were killed in a friendly fire incident when their Challenger
2 tank was fired on, in the dark, by another British Challenger tank.
© Colin Harris December 2006
Colin Harris is studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at the
University of Portsmouth
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