The International Writers Magazine: Lifestories: Gulf War

Fickle Finger
Colin Harris

ood morning Sister Williams" said Toby Mills from his chair by the table.
"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.

"When 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 equipped soldiers.

The ‘incident’ had involved two Warriors being misidentified by an American A-10 tank-buster aircraft, which had attacked them, destroying Toby’s 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, Toby’s 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 secret door.

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 facility’s mental disorder patients.

Sister Williams it was who had first discovered Toby’s 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 he’d 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, he’d 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 it’s 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 the flashback.

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.
"I’m 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 I’m 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t" 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 lunch time.

That same afternoon she called the headquarters of Toby’s regiment, asking questions of his commanding officer, about the incident and particularly the deaths, only to be told that not all nine were from Toby’s Warrior.

On the next day, Sister Anne, given support by the psychiatrist, prepared to risk a plan she’d conceived, following her call to Toby’s regiment. She started as soon as she saw Toby’s 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" he replied.
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 he’d been slapped hard and he looked dazed and uncertain, so different from his usual returns.

"Lunch," Sister Williams announced, even though it was only 11.45. "How about coming down to the cafeteria with me for a change, Corporal Mills?"
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 Atkins.
"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 Sister Williams.
"Goodbye Anne".
"Goodbye Toby".

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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