Bomb victim is still suffering
AS the thirtieth anniversary of the bombing of the Droppin Well approaches, survivor and former army paramedic Steve ‘Taffy’ Horvath told the Sentinel about his experience of one of the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland’s dark past.
BY NIALL DEENEY
Mr Horvath, who ended up in a mental hospital because of his struggles with combat-induced PTSD, said that despite witnessing a host of horrific scenes during his time as a medic in the army, his illness can be traced back to December 6, 2012.
On that black day, 11 soldiers from the nearby Shackleton army base and six civilians were killed as an explosion tore the busy pub asunder.
Most of the victims were crushed under the heavy masonry of the pub’s concrete ceiling as it came crashing down on some of the 150 people enjoying an innocent night’s entertainment.
After the blast, it took hours to pull survivors from the rubble, with the last living person not freed until the early hours of the following morning. A total of 17 people died and a further 30 were wounded, some seriously.
The Irish National Liberation Army, the group responsible for what the Catholic Primate of Ireland called “gruesome slaughter”, would later release a statement to justify the massacre: “We believe that it is only attacks of such a nature that brings it home to the people in Britain and the British establishment. The shooting of an individual soldier, for the people of Britain, has very little effect in terms of the media or in terms of the British administration.”
Four INLA members were convicted for their part in the atrocity, all of whom were from Londonderry.
Here, Steve ‘Taffy’ Horvath tells the Sentinel about his sparse memories of that fateful night: “I’ll be honest – in a way I count myself lucky because I actually remember very little about the bombing. “It was just a normal working day. I was in Shackleton in Ballykelly and one of the lads had just passed a training course – there was to be a bit of a ‘piss up’ to celebrate.
“It was at the last minute I decided to go along with some of the lads from the Cheshire Regiment. Some people remember the exact time. I don’t. The thing I remember is that it was just a normal day. I went over at the last minute after being in the Naafi.
“I was in the disco room in the back of the pub. I had just bought a round of drinks and I walked through the toilet door and I remember getting blown away. All hell broke loose. The only thing I can remember after that is working on one specific casualty that night.
“For some reason my brain assumed that it was one of the Cheshires – one of the lads – without knowing whether or not that person lived or died. I had been having recurring nightmares about that for 25 years – that not knowing.
“It was at the 25 year anniversary – I got talking to a member of a local family. I am not going to name them because they have asked me not to. I found out she was the person I had treated – they did live. She told me ‘you saved my life.’ I was able to put those nightmares to rest after 25 years.
“A part of me says I am lucky to have survived. Another part of me says I want to die – to put a stop to the flashbacks, the nightmares, the guilt of knowing I couldn’t save more people. That is one of the hardest things to do deal with. Why couldn’t I save more people? I teach my wife and kids about it – it literally ruins our lives.
“I remember very little – buying a round of drinks, going to the toilet, then all hell broke loose. Part of my brain is shutting down the memories. Little things come back from time to time, when I am at the anniversaries and things. People tell you little details and little things come back. I look at it like a jigsaw.
“The memories I have are only the border of the jigsaw. I’ve been told by professionals that I may never complete the jigsaw. Sometimes little pieces get put in. I know why my brain has shut them down – to protect me. My doctors told me that.”
He added: “It’s an ongoing battle. I lost 17 good friends in the bombing, and on one hand I count myself lucky to have survived, but another part of me says: you should have died with them. And I have to live with that guilt for the rest of my life.”
Steve Horvath has been diagnosed with combat-induced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, an illness he and his doctors trace back to the Droppin Well bombing in Ballykelly almost 30 years ago.
He believes he has been living with the illness since that day, but that the symptoms did not manifest themselves for a full 23 years.
He told the Sentinel about how he felt when he was given the diagnosis (he said that he “smacked” the person who diagnosed the illness), how he has been coping in the years since then, and his thoughts on serving “Queen and Country.”
He said: “Basically, in a nutshell, I’ve been told that everything stems from the sixth of December, 1982 when the Droppin Well got blown up. I was diagnosed with combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2005 – it took nearly a year to get to the diagnosis. I was diagnosed by an ex-military psychologist.
“I was told I had been suffering with it for the past 30 years, although it took 23 years for the symptoms to actually surface. I had always been having flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks. We just think that’s normal.
“An incident happened in Norfolk and I ended up in a mental hospital. I was picked up by an ex-military psychologist. They said to me ‘I’ve got good news and bad news for you’. He said ‘the bad news is you’ve got Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’, and at that I smacked him. I never heard the good news.
“You see, I thought it was something that only happened to some people - not a stubborn, bloody minded Welshman. It was what I termed a weak-willed illness. I was in denial. Eventually I calmed down.
“It’s the old military cliché – if you have a problem, you bloody well shut up and get on with it. You don’t want to be looked at as a weak link. Things have moved on since then. They have systems in place and treatment programmes. It’s becoming more accepted.
“I have been suffering since ‘82 – after the bombing. There are 16 main symptoms and I’ve got nigh on all of them. The guilt is a big one. I have survived but all those people have died.
“Looking back, I have been ill since 1982. Everything I have experienced since then has been PTSD – now I know that it was a normal result of the bombing.
“I was on the streets of Belfast, the streets of Londonderry. The things you see, especially as a medic. Picking up the pieces after something happens – bits of broken bodies... It stays with you.
“It is not something we are prepared for. Every one of us will serve Queen and Country. Every one of us is willing to die for Queen and Country. We are prepared for that. PTSD – you don’t expect that. You know you might have to die – but you don’t expect that – your life to be ruined living with your experiences.
“Some people are lucky and don’t experience that – but you have thousands of people all throughout the UK whose lives are ruined by Combat PTSD. What we used to call the RUC, now the PSNI, also the UDR and others are all still going to be going through PTSD.
“I don’t mean to be disrespectful to people, but the only people who are going to know what it is like are people like that (ex-RUC, UDR and others who experienced combat first hand) and people like myself. Combat PTSD is different from what civilians go through.
He added: “If you can pick it up early on it can be easier to treat and even cure. That’s why we’ve got to shout it from the rooftops to get the profile of Combat Stress out there, those who are mentally able and strong enough to do it.”
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