A soldier who survived the Ballygawley bomb attack tried to take his life twice as a result of the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he suffered – but turned his life around by opening up to trusted friends and family.
In 1988 James Leatherbarrow was a 21-year-old private with the 1st Battalion of the Light Infantry. Based in Omagh, traumatic events on patrol in Londonderry and at Ballygawley have dramatically shaped him.
He was travelling back to his Omagh barracks after a weekend visit with his fiancée in England, when the IRA roadside bomb went off on 20 August 1988, killing eight of the 36 soldiers on board. Next month marks the 30th anniversary of the attack which left him with a broken back, perforated eardrums, various scars and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
His personality changed almost immediately.
“After that I started doing weird stupid things that weren’t me. Other people noticed that I started drinking a lot more and started being violent.”
“I became very sensitive to disrespect and if I thought people were being silly and disrespectful I would go off on one.”
In 1989 he sought help. He was having flashbacks and drinking heavily, but notes that PTSD “wasn’t really big then… nobody really knew what it was”.
After a hospital diagnosis of PTSD he saw a counsellor for anger management. His wife at the time of the bombing could see the impact the bomb had on him.
The symptoms were nightmares, flashbacks, depression, heavy drinking and being “very angry”.
“I was physically and mentally abusive to people and mentally and verbally abusive to my wife.”
A GP helped him address the anger management and he also went to AA to address his drinking.
“I was very depressed. I just wanted it to end. I was a totally different person. I was a horrible person.”
The only way out he could see was suicide.
“I just got sick and tired of hurting people.
The suicidal thoughts began about 1993-1994, some five or six years after the bomb.
“I was a civilian then... I had nobody basically.”
What sent him “really over the edge” was when in a joint counselling session one day his wife let “everything out”. The counsellor asked her: “Do you know you are suffering PTSD as well, through your husband?”
James felt horribly guilty and thought “enough is enough”.
“I just walked away. I was just sick and tired of hurting her, not physically, but mentally and verbally.
“I had enough of hurting people. I lost all my friends because they were scared to talk to me in case they said the wrong word.
The first attempt on his life came in the mid 1990s. “Somebody found me. It was a friend of mine. If they had not have found me when they did I would have been dead.”
The second attempt was in 1999.
The trigger was that he got “over-possessive” in a new relationship, something he would never have done before the bomb.
He has since made huge progress, but still bears emotional scars.
A range of things can still put pressure on his mental health.
Because he currently earns £5.75 a week over a certain threshold, he lost part of his war pension - £75 a week. This forced him to work harder and longer hours, meaning more time away from home as a lorry driver. The result is a feeling he is being “penalised by government”.
The decision to charge English veterans like Denis Hutchings and David Holden over fatal shooting incidents from the Troubles also weighs heavily on him.
“Now that sent me on a downer. I am getting annoyed just thinking about it.”
Like many other veterans he knows, he now fears having the police knock at his door - even though he did nothing wrong.
While serving in Londonderry he was paint bombed, petrol bombed, shot at, women and children swore at him and dogs chased him.
“I was proud to serve with the lads that died. But why did we go through all that stuff to be betrayed today?”
Former colleagues also suffer PTSD he says, but not all will admit it. There are different ways that PTSD sets in, you have depression, drinking, aggression.
“Some of them are in denial. They won’t talk about it. A lot of people don’t they just like to keep in locked away.”
But he sees the symptoms in them. “If you talk to them they get a little bit upset, because we lost eight young lads.”
CHANGES FOR VETERANS
What he feels would be most helpful for veterans like him would be to be recognised.
“We actually served and got injured, because all we are hearing nowadays is Afghanistan this and that. The poor soldiers from Northern Ireland and the Falklands and Bosnia don’t even get mentioned anymore.”
He contacted one veterans charity, he says, which told him it could not help him unless he had served in Afghanistan.
“I was just looking for somebody to talk to.”
ROAD TO RECOVERY
The most helpful thing to his recovery has been “people”.
“My friends, my extended family. Friends that are now like brothers, always on the other end of the phone.”
Some of them are in Northern Ireland and some are members of the marching bands that tended to him in the aftermath of the bombing. They had been travelling in a bus which came upon the carnage.
“I later met the young girl who saved my life by the roadside.”
His family and children have also been crucial. He places little faith in counselling, but at one point decided for himself “I have got to do something”.
There were three key planks to his recovery; taking up fishing, going on “quite a lot” of holidays and meeting new people - including his second wife Emma, whom he has now been with for 19 years.
“Thank God for Facebook.”
It helped put him in touch with other veterans with PTSD. A key feature of the condition is that it makes sufferers feel isolated, he says.
“You think to yourself - am I the only person in the entire world that has got something wrong with me? And then you hear other people telling similar stories, and you say to yourself - ‘I am not the only one. Thank God for that. It’s not me’.”