Bullets to Braille: Adjusting to Life after the Army — An Interview with Steve Pendleton, ex-rifleman
By Shannon Pendleton
Edited by Lizzie Alblas
Joining the army was always a no-brainer for my dad: ‘Since I was eight years old, I wanted to join the army. Growing up, my father was in the army so that was all I knew. It was instinctive for me. I grew up in Wiltshire, so we always had army helicopters flying over and we had army trucks driving through the village. We had loads of army bases a stone’s throw from where we lived, so the whole environment was geared towards the military. You could say I’d been conditioned to that way of life, it was how I was brought up’. And as soon as he joined, he knew it was the life for him: ‘Being in the army was great — I didn’t grow up, it was like I was still a kid. We had a very close-knit team, you trust them, they’re your best mates, your life is in their hands and their lives are in yours. I also loved the environment of Northern Ireland, I felt I was born into it, I couldn’t picture myself anywhere else, I was a very young man, younger than you, I thought it was great.’
The joy rolled off his tongue as he reflected on his time in the infantry. It was clear he didn’t regret a thing. But when I asked if he would like any of his children to join the army, he immediately responded with one word swallowed by a full stop that seemed to puncture the room — ‘No.’ He explained that the aftercare for ex-soldiers was non-existent. This was something my dad had too much experience with, as, on 14th November 1991, at the age of twenty-two, he was involved in a helicopter crash while on patrol in Northern Ireland.
Delving into a picturesque image, he recalled ‘[i]t was a lovely sunny day — but very cold, the ground was covered in snow. The helicopter came in and the snow was whipped up as the rotor blades blew down — me and my mates climbed aboard’. However, this snowy vision soon shifted: ‘the pilot reckoned he saw a flock of birds and he banked to get out of the way. Because we were so low and because he banked the helicopter over so violently, we ended up smashing straight into a hillside.’ Growing up I heard this story so many times. As a child I conjured the cartoonish image of the birds splatting on the helicopter window, beaks spread, eyeballs bulged; I had the picture of the helicopter grazing the hillside imprinted in my head as if it were a memory of my own, hugging and then pushing up the crust of the earth. But as he recalled it to me, recalled what happened to him and his friends, I felt like he was only just telling me for the first time.
‘That crash caused one of my mates to be killed and I was in a coma for nine days. When I came out, they told me I [had] lost my left leg above the knee, and I had numerous skull fractures that had caused me to become blind and develop epilepsy. I was also deaf in one ear. The right side of my body, from my ankle to my shoulder, was smashed up badly.’ The list of injuries didn’t seem to end as he ticked them off like a shopping list. My dad used to joke that he was like The Six Million Dollar Man, and I would giggle as a child, but as he explained how he was ‘put back together with nuts, bolts, and screws’, the sombreness of his casual joke only just landed in my head.
‘I also had loads of internal problems. But mainly the disabilities were the loss of my leg and the loss of my sight which have caused problems all throughout my life — even today, because my stump has gone bad so I’m now in a wheelchair.’
Without taking a breath, my dad explained the process of adjusting to life after his injuries: ‘I was blinded so I had to learn to live my life differently, you have to be re-educated. When you lose a leg, you learn to walk again, and it’s all done and dusted in a matter of months. I was injured in the November, and I was walking again by February — I got on with the physical side. But when you lose your eyes, it takes years to get over that one. You have to learn everything, to cook, to clean, to wash, to iron, to read, to write — everything.’ If that wasn’t impossibly overwhelming enough, my dad then noted how his adjustment to his new life was halted somewhat by his fear of the stigma associated with blindness and being seen as vulnerable. ‘I did a little bit of braille studies, but I wasn’t mentally ready for it in the early days because it’s very stigmatised — it’s a “blind thing”.’ This stigma meant my dad postponed learning braille for nine years after his accident, a skill which could have helped him regain his independence much sooner. He previously relied on a scanner which read text and fed it to his computer to read back to him, however once he became fluent in braille, reading and writing became drastically easier. This allowed him to gain independence during his studies at college as well as during his work as a public speaker. Additionally, braille connected him with his other blinded friends: ‘I would write letters to them, it was like a code. I could write a really personal letter to my friend that I knew no one else could read, like a secret! Also, even though it’s a standard system with the embosser, every embosser is different — I might have a nice light touch on the keys, but a mate might have a heavy touch, so you could tell whose letter it was just by that. I really liked that.’
Despite overcoming his fear of learning braille, he still wrestled with the idea of being stigmatised for using a white stick, viewing it as a tell-tale sign of his blindness. Once he was rehabilitated, my dad decided to attend college to explore what his career options could be. However, this came with its own set of problems, as he explained his anxieties around how he would be perceived by others in his classes. ‘I went to this college and then I was like, “hold on a minute — I’m blind and they can all see” and they didn’t know I was blind because I had a real thing about using a white stick — again it was this stigmatising thing, I didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable — and me, being this big ex-rough-tough soldier, I thought, “I’m not vulnerable, no one’s gonna start picking on me!”‘
The unique situation of coming from a life of exceptional physical prowess to then being met with multiple disabilities, at such a young age, knocked my dad’s confidence: ‘I didn’t want to be seen as vulnerable because I was a big tough young man, you’re a big macho man, you come from a big macho environment, a big strong alpha male environment if you wanna call it that, with soldiers with big guns and real bullets and then you’ve gone to a white stick and a false leg.’
Additionally, the stigmatised attituded to mental health — not only within the army, but also throughout society at large — exacerbated my dad’s struggle. Where society’s pressures meant that men weren’t afforded the luxury of concern for mental health, the army instilled the idea that ‘we can’t have mental illness because we have physical disabilities.’ He went on to say ‘When it comes to the mental health thing, you’re brought up to be the provider, the protector, be strong, you don’t get depressed and down and fed up, men couldn’t really talk about their emotions. We didn’t even get counselling after the accident, it wasn’t even offered. If you did see a counsellor, it was a black mark against you, so no one ever sought counselling.’ Despite this, he explained that even now, he deals with the mental fallout of his military experience: ‘I have anger issues due to my army training in the infantry where you’re trained to react very quickly. Like fight or flight, you’re constantly on alert. And so, if anything happens to me now, I’ll react very suddenly.’ It was evident that, despite my dad thoroughly enjoying his time in the military, the culture of stigma compounded by the rigorous training, meant that he has been left dealing with its consequences thirty years on.
A way my dad has dealt with his emotional difficulty since the army is through writing, which he discovered a love for while studying at college: ‘I found I was quite good at English, which surprised the hell out of me because at school I wasn’t good at anything, I didn’t excel at anything. But at this college I had some really good teachers who helped me, so by the end I could even string together a little bit of poetry. I had a lot of stuff in my head about things that had happened to me in Northern Ireland and so writing helped me with that. It let me articulate what I wanted to get across. It helped me get in tune with my emotions.’
Returning to his writing twenty years later, my dad wrote a short book documenting his time during army training, his experiences in Northern Ireland, his time in hospital and his completion of his rehabilitation: ‘This was twenty years after I was injured but it did still help, I was going back over a time, looking back, and that helped me analyse what I was like then.’ Nevertheless, writing retrospectively came with its difficulties as well: ‘You’re writing it and then you’re turning the computer off and going to the living room and having a cup of tea and you’re thinking about what you wrote still, and thinking “that was horrendous”, re-living the time twenty years later. When I finished the book my first thought was that I was very relieved because I finished it. But then I felt quite strange. I was in a different place. Not necessarily negative, but not necessarily positive either. I was just very thoughtful. In a way it gave me some closure, it was like shutting a door. So, it was quite enjoyable in one way, but quite traumatic in others.’
This November marked the thirty-year anniversary of my dad’s accident and so we ended the interview by reflecting on this. ‘Previous years I felt really bad, but this year I felt a lot better because it’s been thirty years and I feel like I’ve come a long way since then. Coming from a 22-year-old soldier who didn’t have a wife, children, didn’t have a home, left with nothing after I was injured, to now thirty years later where I have a wife, children, a lovely home, and a career (up until a few years ago as I’m now retired) — I felt really good.’
‘I look back on what happened as just a waste. What a waste. Young men being soldiers, yeah great, it’s all gung-ho — but you think sometimes what would life have been like if that hadn’t happened? I’d like to think I’d still be where I am now. But it would have been nice to have had the chance to live life without the accident. But I’m happy where I am now.’
Talking to my dad about his time in the army, hearing the joy in his voice as he recollected his love for the job, and then coming to understand the gravity of the reality he was faced with at an age younger than me — was startling. I grew up listening to his stories until what happened to him became normalised to me. When he would call to me from another room, ‘can I borrow your eyes for a moment?’, I wouldn’t even blink — it’s just a phrase that rings through the house as if it pays rent to live there. But taking a moment to sit with him and sit with what happened to him, I felt like I was getting to know him as more than just my dad. I got to know him as the man who wanted nothing else but to live adventurously, the man who faced a tragedy in the process, the man who glued his life back together in the face of not only physical adversity, but also massive stigma, the man who overcame that stigma through changing his own internalised attitudes, the man who still struggles with the aftermath of the military but persists to make us laugh anyway. I got to know him through what he had to say, and in so doing I met a man I’m proud of.
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