My brain was torn

Physical and mental damage among the Dutch soldiers operating in Afghanistan

Picture by Evert-Jan Daniels/Hollandse HoogteDutch soldiers on patrol in Sarab, Afghanistan. ‘I spent 135 days of the 150 days outside the gates.’

Door Vincent Bongers

What happens when you hit a roadside bomb? A soldier-surgeon was awarded his doctoral degree for his research on the injuries incurred by the Dutch soldiers in Uruzgan. Another soldier explains how an explosion affected him: “Nothing was where it should be.”

“It lasted less than three seconds, but it seemed like minutes. I was with two other squaddies in the penultimate vehicle of a convoy when suddenly light flooded down. That’s odd, I thought, that doesn’t belong here. The flash was followed by a pressure wave and an enormous bang. Grit and stones hit the roof of the vehicle – it looked like the surface of the moon. Nothing was where it should be.”
Niels Veldhuizen (1978) drove over a roadside bomb in Uruzgan on 10 December 2008. At the time, he was deployed as a military nurse to Camp Hadrian near the Afghan town of Deh Rawod, as part of the ISAF mission, which lasted from 2006 to 2010. He survived the attack and wrote a book about it, published last year: Oorlog in mijn kop [The War in my Head].
Soldier and surgeon Rigo Hoencamp was also deployed in Afghanistan and he too wrote a book: Task Force Uruzgan, Afghanistan 2006-2010: medical aspects and challenges, for which he was awarded his doctorate at Leiden.
Roadside boobytraps caused the majority of the injuries, according to Hoencamp, who does not want to be interviewed by Mare. “In 85 per cent of the cases, explosives were the mechanism of injury,” he writes in his dissertation. Of the 24 soldiers killed, 11 were killed by “improvised explosive devices” (IED). “A weapon that causes a specific victim pattern”.
“Thankfully, my hands and feet were still attached”, Veldhuizen continues. “And my fellow passengers were more or less in one piece too. You just want to survive. If you don’t move, you’re a sitting duck for the Taliban. But you also knew: there’s never just one bomb – there are always more of them. Thanks to the adrenaline, I couldn’t feel any pain. That came later, when I saw that I was covered in bruises. Our base didn’t have a hospital, we only had a doctor, but I didn’t go. I couldn’t see anything wrong with me. The culture of the Airmobile Brigade is: no whinging. You don’t have time to think about it. I spent 135 days of the 150 days I was in Uruzgan outside the gates. You take a shower, try and get some sleep and then you’re off out again.
“Sometimes we behaved like cavemen. We left people behind of whom we knew they wouldn’t survive the night. People tried to hand babies to us but we couldn’t take them with us so we handed them back to their desperate parents. We never learnt to deal with that.
“There was another problem. The people we were supposed to help did the most awful things. We had to turn yokels into policemen in eight weeks. It’s not possible: you just get illiterate officers armed with heavy-calibre guns. They abused that power. The worst cases were the child rapes. We were offered a bacha for the night, a small boy done up as a girl. At first, I was very naive but then I treated a boy with a ruptured anus. ‘He fell on a broomstick’ they said. It was nauseating. We couldn’t protect the children and that really got to me.
“I finished my tour and I was back in the Netherlands before I realised that something was wrong. I started having nightmares and wouldn’t tolerate anyone talking back at me.
“I had always been easygoing, but now I would lose my temper if the peanut butter wasn’t in its proper place. For soldiers, it’s crucial to have your kit in its proper place – if it’s not, it could get you killed. I was still in fighting mode.
“Eventually, I sought help after I completely flipped out: a child threw a ball at my head, knocking my sun glasses off. I was furious. Luckily, I didn’t touch the child. My wife said: “I’ve had it with this bullshit. You have to see a doctor.” It was a long process. I saw a military GP. It took eight weeks, instead of five days, to arrange a trip to a psychologist and I was diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS). That can be dealt with, but the therapy didn’t have any effect. They described my symptoms as ‘vague’; they stopped just short of calling me mad.
“I had always suspected that PTSS wasn’t all I was suffering from and in the end I was proved right. The MOD now runs an MRI scan on everyone who has been hit by a roadside boobytrap. The brain scan revealed that I have scars caused by tiny haemorrhages in my brain.
“Officially, I still work for the MOD, but I’m on all sorts of strong medication and the authorities don’t think that belongs in a soldier’s life. When I feel relatively fit, I can do project-based work. My brain was torn. The scars aren’t visible on the outside – that’s the big difference with soldiers who have visible injuries: people are less quick to realise that there really is something up with me.”

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