The general, the prisoner and a new window on PTSD

Last week I visited the Tower of London for the launch of the ‘Veterans’ Survival Guide’ – written by a former Corporal called Jimmy Johnson who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder while serving in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s. (If you want a free copy of this excellent book, published by Elliott & Thompson, please write to one of the addresses below. For more background see the Veterans in Prison website).

Johnson wanted to help ex-forces and their families understand PTSD from a soldier’s perspective. There have been a number of memoirs in this vein, but his story is different. For 30 years, Johnson has been incarcerated at HMP Frankland, the maximum security facility outside Durham. In the words of the taxi driver who dropped me at the gate: “That’s where the bad boys go.”

I had arranged to meet Johnson in early 2015 after corresponding with him while researching Aftershock. A prison officer with an earpiece showed me into a tiny room used for lawyers’ visits, bare apart from a functional-looking wall clock. The table and chairs were bolted to the floor. “Any problems, just shout,” the guard said, though he need not have worried.

At 69, Jimmy cut an avuncular, gentlemanly figure – so much so that it was difficult to fathom that he had spent decades living in a cell. Time had not dulled his memory of his tours, and he recalled incidents with the clarity of a curator explaining the significance of a museum’s most significant artefacts. He wrote the guide, he said, because he had seen so many ex-forces pass through the prison system since he was first convicted in the 1970s and wanted others to avoid his fate.

Johnson, who won a Mention in Despatches for bravery, committed his first murder several months after leaving the army in December, 1973. The victim was a security guard who had given him a lift outside Middlesbrough. Some kids had thrown something against the side of their van – a football perhaps, or a piece of brick. The crash triggered something in Johnson. Convinced he was fighting for his life in Belfast, he fatally beat the man with a scaffold pole.

He served nine years then, 18 months after being released on parole, killed again. This time the trigger was children screaming in the street and the murder weapon was a lump hammer. It was only when Johnson befriended a doctor, who was serving time for killing his wife, that he heard about the then new diagnosis of PTSD – which had not existed at the time of his first conviction.

Johnson spent years writing letters to anyone who might listen, until one day he received a reply from General The Lord Richard Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, who had also served in Northern Ireland at about the same time. Dannatt visited Johnson and arranged for him to be seen by a forensic psychiatrist, who concluded he was suffering from PTSD. Dannatt persuaded several charities to fund the publication of Johnson’s Guide, wrote the foreword and hosted a launch at his official residence at the Tower on May 4.

King’s research shows that veterans who saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq are at a disproportionate risk of committing a violent offence, particularly if they suffer from trauma. A government analysis which cross-matched prison databases with MoD records concluded that veterans made up 3.5 percent of the prison population in England and Wales. However, despite the robust statistical methods used, a perception lingers among warders and probation officers that the true figure is closer to 7-10 percent – and that ex-forces are the single biggest group in prison by profession.

There are people trying to help. At the Tower, I bumped into Colin Back, national manager of Project Nova, launched in July, 2014 to support ex-forces from the moment they are arrested. The scheme is working: Back told me that only five percent of the 489 veterans reached so far have reoffended. Courts have formally recognised that Project Nova interventions have stopped a custodial sentence being handed down in 11 cases. It’s a start, but for Johnson – and perhaps many others like him – Project Nova has come several decades too late.

To obtain a free copy of the Veterans’ Survival Guide, please write to either:

Combat Stress
CEO – Sue Freeth
Tyrwhitt House,
Oaklawn Road,
Leatherhead,
Surrey KT22 0BX
Tel: 01372 587000

or SSAFA:

CEO – David Murray
4 St Dunstan’s Hill,
London EC3R 8AD
Tel: 020 7403 8783