x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Book review: Jake Wood's extraordinary story on his life as a soldier

In Among You, Jake Wood, a former soldier in the British Territorial Army who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, recounts his horrifying experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his fight for compensation on his return home.

Among You
Jake Wood
Mainstream Publishing

It was once said of the rags-to-riches Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg that he writes like a man on fire.

Author Jake Wood is also a burning man who shapes sentences with a poet's heart and a fighter's rage. The flames of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he served in the British Territorial Army, smoulder darkly on the pages of his book Among You.

Back home, he sleeps with a hammer beneath his bed. He keeps his bathroom door locked while taking a shower, even though he mostly lives alone. On London trains, the sight of a backpack makes him recoil, fearing it might be filled with explosives.

Wood, who split his time in the military with mind-numbing days sitting in front of a computer screen as a civilian analyst for a bank, has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"When sleep comes late in the night now, the ghosts of the dead live on in my dreams," he writes. "And when the spectral grey fingers of dawn reach through the windows, I feel demons born of the monster coming for me from within. They torment me with their rage against reality and my guilt for having survived."

Only the most stoic among us will not shed a tear reading this harrowing account of loves found and lost, the brutality of war and the damages we do to each other - and to ourselves.

Wood's original compensation from the military for his wounds is a lump-sum payment of £9,075 (Dh50,000) for "pain and suffering".

When he returns from war for a final time, his PTSD forces him to go on sick leave from the bank. When that runs out, he is told he no longer has a job.

Thoughts of suicide have been his constant companion - when romantic relationships fall apart, when children with guns thousands of kilometres from London become the enemy. And when he feels his nation has turned its back on him and all the other psychologically wounded soldiers. But rather than recoil in total despair, Wood continues to get treatment for his mental-health problems.

With the aid of an altruistic legal team, he fights the system that did not give him and others a hero's welcome on return.

In June 2011, Wood learns he has won his financial battle. His payment is increased to £140,000 and he is eligible for a monthly guaranteed income of 75 per cent of his Afghanistan pay.

But Wood knows the fight is not over:

"I do not want to always inhabit the numb, grey limbo between Afghanistan and Home. I know I must learn to let colours back in again. I know I must find those 'better angels of my nature', before darkness overcomes them …

"And now I have lived a life less ordinary, for the rest of my life I want only the ordinary - with all its extraordinary everyday miracles."

For the reader, this one soldier's story is indeed extraordinary and a reminder that if you can write like Jake Wood, your life - whether lived in your head or in the world at large - will be far from ordinary.

rpretorius@thenational.ae