‘I wasn’t aware I was suffering’: Marine A talks about troops’ mental health | UK news
A former Royal Marine jailed for shooting dead a wounded Taliban fighter has expressed concern about troops’ lack of mental preparation before being deployed to war zones and revealed he is working with the marines to help them learn from his experiences.
Al Blackman, better known by his codename, Marine A, who is now out of prison on licence, said he accepted the killing was wrong and he took full responsibility. But he said he believed there was work to do to ensure troops received adequate training in dealing with the mental as well as physical challenges of the battlefield.
Blackman, 44, told the Guardian he continued to try to understand why he killed the fighter in Afghanistan in 2011. “Understanding why I did it is something I still struggle with,” he said.
There has been criticism over the support Blackman had from senior officers in Helmand, and some have said he was the victim of an establishment stitch-up. But he said: “I’m not pointing any fingers of blame at anybody. My situation was my situation. My actions were my actions.
“It would be easy to criticise [his superiors]. I don’t know what jobs they had. No one is sitting there twiddling their thumbs. For me to say they did a bad job and let me down is unfair. They had busy jobs. There was a lot going on in Afghanistan.”
Blackman said he did not realise he was ill. “I can see that I didn’t look after my mental health as well as I could have. I wasn’t aware I was suffering. I guess many people don’t. We don’t see the signs in ourselves. Everyone has a breaking point.”
Headcam footage caught Blackman shooting the Taliban fighter, who had been seriously injured by an attack helicopter, at point-blank range. He was heard saying: “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”
Blackman insisted that at the time he thought the man was dead. “With hindsight I’m willing to accept he probably wasn’t,” he said. But if he had not shot him, the Taliban fighter would have died of his injuries, he said. “If he hadn’t been dead at the time, his injuries were so horrific that he was never going to survive.”
Asked whether he thought about the man very often, Blackman said: “Honestly, no. It might seem harsh. I don’t think his outcome was going to change. He was going to pass away.”
He said he had no idea where the Shakespeare reference in his imprecation came from. “I’m not a fan of Shakespeare,” he said. “Perhaps it’s a good indicator I wasn’t thinking well. I was plucking things out of thin air. It was one of the most bizarre things.”
Blackman said he had not felt hatred for the man. “It’s easy to develop a hatred of the enemy. I tried to get the lads to put it in perspective. The Taliban used IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and shoot-and-scoot and ambush tactics because that’s the best they’d got. We used attack helicopters and drones.”
I’m not pointing any fingers of blame at anybody. My situation was my situation
In 2013 Blackman became the first member of the UK armed forces in recent history to be convicted of murder and was jailed for life. Recalling the moment he was found guilty, Blackman said: “Your heart sinks. Your world starts spiralling down a black hole.”
In prison his mental health improved. He had become obsessed with the idea of IEDs being planted everywhere, even when he was back in the UK. In prison that notion faded.
“It had become an obsession to me. When you spend the whole day in prison where it’s just concrete and Tarmac, you know there’s going to be nothing there, you have other things to worry about.”
In 2017 three of the most senior judges in the UK ruled Blackman was suffering from a mental disorder at the time of his crime and quashed his murder conviction, replacing it with a conviction for manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and they reduced his sentence. He was freed a few months later.
A book he has written about the case – Marine A: My Toughest Battle – is now being published. It describes the terrible conditions Blackman and his colleagues operated in. Close friends were killed and dreadfully injured and the threat of attack by the Taliban was constant.
Blackman said he decided to write the book not to make money – he says he will make a donation to charity if it makes a profit – but to give his side of the story and raise the issue of mental illness in the armed forces.
“If people want to judge me that’s fine but get all the facts before you judge me. If people read the book and still think I’m a horrible human being, that’s fine.”
After his release from prison, Blackman resumed his life with his wife, Claire. He was given an administrative discharge from the military and now works with veterans as a member of the Royal Marines Association and as an employee of ExFor+, a veteran support organisation.
More surprisingly, he said he had also spoken informally to the Royal Marines about his experiences. “We’ve been speaking to people in the marines about lessons that can be learned from this. The marines is an excellent dynamic learning organisation that’s keen to make sure that people don’t find themselves in a similar situation, or if they do they have the tools to manage that.”
Blackman said he had not been cut off from the marines. “I loved being part of the Royal Marines. I’m still part of the Royal Marines family. It’s reassuring – in training you’re told: ‘Once a marine, always a marine.’ It’s only truly tested when something’s gone wrong, when you’ve done something wrong. They’ve not washed their hands of me, they’ve not left me out in the cold like dirty unwashed linen. I’ve been welcomed back.”
Blackman said he did not think about what happened every day. “It’s not something I massively dwell on,” he said. “You move on with your life, you don’t become bitter about things. That period is over. Claire and I are moving on with the rest of our life.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “Mental health is just as important as physical fitness and we provide support for our people before, during and after operations.
“This was the case during Operation Herrick, where personnel arriving in Afghanistan were briefed on the care available and encouraged to seek support from the deployed specialist mental health teams if they needed to.
“On return from Afghanistan, personnel were also provided further mental health support and information during decompression in Cyprus.”
The MoD said at 3.1%, the rate of mental health disorders among serving personnel was lower than among the general population. It said had increased spending on the promotion of mental fitness to £22m a year.