There’s something about the idea of peacekeeping that sounds almost straightforward. The words imply peace exists and the mission is to keep it like that. The reality however, is complex, charged and dangerous. Former member of the Irish Defence Forces, Chris Donovan, shared his experience of multiple deployments to the Lebanon on The Ryan Tubridy Show.
After a spell in the FCA, Chris joined the Irish Defence Forces in August 1983. A little over a year later, he was deployed to the Lebanon. Within days of arrival he witnessed an incident that would change his life forever.
On patrol in the Southern Lebanese village of Yater, Chris saw an innocent young girl executed before his eyes. Her name was Mona. She was picking aubergines. Her killer was a member of the Israeli De Facto Forces or DFF.
“He shot her in the back of the head and she dropped like a stone … He did it because he knew he could do it, he knew he had the protection.”
Understandably upset recalling the experience, it’s clear that Chris still remembers it vividly. He was just 19 years old and Mona was only 15.
As his time on active duty continued, Chris noticed that it was increasingly hard for him to switch off during periods of leave. Even when he would head down the local for a drink with his dad, Chris would choose a seat based on how he could best minimise any threat.
“90% of conflict is spent waiting for the 10%. You’re always on edge. You’re living like a soldier in a civilian world.”
At 20 years old Chris thought these persistent feelings of anxiety would pass. They didn’t. He turned to drink to numb the sensation. Everyone around him seemed to be doing the same. Chris’s feelings of stress and anxiety became increasingly intense and ultimately unbearable. He attempted suicide twice.
As they spoke about those years, Chris recalled going to see Saving Private Ryan in the cinema. He was due to meet a friend but they didn’t show up, he decided to go ahead and see the film anyway. The opening sequence of that film is famous for its realistic portrayal of war. For Chris the sound of bullets on metal was instantly triggering. He was transported back to an incident in Lebanon. He had to get out immediately, but his legs buckled beneath him.
“I crawled out of that cinema on my hands and knees.”
Chris spoke openly to Ryan about some of the difficulties he experienced in discussing his mental health within the defence forces of the 1980s.
“Military operates on a system of honour and bravery and care for your colleagues. You’re always looking out for one another … At the time to discuss something like this was seen as a weakness.”
In 2007, after eight missions to Lebanon, Chris decided to leave the defence forces. He just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I’d put the uniform on and it felt like it was burning where it touched.”
Ryan asked whether he handed back his uniform with sadness or relief, his answer:
“It was with grief … It was like handing over a child.”
Chris was ultimately diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He accepts that it’s something that’s a part of him now and he has learned how to manage it. He’s enjoying life with his partner Suzanne and just taking things as they come.
Ryan wondered whether his medals and beret were things he held with pride, perhaps had on display. No.
“I think I threw them away or hid them … They’re in a box somewhere.”
He reassured Ryan that he does feel a sense of pride in himself and his achievements. Perhaps the medals trigger more complex feelings. One thing’s for sure, Ryan and his listeners left Chris in no doubt as to their overwhelming sense of pride in him, and his colleagues.
Listen back to Chris’ conversation on The Ryan Tubridy Show here.
If you or someone you know has been affected by issues raised in this piece, contact the Samaritans on 116123, Pieta House on 1800 247 247 or Aware on 1890 303 302.
You can also find information on the Irish Defence Forces support services here.
Photo credit, Bumblee_Dee for Getty Images
Share this Post