‘Theatre of War’ interview

Stewart talks about how the Bravo 22 Company and ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ stage performance impacted positively on his life. Interview by Nikki Murfitt of the Mail on Sunday.

As the sounds of battle surrounded him, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Hill felt his heart start to race and a film of sweat break out on his forehead. Adrenalin pumping, he stared into the spotlight glaring down on him trying to focus on the blackness beyond. He had led his men on two tours of Afghanistan and his inspirational leadership had marked him out as someone with a golden future in the British Army until an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) killed the soldier next to him and sent shrapnel into his own skull causing a serious brain injury.

In his eve of battle speeches Lt Col Hill would quote Field Marshal Montgomery: Decision in action; calmness in crisis – believing it helped him think clearly and calmly under enemy fire. He silently recited those same words as he walked out in front of a West End audience of 900, trying to rid himself of the rising panic that the legacy of his injury – short term memory loss, constant ringing in his ears and crippling fatigue – would make him forget his lines.

“I stood on stage and just thought ‘This is horrible’.  Everything in my head was screaming at me, telling me my memory was overloaded and I couldn’t say those lines, but that performance in January was a new lease of life for me and the 14 other wounded service personnel taking part who, up to that point had been struggling to cope with the psychological impact of their time in Afghanistan.

Just as Oh What A Lovely War brought the folly and tragedy of the First World War within our grasp, The Two Worlds Of Charlie F highlights the huge emotional toll Afghanistan is taking on Britain’s servicemen and women. Using participants own stories the drama provides a personal, harrowing  and at times comic view of service, injury and the subsequent battle for survival at home as these men and women learn to cope with the physical and mental scars of the conflict.

Initially there were to be just two performances funded by the Royal British Legion, but such was the impact of the production on both the audience and those taking part, that it is now funding a UK tour starting in Birmingham on July 19. Their work is also to be showcased in a BBC documentary  presented by Alan Yentob  on June 26.

Moving from Afghanistan to the physiotherapy rooms of the Headley Court rehabilitation centre, this pioneering project is now seen as a blueprint for helping injured personnel despite initial scepticism by the Ministry of Defence, doubtful that a West End show could succeed where trained psychiatric professionals had struggled.

Called Bravo 22 Company, the cast of 15 soldiers currently on MoD recovery programmes, and five professional actors have, along with award-winning writer Owen Sheers created a drama which has given them back their confidence and self-esteem – a feat months of conventional therapy failed to achieve. Producer Alice Driver who spearheaded the project as part of The Theatre Royal Haymarket MasterClass Trust says: “By performing in a West End show where the likes of Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen have trodden the boards, it shows the performers how they are capable of achieving anything in whatever path they choose.  It allows them to be part of a team , to take risks and in this case, undertake a huge challenge, boosting their confidence and self-belief, traits they will take with them as they make the often daunting transition to civilian life”.

Lt Col Hill, 41, was in charge of 160 men and two women of the 2nd Mercian Regiment when on July 4, 2009, a rocket-propelled grenade struck a Light Dragoons armoured vehicle.  The explosion killed Robbie Laws from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, wounded his best friend Private Danny Eaglesfield, 18, and took the leg off the vehicle’s commander, Lieutenant Guy Disney. Then a Major, he organised the evacuation of casualties by helicopter and that’s his last memory of Afghanistan.  A soldier standing just behind him, Lance Corporal David Dennis, 29, stepped on an IED and died instantly.  Lt Col Hill’s backpack and helmet took much of the blast but there was a gap between them and shrapnel lodged in his skull just 1mm from his spinal chord.

“The impact of the explosion caused severe internal bruising on my right frontal lobe the area of the brain responsible for processing information and ironically it is this rather than the shrapnel which has added to my problems which include hearing loss, severe tinnitus as well as constant and crippling headaches” says Lt Col Hill who lives in Nottingham with his wife Melissa, 39 and daughters Olivia 12 and Annabel, 18 months. He performed well in cognitive tests while at Headley Court and when he was discharged described his injury to a friend as nothing more than “a smack on the back of the head”.

But the demands of real life began to press in on him.  “I couldn’t watch TV and have a conversation, I couldn’t deal with too much choice on a menu.  I’d always seen depression as a weakness and suddenly there I was feeling depressed and angry. I was supposed to make a graduated return to work and to prove myself I had to do a presentation to medical staff on my life with a brain injury.  Instead I curled up in a foetal position in my room, I couldn’t cope”.

Despite being referred to a specialist brain injury unit and receiving weekly therapy, he felt like a failure and contemplated suicide.  He believes Bravo 22 Company gave him his life back. “The psychological effect of Afghanistan on our soldiers is a time-bomb waiting to go off because of the longevity of the campaign and the frequency with which they are being sent out there,” he says. “Whether they are amputees or suffering from PTSD there is a bravado among soldiers . Depression is seen as a weakness, certainly not something you would admit. The army encourages recovery through physical endeavour like adventure training or even participating in the Paralympics.  It relies on activities to keep morale high but at some point these soldiers have to get back to real life.”

“In hospital you have individual attention while you recover, then you arrive at Headley Court for rehabilitation and although support staff take a step back as you fight to regain your fitness, it’s a very artificial world. When you eventually go back to your unit – it can take up to 3 years to be medically discharged – you want to be treated normally no matter whether you’ve lost a leg or an arm or suffered brain damage.  The paradox is that you can’t cope with what used to be your normal”.

Poignantly in the play, he explains: “My old brain was the one that evolved for the first 38 years of my life, it was me.  My new brain, the one I was given when I was blown up, made me a different person and people don’t always understand. When I say my brain hurts, I have trouble thinking or get really tired they’ll say ‘oh yeah, I get that sometimes too’.  It’s frustrating, because I don’t like the new me.  I don’t always recognise myself ”.

Although injured soldiers are assigned personal recovery officers, when they return to their unit most continue to bottle up their feelings, embarrassed to show weakness to their colleagues. “I fought alongside one soldier who was shot in the back, luckily the bullet lodged in his armour plating and he survived.  He even wore the bullet around his neck . Unfortunately he saw his close friend die and in January, he killed himself.  The difficulty is that PTSD often doesn’t show itself for weeks, months or even years.  I’d like to think that someone of my rank going on stage to admit they are struggling with their demons might encourage others in the services to do the same”, says Lt Col Hill.

For many in the cast the performance enabled them to voice their experiences for the first time and for their families watching in the audience it answered questions they didn’t feel they could or had been too frightened to ask. Now retired from the army on medical grounds, Lt Col Hill admits: “I felt a failure until I started work on this production.  But within hours I was using my management skills to help the director and producer understand the military.  Their encouragement was flattering and like the rest of the cast I felt that for the first time in a long time I had something creative and meaningful to offer.  It allowed me to appreciate my contribution to life, something I thought I’d never do again. I realise and appreciate the good things in me instead of focusing on the negative changes. I feel re-energised. Moving out of depression has released an unbelievable amount of energy that I now use in a positive way. I was a prisoner of my mind but I’ve been released.”

“This project is a vital addition to the rehabilitation schemes already put in place by the MoD and I hope they continue to recognise the benefits of the arts whether it’s theatre, painting or poetry, in helping soldiers like me.”

After the tour, some of the cast are already considering training opportunities in stage management or as sound engineers while Lt Col Hill is embarking on a career in public speaking as well as planning to write a book about his experiences. “We’ve all been given a second chance and thanks to this play, we now have the confidence and motivation to get on with our new lives”.

For more information about the tour go to www.bravo22company.com