‘Don’t let me die on Christmas Day.’ For some, the stresses and strains of their everyday job bring a significantly greater awareness of human fragility, as George Medal recipient Captain Karl Ley explains
It was Christmas Day in 2009 and Karl was on his third call-out of the day. Instead of basking in the festive cheer with his wife and children back home in Sheffield, he was sweltering under the Afghan sun in Helmand Province and, once again, heading out with his team to defuse another suspect roadside bomb.
As a High Threat IEDD (Improvised Explosive Device Disposal) Operator, Warrant Officer Karl Ley was usually calm, cool and collected after years of experience in a job that he says he enjoys, but all that was going through his head was: “Don’t let me die on Christmas Day!”
Recalling that day, Karl said: “People don’t generally believe me when I say that I’ve never really seen bomb disposal as a particularly dangerous or stressful occupation. We are all highly trained and have years of intense field experience and, as a tight-knit group, we have full trust in each other and our capabilities.
I was sending people out to tackle devices. Those hours were the longest and most stressful in my life
“On the whole, I have found the whole experience enjoyable and rewarding, particularly in Afghanistan where we had a role to make things safe for our comrades.
“However, there are times when the stress gets to you as self-doubt starts to sink in.
“I was away from my family and it just got into my head that Christmas Day would be the worst time to die because of the effect it would have on my three children; I could imagine the knock at the door and Christmas Day would be ruined for the rest of their lives.
“So I made sure I dug deep into my experience and training and did everything right that day.”
This is a maxim that has served Karl well over the 18 years he has helped to defuse more than 500 explosive devices, and earned him a George Medal for his service in Afghanistan.
During one six-month tour, he made safe 139 IEDs planted by the Taliban in Helmand Province.
Karl said he fell into bomb disposal by accident after the sergeant in the Sheffield Army Recruitment Centre suggested he do something “technical” following his positive aptitude test results. He entered the Royal Logistical Corps as an Ammunition Technician in 1999 and his technical aptitude, quick thinking and even temperament were identified as ideal characteristics for the bomb disposal team.
When he was approached to join he leapt at the chance and after six years of intensive training as a ‘High Threat IEDD No 2’ – the support role to the bomb disposal team leader – he became a team leader in 2005, seeing service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ask him why he enjoyed it and continued doing this role for such a long time, he’ll say exactly the same reason why a footballer wants to play for England at Wembley: to be the best they can.
He said: “Stress comes with everything you do, particularly the first time you do something. When I defused my first bomb I was not in fear of my life because I have been well trained; it was a personal stress I was experiencing because I wanted to get it right.
“We want to operate at the highest level of our career and, although we don’t seek bombs out, it is what we have trained for.”
It’s the long, arduous training that gives Karl and his colleagues the confidence to go into action with a level head and a determination to do a good job that helps to deflect any stress they may feel.
However, like his experience at Christmas, he admits there have been stressful periods that he has had to deal with during his tours of duty.
He said: “During 2009-2010 in Afghanistan, there was a lot of action around the British base in Helmand and lots of casualties, particularly from IEDs. This made us very busy so we were under a lot of stress, particularly when you are commanding your men on the scene, making sure they are doing everything right, trying to get information from locals through interpreters, being under time pressures… and occasionally getting shot at.”
During one period he defused 42 IEDs within 72 hours, having to clear bombs while Taliban mortars and gunfire rained down nearby.
“As you can imagine, you feel the stress as you defuse the first few bombs on a six-month tour, but then you get into the rhythm and everything settles down. But as the days count down to coming home, the self-doubt looms again and, although you have made it this far, you start to worry about getting it wrong in the last week of tour.”
On Karl’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan he was promoted to Operations Warrant Officer, which brought a different kind of stress, as he was now responsible for allocating teams to IED jobs and staying behind a desk to direct the bomb disposal operations.
He said: “I was sending people I knew very well out to tackle these devices and then advising them on procedure when they called me after inspecting the bombs. After I’d confirm their approach, I would then ask them to call me back when they had completed the tasks: those hours were the longest and most stressful in my life.”
Karl said this type of stress – the frustration that builds up when you are not in control of a situation – is found in most professions and that is why it is important to focus on what is within your power to change and ignore what you cannot influence.
He said: “My advice to people is to always remain aware of the bigger picture and don’t get hung up on the smaller bits and pieces. Try to keep the goal in mind; don’t focus on the process – focus on the output.
So basically, don’t stress on the little things but, equally, don’t stress on the bigger things that you can’t change or deal with anyway.
Karl added: “My daughter works as a dental nurse and tells me about the frustrations and stresses at her work dealing with long waiting lists. A single dentist is not going to cure the entire waiting list – just focus on what you can change.”
Karl said that getting support from your colleagues is crucial to dealing with stress, and he says the Army has become very good at looking after the wellbeing of its people.
He said: “I was supported by an amazing team and, as we all knew each other inside out, they knew when to leave me alone for a bit of quiet time to ‘decompress’ and when to give me a bit of a ribbing when I needed to laugh.
“Although I was senior to them, they also knew when to call me out if I made a suspect decision, or even reminding me to drink water if I’ve been out in the 50°C heat for hours. You can get tunnel vision when you are so focused so it’s important to have people looking out for you. I couldn’t see the wood for the trees sometimes, so you rely massively on your team.”
Identifying stress and mental health issues, and looking after the wellbeing of soldiers, is embedded in the British Army, which has a number of programmes that assess wellbeing, deal with stress-related issues and also help the transition of soldiers from war zones back to the UK.
Karl said: “The Army has come such a long way in dealing with stress as there is no corporate stigma attached to it now. It has formalised a number of programmes such as Trauma Risk Incidence Management (TRIM) where soldiers are supported by peers on the front line.
“Before, soldiers suffering from stress and burnout would be sent back behind the lines for treatment, but it is recognised that it’s important to support people by keeping them with their mates who can share their experiences. It was only 100 years ago when people suffering from ‘shell shock’ would have been shot for cowardice.”
Karl left front-line duty in 2012 and was promoted to Captain in 2017 and now works at the Defence School of Transport. However, he spends a lot of time talking to people in other professions, sharing his experience of stress and dealing with its issues.
He said: “When I give talks to the NHS and other organisations, the people in the audience all think my job is incredibly stressful, but I do not recognise that it is. I feel a bit of a fraud sometimes as, when I’m speaking to surgeons and dentists, I think their job looks incredibly stressful too.
“My wife works in childcare and I even view her job as definitely more stressful than mine was – there is stress in every job.”