'I felt they couldn’t care less. I felt that if I came home in a box it would have been better for the military. I felt they didn’t know what to do with me'
Irish soldier says Army didn't care that she suffered years of PTSD
AN IRISH soldier who miraculously survived a deadly explosion has told how the Army left her to fend for herself to deal with years of mental anguish.
Lorraine Coss-Tuemler has the dubious honour of being the first Irish female soldier to be wounded while serving overseas, when she was blown up by a rocket-propelled grenade in Bosnia in 1998.
As a keen young soldier she had been determined to put on a brave face, but now she claims she was never given the help needed to deal with what would later be diagnosed as severe post traumatic stress disorder.
"I felt they couldn't care less. I felt if I came home in a box it would have been better for the military. I felt they didn't know what to do with me," she said.
Before the incident, Lorraine had been getting into the stride of her military career, having previously served a tour overseas in south Lebanon with the 80th battalion.
Hearing that a military police unit would be sent to Bosnia as part of a NATO force to oversee the ceasefire in the war-torn region, she applied to join.
She was accepted onto the course in 1997 after her return to Ireland and in January 1998 left again to be part of the SFOR contingent in the former Yugoslavia.
In Sarajevo, which had borne the brunt of the worst fighting seen in Europe since the Second World War, civilians were being encouraged to hand over any weapons or ammo.
Three months into her tour Lorraine answered a call from the gate sentries that a man had appeared with weapons to hand over.
She vividly remembers the smiling young man who had been surrendering a box of weapons, landmines and a grenade, when it suddenly went off, killing him instantly.
"I remember putting out my hands to take the box but something told me 'don't take it off him'," she told the Sunday World.
"I pointed to the area to put it down. He was nodding his head to say it was fine, I remember looking at him starting to bend over," said Lorraine, who now lives in Maryland, US.
"The next thing everything was just black, my ears were ringing. People say time slows down and it really, really does."
"I knew instantly the box had exploded and I remember thinking I had my eyes open and everything was black. I didn't know if I was alive or dead. I was thinking 'is this part of dying?'"
As the dense smoke began to clear she could see her hand in front of her face, realised she was still alive and started to move.
For a brief moment she felt a surge of euphoria, realising she had escaped disaster.
"I had this feeling of elation that everything was fine, but as I started to take steps and come out of the dust cloud, the young man who had been standing beside me just a few seconds ago, I suddenly saw his body across the road.
"It was in bits, all mangled, terrible and my heart just dropped," she explained.
Still functioning on adrenaline, Lorraine started marching back to her unit's office to explain what had happened and couldn't understand why the German soldiers at the gate got her to sit down.
She spent a week in hospital to treat shrapnel wounds to her legs and was then flown back to Ireland for three weeks, returning to her parents' home in Mountmellick, Co Laois.
Years later she would discover the explosion had also damaged her neck and back - which has seen her go through three surgeries - and she is living with chronic pain.
All she wanted to do at the time was to get back to her unit, feeling that she was letting them down, and said as much to the Army doctor tasked to assess her.
In reality, she was already unravelling - unable to sleep, re-living the explosion in her head and fearing the same catastrophe could happen at any moment.
"I wish somebody had said to me you don't go back to work after something like that. I thought this would be OK.
"I thought I was normal, that I was back there doing the job the same as the others were."
One of Lorraine's former comrades who served with her in Bosnia recently told her that on her return to Sarajevo just a month after the explosion he could see that she "wasn't right".
Lorraine says that she wasn't sleeping and remembers little about the final two months of her tour of duty.
She has no recollection of telling the Army pal in Bosnia she was frightened to close her eyes at night or how on one occasion she "freaked out" when a fire extinguisher went off. Given a month's leave at the end of the tour, Lorraine's condition continued to get worse and she was not offered any treatment or counselling.
Sympathetic comrades didn't know how to help, while she says one superior made life hard for her, dismissing her injuries as "superficial" and bawling her out of an office.
When she eventually admitted to a civilian Army welfare officer that she had contemplated suicide she went on sick leave.
Even then, a superior ranking soldier remonstrated with her claiming she had been letting down comrades by not getting back to work ahead of Christmas in 1998.
Eventually she sought her own psychiatric help and went to see a consultant.
"He told me it was PTSD and that I was in a deep depression. Even then I was fighting it thinking 'I'm not depressed'. It was something I didn't want to admit to myself or anybody," she said.
"I struggle with this still. Twenty years later I have these bouts of moments in time - it's like a video playing over and over and that will go on for so many days. I'm full of upset and anger with the Army - I keep thinking how it was handled."
Lorraine never returned to the Army and left Ireland to marry Mike Tuemler, an American who had also been serving in Bosnia. She admits it was "running away" but it gave her access to the US military medical system, which is vastly experienced in dealing with veterans.
Incredibly, despite her experience, Lorraine said she would encourage anyone to join the military and that she loved the job.
The mum-of-two said: "It's a great career, so many opportunities and the friendships you get out of it."
Speaking from her home in Maryland in the United States, The mum-of-two said: "It's a great career, so many opportunities and the friendships you get out of it."