A former Royal Marine Commando and Special Forces Sergeant, Jason Fox is well qualified for his role on hit Channel 4 series SAS: Who Dares Wins, putting ordinary people though punishing physical and psychological tests.
Having joined the army at 16, he worked in hostage rescue, surveillance and counter terrorism among other things, before leaving the military with PTSD two decades later. He’s written several books since, the latest of which – Life Under Fire – looks at building inner strength and resilience.
Here, Fox, 44, talks to us about life after the military, and why mental health might be his most important cause…
Do you have an addiction to danger?
“I enjoy challenging myself, and did from an early age. It gives me a sense of achievement, so I like being in uncomfortable situations. But I don’t go out of my way to find new and wonderful ways to kill myself; if something looked like it was going to be certain death, I wouldn’t do it. I don’t deliberately push my luck.”
You’ve talked about beating your demons and having suicidal thoughts…
“Demons are like your emotions. Human beings are driven by emotions, and we can sometimes allow them to control us, or be embarrassed by them. That makes us not talk about them, and when I went through my sticky patch and was contemplating suicide, I wasn’t being honest with myself about what my emotions were. I was trying to ignore them, which was just compounding the issue. They’re my emotions, and it’s up to me what I do with them.”
How would you describe yourself now versus then?
“My description might be different to what others might say, but I’d say I’m a very positive person who enjoys life. I’m glad I went through what I did because it’s made me much more rounded in my approach to myself. I like to think I’m a reasonably aware person – not just of my own feelings but hopefully other people’s too.”
Did you on some level enjoy the chaos of war?
“It’s difficult to understand why soldiers miss it. It’s not that I miss the violence, I think what comes with the chaos is a very strong bond between you and the people you experience it with. That feeling of brotherhood with people you can trust with your life. It’s unfortunate you have to experience it in such dark places, but it is an addiction. It’s the sense of belonging that people miss.”
Do you think you’ve managed to find that again with your work?
“Yeah, I think so. My purpose now is to enjoy life, but also to help people in whatever capacity I can. Whether that’s through talking about mental health, or through my organisation (Fox co-founded Rock2Recovery which supports people in the forces, veterans and their families dealing with stress).
And what do you think Who Dares Wins does for people?
“We all put in an awful lot of effort to give people a life-changing experience. It looks like we’re just screaming and shouting, but there’s a lot more than is shown. It’s an opportunity for people to really push themselves – to see what they’re actually capable of. I love the way all the people who come on are so surprised by what they can achieve.”
What was your journey out of the army like?
“It wasn’t sudden. On my final tour of Afghanistan, there are moments I can pinpoint when I felt strange things. Like lying in a ditch and suddenly thinking about being at home as a 10-year-old boy, when I’m supposed to be a seasoned combat veteran.
“When I came back from that tour, I was so unmotivated. I wasn’t having flashbacks or anything, but I was supposed to be a leader and it just wasn’t right. I tried to explore that, to restore my military mojo, and it turned out I’d contracted PTSD and was in a fit of depression.”
Did you feel a loss of purpose?
“Yeah. I was told the thing that would fix me was leaving the military. I wasn’t totally happy with it, but I had to listen. Then I woke up expecting to feel better, and I didn’t, I felt worse. I’d lost my sense of belonging, and no longer felt part of something that had been a massive part of my life since I was 16. There’s an identity there, so you’re left thinking, ‘Who am I? What’s my purpose?’”
Do you look back on your army days and think about the lives you cut short, or those you couldn’t save?
“Not any more, because it is what it is. The by-product of that job is extreme violence, but I enjoyed soldiering. I enjoyed the sense of purpose, the camaraderie, the different skills. I didn’t enjoy being extremely violent, and I genuinely believe most of the blokes I worked with didn’t enjoy it either.
“When you’re in a gunfight, no one’s angry, no one’s happy – it’s just what you do. And the people I couldn’t save – I can’t change it. I did revisit it for a period and it wasn’t helpful for my mental health, so I learned from that and moved forward.”
You talk a lot in the book about hiding your PTSD. Do you think there is still an inclination among men to close down?
“It’s a by-product of old attitudes. Different things work for different people, but to blanket men with this idea that you just need to shut up and ‘man up’ is not helpful. It obviously doesn’t work for a lot of people, because men are killing themselves at an astonishing rate.
“We need men to know that if they don’t feel good, that’s all right, and it’s a natural reaction to something. It’s called being human. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want it to be an excuse – ‘I can’t do this and I can’t do that’ – you’ve got to find a little bit of grit and determination to help you through tough times. But please, please find the right people you feel comfortable talking to, because that 100% saved me.”
Was it a bit of a revelation when you did open up?
“Yeah. One of the most pivotal moments was on the first series of Who Dares Wins, as one of the main reasons I went on the show was to use it as a platform to talk about mental health. I knew when episode two came out at nine o’ clock on a Monday, it was [going to be] me on national TV saying, ‘I’ve been medically discharged for PTSD and I suffer from depression’. I was so scared, so anxious, and not a nice person to be around that day.
“I had no idea how it was going to be received, but when it went out, the feedback was awesome. I felt such a sense of empowerment, like the biggest weight had been lifted, because I’d admitted something real and said: ‘That’s who I am’. I didn’t need to keep up this façade of being this super tough bloke. I’m so pleased I did it.”
What would your older self say to your younger self?
“If you start to feel a certain way and it doesn’t sit right – address it. Talk with someone you trust. That’s probably the only thing, really – you’re going to go through some things, but it’s OK. Don’t be ashamed of it. Talk to someone.”
Life Under Fire: How To Build Inner Strength And Thrive Under Pressure by Jason Fox is published by Penguin Random House, priced £20. Available now.