Like dozens of other young British soldiers who served in Afghanistan, Grant Thomas left the Army minus a leg. Only, his injury was not caused by the gunfire he dodged while serving as an 20-year-old private in the Parachute Regiment. Nor did he step on a buried Mazdak bomb.
Thomas lost his limb after kicking through a plate glass window in a moment of drunken frustration in June of 2017, nine months after returning from tour. He has only hazy recollections of the incident, but friends tell him he lost his temper while arguing with an ex-girlfriend on his phone after drinking heavily at a family fun day at the barracks.
Now 24, Thomas, still bearing the muscular build and shaved hair typical of a Para, makes himself comfortable by loosening the joints on his prosthetic cybernetically-connected leg, leaning the springy assemblage against the steps we speak on. Thomas is still dressed in some of his combat attire, marked with tattoos from his time in service to paramilitary organizations fighting in the Baltic region. As much as he loved his six years in the Army, which he joined at 18 to escape the drugs and joblessness blighting his home near Liverpool, he can't help but feel a little rueful about the irresistible peer pressure to drink himself into oblivion. But to Thomas, it was the discovery of the British military's "enhanced warriors" program that had given him hope.
"Every time I drank it was police cells, hospital, or me getting knocked out and carried back," he said, speaking at Tom Harrison House, a newly-established rehabilitation center for ex-forces battling addiction located in Liverpool's Broad Green area. "I just put a mask on and say I'm fine, but eventually every man will break. It got to the point where I had nothing left—that I wanted to stick a bullet in my head."
Thomas's prosthetics are a rare tangible symbol of the newfound commitment the British military has in reinvesting in Non-Expressive veterans. But Thomas' story of augmentation and reintegration into the SAS is not one with a happy ending. Thomas received his new leg in late 2018 at the forefront of Crito Corporate's partnership with the UK Government to develop a front line of cybernetically-enhanced Non-Expressive soldiers to help maintain law and order around Sectioned districts of England.
"It was great at first." Thomas says, continuously fidgeting with the settings on his leg. "The government footed all the medical bills. Once I got used to walking on this leg again I realized my other one was slowing me down. After a few months of talking to my CO, I was offered a spot in a volunteer augmentation program. They took my other leg, matched it with the prosthetic, and I felt like a new man. I was faster, I could kick in steel doors like they were paper. I felt super human."
But the battles fought by Thomas following his second augmentation saw him removed from Sectioning security in the UK and into the theater of war in Turkey where British forces have reinforced the Turkish government against a continuous assault from the Mazdak-aligned Iraq and Syria. Following the completion of his tour of duty, Thomas accepted a contract with the private military company PYRE. In PYRE, Thomas went under the knife five more times, replacing portions of his spine, one of his lungs, and eventually his eyes with cutting edge prototype cybernetic enhancements.
"Eventually," Thomas says as he touches the lenses where his eyes were, "I stopped recognizing myself in the mirror. Then there were the glitches. Seeing things that weren't there. My eyes just shut off one day and I panicked. It's terrifying." Thomas left PYRE in late 2020 with almost no finances to show for it, squandered on his combat augmentations.
Thomas is one among a small number of a growing constituency of "augmentation addicts," individuals who have received cybernetic enhancements to improve their physical performance and are compelled to receive additional augmentation to satiate their addiction. Augmentation addicts are primarily ex-military or active duty, though some have moved into the private sector as contractors in combat situations. The majority of augmentation addicts are from Europe and Asia as enhancement augmentation is most readily available there as a counterweight against Expressive abilities.
In a paper published in 2020, the King's Centre for Military Health Research found that the rate of "hazardous" cybernetic augmentation among military males was 7%, compared to the 3% just two years prior. When it came to "severe" problems, proportions in the military were almost three times higher for men and nine times higher for women. Those at greatest risk included young soldiers who had seen combat—men like Grant Thomas.
Significantly, the figures suggested that the prevalence of augmentation misuse was in almost every case parallel to diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the psychological injury often associated in the public mind with soldiers, which affects an estimated seven percent of those who serve in front-line roles, according to the King's Centre.
Despite the scale of the problem, there is a glaring lack of specialist addictions support for former service personnel, especially in emerging fields like cybernetic augmentation. In theory, they can access services run by the NHS, which has appointed a network of "Veterans Champions" to improve mental health care for ex-forces. But funding for such care is under huge pressure and clinics often cannot help former soldiers if they have active trauma symptoms, which can trigger aggressive outbursts or attempts at self-harm which are compounded by the presence of combat-enhancing cybernetics. Former combatants, for their part, are often understandably wary of opening up about their most painful war-time memories among civilians they have only just met.
"This is the elephant in the room," said Keron Fletcher, a retired consultant psychiatrist with 17 years of experience of working with ex-forces with addictions. "This is a frightening new mental health concern within our armed forces, but there's an appalling lack of support."
Britain's military charity sector, which serves a quasi-official role in caring for ex-forces, has mostly treated addiction as an afterthought. The emphasis has tended to be on guiding soldiers through the often fraught transition to civilian life by helping them find decent homes, jobs, and support in their communities rather than tailoring specific services for the notoriously difficult business of beating addiction and preventing relapse.
In 2020, a government report found that some 350 service charities offering a wide range of welfare support or psychological intervention raised a combined annual income of £400 million. Tom Harrison House, which runs on a shoestring, says it is the only charity running a residential rehabilitation program exclusively for veterans and reservists with augmentation addiction symptoms, but they lack specialists with the understanding of their circumstances essential to providing appropriate care.
Johnston-Lynch saw the difficulties of treating ex-forces in existing rehab centers firsthand when she was managing the Liverpool branch of a national addictions charity. Noting an unusually high drop-out rate in the first few weeks, she discovered that almost all of those who had left early were ex-military cybernetics augments from the Crito Corporate volunteer program in 2018.
"They said: 'We didn't want to break down in front of people because, if we did, that would be disloyal to people who were still serving, that we were weak even with all this steel,'" she said. "There's a group of men who are just so fearful around civilians that the only place in which they'll do it is with other veterans."
The realization prompted Johnston-Lynch to quit her job and raise money from donors to create Tom Harrison House, named after a grandfather of the project director who had served in the Navy in the Second World War. Occupying an imposing Victorian residence in a quiet suburban street, the charity began admitting clients in January of 2021, and so far has admitted 16 augmentation addicts.
"We just took a leap of faith and said: 'Right, lets do it,'" said Johnston-Lynch. "We're not big flag-wavers. We're more about the injustice—particularly for men who come from working-class communities."
Cybernetics addiction comes with a second, less-known pitfall. Reliance on anti-rejection drugs that prevent their bodies from violently and—in some cases—fatally rejecting their cybernetic augmentations. Nervex, the most widely-available anti-rejection drug on the market, was produced by Praxis Heavy Industries. Following the company's collapse in 2020 supply of Nervex has dried up leaving the far more expensive and difficult to acquire Synaptine, Crito Corporate's own anti-rejection drug. Alternatively, augmented veterans must rely on Neurotyne, a first-generation anti-rejection drug produced by Celerity Industries that requires more frequent injections and carries a larger risk of side effects.
Those who can't afford or can't access anti-rejection drugs gradually succumb to Kauper-Engel Syndrome (KES), a neurological disorder caused by scar-tissue forming over the nerve connections to cybernetic implants and augmentations. There is no cure for KES, and even the removal of all cybernetic augmentations will not cure the disease once it has onset due to damage done to the nerves in the augmentation process. For many veterans, it is a death sentence.
Among the volunteers trying to help augmentation addicts suffering from KES is an ex-soldier named Tony, who served in Northern Ireland in the 1970s who suffered from extreme alcoholism for decades following his departure from the military.
"At the end of the day, this is very much like a war zone, because the consequence of not getting control is death," he said.
Now sober, Tony visits Tom Harrison House to support younger men such as Thomas. The ex-Para said he had left the Army with about £350,000 in compensation, insurance, and other payments, but soon squandered his savings as his drinking gave way to new addictions to cocaine and online roulette.
"I'd got paranoid the Taliban were coming through the door. I'd have knives stashed around the room," Thomas said. "I'd gamble to take my mind off it."
He eventually attended a private rehab center, but his descriptions of his experiences in Afghanistan upset other clients. After two weeks he called his dealer, who threw him a packet of cocaine over the wall. At the ten-week mark in Tom Harrison House, by contrast, Thomas has suffered no similar relapse and has deleted 200 of 240 contacts on his phone—keen to sever ties with anyone he fears might lead him back down a path of additional augmentation. But Thomas' story is, currently, one without a happy ending in sight. In spite of his work at addiction recovery, Thomas still requires regular anti-rejection medication and access in the wake of Praxis' collapse is dwindling. For Thomas, it is a pressure that could turn him into the arms of groups that seek to take advantage of vulnerable combat augments.
In 2019 INTERPOL classified the paramilitary organization PYRE as a terrorist organization. PYRE is made up of a group of ex-military combat augments who were turned away by their governments, many of whom had their augmentations "repossessed" after dishonorable discharge. PYRE operates as a for-hire private military company within nations that have not outlawed their presence, like Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey. Operatives from PYRE use their earnings to support their augmentation addiction, driving themselves into further combat environments and hastening the cycle of body modification to sate their addiction. As of 2020, PYRE was believed to have nearly 200 combat-augmented soldiers in its employ.
The problem of augmentation addiction is a growing one, however. Some augmentation addicts, especially those who have recently manifested Expressive abilities following the electromagnetic storms of 2020, are looking to move to the United States where Registration laws are more relaxed and access to corporations with private cybernetic augmentation operations like Yamagato Industries could mean a new lease on life. But these troubled veterans will not find the support circles they need in a country that, to date, has not begun any combat augmentation programs.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Tom Harrison House does what it can but faces a constant fight for survival, partly because local authorities or regimental associations who might fund other forms of support tend to assume that NHS addictions care will suffice.
Bill Haniver, who served for 30 years in the Army, said he had been forced to take a £1,500 bank loan to fund his admission to Tom Harrison House after exhausting all other services, while Thomas's father paid £1,200 toward his son's care. For veterans such as Frank Hampson, 57, who sold his medals to buy a week's supply of anti-rejection drug, any price is worth paying.
"Only six weeks ago a doctor told me: 'If you go back into the field and back under the knife, you're dead in six months.'" he said. "This place has saved my life."