Scar Issue | Jason Fox Survived 10 Years of War, Only to Face His Toughest Battle Yet
The ex-special forces star opens up about life, death, and his struggles with PTSD
Photo: Dan Medhurst
In this series, ‘Lunch With a Muse‘, we take inspirational figures out to lunch in some of the world’s most talked about restaurants, to discuss their lives, dreams, advice and achievements. This week, we speak to soldier, TV presenter, author and mental wellbeing advocate Jason Fox.
“‘Fucking hell, he’s got a gun’ - as I walked into the courtyard, someone actually shouted that. It was night, so I didn’t see it straight away, but the next thing I was aware of was ‘pop, pop, pop’ as he started shooting…”
Jason Fox is describing the closest he’s ever come to dying. Or one of the closest he’s ever come. Because if there’s a constant thread running through his long and varied career (ten years as a Royal Marine Commando, a further decade serving in the Special Boat Service, and then his more recent move into TV, as one of the principles on Channel 4’s hit show SAS: Who Dares Wins) it’s that there have been a lot of close shaves.
"There were intense gun battles - including one where 'we were 30 blokes, surrounded by 400 enemy [and] one of the lads dies straight away'"
There were the helicopter crashes in warzones he can’t name, from which he somehow walked away unscathed. There were the intense gun battles - including one where “we were 30 blokes, surrounded by 400 enemy [and] one of the lads dies straight away”. Then, after he’d left the military, there was the time he and four friends capsized in 60ft waves while trying to row the Atlantic. More recently still, there was the incident during filming for The Real Narcos , his latest Channel 4 show, when Pablo Escobar’s personal hitman “Popeye”, a charming individual who talked proudly about his 257 kills, pressed a pistol to Fox’s temple to demonstrate his technique.
And then, of course, there was that incident in the courtyard. “It was like that moment in the Ali G film, the bullets sort of went around me,” Fox says. Miraculously, he wasn’t hit, but “when I talk about that night with my mates they're like: ‘it looked like you were tap dancing across the yard’. It was quite funny at the time.”
I’m about to point out that being shot at from point blank range with an AK47 doesn’t sound like everyone’s idea of “funny,” but at this point, a waiter arrives to take our drinks order. We (myself, Fox, and Amuse photographer Dan Medhurst) are sitting at the counter of Kiln in Soho, a buzzy Thai-fusion establishment, recently voted the UK’s best restaurant.
I’d spotted the excellent Kernel Pale Ale on the menu earlier, and order one. Fox - or Foxy, as he suggests we call him - follows suit, while Dan opts for a standard lager. Conversation meanders off onto the relative merits of craft beers, and the recent helicopter crash which killed Leicester City’s chairman, before returning to the incident in question.
“You make light of moments like that, and getting in helicopter crashes and all sorts,” Foxy offers by way of explanation, because you have to. “You go out on the ground and you could be like ‘fucking hell, what if I get shot’,” but that wouldn’t get you anywhere as a soldier. Instead, he says, “you’re living in the moment”.
On the surface of it at least, Jason Fox looks sounds like the ultimate lads’ hero. Shrugging off near-death experiences with a laugh before chatting about beer and football? It all fits with the special forces stereotype set out in those “behind enemy lines” articles FHM used to run in the late 90s, or the novels of Andy McNab. And despite the fact that he left the service six years ago, Foxy still looks every inch the professional hardman - over six foot of pure muscle, with tattoos poking out from under the sleeves of his t-shirt, and biceps that move like shipping containers being stacked as he reaches out to shake your hand.
He’s easy to chat to - surprisingly soft-spoken, self-deprecating and quick to laugh, with a conspiratorial storytelling style that draws you in. And he swears like, well, a trooper. But if Jason Fox was just a good raconteur - or even just a soldier with a wealth of gnarly, near-death tales that he was happy to relate - he wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. In fact, if being tough-as-nails was all there was to him, there’s an argument that Fox wouldn’t be on TV at all. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine him having the following (hundreds of thousands on Instagram and Twitter, not to mention IRL fans) that he currently enjoys.
But Fox is more than just a Ross Kemp with hair, or a Bear Grylls without the artifice. What makes him such a fascinating character, and the reason we’re sat in Kiln at all, is how much he thinks about his military career, and how openly he talks about the impact it’s had on him. In this, he’s the polar opposite of the popular image of a special forces soldier - a kind of anti-Andy McNab.
After two decades in the military Jason Fox was medically discharged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The resulting downward spiral in his mental health nearly caused him - a man who had survived so many near-misses - to take his own life. It’s a journey he documents in his new book Battle Scars: a book which, despite covering some of the same ground, couldn’t read less like Bravo Two Zero if it tried.
Starters - Ready for Anything
To hear him tell it, the first few years of Jason Fox’s life were relatively straightforward. Born in 1976 to a military family, he grew up in Luton, which he describes as “an utter shithole”, but it was a shithole he could see an obvious way out of. “My dad was in the marines, so there was an influence there,” he says, but enlisting was long his preferred option anyway. He signed up at as soon as he could, joining as private at the age of 16 - fresh-faced and eager to get out there and, as he puts it, “do cool shit”.
For the first decade or so of his military career, “cool shit” is largely what Foxy did. “When I was in the marines, it was in a quiet period. It was in the 90s, when there wasn't really loads going on. I did an Ireland tour, but there was fuck all really.” He realised, however, that while he loved the nuts and bolts of soldiering (“the actual doing it, like being like a kid running around in the dirt”), he was less enamoured with what he calls “the bullshit - the parading, the pomp and ceremony, all of that”.
So when the chance came to join the special forces, who are often on active service even in peacetime, he jumped at it. “Then, fast forward to 2001 and a few lunatics fire a couple of planes into buildings, and it all goes mad.”
"How do you condition yourself mentally to deal with intense physical discomfort, or pain?"
Fox has just undergone the famously rigorous process of special forces selection when the “War on Terror” was declared, and he was thrown right into the thick of the action. But he was nothing if not prepared. The infamous forced marches across the Brecon Beacons, the being chased by dogs, and the hours in stress positions meant he was ready - both physically and mentally - for anything. Add that to his ten years as a marine and Foxy was, as he puts it, “trained up to fuck”.
When Fox and his co-presenters on SAS: Who Dares Wins were first asked to do the show, they were asked if they could condense the process of special forces selection into a TV-friendly week or 10 days. “We thought, errr, that’s a bit of a insult,” he chuckles. “But we told them what we could do is put a training plan together that looks for the attributes that you would look for - so mental robustness, physical robustness, a flexible mindset, and a happiness with being uncomfortable.”
So how do you do that, I ask? From a mental point of view, how do you condition yourself to deal with intense physical discomfort or pain? “I think the main thing is to try and have a slightly juvenile approach to those situations,” Fox says. “Don't think about it going into it. When you're in it, you're in it, you just take every second as it comes. Just concentrate on the moment. When I was in stress positions, when I did it, I daydreamed. You have to be in that dark place, but allow your mind to wander.”
It’s a deceptively simple-sounding answer. “Don’t think about it going into it” might seem dismissive, as if it’s just about toughing it out. But the idea that you have put yourself mentally in the moment, without focussing on what’s come before or what is to come, is what meditation teachers or mental health professionals would call mindfulness. “Exactly, yep,” says Foxy. “It’s like Buddhism - people look at a blade of grass and just see the blade of grass. I never really knew what that meant until I went through this, and then I saw it was like: ‘just be there’”.
Viewed like this, even pain itself can be seen as beneficial, Fox explains. “OK yeah, it burns and it hurts, but I always try and turn things into a positive. I’m freezing on the Brecon Beacons and I'm like, ‘well, actually pain is quite warm...’” We all laugh - Buddhism and mindfulness aside, I say, that sounds like a pretty desperate attempt to find a silver lining... It’s at this point that the waiter comes back to take our order.
Having watched the open kitchen preparing food for the past half an hour, it’s hard to know how to whittle the menu down. Aged Lamb & Cumin Skewer. Kanchanaburi Style Jungle Curry of Bream. Grilled Tamworth Chop. It all sounds amazing. We’ve been told we should pick six to eight of the tapas-style dishes for starters and mains between us, but spend so long deliberating that the waiter eventually asks if we’d like him to recommend a few. “How comfortable are you guys with hot spicy dishes?” he says.
Two of us are fine, but the man who’s just been telling us how extreme pain can be turned into a positive says: “Mmm... yeah... ish…” Half a second passes before we all crack up again. “Ah, I’ve stitched myself right up there,” laughs Foxy.
Mains - Out of the Frying Pan & Into the Firefight
Jason Fox never thought about enrolling in the military as an officer. “My dad was one, but he said I shouldn’t go to Sandhurst. I went to a shit school and I didn’t apply myself, so I would never have got the qualifications anyway.” Mostly though, it was because as an officer, “you don't get to do the soldiery side of things so much.” Being on parade, “being a figurehead” wasn’t what he enjoyed. Being on the ground, getting his hands dirty, that was what it was all about.
And he was good at it. The best. Foxy rose rapidly to the rank of Sergeant, and in a unit that numbers only 250-odd active members, he was universally admired. He had a reputation for running further, lifting more, and being generally indestructible. All of which made his PTSD diagnosis, and subsequent medical discharge, all the more shocking. But if it was difficult for those around him to comprehend, for Fox himself, it was catastrophic.
In Battle Scars, he sets out the whole story in heart-wrenching detail, but even the TL;DR version he lays out to us at lunch is brutal enough. “I came back from a high tempo tour where we were going out and fighting on a regular basis - people were getting killed, people were losing bits of body parts. It was high intensity.”
“I came back from a high tempo tour where we were fighting on a regular basis - people were getting killed, people were losing bits of body parts”
By this point our food has arrived, and Foxy takes a second to chew on a mouthful of noodles and gather his thoughts before continuing. “I was getting ready to go on the next tour, doing cool shit in the build-up, and it seemed like there was a black cloud in the distance.” The feeling was an unfamiliar one to a man who’d spent his entire career - since the age of 16 - enjoying cool shit.
“I was thinking: ‘I don't like this, what’s up? I've always wanted to do this, I've always been up for it. I fucking love this job’. It was like: ‘I feel like I've lost my military mojo, and I don't like this.’” The worst, unfortunately, was yet to come.
There are many things that the British military are brilliant at. Indeed, our special forces are famously among the best in the world, frequently called upon to give assistance and training to allied armies, or resolve sticky situations that the majority of us will never hear about. But in recent years, the armed forces have stood accused of being less adept when it comes to dealing with mental illness. PTSD among veterans is on the rise according to scientific studies, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the military have been slow to recognise the scale of the problem.
Foxy, for his part, doesn’t openly speak ill of his former employer, but he does concede that the options he was offered in terms of care were limited. “I was naive in thinking there would be five or six different people with different tools they could bring to the party that would help me,” he says. “But actually there was one person, and there was one therapy, and it was essentially - if that doesn't work, we don't know what the fuck else is out there.”
Having worked out that he didn’t - or couldn’t - relate to his military psyche nurse, or the treatments and drugs he prescribed, Foxy found himself accepting a medical discharge as the least worst option. It was once he was out, though, that the shit really hit the fan.
“You’re a journalist right,” says Jason, “and if you’re not a journalist, then what are you? As you’ve trained for this, it’s what you introduce yourself as. It’s the same with footballers - you hear about football players who finish football and they're fucking lost.” His example makes me think. If I, who’s been a journalist for ten years, would feel a loss of identity without my job, then how much more would it affect a man who’d spent 20 years, more than half his adult life - doing something he loved?
It’s not as if Jason Fox’s work was an ordinary job either. In his book, and in person, he talks a lot about “the brotherhood” - the special feeling of belonging that emerges from having endured extreme situations together.
“There's a TED talk I love watching by Sebastien Junger, a journalist and filmmaker, called ‘Why Do Soldiers Miss War’,” he says. “You're getting shot at or you're involved in extreme violence. You’d be mad to miss that right? But there’s the knowledge that someone’s always got your back, there's like a warm fuzzy feeling that goes with that.”
“The real world is far more brutal than going to war. War is all black and white - you've got someone that's trying to kill you and vice versa”
Plus, he explains, there’s an appeal to the simplicity of war and soldiering. “It's all black and white - you've got someone that's trying to kill you and vice versa.” The civilian world, by contrast, is a complex and uncertain place. Organising his own trips to the dentist, fixing his washing machine, filing a tax return, dealing with living day-in-day-out with a partner - none of these were things that Foxy had ever had to think about before. The last time he’d been a civilian, he was about to take his GCSEs.
“The real world is far more brutal than going to war,” he says at one point, and while that sounds extreme, for soldiers emerging from the armed forces, that all too often seems to be the case. For this particular soldier, that disconnect, the loss of the brotherhood, the loss of identity, and the sudden removal of his raison d’ être were nearly too much.
In Spring 2013, Jason Fox got out of his car in a clifftop carpark at a notorious suicide spot, and “headed towards the precipice with purpose”. In the end, he pulled back from the brink. But as he relates in Battle Scars, it was a close-run thing.
Dessert - Finding the Sweet Spot Again
Kiln doesn’t serve dessert - it’d be hard to see it fitting into their menu somehow. So instead, we order another beer, because this conversation is far from done.
If there’s a third act to Foxy’s life, after his military experiences, and the extremes of PTSD-induced depression, it’s this: Sitting here and chatting openly about it. His burgeoning TV career (he’s just been filming the fourth series of the smash hit Who Dares Wins) is something he’s rightfully proud of. Undoubtedly one of the reasons he’s become so popular is his ability to talk about his own issues on such a public-facing platform.
Then there’s Rock2Recovery, the social enterprise he founded with fellow ex-serviceman Jamie Sanderson, which aims to help other PTSD sufferers through music or outdoor adventures. “There's sort of scientific proof that music, mountains, and water are the things that people find therapeutic,” he explains.
It’s a point he proved for himself when he did that Atlantic row with four friends in 2016, setting a Guinness World Record for the fastest crossing from mainland Europe to mainland South America in the process. They might have nearly died when they capsized several times, but it helped him “scratch the itch” when it came to adventure, and reignited the “got your back” feeling of brotherhood that he’d found so comforting for so long.
“Children don’t care about what’s happened previously, or what’s happening in the future, children just care about now. Why can’t we all be like that?”
But the main reason Foxy finds himself in a happier place these days is detailed in Battle Scars. It comes down to a combination of a sympathetic therapist and his own hard work in opening up - not least to himself. “I eventually found someone I could work with, who I could talk to, and I was like fucking hell, I need to stop lying to myself.”
There’s a particular moment in the book that he describes as break-through. He and his therapist Alex are walking through the woods and they come across a child kicking autumn leaves with obvious delight. “Children don’t care about what’s happened previously, or what’s happening in the future,” Alex says. “Children just care about now. Why can’t we all be like that?”
“Have a slightly juvenile approach to these situations”; “take every second as it comes”; “live in the moment”. These were all things that Jason Fox had previously taught himself - techniques he’d developed for dealing with the incredibly stressful situations he routinely found himself in. Somewhere along the way, however, he’d lost sight of how to use those techniques, and how they could help him mentally.
Call it mindfulness, call it Buddhism, call it a coping strategy for making it across a courtyard while being shot at with an AK47, but rediscovering that ability to live in the moment, to focus on the here and now, was what got Jason Fox through his darkest hours. The hope now is that by writing about it, and talking about it so openly, he can help other people through theirs.
It’s time to say our goodbyes. We shake hands, and the Maersk crane of his arm shunts those ludicrous shipping container biceps around again. I find myself wondering how much of an impact Jason Fox’s decision to talk like this might have.
In a society where mental health is still under-discussed, and suicide is the biggest killer of men below the age of 45, having a military-grade hardman like him addressing the issues so honestly and eloquently (and on a massively popular TV show to boot) must be making a huge difference. Having survived so many scrapes with death himself, he’s now helping others step back from the brink. To hear his story, you might think he’s on his ninth life, but there’s every chance that Jason Fox’s latest incarnation could be his most significant yet.