Sunday, June 21, 2009
Our servicemen and woman are ordinary people who have chosen an extraordinary job, says Andy McNab.
It is all too easy to think of the Armed Forces as belonging to a different tribe from us “pencil necks” (one of the many terms used by our services to describe civilians). Despite the occasional differences in language and culture, however, they are made up of regular people. They’re just like us.
But, according to a recent statistic, the average Briton is more likely to know a copper in the Metropolitan Police than a soldier in the British Army.
One reason for this lack of integration is that servicemen and women had to go off-radar during the years of conflict in Northern Ireland. When the Provisional IRA started to target our forces and their families, our servicemen and women had no choice: they simply had to disappear from public view in order to avoid getting shot or blown up. When out and about on the streets, they were even instructed not to wear uniform, to reduce the potential of becoming targets.
They have had to keep a “low profile” for more than 30 years, and consequently, they have fallen out of the public’s consciousness, and this, inevitably, has led to them being considered with less regard – simply, because we don’t know them.
Get to know some of the individuals as I have, in the past and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, and you find people who make you feel proud.
My mate, for example, 48-year-old Paul Harding: a major in the infantry who was killed in Basra in a mortar attack. We’d served as riflemen together as acne-faced teenagers. Paul was a soldier’s soldier, someone who had risen up the ranks because of his devotion and skill. Typically, he was leading his men from the front when he was killed. I gave a reading at his funeral and had to fight hard to get the words out. Knowing that he loved his job, and that not many people are lucky enough to be able to say that, helped me get through.
On a visit to 16 Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan last year, I met 18-year-old (“and one month”, as he kept telling me) Private Rob.
He had recently arrived in Afghanistan. Up to his ears in body armour, and carrying a light machine gun, he had become a man in just a few weeks. But it wasn’t just soldiering he was experiencing out in the desert, he was also getting an education. About 45 per cent of infantry recruits join the Army with the average reading skills of an 11-year-old. I should know, I was one of them. Rob was dyslexic and had a reading age of an eight-year-old. As well as fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, he was fighting his dyslexia with the help of the Army educators. When I met him, Rob was sitting in the back of his Warrior armoured vehicle, doing coursework between patrols. That’s the sort of young man we are celebrating on Saturday .
It’s just not the Army out in Afghanistan: in Helmand, you can’t move for the Navy and Air Force – pilots, medics, mechanics, signers and drivers that all make up our team. Many are, of course, women.
Women, too, have been killed in action and there have been calls to withdraw them from the front line. But you know what? There isn’t a front line in modern warfare. That kind of term belongs in black-and-white war films. Our military now fight in “battle space”, because in an insurgency, they are literally surrounded by the enemy, and there is no forward edge of battle.
Among others in Afghanistan, I met Tara, a 28-year-old Fijian medic. When a foot patrol she was part of came under attack from the Taliban, she took a machine gun from a paratrooper who was temporarily in shock (something that can happen to anyone). She joined the fight and killed a Taliban sniper, saving the lives of her patrol. Not bad, eh?
I also met Kate Philp, a 30-year-old captain, whose job was to call in artillery support. She was living and fighting alongside an Infantry Rifle Company, the only woman among 80 men. But none of the company thought of her as a woman, just as a captain doing a job. She is a formidable soldier, and we don’t get to hear enough about the sheer quality of men and women like her in our Armed Forces.
It’s not only those who have died, or those still serving, who we should remember. We should also pause to remember the injured, too. Kate, tragically, is now one of them. Her left foot had to be amputated after a Taliban bomb attack last year in which two of her fellow servicemen died.
Our servicemen and women deserve 21st-century care for wounds inflicted by 21st-century warfare. That’s why I am proud to be a patron of Help for Heroes, and a small part of what has been achieved by this charity to support our injured troops. The support the public has given has really begun to make a positive impact on their lives.
We also need to remember the former servicemen and women suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Two of my friends committed suicide because of PTSD, and to see them go through this disorder was a terrible thing. They are just as much casualties of war as a soldier who has been wounded.
All our servicemen and women are just like us “pencil necks”. They have mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, children to look after, bills to pay and gardens to mow. But for whatever reason, they have chosen to do a job that very few of us would be prepared to do ourselves.
So, on Saturday, I am going to think about people like Paul, Rob, Kate and Tara, and be proud of them for what they are.