Lest we forget: the scars of war

The sight of coffins bearing the bodies of the fallen have become a familiar sight. But what of the comrades who survived? How have they coped with their loss? Terri Judd reports reports
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The Independent Online

Ask Private Tom Wilde if he has suffered long term from the combat he lived through in Afghanistan and he brushes off the suggestion with a casual shrug. He speaks with the characteristic understatement of an infantryman who has witnessed horrors beyond the comprehension of civilians. But the words betray him.

"Nothing really sets me off – well, maybe the banging of doors but I'll get over it," said Pte Wilde, 23. "I don't really have nightmares, just the odd one or two. And every now and then, for some strange reason, I will cry."

Twelve months ago, Pte Wilde and comrades from the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment were patrolling the streets of Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb ripped through their armoured Land Rover, killing Drummer Tom Wright, 21.

For those left behind – his brothers in arms – 24 June 2007 might as well be yesterday.

Sergeant Alan Dennis, who suffered leg wounds in the blast, said: "My first fear was of the vehicle exploding. There was a lot of ammunition going off [in the fire]. The worst thing I could hear was 'Shelly' [Drummer Aaron Shelton] screaming. That will stay with me for life."

Pte Wilde added: "The diesel; you could hear it trickling out like a tap. We had to get out of the vehicle." He subconsciously slid his hand down his back as if he could still feel the viscous liquid on his body.

Corporal Ethan Beardsley, 25, added: "The smell of diesel on a forecourt still makes us feel sick."

The grief families that suffer after such bereavements is often written about, but rarely does anyone stop to contemplate its effect on young soldiers who have trained together, lived alongside each other and forged immense bonds of trust and loyalty.

In the officers' mess, Captain Rob Agnew sits surrounded by silverware and paintings commemorating valour through the centuries. "It was Christmas and I was at a ball," he said. "I thought I was over it. I had had a whole lot of drink and suddenly I was in turbo-clip, crying."

It is a loss that still retains a subtle yet strong grip on the 2nd Battalion of the, now renamed, Mercian Regiment months after they have come home, something the men and women who fought alongside the 282 service personnel who have perished so far in Afghanistan and Iraq will recognise.

Sgt Dennis, 34, and Pte Wilde are fighting to recover physical fitness. Drummer Aaron Shelton, 24, may still need to have part of his leg amputated. Cpl Beardsley can can still visualise his friends lying injured and dying. Drummer Cameron Jowett and Cpl Les Barker are also marked by the loss of a fellow member of their platoon.

Former pte Iain Melrose and ex-drummer Matt Clark, who have chosen to leave the Army for the sake of their young families and now work as a builder and on the railway, deal daily with the loneliness of being severed from the body of the regiment. Capt Agnew and Sgt Major Martyn Chatterley carry the burden of knowing they will have to take their men back to Afghanistan next year and, again, try to bring them all safely home.

At Palace Barracks, 2 Mercian's new home in Belfast, is a memorial to those who lost their lives in Northern Ireland. Among the names is Cpl Stephen McGonigle, 31, who was killed in 1989. When the regiment headed to Helmand last spring he was the last soldier they had lost in combat. Six months later, they had suffered nine deaths.

As these young soldiers talk, their faces and voices echo those of old veterans on Armistice Day, devoid of machismo or self-pity. "Anyone who says they don't have dreams about what we did out there is a liar," said Drummer Jowett, 22. "My father lost his best mate in Northern Ireland. He still cries. I can't talk to anyone else but him."

Tom Wright's friends still obviously miss the man they described as "mad as a box of frogs", but a brilliant soldier.

Nine months on, the slightest thing can trigger memories, grief or fear, the pop of a plastic bottle beneath a car tyre, a news item on another Afghanistan death, the whoosh of a firework reminiscent of a rocket-propelled grenade, or a toast to absent friends at weddings.

For former pte Melrose, 29, it is the church memorial he passes almost daily. Often, at night on his way home from the pub, he will stop for a few minutes to look at the spot where his friend's name is inscribed among the town's fallen.

On the wall of his living room in Ripley, Derbyshire, are two photographs, the first of a proud new recruit in dress uniform, the second of a crumpled, haunted-looking figure in desert kit, taken the day after Drummer Wright died. Pausing for what seemed an eternity, he said: "Every now and then, it will just hit you like a ton of bricks. It has got tougher because I am not in the fold. Without Jo, my wife, I would have completely and utterly lost it."

Drummer Jowett describes a familiar scenario, that of not realising how much his experiences had changed him. "I took my missus on holiday when we got back and we had a lot of arguments. I had gone from one extreme to another, from hell to heaven. You don't talk about your personal thoughts, you just man the fuck-up."

Some have had, in the discreet words of Sgt Major Chatterley, "a wobble". Across the ranks, soldiers have grown accustomed to watching for anything out of character, excessive drinking, mood swings or depression. New cases continue to present themselves.

"Some, you sit them down and they just break down," said Sgt Major Chatterley. "But as soon as you tell them the system is there to help them, within a week they are different." He added: "The fallout from Afghanistan and Iraq is going to continue for the next five, 10 years but we have programmes to highlight soldiers who have got problems."

Former drummer Clark, 25, recalled standing on the side in his new civilian clothes as the regiment paraded on their return, "When I first got out I really struggled," he said. "I felt really lonely, alone. It was horrible." Thousands turned out to watch the men march through their home towns, which has both surprised and thrilled the regiments, but coming home has been a double-edged sword. Months later, they still feel out of step with a society which can-not possibly comprehend what they have endured.

Ten thousand applauding people lined the streets of Nottingham yet the moment the crowds dispersed, a local bar refused to serve several soldiers drinks. In minutes they had gone from "hero to hindrance". Cpl Barker, 25, said: "I am never called a soldier; I am just a squaddie. A soldier is a World War One hero but we are squaddies. Sometimes it really winds me up."

But they have little time to debate whether the country is honouring its side of the military covenant. They are too busy training for their next Afghan tour. Many relish the prospect of returning to the front line but acknowledge that this time they are more fearful. Only the newest recruits are gung-ho.

Drummer Jowett, who was not only a close friend of Drummer Wright but also of L/Cpl Paul "Sandy" Sandford, 23, who was killed 18 days earlier, continued: "We have got a whole load of new lads. They are good lads but I just want to distance myself from them.

"I just don't want to make friends like that again because I was distraught. I can't help thinking that next year one of them might go."