Home from Helmand: Why leaving the front line isn’t always easy

What is it like returning to normal life after being at war? Terri Judd meets the soldiers adjusting to a more peaceful existence, with all the relief, joy and bewilderment that brings
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The Independent Online

Private Mark Dickinson steps off the coach to an explosion of cheers and welcome-home banners. As a mass of emotional families surges forward, he stands dazed by the television lights that slice through the autumn night.

His wife, Natalie Dickinson, pushes her way through the crowd to hand him his two-month-old baby girl, Lily Jean. Behind her, his three-year-old son, Alfie, warily eyes up the stranger in uniform. "I didn't know what to say," explains the 25-year-old soldier, later. "Natalie gave me the baby and I just looked at her. She was all wobbly and I passed her to my dad. I just wanted to get home."

Nearby, Sergeant Andy Hawkins, aged 31, waits, oblivious to the mothers that jostle him in their hunt for their returning soldier. His last promise to his friends, as he was stretchered on to a helicopter with vicious wounds, was that he'd be there for their homecoming at the Catterick barracks in North Yorkshire. Eyes wet with tears, he grins as they envelop him in suffocating hugs.

"I've been having nightmares, worrying about them," he says. "They're like my kids. Now they're back and I can sleep a lot better."

With the return of B Company, the last of their men in Afghanistan, the 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) breathes a collective sigh of relief. Seven months, a dozen deaths and 97 wounded in action, eight of them amputees, they can finally take off their battered body armour and helmets.

Coming home, 26-year-old Corporal Gary Roberts explains, is like "being a four-year-old on Christmas Day".

"It's the everyday things you look forward to. Being able to use a cashpoint, walk to the shops, have a hot shower," adds 19-year-old Private John Jones.

"You take for granted being shot at and that becomes normality," continues Lieutenant Stephen Rice, aged 25, a scar on his neck evidence of the bomb that left one of the others in A Company a double amputee.

"The best thing is just getting used to the day-to-day humdrum other people take for granted, like sharing a bed with my fiancée or putting up shelves or going shopping. I actually enjoy going to Ikea now."

But the joy of coming home is complicated. The soldiers are now suddenly separated from the men with whom they have shared seven months of banter. They must cope with feelings of guilt at surviving when others have died. The adrenaline of combat is replaced by household chores, and boredom. They can struggle to fit back into a family that has had to learn to live without them and a society that asks searching questions about their time in combat but does not want to hear the answers.

"The worst bit is adjusting from life that was so fast-paced," explains Major Rich Grover, who commanded B Company in the notorious Nahr-e Saraj area of Helmand. "You are running around at 100 miles an hour, and then suddenly you are at nought."

Despite the thrill of seeing his wife, Hannah, and baby boy, Henry, he confesses: "Suddenly you are detached from everyone, back with your family, which is great, but at the same time it can be quite lonely."

On leaving Afghanistan, soldiers spend 24 hours in "decompression" on Cyprus, where they are briefed on how to readjust to family life and how to recognise mental health problems. The military now operates a trauma risk management programme after any major incident. Already, some of the Mercians are being quietly observed for signs of combat stress.

One soldier admits: "I have never had a cross word with my wife in all the years we have been married and now I can't stop snapping at her."

Thousands of miles away from Helmand, soldiers tend to remain over-vigilant, still searching for signs of an IED (improvised explosive device) or an ambush.

"I am more jumpy here," explains Mark Dickinson's older brother, Sergeant John Dickinson, aged 30, who served with A Company in Sangin, a town which claimed a third of British lives until it was handed over to the US Marines this year. "Out there, when there was a bang, no one flinched, but you don't expect it to happen here."

In the four weeks of holiday the returning soldiers are given before they must rejoin their regiment, the temptation is to make up for the dry months by drinking and driving fast cars.

"A lot get killed behind the wheel after a tour," says Major Ronnie Goodwin. "And this was without doubt the most difficult tour the regiment has had since the Second World War."

"Young infantrymen are risk takers," continues Major Grover. "I worry intensely about them, what they are going to do in the fog of a few beers with mates who don't live by the same code of conduct and how accommodating will their families and friends be to them."

Most of the soldiers complain of being bored. It is an inactivity that forces them to confront suppressed grief. Some will take months to face the families of the dead, fearful that they will break down or be blamed.

"Everyone is getting pissed and having a laugh and then you get a random moment when you think so-and-so is not here," says Second Lieutenant Nathan Rager. "As things get back to normal, it highlights the things that aren't normal."

Alone in a cemetery in Runcorn, Sgt Dickinson contemplates a simple wooden cross that marks Colour Sergeant

Martyn Horton's grave until a headstone can be made. He places down 11 cerise carnations and the same number of buff-coloured blooms, marking the historic number and colours of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment, before promising his old friend that he will watch over his nine-year-old son, Ethan.

On 23 June, Sgt Dickinson received news that the friend he made on joining the army 12 years earlier, had been killed. Col Sgt Horton, aged 34, Bobby to his friends, had been mentoring the Afghan police at another base in Gereshk when he went to the aid of a checkpoint under attack and his vehicle rolled into a waterway, killing him along with three other soldiers.

A senior non-commissioned officer, Sgt Dickinson, is unabashed as he explains: "I cried myself to sleep for 10 days. I couldn't be alone. I just kept working."

A week after B Company's return, Ellesmere Port was just one of nine Cheshire towns that came out in force to welcome their county infantry regiment, as well as attached Royal Gurkha Rifles soldiers, with homecoming parades.

Private Dave Rafferty, aged 31 and the Dickinsons' cousin, smiles as he recalls how his form teacher told him he would never make anything of himself: "It is really, really good to be treated with such respect".

Bemused by the adulation, soldiers who slipped back into the country unnoticed after Iraq have one word for it: "overwhelming".

In Congleton, the scene is reminiscent of a post-Second World War street party as the frail frame of Corporal Tony Williams strains to stand up out of his wheelchair to receive his medal.

His pallor and shaking limbs belie the ferocity of this combat nurse, aged 26, who was shot four times as he fought in vain to save two of his colleagues. Around him, teenagers stand on rooftops while office workers crowd around windows. Onlookers applaud and cheer. Young girls push forward to take pictures on their mobile phones.

Unflinching, the 600 men of the battalion stand, bayonets fixed, the light rain running down stern faces with haunted eyes.

In Stockport, a group of school children wave union flags as Private Ryan Hewitt, aged 18, who lost both his legs in an explosion, stubbornly pushes his wheelchair uphill, refusing all help during a two-and-half-mile parade.

The men do not want sympathy, insists Sergeant Major Matt Henry: "None of us are victims. We are all volunteers".

In Birkenhead, Denise Owen watches proudly in tears, knowing her son Private Douglas Halliday, aged 20, is missing. Her only request is assurances that his death was not in vain. Lieutenant Colonel Andy Hadfield, the commanding officer, is adamant: "A spirit that triumphs through adversity really is the essence of the morale that drives these very humble, very modest men of the Midlands every time. What they have achieved, whether in a patrol base or working with the police, has been amazing. I know Afghanistan was a better place when they left than when they arrived. I know it. They made a difference."

Back in the wirral, a few days after the parades, a battered yellow ribbon flag still flutters above the Dickinson family home. In the pub, the two brothers and their cousin play pool. Nearby, families gossip, unaware of the quiet conversation about friends that were killed or terribly maimed. Sgt John Dickinson recalls the horror of hearing his younger brother had been wounded by a grenade. Pte Mark Dickinson interjects that he was desperate to leave hospital and return to his unit, fearful that somebody else might be injured covering his duties.

A week earlier, the pub had hosted a surprise birthday party for Mark. A banner with his picture had hung above the bar.

"People kept coming up and asking questions. It was doing my head in," he says now. "'Did you kill anyone?' I just swerved it. You say, 'I was just doing my job', especially if you have a few pints in you, you don't want to bring it up in case you get emotional. But you could take months to explain, show them videos and they still wouldn't understand."

"There are things in the back of your head, you want to keep there," continues his older brother. "Our dad served in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. He won't start a conversation about it. If you do, he will just listen."

They say that no one wants to hear that they love their job, thrive on the adrenalin, the rough simplicity of life, the pride of taking part in the toughest conflict the British has faced for decades, even if that means kill or be killed.

"If people ask questions, you say, 'It was horrible and I am just glad to be home'," says John. "That usually stops them in their tracks."

Preparing himself for his next posting at the joint services staff college, Major Rich Grover's voice reverberates with emotion as he explains what a humbling privilege it was to lead B Company: "To be a commander is awesome. I loved it, even though we had testing times. It was brilliant. I would not change anything, but of course I would, to have those killed and injured back to how they were."

He is, he confesses, not looking forward to being wrenched from his regiment. "There is not a day goes by I don't think about the guys who died. I remember Andrew Breeze the morning he died, sitting there in a T-shirt and shorts, chilling out with a brew. John Sanderson, I took a photograph of him. He was asleep because it was so hot and I was taking the piss out of him. Webster, I cut his hair a couple of days before. Cochran was quieter. I have lasting images of all of them I will take to my grave."