Was the tragic suicide of a TA soldier his final protest against an unjust war?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Peter Mahoney found it hard to settle into normal life after returning from the war in Iraq. Last week, he put on his Territorial Army uniform for one last time, his head freshly shaved, and returned to the home that he had, until five weeks earlier, shared with his wife and four children.

Attaching a hosepipe to the exhaust of the family car, parked in the garage of their home in Botcherby, a small estate on the outskirts of Carlisle, he started the engine.

His experiences as a soldier attached to the Royal Logistics Corps, ferrying medical supplies and injured soldiers between the front line and British Army field hospitals near the Kuwaiti border, had left him deeply scarred and suffering from depression.

He had never believed in the war and had been a vocal critic within his local community of the British Government's decision to invade Iraq. He had publicly accused Tony Blair of being George Bush's "puppet". Like many who opposed the invasion, he thought weapons of mass destruction were a "smokescreen". The real issue, he contested, was seizing Saddam's oilfields.

He was discovered by Donna, his childhood sweetheart to whom he had been married for almost 21 years. Even though the couple had been recently separated, they were trying for a reconciliation, hoping to go on a family canal boat holiday.

Emergency services however were unable to resuscitate him. He was 45 years old.

During the war, Donna, a staff nurse at the Cumberland Infirmary, had set up a support group for other wives facing the worry and isolation of being left at home while their partners fought in Iraq.

She also kept a diary revealing the distress the conflict was causing their children - Matthew, 18, Ashley, 16, Ben, eight, and Vicky, five.

Soon after his return, Mr Mahoney gave an interview to his local newspaper revealing the deep-rooted concern among many of those he served alongside in the TA in the Gulf. The Iraqi military, far from being well-equipped with the latest weaponry, were firing "sticks and stones", little match for the might of the Allies.

"The consensus among the troops was we were in Iraq so George Bush could seize control of the oil fields. All this talk of weapons of mass destruction was simply a smokescreen as far as we were concerned. There was certainly no evidence they existed," he said.

"I think Tony Blair was just following whatever Bush said. He was simply his puppet. He got in too deep and couldn't back out. From what we saw Saddam's regime did not have advanced weapons. Iraqi troops were using ancient Russian machines. They were firing sticks and stones. They might as well have had catapults."

Mr Mahoney was not afraid of military conflict. He had volunteered to serve in the conflict in Bosnia. But this time it had been different and he had been on the verge of quitting the TA when his call-up papers arrived.

At the time, Donna had urged the Government to rethink the war. It was "somebody else's battle," she said. None the less, in March 2003, the family travelled to a military centre at Salisbury Barracks to say farewell to Mr Mahoney before he flew to Kuwait.

He had spent three weeks in training, receiving a cocktail of anti-biological warfare injections. But despite the niggling doubts, his curiosity and sense of adventure prevailed.

"He joined the TA because he wanted to experience Army life and do something useful for his country,'' said Donna, whose own father had served in the Army for 24 years.

Startled by the ferocity of the fighting, she watched the war unfold on television. The family prayed at the local cathedral and met others for support at a local library. There was a candle-lit vigil at the town hall. But the children bore the brunt of the separation.

At the time, she said: "The kids had to cope with nasty comments at school about their father being killed. Watching the TV while the war was on was difficult as there was coverage on every channel.

"My little girl clings on when we go to school - she knows he's gone to war.'' Some of the children developed sleeping problems and the family ended up sharing a bedroom.

Communication was difficult. The flow of letters and parcels was one way. Telephone calls, when they came, were brief.

Mr Mahoney eventually returned on Vicky's birthday in July 2003. It was a special day for the family. Donna said: "Not only was it Vicky's best birthday present so far but it probably won't ever be beaten. We were all ecstatic to see Peter again."

Concluding that he had done his bit for his country, Mr Mahoney prepared to return to work at a local poultry plant. But all was not well. Despite leaving the TA in September to give his family "peace of mind" he could not shake the memories of the Middle East and was unable to share his feelings.

"Iraq changed him. I don't know what happened because I wasn't in his head but it changed him. He was a broken man. I really don't know what happened out there," said Donna. He became depressed but did not undergo treatment.

His decline is recorded by two photographs. In one, taken before Iraq, he is happy and smiling. On his return his demeanour has transformed. "You can see how he was and you can see how he changed. He was so lively before he went, so happy. Then when he came back - I don't know - he'd lost his character." The relationship deteriorated, but neither gave up hope. Mr Mahoney took a new job working in recycling for the local authority.

But, on 3 August, he took his own life. The reason why he put on his old uniform and shaved his head in military style is unclear. It may have been a final protest against the war, Donna will not speculate. The cause of death given at his inquest was carbon monoxide poisoning.

On Tuesday, more than 150 mourners gathered at St Aidan's Church - where the couple were married, and two of their children baptised. There were members of the TA and friends from the couple's life together in this close-knit and friendly community.

A classic motorbike led the procession, and his coffin was draped in a Union flag.

Canon David Baxter who had officiated at both wedding and baptisms, led the service. He said: "Peter was a good friend of my son Andrew, who committed suicide himself in 1986 when he was 23. I know what the family must be going through."

He said: "On his return from Iraq, I hear his personality changed quite dramatically and - if that is the case the war in Iraq has done him a great disservice."

As for Donna, she is left to pick up the pieces.

She said: "I loved Peter and I have always loved him. We were like chalk and cheese but we were so in love.

"We are all so sad that this has happened. The whole family love him, his friends love him. They can't believe what has happened. The children are absolutely devastated."

A FAMILY'S RECORD OF WAR

7 MARCH 2003

"He [Peter Mahoney] joined the TA because he wanted to experience army life and do something useful for his country. He volunteered to go to Bosnia in October 1998 because he thought it was a good idea. But this time it's different. We just don't understand the moral point of this war."

Donna Mahoney

17 MARCH 2003

"Waiting for President Bush and Tony Blair to say we are at war is terrifying but it also means all this uncertainty will have come to an end. My children are scared, the little ones miss their dad. My daughter Vicky sticks like glue to her teacher at school. She is scared that other people she loves will leave too."

18 MARCH 2003

"My eyes sting with the lack of sleep. My heart pounds with fear of the unknown and the ache for my husband Peter ... Please God, bring my baby home. Protect him and all the other soldiers over there."

21 MARCH 2003

"We just hope this war will soon be over and we pray for our loves ones that they remain safe, and we pray for the people of Iraq - and the families of the 16 soldiers who died today.''

24 MARCH 2003

"It was such a shock to see how quickly the war had erupted. The whole of Baghdad's skyline was lit up. The sight was awesome. The casualty list was limited for such devastation ... I took Ben and Vicky to the cathedral to light a candle and say a prayer, not only for their daddy but for everyone."

16 JULY 2003

"The general consensus among the troops was that we were in Iraq so George Bush could seize control of the oilfields. All this talk of weapons of mass destruction was simply a smokescreen as far as we were concerned. There was certainly no evidence they existed."

Peter Mahoney

"Not only was it Vicky's best birthday present so far but it probably won't ever be beaten. We were all ecstatic to see Peter again."

Donna Mahoney

SEPTEMBER 2003

"I will be happy to turn my back on the TA. It also gives my wife and children peace of mind."

Peter Mahoney

23 DECEMBER 2003

"The kids had to cope with comments at school about their father being killed. Watching the TV while the war was on was difficult. It was on every channel."

Donna Mahoney

"He was a broken man. I don't know what happened out there ... He was so lively before. Then when he came back, he'd lost his character."

Donna Mahoney

Comments