Danny Fitzsimons: The costs of violence

Is a British former soldier about to be tried in Iraq over the shootings of two colleagues a cold-blooded killer or the victim of post-traumatic stress disorder? Jonathan Owen talks to Danny Fitzsimons

Sunday 31 January 2010 01:00

It is three in the morning and pitch black. Danny Fitzsimons is standing in the darkness of a filthy toilet – hiding from his guards – next to the jail cell he shares with 13 men. The 29-year-old former Paratrooper turned mercenary has spent the past five months in the Karabat Maryam police station in Baghdad, after allegedly shooting dead two of his colleagues and seriously wounding an Iraqi guard.

"When I sleep I have nightmares, so I sit up and stay awake because I'm scared," he says, whispering into a mobile phone. He thinks it best not to say how he obtained it. In a hoarse, hushed voice he tells of terrible things he claims to have seen during his years in the Army and then as a mercenary.

He swears, appropriately enough, like a trooper: he is on edge, with good reason. His life is in the hands of the Iraqi authorities: the usual punishment for murder is the death penalty. Hanging is the preferred method.

"I hallucinate constantly," he says. "It's compounded by this place. There's nowhere to escape to. Back home, I'd just get smashed: I'd just blot it out. But out here there's nothing I can do." What he must do is convince an Iraqi court that these hallucinations are reason enough not to execute him if he is found guilty of killing his two former colleagues. Earlier this month an Iraqi judge ruled that psychiatric reports be produced on Mr Fitzsimons prior to the start of the trial. These will be done over the next two weeks.

His trial will also highlight the issue of military veterans, many of whom – traumatised as they are by what they have seen in battle – find it hard to get work on "civvy street" and end up taking well-paid work as soldiers for hire.

According to Mr Fitzsimons, he is one of many: "There are thousands of mercenaries out here, private military guys like myself who are suffering from the same thing that I am... It's rife."

Veteran private security operatives claim the sheer number of security companies now operating in Iraq has driven down wages and the quality of personnel. Mix these factors into a cocktail of weapons and alcohol and the only surprise is that there are not more tragedies.

Mr Fitzsimons had been "in country" for less than two days when the drunken row at a private security compound in Baghdad's heavily fortified "green zone" ended in tragedy. Understandably enough, he is reluctant to go into detail. But he talks for the first time about the fight that resulted in the death of two of his colleagues from the private security company ArmorGroup – the former Royal Marine Paul McGuigan and Australian Darren Hoare, both 37.

The story starts traditionally enough. He had been drinking with another colleague, Kevin Wilson, surfing the internet and messaging friends back home when a drunken Mr McGuigan approached him and started to denigrate his friends.

"He was just winding me up; he was having a go at me mates, and I just punched him on the nose and that was it, it finished." But it hadn't even started.

"Then he goes: 'Go on, hit me again; hit me again', and he started being a dickhead again, and it went on like that all night, and that's how it escalated.

"He was having a go at friends of mine that had died. He didn't even know them – that was what really fucking wound me up."

Mr Fitzsimons claims that Mr Hoare came in and took Mr McGuigan's side: "Kev didn't back me up, so I cracked him one as well."

By now, desperately relieved to have someone to speak to, releasing words in a torrent of pent-up emotion, he is uninterruptable. "They came in my room and they wanted to rock and roll, and they certainly did rock and roll... they started a fight they couldn't win."

It is his version of the story, told in the verbal shorthand of the latter-day dog of war. The only other people in a position to know what happened are in no position to contradict him.

Perhaps more will become clear once his trail gets under way. There's little doubt that Mr Fitzsimons is a violent man with a criminal record and mental health problems. Clearly, he prides himself on being physically tough: his MySpace profile says "hardcore know the score" and is littered with pictures of his bodybuilder's physique.

But he admits that he is in a weakened mental state. "I need help, there's no doubt about that," he says. "I've needed help for a long time."

He recounts a horrific story that he repeatedly experiences in flashback. His account is vivid, haunting and convincing. If he is making it up, then he is one of the finest actors never to tread a stage.

"It plays over and over and over like a stuck record... I smell burning flesh, I hear screaming." The convoy he was on had been ambushed. His friend was trapped in one of the vehicles – the heat of an IED blast had fused the metal doors shut. "We were taking small arms fire left and right. All I could think about was getting him out."

Gulping to catch his breath, he recalls his vain attempts to smash through toughened glass to rescue his friend as the vehicle caught fire: "He started panicking. I started panicking. I was trying to get him out... I went from seeing my mate sat there talking to me, telling me to 'fucking hurry up, you dickhead', to watching him melt, watching his skin pop, watching his head pop. He was screaming... telling me to get him out.

"You could smell it; you could smell him burning through the little hole in the glass that I'd made."

He describes how he hallucinates about that day and gets nightmares. I ask where this happened. There is silence. Thinking the line must have gone dead, I am about to put the phone down when he whispers, childlike: "Iraq." I press him: "When?" Voice breaking, he replies: "2006."

So, is he a violent thug who has murdered two men or a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, driven into an uncontrollable rage? That is for a judge and jury to decide. What he is, unquestionably, is an extreme example of the plight of veterans suffering from psychological problems.

What happened to the teenager from Yorkshire who dreamt of becoming a soldier? How did he end up on a double murder charge?

His childhood was largely uneventful, except for the divorce of his parents when he was 14 years old. He joined the Army Cadets while still at school and at 16 joined the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.

But two years later things were already unravelling: the young soldier told his family he was haunted by the sight of victims of murder and torture. On one occasion, he claimed to have found the dismembered body of a child that he had befriended during a tour in Kosovo. By the age of 20, he was in the Parachute Regiment, and went on tours of Northern Ireland, Macedonia and Afghanistan. He threw himself into drink and drugs. His behaviour became increasingly erratic. In 2004 he failed a drugs test and by February 2005 he has been kicked out of the regiment that he had come to view as a second family.

He had already been diagnosed as suffering from an "adjustment disorder". Struggling to adapt to civilian life and make ends meet, he grasped what seemed to be a lifeline, the option of working for private military security companies.

He established a reputation for being a loose cannon among some veterans on "the circuit" and his problems intensified when he was back home – racking up a series of charges and convictions, including robbery and assault. He served nine months in remand on a charge of assault (he was found not guilty) and there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest on a charge of racially aggravated assault.

There is no denying his chequered past, but he stresses: "I'm not a bad guy. People do bad things all the time, but I've got a good heart."

Mr Fitzsimons has nothing good to say about his ex-employer ArmorGroup, now owned by G4S (formerly Group 4), claiming it took him on despite knowing about his criminal record and psychological problems.

The company denies this but admits that his screening was not completed in line with its procedures. A spokesman said yesterday: "We haven't washed our hands of Danny and continue to provide him with a more-than-adequate duty of care – for the last 150 days or so a team of 12 of our employees have risked their lives to deliver him food and water every day."

Mr Fitzsimons tries to cope by exercising, as well as attempting to learn Arabic and writing poetry, but he is running on empty, using coffee to try to stave off the sleep he dreads. And with his head shaven and the gaunt look of someone who has lost more than a stone and a half from an already toned physique, the stress is showing.

Dismissive of the "flawed" evidence against him, his voice rises defiantly as he slams the prospect of a "Mickey Mouse" trial in Iraq, insisting: "I'm going for a not guilty... I'm going for self-defence." He is trying to convince himself that the death penalty will not be sought. In his view, the worst-case scenario is being found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. And he is clinging to the hope that he will serve his sentence in Britain.

His life could depend on it. His family have launched a "Bring Back Danny" campaign that has the support of Reprieve; and his local MP, Jim Dobbin, will meet the Secretary of State for Justice, Jack Straw, this week in an attempt to get a prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Iraq.

The former soldier just wants to come home. "That's all I ask – to have a fair trial and to return to my country – and the British government has a duty of care to do that. You don't leave a man behind, and that's what they've done."

A soldier's story

1996 Leaves school at 16 and joins the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers; serves in Bosnia and Kosovo

1998 Starts telling family of distress at seeing the bodies of torture and murder victims

2000 Joins the 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment; serves in Macedonia, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan

2004 Fails a compulsory drugs test. Diagnosed with an "adjustment disorder"

2005 Discharged from the Army; works for SFI as a private security contractor

2006 Employed by Control Risks Group and ArmorGroup in Iraq

2007 Works for Aegis in Iraq

2008 Employed by private security firm Olive in Iraq; serves nine months on remand at HMP Forest Bank, Greater Manchester, on assault charge (found not guilty)

7 August 2009 Returns to Iraq with ArmorGroup

9 August Arrested after a row that results in two men being shot dead and a third injured

18 August Legal team flies out to Baghdad

14 November Family (father, Eric, and stepmother Liz) launch the "Bring Back Danny" campaign; supporters include Reprieve, Labour MP Jim Dobbin and the post-traumatic stress disorder group TalkingMinds

2010 Iraqi court calls for psychiatric reports to be completed by 18 February

Jonathan Owen

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