Casualties of war: a soldier writes

On Remembrance Sunday we pause to think of those who have perished in conflicts but for every lost soldier, countless others are left with physical and mental scars.

Mark Dryden
Sunday 09 November 2008 01:00

On 20 November 2005 Sergeant John Jones, 32, of The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was killed in a roadside bomb in Basra, Iraq, in which Lance Corporal Mark Dryden lost an arm. L/Cpl Dryden, a self confessed “class clown” who joined the army at 17 without any qualifications, has since left and is now working towards a degree. Currently volunteering as a junior football team coach, he hopes to get a job as a physical education teacher. In this, his first ever essay for his new college, he recounts the day he lost his friend.

It’s been an hour. The streets are very quiet. Something is just not right. It feels hostile as if something is going to happen. We stop next to a local shop; we have spoken to the shopkeeper once before. He was very nice and talkative, but this time he won’t talk to Captain Fields.

I say to John, "This is pointless no one is gonna talk to a female officer."

John agrees. We drive away.

I tell John, "I don’t think we will get much out of this patrol as we have a female interpreter."

John has always trusted my judgement as I’m third in charge. We had a good rapport with the local shopkeepers; some have told us that it’s the Afghans and the Iranians that are bombing the city. Something still doesn’t feel right. I’m not scared, I’m quite happy as we are going to get back in early.

As we make our way back through the city I notice the football stadium. It’s nothing like ours back home. It's been blown to bits.

I shout out, “Oh look there’s Villa Park!”

Lee just laughs as he’s a Birmingham City fan. John’s not happy as he’s a Villa fan. The banter is good between us.

The roads are covered in litter and rubble. There are no kids around which is strange; it’s very quiet. The lads are just talking about nothing serious; no one hears a word from Captain Fields. I sat thinking about my first tour, I was a young seventeen year old just fresh from school. I was nervous, anxious, anticipating the worst back then. It’s been twelve years. I have many years experience now, but complacency never comes in to it. We are well trained; we’ve trained hard for 18 months for this tour.

I hit the railway line at about 40mph. I hear a loud explosion then a second one. I lose control of the Land Rover. I try to brake. The gap between the explosions seems like an eternity but after the first everything slowed down. My brain doesn’t feel it can process what is happening. I can smell rubber burning, taste the smoke. It’s a horrible dry taste, burning clothing, plastic; I can smell and taste blood. I feel excruciating pain in my left arm and my right arm is numb. My right leg is very painful. I’m trying desperately hard to stop the vehicle. We are bouncing all over the place and hit a wall near the naval base. I am screaming at John to wake up, to wake and help me. I’m screaming at John to wake, to help me. He’s not responding. I try to lift my left arm and grab him but the pain is too much it’s not moving. My right arm is numb, I can’t feel it; I know its not there anymore. The vehicle has stopped. I’m still screaming at John to help me and then my door opens. It’s Nick, he asks, “Are you ok?”

He drags me out of the vehicle, lays me on the dry mud. I stop screaming. Reality is starting to settle in. Everything has stopped being in slow motion; time has caught up with itself.

I can’t breathe; my body armour feels tight.

I say, “Can someone open my body armour? Is John OK? Is he awake?”

I notice Captain Fields above me saying, “don’t worry about John”.

I’m shouting, “Is John OK, Is he alive?”

I am trying to sit up. Captain Fields won’t let me. She knows I’m in a lot of pain.

“Where is your morphine?” she asks.

I start laughing as I know it is in my jacket, which is in my room. I tell her that. She gives me her morphine. My mouth is dry. I know I’m not dehydrated. I am asking for water. Captain Fields gives me some saying “Sip it.” I have never felt pain like this before in my life. I have had broken legs and arms before but nothing like this. I know they are doing first aid on me. I don’t know what my injuries are. I can’t look at my arms but I know one is missing. I try to sit up and move my head. I see Lee vomiting.

Stevie shouting, “Let someone else help you with John.”

“I’ll do it, John is breathing”.

I am relieved, hoping he is ok. I open my eyes.

Look up to see Stevie looking at me.

He asks, “Where is your arm?”

“In the Land Rover somewhere, go get it, stick it back on.”

We both start laughing, I’m laughing in pain, the pain is agonising. I don’t know how long has passed; I think only a few minutes. It seems longer.

The QRF (quick reaction force) and the ambulance arrives. It seems like an eternity. The medic rushes over to me and steps on my arm, it seems to squelch as if there is nothing there.

He says, “Sorry, never seen your arm!”

Then moves away to where John is. I get dragged on to a stretcher and put into the ambulance, with John on another stretcher.

I ask, "Is he OK? He was breathing before!”

I get no answer.

It is very uncomfortable in the ambulance, bouncing all over the place; the roads in Iraq are not the best. I am on the right hand side of the ambulance. My arm is hitting the side. The pain is unbelievable, I look over to John. I notice the medics doing CPR on him.

I say, “He was breathing! What are you doing?, is he OK?”

I get no answer.

It’s only a short journey back to base its very hot and sticky in the ambulance. I feel nauseous but I’m not sick. The ambulance stops, I feel the hot air on my face.

I am moved off the stretcher on to a bed. They start cutting my combats off.

“Where is your ID? Do you have any ID on you?”

“No I left it in my room”.

A dentist I recognise starts cutting my trousers off.

He says “Corporal Dryden, you could have worn boxer shorts ...”

“It’s to hot for that”

I think I’m dead; I’m not in my body anymore. I’m not in any pain, it feels nice. I don’t know where I am. I see lots of different colours, pinks, blues, like I’m tripping. There is a nice breeze on my body keeping me cool. It’s beautiful. I wake up. I don’t know where I am. I’m scared. There are four or five nurses around me. I don’t recognise any of them.

“Where am I?” I ask.

“Shaibah Hospital.” (The field hospital at the former British Shaibah Logistics Base)

“Is John here?”

“Who is John? Don’t know a John.”

“Sergeant Jones.”

I’m in a lot of pain, someone is standing behind me dressed in a blue uniform I tell him to knock me out as I can’t handle the pain.

He says, “You’re going to surgery soon... You’ll be unconscious ...”

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