‘The act of remembering has got lost’: Veterans on if protests are putting them off attending the Cenotaph this weekend

‘It’s our one day of the year and it is time to get behind us. We all feel a bit abandoned and disillusioned this week’

Barney Davis
Friday 10 November 2023 18:08 GMT
<p>Liz McConaghy saved hundreds of lives performing surgery on the back of he helicopter across Iraq and Afghanistan </p>

Liz McConaghy saved hundreds of lives performing surgery on the back of he helicopter across Iraq and Afghanistan

Fears over far-right groups and pro-Palestinian protesters clashing this weekend have left some veterans making the decision to stay away from Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph in London.

Remembrance events are taking place across the Saturday and Sunday, which has led to home secretary Suella Braverman urging the Met Police to ban the march.

Liz McConaghy, now 41, was the longest-serving female crewman on the Royal Air Force Chinook Fleet. She evacuated thousands of soldiers out of Afghanistan in her 17-year career and has now decided to skip the event.

“Last year I put on my big girl pants. It was emotionally heightened anyway but when I saw the Cenotaph and those words The Glorious Dead I crumbled,” she told The Independent from her home in Basingstoke.

“I’ve seen a lot of death and there is nothing ‘glorious’ or joyous about it. Those words always topple me.”

Liz McConaghy broke down in tears at last year’s service

The author, who suffered from PTSD and survived an overdose during lockdown, explained her decision to stay home. She said: “The act of remembering has got lost in the noise and it’s so noisy at the moment.

The view from the back of her Chinook helicopter where she saved thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan

“I think it is still divided with the veterans. Lots of people are going to stand their ground. I think a lot will go just to prove a point but it should be about remembering.

“I think people need to go for the right reasons. We can see everything that has been going on in London this week and we just feel a bit abandoned by our country.

“It’s our one day of the year and it is time to get behind us. We all feel a bit abandoned and disillusioned this week.

“It was not an easy decision to stay at home. I could see the old gang, we all went through the same things, picked up bodies on the battlefield and saved lives together. And I will miss them.

“But I feel quite relieved that I have made the decision and taken the pressure off myself.”

The Cenotaph will also be shielded by 24-hour police guard, with almost 2,000 expected to be deployed, including 1,000 drafted in from other forces.

On threats of violence or disorder, she said: “Veterans are upstanding members of society if anyone who does start trouble it won’t be them. Our fighting days are done.

“It’s honourable when people say they will come down to protect veterans.

“But actually the best way to get somebody through without violence or trouble whatsoever is to give them space to do what they need to do and let them go home after.

“I think more people joining the party for the wrong reasons is not helping.”

Ben McBean is unsure if he can go on the march without suffering meltdown after

Former Royal Marines Commando Ben McBean, from Plymouth, managed to recover from stepping on a Taliban landmine in 2008. 12 months later he ran the London Marathon despite losing two of his limbs. He did it again the year after.

On his Remembrance Day plans, he said: “I don’t know what I’m going to do.

“For me as a veteran, it’s the one time I can meet up with 10,000 people who are in the same boat as me.

“I can’t just go there to pay my respects because it always turns into a massive blowout.

“Lots of s*** goes on after and people let it all out.

“I don’t think I can spend the entire week after picking up the pieces.”

On the planned pro-Palestinian march on Saturday, he said: “Apparently it’s nowhere near where the Cenotaph is.

“If protesters start kicking off in the middle of our minute’s silence then, yeh, that is out of order but if they are just stood there then who cares?”

In a video statement on Wednesday, former English Defence League (EDL) leader and convicted fraudster Tommy Robinson told followers: “We’re going there to show respect and to make sure that there is respect shown at our Cenotaph”.

The far-right activist added his followers would be “prepared to defend if we need to defend – because that’s what men do”.

On Tommy Robinson’s offer of protection, Mr McBean added: “I think we can look after ourselves, to be honest.

“Anyone can stand there and pay respects but after it’s only the veterans who go pub after and start exposing stories, someone’s been drinking too much, another has PTSD, one’s going through a divorce.

“I heard a couple of days ago one of my friends killed themselves.

“If I don’t make it down I’ll watch on TV and stand there with my poppy and tell everyone to shut up. On Monday I can go back to thinking about Ukraine and Palestine again.”

JJ Chalmers with Invictus organiser Prince Harry

JJ Chalmers was injured in a bomb blast in Afghanistan in 2011, while serving as a Royal Marine.

Now a Strictly Come Dancing star and Invictus Games medallist he has been urging veterans to make the trip to London as he goes on the Cenotaph march for the first time.

He told The Independent: “It’s an opportunity I’ve not really had I’ve been usually working or in the crowd. As far as the location is concerned it is the centre of remembrance.

“It’s a special place to be, share memories and meet old faces.

“The truth is I live with the emotions of remembrance every single day and I’m reminded of that by my disability and things I have struggled with mentally but it becomes more pertinent this time of year. It’s important to experience this.

“The wonderful situation is I will be surrounded by guys who are going through a similar experience as myself both good and bad.

“There is no prescribed manner at how you should remember. If you want to come to London and be part of wider thing then come down.

“But equally if you don’t want to go anywhere and just go about your day as you so choose - that’s important too.

“Ultimately our sacrifices were to ensure we have the freedom and people can reflect that any way they want.

“Wear medals, don’t wear them, wear poppies, don’t wear them, it’s up to you. Go wherever you like as far as I’m concerned.”

Exiting the armed forces caused 50% of Veterans to feel lonely or isolated, according to a Railcard.co.uk survey. JJ Chalmers was speaking on behalf of Veterans Railcard giving soldiers 1/3 off rail travel.

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