2008
12.09

A two pages interview in the Times Online today. I will give you a part of it here, it’s a bit long to post the entire interview. Allthough it would be worth it. Ah, what the h*ck, we’ll know soon enough if someone objects.

Life after war: when the guns fall silent

Special Air Service veteran and writer Andy McNab talks about the internal battle that begins when the fight is over.

By Robert Crampton

“The first time I killed a lad,” says Andy McNab, “it was 1979, I was with the Green Jackets in Northern Ireland, I was 19, and he wasn’t far away, I could see his eyes. I was absolutely sh****** myself. But you can’t say you were scared.” Did he talk to anyone about his feelings? “Absolutely not. It wasn’t the done thing, you’re worried about peer pressure and promotion and being down as a fruit. Besides, nobody wants to know about any failings, it’s a success, it’s what you do. It says in the manual, ‘The role of the infantry is to close with and destroy the enemy.’ The Army calls it ‘being kinetic’, which means blowing things up and killing people.”

When McNab passed selection for the Special Air Service in 1984, there was, he says, among his new elite comrades, more honesty regarding the dangers of combat. “You’re older and more confident, so you do talk about it more, mainly, ‘F*** that, I don’t want to do that again.’ But there was no system, no counselling, although a couple of lads used to sneak off to a charity in Wales for help. Delta Force [the US equivalent of the SAS] used to have an in-house psychologist. We would take the p***, but actually, it was a good idea.”

After McNab led Bravo Two Zero, the SAS patrol behind enemy lines during the first Gulf War which later gave rise to his 1994 bestseller, he had a couple of sessions back in Hereford with Dr Gordon Turnbull. “His claim to fame was he’d looked after the mountain rescue teams who were at Lockerbie. He talked to us about post-traumatic stress, what the symptoms were and so on. At the time I didn’t think I got a lot out of it.”

But as McNab has grown older (he is now 48) and wiser, he has become fully converted to the idea that some, not all, soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress and need help. His new book, his first work of non-fiction (many novels have intervened) since Immediate Action, the sequel to Bravo Two Zero, deals with the consequences of such stress on several of his former SAS colleagues, the members of Seven Troop of the book’s title. In particular, McNab tells the story of Frank Collins and Charles “Nish” Bruce, both of whom committed suicide several years after leaving the regiment, in 1998 and 2002 respectively.

The catalyst for the mental deterioration of both men seems to have been the death of their colleague Al Slater at the hands of the IRA in Co Fermanagh in 1984. Collins and Bruce (and McNab) were present the night Slater was shot. But whereas Collins blamed his superiors for his mate’s death, and Bruce blamed himself, McNab didn’t blame anyone. “It’s not a science,” says McNab, standing at Slater’s grave in the SAS plot in St Martin’s Church, Hereford. “It was foggy, we couldn’t see ten feet, we had no comms, you make the best decision you can make at the time.”

He walks further along the row. All the graves have flowers on them, some have bottles of beer or wine too. Another friend, Paul Hill, “Hillbilly”, is buried here. He died on a covert operation in Cambodia in 1988. And here are Bob Consiglio and Vince Phillips, two of the three members of Bravo Two Zero who perished in Iraq in 1991. How does McNab feel, being here? “Just that they’re dead, and obviously it’d be better if they weren’t. But it’s all part and parcel of it.” McNab may sound callous, but what is there to say? But for pure luck, a bullet on a marginally different trajectory, and one of these men would be pouring a tot of rum on his grave rather than the other way around.

Nish Bruce is not buried in this churchyard. Frank Collins is, but not in the SAS plot, because he was not a serving member when he died. “The thing about Nish and Frank,” says McNab, “is they thought about it all too much.” He doesn’t think they were more intelligent, or introverted, or indeed extroverted, than others, but they were probably more sensitive, more likely to dwell.

“My wife reckons I’m all right because I only ever think about the next three hours,” says McNab. He isn’t joking. “Today’s today. If it works it works, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. You control what you can and the rest, f*** it.”

McNab believes both his friends suffered from post-traumatic stress, yet their condition was more complicated than guilt over Slater’s death or clichéd flashbacks to other battlefield horrors. Both men were involved in the SAS siege of the Iranian embassy in 1980. Both served in the Falklands war. Bruce told McNab he felt guilty about “killing a young [wounded] Argentinian lad, he’s dying, it was like a mercy killing”. And yet, says McNab, their real problems began when they left the forces. Indeed, “post-career anticlimax” may pose as big a problem for ex-soldiers as post-traumatic stress.

“From the day he left, Frank regretted getting out, but he couldn’t admit it. He was always looking for something, but everything was a disappointment.” Collins found religion, becoming an ordained Anglican priest, wrote a book, then asphyxiated himself with exhaust fumes in a friend’s garage. Bruce threw himself, literally, into skydiving, and then one day opted to jump out of a Cessna 5,000ft over Oxfordshire without his parachute. “I hope he was smiling all the way in,” says McNab.

Neither had prepared properly for leaving the Army’s embrace, but that itself is common. “Blokes know it’s coming but they ignore it,” says McNab. “They don’t realise the military is a tribe, a little clan that nobody understands, a very small part of our culture, and once you’re out nobody gives a f***. People don’t understand your language, your humour.”

McNab has studied the problems faced by ex-servicemen. They are massively over-represented among the homeless, in prison, in the divorce courts, among alcoholics and in the suicide statistics. Besides Bruce and Collins, two of his other close-ish colleagues have also killed themselves, and another tried to. “We’re not dropping like flies, but it’s well above average.” Several years ago, it was discovered that the number of Falklands veterans who have killed themselves far exceeded the number killed in the actual conflict (more than 400 as against 255). When an ex-serviceman takes his own life, the average length of time between his doing so and having left the Forces is 13 years.

Nish and Collins both fit into that time frame. As does a third member of Seven Troop, Tommy Shanks. Shanks, who was awarded the Military Medal during his service in Oman, left the SAS pretty much as McNab joined in the mid-Eighties, but he remained in Hereford, and McNab got to know him there. Shanks was obsessive, a little repressed perhaps, a driven man. He retrained as an anaesthetist, moved up north, and then in 1998 shot his ex-girlfriend dead with two bursts in the back from a Kalashnikov. He is serving life. “It’s not as if we saw it coming, but we weren’t surprised,” says McNab.

One study found that close on 50 per cent of 2 Para, the unit that probably saw most action in the South Atlantic, exhibited some symptoms of post-traumatic stress on their return, and 22 per cent were formally diagnosed. In those days, Army culture militated against counselling, to say the least. Worse, in the years after the Cold War, defence cuts meant that such formal provision as existed to help with mental breakdown was lost, principally “Ward 11”, the military psychiatric facility in Woolwich. Other military hospitals were closed. “The Army would end up paying the Priory £500 a day for a squaddie who might have a psychotic illness to sit next to some Henrietta from Notting Hill Gate who’s had too much Ecstasy. Facilities for ex-military,” claims McNab, “were better during the war with Napoleon than they are now.”

Things are changing, however. The new military hospital in Selly Oak is being expanded. On the front line, attitudes towards mental problems have become more enlightened, partly a reflection of changes in wider society, partly because of the necessity to retain experienced men. Soldiers are now encouraged to discuss their feelings about an action as part of their debrief afterwards. “Senior NCOs are sent on courses and taught to engage with the Toms about what’s happened,” says McNab. “The culture is changing, but it will take a long time. There’s still that, ‘F*** off, I’m not a fruit.’” There are now 15 or more psychologists working in the Army. “The stigma of talking about how you feel is going.”

Not before time. The Falklands was an intense conflict, but it was short, the distinction between combatants and civilians was clear, and it was popular at home. Iraq and Afghanistan are much messier, with far greater potential for lasting trauma. “We get a sanitised view on TV here,” says McNab, “but the lads out there are seeing it for real, and when they come back there will be a proportion of them who think about it.”

During these new emotional debriefs, says McNab, “the NCO will say we had to do this, we had to do that, they’ll just talk about what went on and why, try to sort it our early, make it acceptable to talk it through.” And keep it in the family, deal with the issues of fear, or horror, or guilt, in a military context, because that is far preferable to someone repressing those emotions for a decade, while meanwhile descending into spousal or alcohol abuse, self-loathing and rage.

McNab has made several visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, as a journalist, as a businessman with interests in the security sector, and as a morale booster under MoD auspices. He still has friends in the Army, plus many ex-SAS colleagues working in the private sector. He’s been out on patrol in Helmand (Afghanistan) and Basra, admitting he misses the camaraderie of the Army and loves being back with the boys. “I’m not an adrenalin junkie though,” he says. “Look, I’m a f****** multimillionaire, if I want to jump off El Capitan, I can.”

The vast majority of young infantrymen in Iraq and Afghanistan, McNab is keen to emphasise, “are having a great time, and when they leave they’ll be fine. They’re saving up for a three-year-old BMW when they get home. They’re young lads, they’re from crap estates but they’re doing something with their lives, they’re all bombed up, they’re aware of what the Army does and they’re, ‘F****** hell, I want some of that.’” As an 18-year-old arriving in Crossmaglen, fixing bayonets on the border, he says he was exactly the same. What about the prospect of being killed? “You don’t think about getting zapped. It’s the culture.”

The public still does not fully understand the scale of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Time was, you could spend a career in the Army and never fire your weapon in anger. Combat was reserved for Special Forces and other elite troops. Now, on a tour of Helmand, a young soldier in a county regiment will fire thousands of rounds. “Ten years ago for instance,” says McNab, “house assaults were considered an SF black art, the ordinary infantry never got anywhere near them. Now, the first man through the door is a 19-year-old rifleman.” One battalion just back from a tour was so hyped up they had to be taken off for a fortnight’s adventure training to stop them fighting civilians and other soldiers in their garrison town.

These young men will leave, and grow up, and have children, and they will start to reflect on what they’ve seen. Most of them will process their experiences phlegmatically, like McNab, like the other members of Seven Troop (now variously a farmer, a teacher, something in the City, or out on the security “circuit” in the Middle East). Some, without help, will turn into the Nish Bruce and Frank Collins, and one or two perhaps even the Tommy Shanks, of the future. “Society has to understand there will be a problem and it’s worse because they know how to use a gun,” warns McNab. At least two Iraq veterans in the United States have been on a killing spree. There are no statistics for British post-Iraq/Afghanistan suicides. “The MoD doesn’t exactly jump up and advertise it.”

The Army can only do so much with the resources available to it. Besides, it is treading a fine line: the expression of normal human emotion in a war zone must be contained. “You want these lads to put tin hats on and kill people, they can’t think too much about it,” says McNab. “They can’t hesitate.” The reabsorption of former soldiers into a prosaic, peaceful society has always presented problems, and the soldiers of Iraq and Afghanistan will be no different. “Give it about a decade, I reckon,” says McNab. “It’s a time bomb.”

You can find the article here (with Andy’s photo!)
 

2008
10.09

Here’s the link to an interview with BBC News.

2008
09.09

Andy’s statements about the treatment of ex-service personnel – according to a survey he commissioned a ‘disgraceful’ one – gets a lot of media attention.

Channel 4 did a video interview, a short clip (too short!) which you can find here.

2008
07.09

This is in several papers but I’ll quote The Telegraph.

The SAS veteran Andy McNab has launched a scathing attack on the Government’s treatment of British troops after a poll found that two thirds of the public thought their care was “disgraceful”.

By Thomas Harding

The author of Bravo Two Zero warned that there was a “timebomb” waiting to explode of troops suffering from mental trauma after experiencing combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An ICM poll personally commissioned by McNab found that the public are dissatisfied with the treatment of those who have fought for their country.

Three quarters of the 3,040 adults questioned believed that the Ministry of Defence did not support troops once they were discharged from service. Almost half of those questioned (49 per cent) said they would willingly pay an extra penny in income tax to help former-servicemen with financial difficulties.

In the first poll of its kind, the survey found that 76 per cent believed the Government’s commitment to the psychological care of veterans was “inadequate” with discharged personnel left to ‘get on with it.’

McNab said he had written his latest book, Seven Troop, partly because of the psychological difficulties experienced by his SAS colleagues after they left the Army. Out of his 10 man SAS section, two committed suicide and one was jailed for murder after he shot his girlfriend 16 times.

“What we have at the moment is a timebomb of post traumatic stress disorder that will go off in the next 10 to 15 years in people who have experienced the horrors of the current conflicts,” he told The Daily Telegraph.

“It annoys me that we continually get politicians of all persuasions jumping on the back of military success only for the same politicians not to back them with money when they leave.”

He quoted the statistic that more men took their own lives after the Falklands War, estimated at 300, than the 255 who died in the conflict.

McNab is also concerned that with no military hospitals left the NHS “won’t be able to get on top of it” when the PTSD cases break out.

“Since I left the forces some 15 years ago, the situation for ex-service personnel simply hasn’t improved,” said the former soldier, who spent 10 out of 18 years Army service in the SAS. “I’ve seen for myself the appalling way that our soldiers are hung out to dry. “The idea held by the Government that the majority of service personnel experience a smooth transition into civilian life is delusional.”

It is estimated that six per cent of homeless people are former Servicemen and the National Association of Probation Officer has reported that one in 11 prisoners in jails are ex-Forces.

After discharge from service McNab said it was “very hard” for troops to reintegrate after they were “thrust into society” following years of being institutionalised in the Services. “There is a pervading sense of literally being ‘thrown out of the club’,” McNab said.

He criticised the “fundamental lack of continued welfare support” and called on the Government to treat veterans “with the dignity that we all agree they deserve.”

Read the full article here

 

2008
02.09

Andy –  being in Afghanistan now –  witnessed “The Siege of Roshan Tower” and tells us about it in The Sun.

The tower & the glory

AS Sun unveils Millie awards for hero troops, ANDY McNAB tells how he saw 30 Brits defend vantage point for nine days against hordes of Taliban.

I WATCHED as a platoon of British heroes fought off one of the most savage sieges of the Afghanistan conflict.

Just over 30 soldiers repelled 400 Taliban killers for nine days, defending vitally-important high ground marked by a lookout tower.

Astonishingly, just one of Our Boys was hurt by shrapnel while 100 insurgents were killed in the battle dubbed The Siege of Roshan Tower.

The clash last week is being compared to the famous Rorke’s Drift siege in the Zulu War.

I was with a battalion of soldiers half a mile away who were desperately trying to relieve the platoon. But the fighting around the tower was too fierce.

The hero squaddies — many just teenagers — fought off Taliban fighters as they sneaked through fields of 8ft-high corn armed with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47 machine guns.

Up to 55 mortar rounds a day exploded in the stronghold overlooking the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province.

The soldiers fought behind sandbags in a trench around the disused tower on a piece of land the size of a tennis court.

The platoon from A Company, 2nd Battalion, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment — dubbed the Tigers — used the new .338 sniper rifle to defend themselves.

One Taliban fighter was shot as he charged from a few hundred yards away with a deadly RPG.

As the attacks increased, the soldiers — commanded by Lt Dave Thomas, 23 — called for support from Apache helicopters and British, US, French and Dutch jets.

Soldiers at the nearby base with me were not allowed to help by their commanding officers — as it would have been a suicide mission.

The Taliban finally withdrew last Friday, taking their dead.

When the exhausted soldiers emerged, they all said the same thing — that if the lookout had fallen, their mates on the ground and in Musa Qala would suffer.

The Taliban would have had the advantage and could freely attack three of the troops’ bases.

The heroes just weren’t prepared to let that happen. The bravery of these few men knows no bounds. They are truly incredible.

The Siege of Roshan Tower should go down in history as perhaps the most savage of the seven-year-old Afghan conflict.

Courageous Lt Cpl Carvas Garraway, 31 — who was hit by shrapnel — had already spent almost two months holed up in the tower.

With no thought for his own safety, he ran through enemy fire to check if his men were alive during one frenzied attack.

Lt Cpl Garraway, from St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, said: “We were fighting so hard I didn’t know I was hit.”

Fellow hero Pte Andrew Swanwick, 21, from Portsmouth, said: “It was a vital job to do.”

Army top brass were yesterday said to be “overwhelmed” by the bravery of the platoon. They are expected to recommend honours for the soldiers involved.

Read the full article in The Sun here, there’s a photo of McNab at the site.