One Friday afternoon this February, I boarded a train to Waterloo from Ash Vale, in Surrey. The country around that route is mainly scrubby and sandy, but the winter sunlight was particularly clear and I enjoyed the view from the windows. At the next stop, Brookwood, a young man got on. He was carrying two heavily packed bags, one a green patrol sack, and was rather obviously a soldier going home on weekend leave. The carriage was quite crowded and nobody moved their bags for him. They would have been equally inert for any heavily laden youth, I think, not just a serviceman.
I said ‘Some room here, mate’, shifting my luggage, and he gratefully dumped his bags and sat down opposite me. Wondering if he’d want to talk, I asked him what unit he was in: the Royal Anglians, a line infantry battalion with a tough reputation. He had thick, tattooed forearms, a direct look and blonde hair. I asked him how long he’d been in. ‘Nearly five years. Joined when I was fifteen- I was a Junior Soldier.’ He clearly did want to chat. Are you twenty, then, I asked- he looked terribly young, despite his strong build. ‘Nineteen. Twenty in a few months.’
So was he an NCO now, with his experience? I expected him to say he was at least a lance-jack, and was surprised how vehement his answer was: ‘No, couldn’t do that, mate, couldn’t do it. I mean, having to look out for blokes, and get things right for them, and carry the can, know I’d got things wrong, if they got blown up, if they got shot. Couldn’t do that, can do that for myself but can’t do that for other blokes, the responsibility of getting it right for them.’ He spoke with considerable energy. Once he’d used a phrase it would recur in his speech, a shifting pattern of tics.
Had he ‘done a Telic’ then, I asked. The British Army’s codename for its Iraq operations is ‘Telic’. ‘I have, mate. And in two fucking months I’m off to Afghanistan.’Where was he off to? ‘Helmand, mate. Dunno where exactly. Helmand.’ Soldiers normally call the country ‘Afghan’, or refer to it by its codename, ‘Herrick’. I said I’d heard the Grenadier Guards were down to go to Afghan.
‘Right fuck-up that’s been, mate. The Guards knew they was off on this tour a year ago. Then after 3 Para come back they decide one battalion can’t do the job on its own, they’ve got to send two out together. Two months ago we was told. I’m telling you mate, a real fuck-up.’ He started to stuff more swearwords into his sentences and there was a little coughing and shifting amongst the other passengers.
So were the Anglians training hard? ‘Fucking hard, mate. It’s gonna be tough out there.’ He was angry about the fucking REMFs attached to the battalion who couldn’t keep up on the runs and the tabs. ‘At the fucking back, mate. First four fucking miles and they’re chinstrapped. How they gonna keep up in fucking Afghan?’
I said I knew a guy who’d been out with 3 Para in Helmand. ‘The Paras are great fucking blokes, mate’- none of the normal regimental rivalry, which surprised me. ‘My theory is the Paras gone out there and fucking had the Taliban, ‘cos they’re shock troops. Hit them fucking hard which they weren’t expecting. Then the Marines have gone out there and gone out after them in the fucking mountains, chased them. And now we’re gonna go out and do this hearts and minds stuff but they won’t fuck with us ‘cos the Paras have fucking shocked them and they don’t want any more of that.’ At the time it struck me as a pretty half-baked theory and only now can I see that he was hoping for a quiet tour.
He talked about people, civilians, in Britain. ‘They don’t understand, mate, don’t fucking understand. You don’t see people who’s fucking shooting at you, it’s not like the fucking movies. People in this country… They don’t understand, mate, people here don’t understand’- and that started to recur in all he said now.
I asked if he was married. ‘Gonna be. Gonna be. Done Telic, gonna do this tour, and I’m out. Six years in the Army and I’m out.‘ This said with even more intensity. I was relieved for him. ‘Going home to my girlfriend now. We’re gonna get married when I get back from Herrick, gonna have kids and all.’
What are you going to do then, I asked? I thought to myself that if he’d been a Junior Soldier from a technical unit he’d have transferable skills when he became a civilian, but as an infantryman since the age of fifteen he’d have none. And he’d clearly thought about that: ‘Gonna go back to Iraq, mate. Work Close Protection for one of the security companies.’
I said, cautiously, that I knew some people who’d done that and it didn’t sound like a good deal to me. ‘I’ve got a plan, mate. Work three months in Iraq doing Close Protection: earn what, thirty thousand. Come home to my wife, take three months, go out there another three months, another thirty thousand, then I can get myself sorted.’ He didn’t seem to know what he’d do with this money if and when he got it.
I said, again cautiously, that I didn’t think he’d get 30K for three months work, as he hadn’t been in special forces, whose veterans get the high rates in the security industry. ‘What did your guys say about it?’ I only knew a couple of blokes, I said, but I’d heard people got hacked around, worked from morning to night, didn’t get the protection or the backup or the medical support they’d been sold on. The guys who own the companies were rip-off merchants, some of them. I didn’t say what I wanted desperately to say: You are nineteen and you are about to be sent into a warzone for the second time in your life. Don’t put yourself into war again, don’t do it a third, fourth, fifth time. Don’t wreck yourself. Don’t get yourself killed or come back a mental case. Don’t brutalise yourself further. He looked terribly young, even trusting.
He heard me out on the owners of the security companies, and frowned: ‘You always get fucked around mate, don’t you?’ I was hoping I’d sown doubts on the subject of mercenary work. ‘Like the Army. They tell you you’re gonna get this, you’re gonna get that. They fuck you around. Whatever you do, you get fucked around.’
I was older and he seemed grateful every time I agreed with him, and answered my questions in great detail. It was shaming to see the politeness he showed me, when I thought of what he had seen and done, and what he was about to see and do, all of it beyond my experience.
We both got off at Waterloo. He shifted one bag onto a broad shoulder, grabbed the other in his left hand and stuck his right hand out towards me. ‘It’s been good speaking to you, mate. Really good speaking to you, and good luck’. Good luck, I said. He’s in Helmand now, unless he’s been shipped back home on one of the casevac flights.