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‘I saw such horror in the Gulf last time’

This article is over 21 years, 0 months old
"It won't be long until we see the Sun with its "Our Boys. Our Heroes" says former British army soldier Barry Donnan. My story should be a useful antidote."
Issue 1838

‘I WAS out in Saudi Arabia for the 1990-91 Gulf War. My job was as a dispatch rider for one of the armoured brigades. I had quite a lot of freedom to roam around on the bike. I saw the utter devastation caused by the RAF Tornadoes’ carpet-bombing and the artillery. It sickened me. One day I drove my bike into a mass grave. The British army was bulldozing the Iraqi bodies into a big hole.

I hit this on the bike and I just freaked out. I went missing for a day. I didn’t know where I was. At that point I wanted to take my uniform and my weapon off and just walk off the battlefield. This sort of carnage was supposed to be ‘acceptable’. I went and saw my superiors and said, ‘I’m ill and I don’t want to do this any more.’ But they said no, we’ll send you off to train to be an officer. I went straight home, packed my bags and went on the run. I was pursued relentlessly by the police.

A doctor diagnosed me with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. I was still only 19. I was sleeping rough on the beach and in the forest. I lost about two stone. I handed myself in. They sent me back to my regiment in Cambridge. They stripped me down to my underpants and hosed me down. They screamed at me, ‘You’re not going anywhere. You’re a fucking scumbag’ – all that kind of stuff.

I got released back to my platoon the next morning. I ran off to Scotland again for another eight weeks. I was caught and put on a court martial. There was a ten-page report from a psychiatrist going through my situation. The army ignored it. I got 112 days in the military correction centre in Colchester. I still didn’t have any medical support, even though the army knew I was mentally ill.

Within 24 hours of finishing my sentence I was on the streets of Belfast. I was untrained and off my head. I was walking about with a loaded weapon. I was a danger to the people in the streets, the patrol and myself. When I got back from Northern Ireland I went on the run again. I was handed over to a training depot who decided to make an example of me. That was my turning point. They gave me a hard time and I told them, ‘I’m not playing any more. I’ve had enough.’ I knocked one of the regimental police unconscious.

I told others that I’d kill them. I’d lost it after years of bottling it up. I was sedated and put in a military hospital in Woolwich. There were six or seven guys in a similar situation to myself. I thought there’d be a bit of sympathy.

But even though we were mentally ill we were still under queen’s regulations. I was put into solitary confinement for six weeks and sedated. They wanted to bring a second court martial against me for my second period of AWOL.

My father had spoken to his local MP. The MP said to the army that if I didn’t get released he was going to bring it up in parliament. So I was sent home from solitary confinement with £5 in my pocket, in the clothes I stood in, off my rocker. That was the start of my next battle. I quickly realised that nobody cared and there was no support from the army.

I’ve struggled to get the army into court and piece together all the bits from other ex-soldiers who are in similar situations. It’s been a long ten years since I came out. Working class boys going into the army are there to be used and abused. The army is preying on a specific type of person-people from areas like where I’m from with high unemployment.

The army is offered as an alternative to jobs. They don’t care – they describe us as ‘shit on their shoe’. I’m still ill. I was diagnosed with Gulf War syndrome a couple of years ago. I still have bad blackouts and have to have tests for cancer. There was no support system, no interest. I’m in touch with a lot of veterans across the country. I thought we need solidarity.

After what had happened to us we were opposed to wars, the system and the establishment, so we set up the British Veterans Association (BVA). We picket local careers offices, and highlight the use of depleted uranium in weapons and the cases of Gulf War syndrome. A couple of years after coming back from the Gulf the first guys started showing signs of cancer and strange lumps. The authorities don’t want to know.

Some 254 guys are taking the army through the Royal Courts of Justice with the same case as mine. The army knew they were mentally ill but kept them working. A lot of guys topped themselves. We’re absolutely opposed to another war on Iraq. We have been using direct action and civil disobedience against the war and the army. There is no justification for the war. I’m astonished that Bush and Blair are still warmongering even though the whole country is against it. I’m astounded at the strength of feeling amongst all ages. I haven’t spoken to one person who wants this war.

The BVA is a broad alliance, but everyone’s committed to opposing the war. The Gulf War was portrayed in such a clinical way, as if there were only a few casualties. But there were at least 200,000 Iraqis killed. The US went along the line of the Iraqi trenches with bulldozers burying people alive.

They’ve got the neck to portray Saddam as a dictator-these people are no better. They try and take the moral high ground. There will be BVA delegations on the anti-war demonstrations on 15 February.’


Classes in khaki

‘The class system is the foundation of the army. The officers come from a totally different background. I came from the exact background for an infantry soldier that the army are looking for – working class family, straight out of school, 16 years old, didn’t really know what was going on about me.

I thought I was joining for good reasons. I quickly found out that we were just bodies, there to be used and abused and do the dirty work. I then went out to Belize. We were out on a jungle patrol and the Belizean soldier with us was overcome by heat exhaustion. We asked for an army helicopter to come and lift him out. They said it wasn’t serious enough.

We spent five hours keeping the guy going. Eventually the helicopter appeared. But the guy had been clinically dead for a while.

We were all boys on the patrol, 19 year olds. We returned to camp, devastated. But nothing the army does shocks me now. You take endless abuse from the minute you sign up to the minute you finish. The army is there to protect capitalism, the interests of the government.’

US SOLDIERS turned to ‘fragging’ their officers during the Vietnam War. This meant hurling a fragmentation bomb into the tent of a gung-ho officer. Over 1,000 officers were killed by their own troops. Miguel Lemus of the 25th Infantry describes how ‘this officer tried to be a hero – he was responsible for 90 guys dying. Soldiers threw him over a trench and shot him with a machine gun. No one said anything. Someone called on the radio and told them the captain had been shot by the gooks… Who saw it? Nobody saw it.’

Another GI remembers, ‘We banded together, blacks and white, we banded together and said, ‘This sergeant’s got to go.’ We basically mutinied.’ A common slogan on GI helmets after 1970 was ‘UUUU’. It stood for ‘Unwilling, led by the Unqualified, doing Unnecessary for the Ungrateful’.

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