Mid July 1981 was full of contrasts. ‘Ghost Town’ was at number 1 in the UK charts, many towns and cities in England were engulfed in large scale rioting and an engaged couple were making their final plans for a fairy tale royal wedding to be held at the end of the month. As well as all that, a deadly conflict had been raging for more than a decade in Northern Ireland – IRA prisoners inside the Maze Prison were in the middle of their hunger strike.
It was a period of huge tension – some 60 civilians, police and soldiers died in the violence which accompanied the seven-month hunger campaign. Nationalists and republicans were galvanized by the hunger strike. It was a traditional tactic which struck an emotive historical chord and I was just another inexperienced British teenager amidst it all.
Joining the British Army and following in my grandfathers’ footsteps had always been my dream so at the tender age of 17 I began an adventure as a Rifleman in The Royal Green Jackets – but first I had the task of telling my girlfriend.
After passing out of basic training in 1979 I joined the 1st Battalion in Hong Kong for the final 5 months of their tour: catching Illegal Immigrants along the Chinese border and having a wild time down the Wanchi. We returned to the UK in 1980 and spent the next year guarding the royal residences in London and Windsor.
After further specialist training my battalion were deployed to Northern Ireland in March 1981 to begin a 4 month emergency tour based in Bessbrook Mill, South Armagh. We had a particularly tough time and lost 5 soldiers in a single landmine attack just outside Newry on 19 May. I attended the aftermath of the explosion helping form part of the cordon and witnessed the death and destruction of a large IRA bomb – a device the South Armagh Brigade detonated from a safe distance. The bomb was thought to mark the imminent death of a local IRA hunger striker.
We also endured other violence in our patch including the loss of an ATO officer whilst he was defusing a bomb near Newry on 31st May 1981.
With two weeks before the end of the turbulent tour my platoon had been given one final mission. We were covertly inserted into a position literally on the border around a scrapyard and farm about 3 miles south of Crossmaglen. We had information that IRA units were mounting Illegal Vehicle Check Points in the area and we were deployed to stop them. The operation was due to last around 4 days and nights if we were without incident.
On the third evening of our covert mission as dusk approached I began my two hour watch or ‘stag’ from inside one of the derelict vans on the fringe of the yard overlooking the border and road.
Unknown to us, an IRA unit had earlier discovered our position.
At around 10 pm the IRA unit attacked our brick (small team of soldiers) from a number of firing points approximately 150 metres on the southern side of the border: bursts of heavy automatic gunfire raked the van in which we were concealed.
My brick commander, LCpl Gavin Dean, (Deano) was struck almost immediately by 2 rounds: the third member of our callsign was also hit but not badly injured. Deano collapsed on the ground next to me fighting his own battle to stay alive as I returned fire towards where I thought the gunmen were located.
Then I was hit. A single high velocity round entered close to my thoracic spine in my upper back hitting the second thoracic vertebra, the round then made its’ exit out of the junction on the left side of my neck and shoulder at the front close to my clavicle.
The tumbling missile caused the bone of the vertebra to shatter instantly blasting fragments into my spinal column and seriously damaging it as well as causing tissue damage and enormous loss of blood. I was instantly paralysed from the chest down.
As the firing stopped and I lay on the ground I could feel Deano’s body shake and his boot began to thrash violently into my head and face – a phenomenon I’ve never been able to shake off or forget.
Our colleagues reached us after a terrifying period of stillness: not knowing what the IRA would do next. We were flown by helicopter to Musgrave Park Hospital, Belfast. During the flight I slipped in and out of consciousness but generally aware of what was happening. Sadly, towards the end of the journey as we reached the hospital Deano’s life faded away – a week after his 21st birthday. He was pronounced dead just before midnight but I was unaware of his fate.
Later that night my parents received the dreaded ‘knock on the door’ and were informed that I had been injured. Early the next morning they were taken by plane to see me in Belfast and told for the first time of my friends’ demise. By the late afternoon a decision had been made to transfer me to The Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich (QEMH) as the neurological facilities in Musgrave Park were considered inadequate at the time. I was flown to London along with my parents on a RAF Hercules and admitted onto the Intensive Care Unit.
A few days later whilst on ICU my dad came to me in sombre mood.
Every couple of hours I was turned upside down day and night on a special bed used to rotate me between back and belly to prevent pressure sores and I was also under the influence of strong pain-killing drugs. As I faced the floor sandwiched upside down between two boards with my face looking through the gap my dad quietly told me that Deano had been killed. The news hit me hard: the sudden emotion forced falling tears to form a small puddle on the floor beneath me.
After a few weeks of specialist treatment I was moved to an orthopaedic ward and told for the first time that I would probably never walk again and that all my bodily functions would be completely altered. I was also informed that I wouldn’t be able to father children. The walking bit came as a shock but not being able to father children didn’t particularly bother me at the time. But the doctor also meant that my active life would never be the same and as a 19 year old reaching sexual maturity that bit had an impact.
My dad attended Deano’s funeral along with many mates from my regiment, I was still in intensive care but I wish I could have gone with my father.
In the early months and years after the incident I was somewhat troubled by the events of that fateful night – sudden unwanted vivid memories, guilt, constantly reliving the event, disrupted sleep and exaggerated startled response to even trivial events. I suppose it would loosely be labelled Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nowadays although I hadn’t a name for it at the time. As time marched on my private thoughts and personal turmoil partly evaporated, but have never totally disappeared.
There was a huge outpouring of support from my family and friends and even Army Generals who I had never heard of came to visit me in hospital. I received numerous gifts and cards and even offered free beer but I wasn’t up to drinking at that stage.
Learning to be disabled, an incomplete paraplegic in my case, took some doing and it was a very steep learning curve for both me and my parents – they also had intense emotions and struggles evoked by my disability. We all had adjustments to make and my relationship with them had to change.
Physiotherapy was often painful and exhausting but my motivation was high. The physios working with servicemen were particularly tough and there was always an element of competition with my peers but as long as I could compete with the injured soldiers from the Parachute Regiment (my regiments’ old adversary) I was happy. I met one particular Para and I suppose by rights we should have ‘kicked off’ (fight) but we became friends, besides I couldn’t use my legs and he didn’t have any to kick off with.
Living with a spinal cord injury is like being reborn, with a body which doesn’t behave as it used to, into a world which wasn’t designed for it. Ultimately I had no choice but to ‘adapt and overcome’ in my own way and as quickly as possible.
Being presented with my first wheelchair was like attending a funeral on Christmas day – the excitement of opening a present and taking off the wrapping paper mixed with the sadness and sheer terror of having to sit in the grotesque thing. I soon learnt to live with my chair and over time realized it had become my new legs and an unwanted best friend.
After three months a slight amount of motor and sensory function returned and I was taught to use callipers and crutches to move around. It was unbelievably hard work but I became the fittest and strongest I had ever been. Running up and down Pen Y Fan in the Brecon Beacons with a pack on my back and a rifle in my hands now seemed easy.
After nearly 11 months treatment in QEMH undergoing various operations and treatments followed by 8 months rehabilitation at the Joint Services Medical Rehabilitation Unit, Chessington. The treatment and care was excellent.
I was finally medically discharged from the army in 1983, a particularly poignant time in my life.
My new life had begun and I looked for work in the civilian world. Luckily I found a job and focused on it and other subsequent employment.
Soon after leaving the army I met up with my former girlfriend and a few years later we were married. She took me on knowing my history and physical limitations, including probably being unable to give her children.
Like many other spinal cord injured men my ability to father children was greatly reduced, most spinal cord injured men cannot have their own children. Luckily a few years later technology advanced and through IVF and various hi-tech stressful treatments and procedures we both endured my wife gave birth to twin boys and I became a dad.
Having sons inevitably has in the past meant that questions are asked as to why their dad uses a wheelchair. I try to give honest answers and hide nothing, not even deeply personal things. Their friends sometimes ask questions, often more readily than their parents.
My wife cares for me exceptionally well – I think that being the partner of a disabled spouse is just as debilitating as it is for me especially when faced with my daily frustrations and problems. Our sons are also affected by my disability and I am reminded of this when they want to play football with me.
The memories of the attack near the Irish border never left me and I often think of Deano and his dignified mother. I also wonder what became of the IRA volunteers who attacked us on 16th July 1981 – my Remembrance Day.
I’ve been back to Ireland trying to make sense of the conflict, driving around the areas where I had been patrolling as a teenage soldier. South Armagh has changed dramatically over the years, but so have I. The obvious wealth and appearance of the area was not as I remembered but the countryside is still outstanding in its natural beauty and attractiveness.
Like other tourists I ventured into a pub and although the local drinkers’ looked at me suspiciously as I supped Guinness and speaking with an English accent they were friendly enough. One of them even helped get me down a couple of steps. I wonder if he would have been as kind if he’d known that the last time I was in that pub doorway I was wearing a green beret, camouflage uniform and gripping a rifle.
During the trip I was driven down the country road near to the farm where the shooting had occurred. All sorts of unexpected intense emotions surfaced and I needed to properly remember Deano: it was long overdue. I was unable to attend his funeral years before so this was my own chance to respect Deano. A single flower was placed close to the location of the incident and in a way I had almost come full circle. Further along the road I noticed a number of memorials to IRA volunteers and it struck me that there will probably never be a site marking Deano’s death or other British soldiers in that area, the local republican people simply wouldn’t allow it.
I’ve delved deeper into recent Irish history and have even met former IRA members engaging with them in civil discussion. Although I still fail to agree with their past actions and strategy I now have a more balanced perspective on the conflict and hold no personal resentment or animosity towards them. I hope that the new methods of achieving their aims through political and democratic means has put the use of force and armed struggle firmly into the past although it is clear that not everyone supports the current situation. Sadly, paramilitary violence still sporadically continues.
Not living in a community that is preoccupied with Northern Irish issues I find it awkward to talk with people about the ‘Troubles’. Very rarely is my past or disability brought up in casual conversation, people see me whizzing around but very few are aware of my past – probably they wouldn’t want to know anyway. Many years ago in London I had a difficult experience whilst in a bar with a group of disabled ex-soldiers; we were discussing our injuries amongst each other when a woman must have overheard what I was saying. Without hesitation she came directly over to our table and pronounced in a Northern Irish accent that she wished I’d been shot in the head and then simply walked out of the building. Maybe she had her own personal perspective on the troubles, maybe she was caught up in history – if she’d stayed and talked I would have listened.
The majority of people north and south of the Irish border have now in some way learnt to get along and perhaps even respect each other. Eventually most republicans assessed that violence had become counterproductive and decided to lay it aside in favour of a political campaign for unity.
Maybe the hunger strikers of 3 decades ago could not have envisaged Sinn Fein ministers in a power-sharing arrangement at Stormont with the DUP or even the head of the British Monarchy visiting Ireland and starting her speech in the Irish language. Wow! Some might say.
Who knows whether the hunger strikers would have approved, or not.
A sort of peace is now in place. It’s a shame that getting to this point has taken so long and at such a high personal cost to so many.
Going back is perhaps bizarre but it is important for me to pay homage to my fallen comrade and remember my time as a British soldier in the rolling hills of south Armagh – a past that’s ever present.
It seems that 30 years ago I had left Ireland, but Ireland has never left me.