The Falklands has had a huge impact on me. It is undeniably the biggest and most traumatic incident in my life. I took part in events that are part of history, and no matter that when I die nobody will remember me, the Falklands will forever stand as a footnote in history.
The problem for me, and I believe for many other veterans, is that when we look back at our parts in the conflict it is with very mixed emotions.
My mother came to visit me for Christmas this year and as always she tried to buy me a book or two. I love my mother but not her choice of books as normally they come from bargain bin somewhere and the authors are rarely inspiring or interesting. This year however she surprised me. Not that she had given anymore thought to the subject matter but that the books she chose actually were pretty good.
The books were part of 3 pack and sadly I have lost 2 of them on some train somewhere because despite my best efforts I cannot seem to find them anywhere. The book that I was most taken with was titled "Heroes" and was a series of interviews with various veterans of WWII.
Now the reason that I mention this book is that after the Falklands I devoured books on war written from the personal perspective. I have to admit looking back I was searching for an answer to a question that I had been asking of myself.
How you deal with emotions of surviving a war?
As an 18 year old pay clerk attached to an infantry company taking part in a night assault on a mountain top 8,000 miles from home was something that I was neither prepared for emotionally or physically. My training in the army had consisted of 13 weeks basic training and then copious amounts of drill and classroom work. More effort was put into training my mind and not my body. The army didn't need me to fight they needed me to pay people and therefore thats where they put the effort.
So after the war, having looked the beast squarely in the eye, I went back to being a wage clerk. And for a while it was OK, I was among friends, I was still with the Scots Guards. But then I was posted away to Northern Ireland a new infantry regiment who I just didn't get on with. It's not that I disliked them, it's just that we never had the chance to bond. My life could have taken a very different course from the one it has turned out to have taken. I was lucky in that somebody noticed that my annual reports from extremely good to extremely bad and pulled me out oif the battalion in time to save me from imploding.
Years later after a very fortunate posting I found myself being fully qualified as a computer programmer, 24 years old, married and with my whole life ahead of me. I decided that the Army wasn't for me, became a civilian and tried to live a life that wasn't based on the military
There is a saying though that "you can take the soldier out of the army, but you can never take the army out of the soldier".
No matter how hard I worked, no matter how much I tried to build my business there some inescapable facts that I had to live with.
I know what a bullet hitting flesh sounds like. I have heard the screams of the dying and the wounded. I can still feel the ripple of the shock waves of a bullet as it passes my head. I can close my eyes and feel the earth patter over my prostrate body as a shell lands near by. I know what war did to me, for a brief period in my life I was given the means to kill and if I was presented with an appropriate situation I was supposed to be able to end a life. I have descended to the most basic state a human can be, that of the hunter with death in his eyes.
And I failed as a soldier.
I was supposed to be a hero, we all were. I was supposed to charge a machine gun post, rescue a fallen comrade from the battlefield, rush to the aid of a friend and save his life. I was supposed to do something!!
In the end I carried ammunition up a mountain, did what I was told and came away having not even fired my rifle. I felt a failure, when people asked me about the Falklands I felt a fraud, a coward.
So for years I lived with this guilt. If only I had done this or that. Why didn't I fire my rifle? Maybe if I had I might have made a difference. I might as well have not gone, I was useless, pathetic, I didn't deserve the respect of my fellow soldiers because they were the real hero's not me.
And of course once I was a civilian I had nobody to talk to about these feelings and so I buried them. They became a mantra. I would replay in my head the events of that night and imagine what would have happened if I had something different. I worked harder and harder to convince myself I wasn't worthless and was unforgiving on myself. But at the same time I was looking for answers, surely I wasn't the only person to feel this way? Surely not everyone who goes to war isn't a hero. Surely I can't have been the only one.
But back to that book.
This book was all about heroes, or so the title said. But in fact it was more than that it. It was about people who had been to war and their thoughts now that they are older and wiser. No longer the lions in their youth but instead old men and women looking back over the years to those days when they played their part in events which are also part of the footnote of history.
And for the first time in a book about WWII that I have read here were veterans with some of the highest awards saying how war had effected them. How that looking back at what they had witnessed had changed them and how they had learnt to live with the effects. I felt for the first time in a long time that I was reading the truth of how war impacts us as humans.
There are no heroes, just survivors.
Like anything in life there is a small percentage of people who thrive in any given environment and war is no exception. Some people are born warriors but the vast majority of us, and I count myself among the later, just do our best to survive.
The last 3 years has been a turning point in my life. Meeting the battalion again, going back to Tumbledown, and engaging in conversation with many veterans since has allowed me at long last to start moving on. I am no longer haunted by that night. I am no coward, nor am I a hero.
I am a 46 year old man who went somewhere I hope never to go again, where I stared into the jaws of the beast and walked away. I have my health, a great wife, a great job, and no real worries. I am a lucky man.
Strangely though I am also a little lost and at a crossroads. With the Falklands no longer dominating my every thought and the video tape in my head not playing so frequently I have to find a new way to live. I had got used to being that person I was, but I am no longer the same.
I wonder where life will take me in the years to come.