Homecoming: are British military veterans in Northern Ireland coping?

Soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment on Parade, from MOD archive
Soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment on Parade, from MOD archive

Two weeks ago, I received a message on Twitter asking me to look at the experiences of British military veterans in Northern Ireland. It’s a vast topic, one I found difficult to narrow down, as the more I talked to people, the more I discovered about identity, issues, and policy. Some of what I discovered was predictable, some was not.

What follows is part one of a three part series. I wanted to start with the personal stories of those who stand to benefit or suffer from future Assembly decisions before delving into policy and the politics of the British army in Northern Ireland. So here below is a conversation with a Royal Irish Ranger who I will call Stephen, though this is not his real name. I get the feeling his story will resonate with other veterans living in Northern Ireland. The next post will be a profile piece with veteran services campaigner Andy Allen.

Stephen’s Story

Stephen lives in a small village in County Antrim. The village’s roundabout has pretty flowers and beside the bus stop there is an all-day diner where the two of us meet.

Stephen’s head is shaved to the scalp and his knuckles are tattooed. He joined the Royal Irish Regiment in 2002 and went on to serve two tours in Northern Ireland and two tours in Iraq. He was present when Tim Collins gave his famous “Eve-of-battle” speech before the invasion. When he talks about his service in the army he speaks with energy, life, and vitality.

At times while he is talking, Stephen is fiercely critical of the British army and government’s reasons for invading Iraq. His intense bond with other soldiers exists in tension with criticism he holds of the army and government that sent him off to fight. When people talk about their love for the army, I believe this is what they mean—the trust and friendship found while serving with others combined with the pride and dignity of working to protect innocent people. You can love the army, be proud of the good it does, and simultaneously stand against its many injustices.

What I find striking is that Stephen credits the army with helping him become a more tolerant and open-minded person. “The guys that are joining up, it doesn’t matter if they’re racist or they didn’t like Catholics or Protestants, it took joining our regiment for these guys to realise there is a bond and the guy next to them is just a human being.”

“It was amazing how quick everyone became absolute brothers. And that all comes through the Army. It doesn’t matter who they are.”

“And you really do trust them. And some of the Catholics and Protestants in our country, I don’t think they’ll ever get that trust. Not like we got in the army with Catholics and Protestants. It was an absolute trust.”

One thing I didn’t realise is that the Royal Irish Regiment is made up of soldiers not just from Northern Ireland and Britain, but from the Republic of Ireland and countries around the world, including South Africa, Nepal and Fiji. I was surprised to hear of some soldiers in the regiment coming from Republican families in Northern Ireland as well. But in the army, according to Stephen, previous backgrounds give way to a shared intensity of similar experiences.

During training and tours, soldiers learn from each other. One of Stephen’s mates shared living quarters with someone from the Irish Republic. Above one bed hung a union flag, and above the other bed hung a tricolour.

“It’s a bonding. You learn something about different cultures, different people.”

“We’re all sitting there constantly talking, and having conversations and learning from each other all the time. And yet we’re all doing the one thing. All doing it together.”

But the shared experience of horror and trauma also brings soldiers closer together. “If you  sit with a guy who’s seen that horrible thing as well, you know, you’ve only got each other. And just being in the same room as the guy is enough. One of you can mention something and you know the other one understands. That’s a bond you can’t get anywhere else.”

“Trying to get people to understand that over here is like…” he trails off for a moment. “If you join the army. Let’s say I’m trying to tell a Catholic guy about my time in the army, well, straight away they’re thinking, you must hate us.”

“And I want to say, no, no. It was joining the army that made my mind open, that lets me respect your opinions.

Support services for veterans exist, but many soldiers still run up against a number of issues that can ruin their lives. “There is support here, but it’s hard to find. And I’ve been getting support. More so it’s getting put out there because of Afghanistan and how many soldiers are coming back in bits. But it wasn’t easy to find. There is support there. But it’s still very difficult.”

“It’s hard for a soldier to make that first phone call and say maybe I’m experiencing some problems from my time in the military. But once they get talking they realise there is a problem there that needs sorted out.”

As Stephen talks, I can feel the pain of his isolation and the loneliness of his experience. “Trying to get people to understand is another thing. I have friends and family that don’t understand. They don’t understand that maybe I have certain issue or problems. I don’t know if people are scared of it because it’s something they can’t see.”

“If I rolled in here in a wheelchair, with two legs missing, you’d go, wow. Where as if I came and sat here and said, “I’m probably sadder than that guy, because of my experiences.” I don’t know, maybe because it can’t be seen, it’s seen as a weakness. It’s not your fault if you don’t have legs. But there have been times that I couldn’t get out of bed and walk. And I’ve got two legs. It’s just one of those things really.”

“If I had my legs and arms blown off or something, you’d accept there is something wrong with me. But because it is something inside my head, people think, you’re in control. I have friends and family that don’t understand. They don’t understand why I can’t sleep at night.”

For Catholics in the military, coming home to Northern Ireland presents another layer of difficulty. “I’m finding it hard to talk to anyone, whereas these Catholic guys are going back to their Catholic estates from the army, and dealing with these problems. Who are they going to talk to?”

“Some Catholics you talk to, and not all of them, not all of them at all, but some it’s this attitude of like, well, that’s the British government’s fault. Blame them. It’s a hatred towards them straight away.”

In my interview with Andy Allen, he told me that while on the Stephen Nolan Show, someone said, in a conversation about Andy’s physical trauma, that he shouldn’t have ever been in Afghanistan in the first place.

British soldiers and veterans living in Northern Ireland, according to Stephen, become symbols of hatred for many Catholics. “I’m thinking, let’s not blame the British government for my problems, let’s blame what’s caused them. Getting shot at.”

Because many soldiers patrolled streets here in Northern Ireland as part of the Home Service, they’ve never really been able to relax, as they live in what was their former combat theater of operations.

“So much has to be kept low key all the time. It’s always going to be a confidential thing anyway.”

“I go to a treatment centre in Scotland. A lot of guys do. They have started places over here, but it’s not like the one in Scotland. A lot of guys feel they can relax there, where as here at home, they feel all tensed up.

Stephen is currently separated from his wife and working part-time in security.

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