Prepared.

Reminiscing. 

Be prepared.” Not a bad motto for a boy scout, and an even better one for a soldier. More often than not the person who wins is the one who is ready to do more, go further, and keep pushing long after others have given up. And that’s pretty much the story of my life. There’s a cost to have an unrelenting philosophy, and I’ve paid it. Pretty soon I think I’m going to pay again so I’ll try to put these thoughts into some sort of order for anyone who might find them useful in the future.

There’s no doubt I’ve had a colourful life; a lot of it hidden from view and even the things that were in view were often not understood for what they were. It’ll take a better mind than I have to understand a lot of what went on, why I did the things I did, and how they influenced me.

Thinking about all these things puts me in a sour mood. I don’t know why, really, because no one forced me to do what I’ve done. I can’t say no one put a gun at my head, because quite a few times someone did. I’d better just tell the story before I change my mind again. Torn by regrets, that’s what I am. Today is a day of regrets.

I was a good kid. The fact is I was too scared to be anything other than that. My father was an ex-military pilot and a first-class regimental bastard. Highly intelligent, he was also highly pissed off and volatile mostly, I think, because he felt many of life’s chances had passed him by. After he left the air force he went into hotel management and while he did fairly well there’s really no dispute that a wife he didn’t like and nine kids he hardly knew held him back. A night manager, we hardly ever saw him and when we did it was best to lay low and keep quiet.

Now this isn’t going to be a family history or a life story, although in part it’s going to be the story of my life, so no telling of it would be complete until I also mentioned the Old Bitch; my mother. She was a whiney shrew with limited intelligence and delusions of grandeur, and when the Old Man was busy sleeping she’d take his place as number one head-kicker. I’ve met worse, and wherever possible I put a bullet in them. Death improves some people.

Unlike most of the others I never brought trouble home. I just shut up and tried to be a small target, which as the youngest was a difficult feat. I was glad when, at fourteen, I left school as a result of being kicked out of home. The Old man had once again used the Old Bitch as a punching bag, and my crime was to walk out of my room just as he finished. He rounded on me and said I could get out of the house, too. Then he slapped my face so hard it made my teeth bleed. I wasn’t big and I wasn’t tough but something inside me snapped and I drew off and let him have it right in the face. He went down, more in surprise than from pain, I think, and while I had my chance I kicked him as hard as I could in the head. It made the white of one of his eyes blood red, and he had the good sense to stay down because if he’d gotten up I’m pretty sure I’d have tried to kill him.

I packed, because I knew that it was now way too dangerous for me to stay. My mother, bless her, never said a word in my defence. I slept in a park for nearly six weeks before I caved in and left school. It was useless to try to go on, even though I was good at all the important subjects.

Well, I got a job and I got an apprenticeship, and I worked my arse off. Mostly from fear. I eventually shared a house with some guys who were much older than me and, looking back on it, were alcoholic deadbeats even though they had jobs. After work I’d just sort of walk around until I was tired enough to go home and sleep. I never did finish my apprenticeship. I liked the trade but didn’t like the people in it, and isn’t it strange that if you’re quiet people think you’re slow or surly. I wasn’t either, I knew that, but by the time I was eighteen my self-esteem was lower than whale shit. So I joined the army.

The Army.

I really ‘found’ myself in the army. I was lucky enough to join at a time when they were trying to raise the educational standards of enlisted people, and while my own schooling was incomplete I think they liked the facts that before I left I had done well and since leaving had secured an apprenticeship. I got the chance to finish my high school work and go on to do a degree, as well as learning a lot about what it takes to be a soldier.

They weren’t all happy days. I think it takes a certain type of person to be in the military. Because I’d grown up in a boot camp – or concentration camp, depending on how I looked at it – I had that basic respect for orderliness that a lot of others seemed to struggle with. I put my head down and went to work, and I really enjoyed almost everything about army life. It was varied and because I was undertaking more education I got chances that weren’t automatically available to those who just wanted to do their time.

By the time I was twenty-two I had a first degree, was beginning a Masters degree, was enrolled in Officers training courses, and had a storehouse of knowledge on weaponry and military tactics. My evaluations were uniformly good except it was noted that I tended to be a bit of a loner and quiet, although in command simulations I did well. The only criticism was that I tended to do too much myself and had a bit of a weakness in delegating. That would come with time and experience, they said. All in all, I liked the army and it seemed to like me.

When I was twenty-three I applied for special weapons and tactics training and I got in. I felt it was more suited to my personality, because you work in smaller teams and the command structure is much tighter. I did well in both courses – tactical and practical – and that gave me a foot in the door when I went on to apply for training with the SAS (Special Air Service), the best-equipped, best-trained, smartest and most devastating small-team fighting force the army has.

I was accepted into the course, which is not a guarantee of being accepted into the SAS. I still don’t know which was the most brutal; the extra classes and mountains of theory or the actual training. If you pass the courses and if you complete the training and psychological evaluations and everything else that goes with it, you might just be lucky enough to get in. I wasn’t, and even though I tried again I still failed. In the end it was my lack of the required strength and speed that put them off. I’m of average height and build but I’m one of those people who just don’t bulk up, and I could see what they were getting at. Try carrying a couple of those guys out under heavy fire; it was a simulation I failed at pretty badly, and the three of us would probably have died if we’d been in a real war.

The SAS hadn’t been a lifetime goal for me; more of a natural progression, so it didn’t bother me to the same degree that some others felt. For them it had been the success or failure of a lifetime ambition, and I’ve always noticed that the people who fail in anything rarely put it down to just not being good enough; it’s always a conspiracy of some sort. For myself, I planned to be the equal of any SAS trooper even though I wasn’t in their unit. I had to out-think others as much as possible, because I wasn’t blessed with a superman body.

It would be easy to characterise him as a prick, because that’s often how he appeared, but that assessment would be superficial and generally incorrect. Some people just fall in love with ‘the book’, whatever book that job or industry may represent. He was one of them, and as a result his judgment was sometimes lacking. If I’ve learned anything it’s that life doesn’t imitate the neat little assumptions used in written examples. Cochrane wasn’t a bad guy; he was simply a little rigid and misguided at times, and the thing I learned with him was never to directly disagree with his orders. If you agreed and then asked for permission to put up an alternative he usually listened and often modified his idea and yours into something that was better than the original, but if you got in his face he’d just dig himself in and bully you into following orders. He was the kind of officer who went from zero to one hundred with nothing in between, and as a result he didn’t rise further than the command he held when I met him.

Cochrane was only important to my career in that it ultimately ended because of him.

Peacekeepers.

For the first time in my military career I was posted overseas to a ‘live’ operation. There had been quite a few problems in East Timor over the years and decades, and in the latest round it appeared that we were actually going to do more than make hollow promises before hanging the Timorese out to dry again. I can tell you that those of us who know our military history in the region were glad to be going back; we felt that had our previous brothers-in-arms been allowed to get the job done on their original tours we probably wouldn’t be needed there now, but there we are. We serve the people at the whim and behest of the government of the day.

Ours was an observer / peacekeeping mission, and while we all knew that violence against us could erupt at any time none of us was particularly worried. If past trends were anything to go by any fighting would be sporadic, the assailants would be under-equipped and lacking the precision we had, and it would most probably end with them running away after taking a few pot-shots at us and getting our return fire. While it’s never played down, everyone in the military knows the pattern; it’s discussed openly among the ranks.

We’d been there for nearly two months, mostly spent scouting around the outskirts of the city and being more of a presence than a threat. There’d been a few skirmishes but nothing important, even though the media at home liked to play it up. Mostly, it was tedious, repetitive work and a lot of walking and driving. Our tour would last for three months and then another unit would take over. In fact, the threat assessments were so low that the SAS hadn’t been called in, which is usually the first thing that happens when we go into combat situations.

A call had come in that insurgents, probably armed by Indonesia, were beginning to mass about twenty kilometres outside the city. Our intelligence was good so while we were on our guard it was nothing out of the ordinary, either. We’d been on base and getting ready for dinner when the call came so at first we thought our unit wouldn’t be going; having only a few hours ago come in from a patrol. However, we were called so we kitted up as quickly as possible and moved off towards the trucks that would take us in.

It was impossible to say where the battle line was; we went from relative peace into a series of low-level ambushes. Bullets pounded the sides of the trucks we were in and it was only the Kevlar screening that saved us from being shot to shit before we could do anything about it. You can’t just bail out of the back of a truck and into enemy fire, except in the movies. All we could do was wait as the driver accelerated and tried to get us out of there. The problem was that the ambush had been worked in such a way that the zones outside of the immediate lines of fire were still within sniper shot of the main offensive groups, as we found out to our cost when the first few soldiers piled out of the back and were dead before their feet hit the ground. With all the caution we took after the first attack we still lost more men on the second. We just weren’t expecting the level of battle sophistication we’d found; we’d underestimated the enemy.

In the third sniper zone we had no choice but to get out of the trucks; the first in the three-car convoy had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, lifting it off the ground in a cloud of oily flames as it buckled at the centre. There was no time to think; the truck blocked our path and left us in a severely compromised position for sniper attack. Of the twenty-seven soldiers and three drivers who began the outing we were down to thirteen. That soon became nine as the crossfire picked off soldiers getting out of or running away from the trucks. Of those who made it to the shelter of the trees, four were injured, and we were all in danger of imminent ambush. We didn’t know where the enemy was, but they knew exactly where we were.

Cochrane was yelling to everyone to get up and get moving, his eyes wide and wild as he gave the order. In battle, he’d lost it, and he was on a sure as shit path to getting us all killed. Bullets were flying all around us, zipping past us so close it seemed that they were taking the first layer of our skin with them. Three of the injured were being field dressed and the other wasn’t moving at all. The organisation of the team was falling apart in front of my eyes and I had no doubt we’d be surrounded and killed if we didn’t get our shit together damned fast. Cochrane wasn’t given the right orders; there weren’t any perimeter guards being posted; the radio chatter was high-speed babble and scant on detail that might help the listeners reinforce us. No one was counting what weapons we had and what manoeuvre we might make to get ourselves out. He was a babbling idiot and the loudness of his voice alone was going to bring the insurgents right in on top of us. Hell, they wouldn’t even need to get close; an RPG or two in the general area would be sure to kill or maim us.

I sidled over to him and tried to get him to focus on the task, but he was beyond reason. He was worrying about details that had little to do with our immediate survival. It was clear that he was in shock and panic, and so I told him to stand down; I was taking over command. That seemed to get through to him and made him stop dead for a few seconds and then, eyes wide as if he couldn’t believe he was doing it, he went for his gun and hands shaking badly brought it to bear on my chest. I pushed the barrel up at the last possible second and was knocked sideways as the bullet pierced my cheek and took out my ear lobe as it exited. I slammed the palm of my hand into his nose and heard a dull crack. He fell backwards and in a split-second I had his weapon but he rolled over and up, blood gushing from his nose, and went on the attack. I shot him. I shot him with his own gun, right through his thigh. He went down screaming like a small girl and in a second I was on him, putting my hand over his mouth before he got us all killed.

I have no doubt that he was in severe pain, but it wasn’t extreme pain; it was sheer bloody panic, and so I broke a capsule of morphine and jammed it into the bastard while we still had a chance of survival.

We were eight kilometres from base and now had five wounded men. We’d called in the cavalry and even now they were racing towards us, but we were on our own until they arrived. I got the men up and mobile as soon as possible and we crept and crawled our way deeper into the trees. Gunfire and the sound of strange voices were closing in on us and there was no doubt we’d be overtaken before reinforcements could arrive. There were an unknown number of enemy and we had no idea how they’d positioned themselves. I got everyone bandaged as well as possible so that blood spoor would be minimised, and then we went up into the trees. We even took the silent soldier, who had died some time back. No way would I leave his body behind, not just because he was one of ours but because I didn’t want the enemy to be able to trace our movements from the position of his body. The able-bodied soldiers went up first, spread out amongst the thickly-leaved trees but each within five metres of each other, and I passed the wounded up to them. Some branches cracked under the weight but they held.

My face was throbbing with pain but I couldn’t take morphine; it would addle my brain. I jammed a bandage into my mouth to stem and absorb some of the blood but also to muffle any sounds I made. And then I took off into the bushes, working my way back to the road in a half-circle that I hoped would keep me out of sight of the enemy. I had hoped that this local militia would lack the experience and foresight to keep off the road, and I was in luck. Whatever planning they had done to mount this very successful offensive didn’t stretch into what to do or not do once it was over. I managed to give very good assessments of visible troop strength and location before I heard shots being fired behind me. In a straight run I headed back to our cover, the sound of gunfire growing louder as I approached. Cochrane was back on the ground, yelling incoherently as bullets studded the tree in front of him.

I saw one of ours hanging from a tree, his foot lodged in the armpit of two branches, and blood running down his face before dripping onto the ground. He had been shot at least seventy times and they were still going, even though he was obviously dead. They were spraying gunfire up into the trees and I saw two more bodies fall.

There were five militia that I could see; none of them were in uniform, and two of them looked like they’d taken a day off from primary school to be here. I quickly and quietly called in our position and then broke cover, shooting as I ran, and dropped them where they stood. I had no doubt there’d be more of them close by so I rallied everyone who was left and pushed them on in a line parallel with the road. I hung back as they staggered forward, the wounded helping the wounded, and then I silently finished the job on a man and a very young boy who were not quite dead.

Four of us made it out after what had been a very costly and bloody engagement with the enemy. Our support had taken damage but had prevailed, and I heard that over fifty of theirs and ours died that day. Cochrane spun a wonderful tale about my insubordination and running in the face of enemy fire. I don’t think he was completely believed, because those are the sort of charges that can see a soldier spending lots of years in a military prison making cane baskets and learning to keep the ‘sisters’ from getting into his pants. Anyway, it was enough to get me drummed out. I felt like I was fourteen again.

Civvy Street.

Contrary to a lot of the images of army doctors, they did a first-class job of repairing the wounds in my face. I was scarred but not grotesque, thanks to the marvels of modern medicine in the hands of capable men and women. My right ear lobe was cleaned up and the ragged bits cut away, and most people didn’t even notice it unless they were looking hard; I’d had quite small lobes anyway, but surprisingly it was that operation that hurt the most as it was healing mostly, I think, because every time I turned over in bed it felt like fire.

I didn’t kick around for long once I was outside again. I think I was luckier than most, having had the benefits of a good education as well as the status that comes with military service. However, I wasn’t a ‘clean sheet’ because of my discharge, which was an issue that came up in interviews. There was no point lying about things that could be found out with a little bit of digging so I told the truth in a matter-of-fact way that, while it may have been admired in the world of the soldier was less appealing in the civilian world, where everyone seems to be a mini-politician or more interested in climbing over the bodies of colleagues than helping them along.

I’d hoped to find a career away from those that hunt down bad guys, but it wasn’t as simple as that; people hate being pigeon-holed when it happens to them but seem to love it when it happens to others, and so it was that I undertook a short course in training before joining the police force as an arms instructor. From there I took further internal courses designed to skill myself up for the jobs I was really interested in. In my own time I  wrote reams and reams of pages regarding CQB, close quarters battle, and I was pretty happy when they began circulating and getting me noticed by the right people. Nothing happened overnight but I was getting a solid reputation as a thinking fighter, and not the thug kind of reputation that can limit the professional fighting man who has joined an essentially civilian force.

I stayed in my position for nearly three years before I was seconded to the SWOS; Special Weapons Operations Service.

—May 2009—

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