A British Soldier explains how he found peace after a deadly attack on his unit.
Peter has been in the British Army for many years serving in Germany, Cyprus, Afghanistan and the UK. Here he describes an ambush on his unit at a patrol base in Helmand Province. It was to change his life.
It was the middle of the night and we were preparing to leave the base. The night was pitch black but we had reached the end of our mission and we were in good spirits. We were getting ready to leave in the morning and we had the sense of a job well done. My unit had spent three weeks training members of the Afghan Army in Helmand Province. We had build up a relationship of trust and we were leaving the Afghans to continue their work without us. We were busy packing up and not being particularly cautious when suddenly there were bullets flying everywhere, people screaming and soldiers falling.
The scene was one of absolute chaos. It was so dark I couldn’t see a thing but somehow I managed to find somewhere to hide.
That night was a wake-up call. A call to change my life.
We had been attacked by one of the Afghan soldiers, a Taliban sympathiser we had been working with and who suddenly turned on us. Looking back, he chose the perfect time. The Afghans had won our trust, it was night-time and our guard was down. The gunman turned an automatic weapon on us at close range and tried to wipe us out. He kept firing until he was shot dead.
One of our young soldiers died instantly and a good number were injured, a few of them seriously. And the rest of us? Well, we all suffered wounds that are more difficult to recognise. Those wounds also changed our lives.
When it was all over, our first priority was to extract the casualties and call a helicopter but we found that had already been done for us. Those of us who were unhurt sat down and had a discussion about what we should do next. We decided it would be the right thing to finish our mission. We slept for a few hours, completed the task and left at the time we had been scheduled to go. Our commanding officer came to speak to us before we left. He apologised for what we had been through and expressed disappointment with the Afghan Army who had broken our trust. A unit came down to take us back as we weren’t allowed to drive ourselves to the main base.
Our unit was given some time off. Then we were assigned small tasks at the base. We had what the army calls Trauma Risk Incident Management (TRiM), a process used to pick up any sign that a soldier may develop psychological problems. We spoke to the welfare department and we were given plenty of time to reflect. I remember speaking to our Catholic chaplain and other priests at the base. We planned the repatriation of our comrade’s body and we had a ceremony before he was sent back to England.
At that time, we did not talk to each other about what had happened. No one does that in the army, especially if a tour of duty is not complete. Everyone is wounded inside but they don’t want to show it. It’s seen as a sign of weakness for grown men to cry in front of others. You don’t know how what you say will affect another person. You might demoralise them so you keep quiet. That’s still a way of thinking the modern army struggles with today.
I knew I had to change my spiritual life. I took a trip back home to see my family and on arrival, we had a special Mass just as we did before I went out to Afghanistan. I tried to talk to them about what had happened in Helmand but it was impossible. They are my own family and I love them dearly but they don’t understand the military. I knew I was talking to people who didn’t have a clue what the army was about. They could sympathise but they couldn’t empathise.
I decided I needed a complete break so I went backpacking in a remote part of the world. For a while, I wanted time alone. I kept turning the incident over and over in my mind and asking myself why I’d been spared. Then I went on a backpackers’ tour and travelled with people who were roughly my age. They were from all sorts of backgrounds. Some were religious, others weren’t.
We went round on the tour bus and we were enjoying each other’s company. It was very relaxed and I found myself unwinding and talking to them about Afghanistan. They were interested and they were asking lots of questions. They were encouraging me and in that atmosphere I felt comfortable telling them about Afghanistan. I found they understood and it felt really good to share the experience with them. They said things like ‘you’ve served your country’, ‘you’re a hero’ and ‘you’ve done something extraordinary.’ It was what I needed to hear. At the end of the tour I decided to go back to the army and to change my lifestyle.
I posted myself somewhere new and started to take my Catholic faith more seriously. I was born Catholic but for many years I had taken my faith for granted. I would go to Mass and say my prayers but a lot of the time I was just going through the motions.
In the years since then, I have learned to truly live my faith. I am much more serious about prayer. If I set a time to say my rosary at 7pm, I treat it as an appointment with a very important person and make sure I am ready. Early in the morning, if I go for a walk, I look around me and see life as such a blessing. There are hills near the camp so I climb to the top and see the beautiful view. I kneel down there and pray the rosary.
I never previously appreciated the beauty, the mystery, the sheer wonderfulness of the Mass. I’m still a soldier. I like going to the pub, playing rugby and training hard in the gym. But the most important thing to me is Eucharistic Adoration, Confession and the Mass. It’s time invested in God. I’m lucky because there are several churches within easy reach of the camp. Sometimes I go to a talk or on a retreat.
When I’m tired, the time I spend with God at the weekend helps to revive me. I feel re-energised. I find I can attack the next week stronger.
The effects of the ordeal in Helmand were hard for all who experienced it. Many soldiers in the unit were young and had huge plans returning from the Afghan war. A few left the army, most suddenly went quiet, but all knew the reality of that night: it could easily have been any one of us. As to the reason that particular member of our unit died, I think most of my comrades simply concluded that his time had come.
People have different perceptions of what characteristics a good soldier should acquire. He or she should be a fighter, a winner, a role model in society: ready to adapt to any situation.
In a fast changing, digital world, how do we prepare such men and women to operate at their peak? The answer, the British Army believes, lies in core values that are instilled in us from the very start. These values are selfless commitment, respect for others, loyalty, integrity, discipline and courage.
I totally accept these values. They provide the bedrock from which all soldiers can gauge their actions, But I also need faith to consolidate my thoughts, steer my actions and base my future plans. Faith gives me that anchor. It gives me that hope and peace of mind and heart, especially when, even soldiers, hit rock bottom.
When people survive an ordeal such as this, they normally search within themselves to ask:
Who is to blame?
What can I do?
Why am I here?
Everyone wants to belong, to feel loved and secure. When this is threatened we suddenly feel vulnerable.
There is an emptiness that only God can fill.
Peter’s name has been changed to protect his identity.