So here I am, 14 years on, in another amphibious ship, in another country going to war. It’s an exercise of course, and this time nobody is shooting back. Responding only to the actions of our forces, the enemy is mostly computer simulated. Today, I am what we call an Observer/Trainer. My role is to coach, mentor and where necessary train. I am working with the command team and staff as they plan and conduct an entry operation into a foreign land.
14 years ago, to the day, I was the Second in Command of a Commando Unit, lying in a hole in the Kuwait desert a few miles south of the border with Iraq. We were readying ourselves to conduct a night helicopter assault on to a heavily defended position in order to capture and secure a key piece of infrastructure. We had to prevent Saddam Hussein’s forces from blowing it up.
Memories that shaped me
19 Mar 2003 was a memorable date in my life. I lost friends and colleagues and went into action with some of the best -trained and closest band of brothers I ever served with. It was a night to remember for sure, but it only comes to the front of your mind when you meet someone else who was there. I had not connected today’s activity to that of 14 years ago. I am forward looking and rarely dwell on the past. That can be a bad thing though. In a brief conversation with a fellow former Royal Marine who had also been there that night, in another Unit, I was reminded of something important.
It was a Remembrance Day a few years ago at Exeter Cathedral in Devon, England. I was laying a wreath at the Cenotaph during the formal ceremony. It was a typical overcast November day with rain threatening. The mood as ever was somber. I used the minute’s silence to recall by name all the men I had served with over the years that were now gone. The minute was not long enough. It left me feeling flat and empty.
I met with a couple of Marine buddies and we headed to a nearby hotel for a social. I shared a drink and recollections with Chris, who had been there with me in 2003. Chris revealed that he had been first on scene at a helicopter crash site. Two of his best mates and men I knew well, were amongst the dead. It was all too much. We both cried and hugged and shared the moment.
It was not until today that this memory awoke in me. My fellow former Royal Marine knew Chris well and recounted the fact that he had been at the crash scene and had then been given command of the Unit whose officer commanding had just perished. Chris had to put the incident behind him and got on with leading his men. He did, and he did so magnificently and bravely. He won the Military Cross as a result of the actions that he led in the coming weeks.
Why it matters.
My fresh recollection is the fact that Chris and I had a bond; not only from a shared experience in combat, but of those tears and hugs and the ability to bring some peace to instantly troubled minds. On reflection I can see the benefit in looking back and being reminded of good people and tough times. Those memories are after all what shape you as an individual and account for who you are today. If you are a service veteran, do take the time to meet with a buddy and share stories and remember. It’s part of what shaped you.