Focus: The hidden heroes

The heroism of Private Johnson Beharry, who twice saved the lives of his fellow soldiers in Iraq, was recognised last week with the first Victoria Cross to be awarded since the Falklands conflict in 1982. But as the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war is marked this weekend, there are many other heroes – some whose bravery has been recognised, such as the comrades of Major David Bradley (reported opposite), others who suffer a daily struggle with physical and mental problems resulting from the conflict. Along with the glory, the cost must also be reckoned.

Friday’s announcement of 101 medals and citations for bravery in Iraq was brought forward from next month, apparently to put a more positive gloss on one of the most controversial wars Britain has ever fought. Despite January’s successful elections, Iraq is still struggling to form a government amid daily bombings and kidnappings, and the total of civilian deaths, according to the imperfect method of collating media reports, is approaching 20,000.

It is also a time to weigh up the cost to Britain, not only in deaths and injuries, but in terms of lost jobs, broken marriages and an open-ended financial commitment which has so far reached at least £3.5bn. Almost the only increase in spending announced in Gordon Brown’s Budget last week was an extra £400m for the armed forces.

Pte Beharry, the first living recipient of the VC since 1969 – when two Australians were decorated for service in Vietnam – is still recovering from head injuries caused by a rocket-propelled grenade. He is one of more than 790 British soldiers seriously wounded during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

To date, 110 Britons have been killed in Iraq, 86 of whom were military personnel. Most of the 24 civilians to have died were security guards, but they include three journalists and two hostages – the charity worker Margaret Hassan and the civil engineer Ken Bigley, beheaded by insurgents on camera.

These figures are public knowledge, but the authorities are far less willing to disclose the lingering effects of the war in terms of physical or mental injuries. The Ministry of Defence has revealed to The Independent on Sunday that 2,937 military personnel have been medically evacuated from Iraq. Of those, 824 had been classified by the end of last year as suffering from a mental illness, including 93 men officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the MoD’s Defence Medical Services agency sticks rigidly to its refusal to break down the statistics in any further detail. It is impossible to find out, for example, how many infantrymen have been wounded in combat.

The military’s mental health expert, Group Captain Frank McManus, admits that the number of mentally ill will rise in the months and years after the war, due partly to the unique pressures of peacekeeping. That, he said, adds to the stresses on British troops. It may be 15 years before the full impact of the conflict comes to light.

“Soldiers are simple creatures,” said Gp Capt McManus. “They’re there to do a job. It’s not unreasonable to say that a young 18- or 19-year-old lad who’s taught to fight in the traditional manner is more likely to cope with that than being in a civilian area. That will cause some difficulties, I accept that.”

And, he confirmed, troops, rather than sailors or air force personnel, are suffering most of these mental problems, suggesting the rate of mental illness in the Army is at 2 or 3 per cent. The MoD insists mental health casualties from Iraq are no higher than in previous conflicts, running at under 1.5 per cent of the 65,000 total number of armed forces personnel who have been deployed. It has refused, however, to categorise mental illness suffered by each service.

As for the economic cost of the war to Britain, an IoS audit reveals that the Government has so far spent more than £3.53bn on the conflict and reconstruction of Iraq, a figure which excludes spending by MI6, and the GCHQ eavesdropping centre in Cheltenham. That spending is dominated by the military bill. The Ministry of Defence has so far spent £3.13bn since 2002 on Iraq, and the figure will rise above £4bn this year as the security crisis in Iraq continues. The Foreign Office has disclosed that it spends £50m annually on private security and close protection for British civil servants and government contractors in Iraq, a figure set to jump to £60m over the next 12 months.

The Department for International Development (Dfid), the ministry charged with humanitarian and reconstruction work, has spent £334m so far, a sum officials say has shown substantial rewards. The Treasury has helped the Iraqi administration successfully launch a new currency and reform Iraq’s financial institutions, while Dfid and the Foreign Office have trained a new generation of better-paid officials and civil servants.

But two years after the start of the war, the military and financial commitment to Iraq remains high, and so far it is impossible to estimate when it might end. Only then will Britain be able to weigh up the cost in money and lives, and answer the question: was it worth it?

The father

‘He was my life. The loss of a child is unimaginable’

John Miller often arrives home from work in tears. It is now 21 months since his son Simon, a Royal Military Police corporal, was killed on duty in Iraq, and the Millers are still in mourning.

“When it’s your son, it’s just unimaginable,” says Mr Miller. “I have lost parents and I have lost brothers, but that spirals into insignificance with the trauma of losing a child.”

To date, 85 British servicemen and one woman have died on duty in Iraq. For many of their families, this weekend will be one of the toughest to bear – the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Even some of the most outspoken of the bereaved want to grieve in private.

Mr Miller, 32, a sales manager for an inventory management company near Washington, Tyne & Wear, is disarmingly candid about the deep bond he had with his youngest son, who was known in the family as Si. A promising midfielder, who trained with Cambridge reserves and was an ardent Sunderland fan, the young man dreamt of becoming a professional footballer.

“I had a fantastic relationship with Simon,” says his father. “He called me mate. My life was spent with Si, with his football and then with the Army. He was my life. I still cry every time when I come back from work.”

But Mr Miller, like many other fathers of Britain’s war dead, still feels rage and resentment about his son’s death. His wife, Marilyn, has been shattered by the loss and is unable to return to work.

Simon, then 21, was one of six Red Caps killed by an Iraqi mob in one of the most controversial incidents of the post-invasion occupation. His military police unit was sent, ill-equipped and without radios, into a tribal area allegedly left extremely tense by the Paratroop Regiment’s heavy-handed tactics several days earlier.

Mr Miller has campaigned vigorously to force the Ministry of Defence to acknowledge blame for Simon’s death – a charge ministers refuse to accept. And now, two years after Simon went to war, his parents no longer believe the invasion was legal or just.

At first, says Mr Miller, “We accepted the official case for the war and wanted to believe in it. We had to support Si as well. We didn’t want him thinking Joe Public didn’t want him there. We said: ‘We’re right behind you, Si.’ But with everything that has come to light since, we’re bewildered about why we were there. It was totally wrong.”

Even so, they face the same trauma again. Their eldest son, Jon, also a Red Cap, is due to go to Iraq next year. And again they will support their son. “He wants to see what Si saw and finish off what his brother started,” says Mr Miller.

The engineer

‘You want to cry, rip your hair out or hit something’

For Michael, there was his life before he went to war and his life after he came back. In February 2003, he was healthy, happy and married with a young family. Two years on, he is divorced and a recovering alcoholic who has suffered from repeated flashbacks of his experiences.

One of nearly 100 British soldiers who have served in Iraq and have been officially diagnosed as suffering post-traumatic stress, Michael still lives in the army town of Aldershot and is carefully rebuilding his life. He now has holidays in a treatment centre run by the military mental health charity Combat Stress.

A geographical engineer, Michael, 32, was a Territorial Army map-maker and terrain analyst with the Royal Engineers. Something of a peacekeeping veteran, he had seen the aftermath of the violence in Kosovo. But on 22 March 2003, he was in the first wave of the invasion of Iraq, enduring an attack it was feared could include biological or chemical weapons.

“Most of my post-traumatic stress is caused by the fact that we sustained constant fire for about five days. You would get back to bed and just be nodding off when you’d be woken up again. It gets to the point where you suffer stress and sleep deprivation … You want to cry or rip your hair out or hit something.”

Shortly after the invasion ended, Michael was flown home early because his wife was ill. Like thousands of demobilised soldiers before him, he believed he was coping. He was wrong.

“My wife found me very isolated. I had acid reflux and stomach acid problems. I got flashbacks, particularly of being shelled. I isolated myself from my friends. I started drinking and couldn’t sleep. I used to wake up in pools of sweat,” he says.

“For a time, the alcohol was a release. Emotionally, I was dead. I was withdrawn from my wife and children. She thought I was a different person, and that caused my marital problems.”

The reaction in Britain worsened the stress he was under. “I found it very hostile – more so than in the Gulf. There was an anti-war movement and I was even cursed by people when I went out. It feels like we’ve been let down in many ways.”

The major

‘I have lost my shooting finger. I just want to complete my tour’

It was the mission from hell. Major David Bradley and his unit were ordered to rescue nine British soldiers trapped in a rebel area of Basra, under heavy fire from Iraqi insurgents. The men from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment had to fight their way through some of the most hostile streets in the city, find their colleagues, and fight back out again.

They succeeded, but at some cost. Major Bradley became one of nearly 800 British troops seriously wounded in Iraq. Left with a partly ruined right hand, a reconstructed right shoulder and badly injured right eye, he faces months of further therapy and surgery.

The incident came at the height of the Shia insurgency last August. From the outset, his group of five Warrior armoured vehicles found itself under intense fire as they inched down the city’s wide boulevards. “We were under heavy fire, and I mean heavy fire,” he says. “It’s like having a wall of sound all around you – the clacking of small arms fire and the boom of an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade].

“I felt a pressure in my chest. I thought it was an RPG coming down on the turret. Later I found out it had hit my rifle and had exploded. I looked at my hand. I thought it had been sliced in half. I remember thinking, this is bad. I realised I had to get myself back and sorted out. We’d been hit by 10 to 15 RPGs. Everyone in the back had been injured, including our civilian translator.”

Hit by three RPGs, the officer had been severely wounded in the right shoulder and nearly lost an eye. In the field hospital, Canadian surgeons realised that shrapnel had penetrated his chest, severing a major vein. Gravely ill, Major Bradley was evacuated to the UK on a specially equipped medical plane, to be treated at the country’s leading military hospital at Selly Oak, near Birmingham.

Meanwhile, other members of his unit had found the nine isolated British troops and rescued them, despite heavy fire. Last Friday, five of Major Bradley’s company were given military honours – including one Conspicuous Gallantry Cross and one Military Cross.

“I have lost my shooting finger and my ideal shooting shoulder,” Major Bradley says. “I need to be able to see enough from my right eye to shoot. I just want to get back to full fitness. I just want to complete my tour.”

The TA volunteer

‘If we don’t turn up we could go to jail’

Being called up for her second tour in Iraq was probably one of the best things that could have happened to Jean Taylor. It means she is earning a living. Last April, she became one of Britain’s least-reported statistics from the Iraq war – one of 22 members of the Territorial Army known to have been sacked illegally by their civilian bosses while they were on duty in the Gulf.

Ms Taylor was a week away from finishing her 12-month tour of duty, overseeing equipment and troop movements in the war zones of south-eastern Iraq, when her employer, a shipping company based in North Wales, laid her off without warning.

For the next nine months she was unemployed, eking out a living on her now-exhausted savings. To add to her distress, the Ministry of Defence refused to give her any legal or expert advice on getting her job back. Although the Reserve Forces Act makes it unlawful to sack someone on active service without good reason, it does not provide for reservists like Ms Taylor to get legal aid.

“I had been pulled out of a secure job into a world of unexpected events which people can only imagine, and then put back on the streets without any support and basically left to get on with it by myself,” she says in an email from her posting near Basra. “I feel annoyed and upset and bothered and extremely let down. This causes stress and depression, especially financially. I wanted to go and buy a nice little dinghy and put a deposit down on a house.”

In a neat irony, the Army has temporarily solved that crisis by sending her back to Iraq. “The big plus is that as I have not worked for nine months, the money is really going to come in handy,” she says. “I’m happy to be here, as I enjoy my army/TA career.”

Welfare experts at the Royal British Legion believe cases such as Ms Taylor’s reveal a serious injustice. The TA is now being given more dangerous, frontline roles. More than 6,000 TA have been sent to Iraq and several killed, yet ministers refuse to change the law.

For Ms Taylor, there is a double injustice. “The Army can force us to go,” she explains. “If we don’t turn up when asked, we could be charged and, at worst, go to jail. But they can’t force our companies to give us our jobs back, even though it’s their legal obligation to keep us employed.”

Interviews by Severin Carrell

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