In Britain, survivors dread knock of Iraq war

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON - The worst of news in wartime almost always begins the same way, with a knock on the door.

For each soldier's death in Iraq - whether it be one of the 1,423 Americans killed as of Friday, the 75 British, the 19 Italians, the 16 Poles, the two Dutch, the single Latvian - a circle of survivors exists. Each survivor reacts differently to the knock.

The survivors know Iraq is holding elections today, and that months or years from now, it might be clear what changes the elections will have brought.

Whatever officials are saying, though, and whatever historians might say in the future, the cost of the war for those survivors is being felt now, as some of them explained in face-to-face interviews conducted this month in Great Britain.

For a mother in Scotland, the knock on the door meant she awaits the birth of a grandchild without all the pleasure she once had, because her son has been lost and the child will have no father. For a woman in England, it meant she was a widow at age 31; the death of her husband meant her becoming an activist, to make sure that every British soldier would be equipped with the body armor that might have saved his life. For a young lieutenant colonel - six of his soldiers killed under his command - it meant soldiering on.

The U.S. Department of Defense provides little information about American soldiers killed. The British Ministry of Defense writes obituaries for all soldiers lost, providing information on how they were killed, comments from commanders who knew them, who the survivors are and, in some cases, what an investigation has determined about how the deaths might have been avoided.

Examining that information from the Ministry of Defense Web site (www.mod.uk and linking to "operation tenic"), the survivors below were chosen to provide some cross section of those touched by the death of soldiers on the battlefield.

War makes for a lot of stories, grief far from the battlefields. What follows, in the form of conversations condensed with permission of the speakers, is a sampling of what the fighting in Iraq has meant.

Every survivor reacts differently to the knock on the door that follows the death of a soldier in Iraq. Here are some survivor stories from Great Britain, which has lost 75 in the war.

Man in tweed suit brings the news

SGT. STEVE ROBERTS, 33

Sgt. Steve Roberts, 33, was shot in the chest and killed near Basra on March 23, 2003. His wife, Samantha, became a widow at 31.

The body armor Roberts should have been wearing, and which might have saved his life, had been given to another soldier because there was a shortage ... and the sergeant spent most of his time fighting from inside a tank.

Sunday night I just couldn't sleep. It was really very early hours of the war and I had a terrible night, and I was due to go into work. ... It was half past 10, and I was still in my pajamas out on the sofa, and you can see from the sofa to the gate. And I could see this guy come in, and he was in a tweed suit. He wasn't in uniform. But as soon as I got to the door I knew it was a military man. I don't know how; I just did. And I said to him, "Can I help you?" He just got out his ID card and I knew.

I opened the door, and he asked and confirmed who I was. And he said, "I'm very sorry to have to tell you this, but, you know, your husband has been killed in action." He said, "Your husband has been shot. He's been killed in action," and I said, "Thank you very much for coming but I think you've made a mistake. My husband's a tank commander. He'd be in a tank. He wouldn't be around on the ground being shot."

Then he got out this kind of fax and it had Steve's name, rank, number and said "Killed in action." And that was that, really.

It was basically, bring him home. That was like the next thing. When's he going to come back? It was two weeks. ... And that just seemed like an eternity. In the Falklands war, if that's where you died, that's where you stayed. But he was, thankfully, brought home.

I remember thinking, you know, if one family could live now - a few children or even one child - could live in relative peace and freedom because Steve had lost his life - then it could have been seen as being worth it. I know as well that it's probably too early to tell. But if anything good comes out of that war, it still remains that it wasn't planned very well. It doesn't seem that there was a lot of forethought given to what would happen once we stopped dropping the bombs.

Army his goal since age 8, mother says

PVT. PAUL LOWE, 19

PVT. PAUL Lowe was killed by a suicide bomber near Fallujah on Nov. 4. He was 19. His regiment, the Black Watch, had been sent to take charge of the area while U.S. troops attacked Fallujah.

Besides fighting duties, Lowe played in the regiment's pipes and drums band. He was regarded, even at his young age, as a well-trained soldier, but part of what has been so difficult for the militaries in Iraq is that it can be next to impossible to stop an enemy willing to blow himself up.

Lowe's mother, Helen Lowe, is 41. He was 12 when his father died and, his mother says, even that young he took his role as man of the house seriously. Another son, Craig, 18, is also a member of the Black Watch and has served in Iraq. He was home on leave in Scotland when his family got the knock on the door. At a memorial service for his brother, Craig played with the band.

He dreamt of being in the Army since he was 8 years old. He went in at 16 for his training. He would tell his brothers, "I'm not going to be around, so look after your mum, help her out."

When he went to Iraq, he said, "Don't worry yourself, I'll look after Craig." The last time I heard from him was the Sunday before he died. ... I said, "Keep your head down, love," and he said, "I'll duck twice for you."

When he went into the army for training, he came back after six weeks, and he was a different person. He went away a boy and came back a man. Don't get me wrong - he wasn't a complete angel. He had his moments. ... But when he came back he was ... more serious about life.

Now he's gone but - of course, I'm sad - but life goes on. I got four other sons to take care of. We're proud of what he did. He died a hero. He died what he loved doing. ...

I think losing his father so young made him tougher, and it made him know that life isn't forever. He'd get excited about something and I'd say, "Settle down, no need to rush everything, you can do it tomorrow." And he'd say, "No, we could all be dead tomorrow."

I met the Black Watch boys when they came back, and there was a memorial service. ... I'm glad I made it. It helped me to accept that Paul wasn't going to be coming home.

I worry about Craig, all my boys. But I wouldn't stop any of them from going in the army. At the end of the day, it's not about my life. ... It's up to my boys to decide how to live their lives.

War leaves circle of survivors

Soldier's brother says 'gun is the law' in Iraq

SGT. SIMON HAMILTON-JEWELL, 41

SGT. SIMON Alexander Hamilton-Jewell was killed June 24, 2003, in an abandoned police station in Maja al-Kabir. He was 41.

His older brother, Tony Hamilton-Jewell, 58, was not satisfied with how the British army was investigating the death, which occurred after a separate patrol was engaged in a firefight with Iraqis. Several Iraqis were killed.

'H,' as he was known to his brother, and five other Red Caps, men from the Royal Military Police, became the target of an armed mob of about 300 Iraqis. The soldiers took cover in the station, and all were killed when they ran out of ammunition.

Tony Hamilton-Jewell arrived in Iraq with a small group, including Charles Goldsmith, an active-duty British soldier, known as Chaz, who was the sergeant's best friend.

When we got to the police station we were basically surrounded by AK-47s, and that can be a little intimidating. The gun is their way of life. Even at the police station, the Arabic translation above the door was, "The gun is the law."

I think essentially my mind was occupied with concern of the other people around me. You don't put yourself first. There are other people with you. And I was involving other people in this. That kind of occupies your mind. I laid six little poppies, one for each of the boys, and I laid a small, 6-inch wreath on the floor.

The room where they were killed was 3 meters by 2 meters. A tiny little room. Not a good place to die.

Looking into the room itself, in actual fact, all the bullet holes were still in the room. At that point, a couple of things went through my mind. One was, I hoped I could walk into the room where they had died, and they'd meet me in there, and I could bring them home. Which is a ridiculous thing to think, but it was the emotion of it. It was at that point where it hit home.

So, we did a minute of silence within a bundle of noise, because the Iraqis have no real understanding of what we do. So there was a lot of noise going on. But I had control of myself, and Chaz had stood behind me, and tears were running down his face. And that's where I lost it. Because it was the emotion, I suppose, of seeing him crying sort of started me off.

I cried, and the bottom lip was going, and I was quite distraught over that painful fact - that I couldn't bring "H" and the boys home with me. I went from there to the chief of the town, and I said, "Look, you really do have my apologies for what happened to the people in the town." And they were quite emotional as well.

George Bush and Tony Blair think holding elections is going to be the conclusion to our problems. It's not. It's just the start of our problems. Look, 9/11 was disgusting. But think about the response. The trouble is, terrorism is not a country. ... It's worldwide. It has been for thousands of years.

Distraught 'mum' left with no time to grieve

PVT. SCOTT McARDLE, 22

PVT. Scott McArdle was killed with Pvt. Paul Lowe. He was 22. His fiancee, Sarah McLaren, was seven months pregnant at the time with their first child.

His mother cannot bear to speak of the loss of her only son so she has her brother, Martin McArdle, 38, handle that. But the whole family took it hard. Somehow, before he was killed, most in the family had a bad feeling about his returning to Iraq after leave.

Scott McArdle had served in Kosovo. He had left the military briefly but rejoined his unit because, his family says, he knew he would need a paycheck to support his fiancM-i and their new daughter.

It's been torture. My mum has had no real time to grieve. It happened Nov. 4, and then there was two weeks of waiting for the body to come back. Then it was Scott's birthday after that, Dec. 19. Then there was Christmas. Then New Year's. Now, his personal belongings are due back from Iraq. And then the baby's due.

Her overall feeling has been, out of all the guys there, "Why him?" You know, it was time for Scott's tea break when he got killed but he told his mate, "No, you go first. I'll go later." And then the bomb came.

His mum's become so protective of his sister. She won't let her go anywhere, and she cries all the time.

I guess my sister has made some progress because she's finally got to the angry stage, like, "They killed my son for what?"

We were raised Catholic but only went when we were forced to. So she's decided she wants to see a spiritualist eventually. Everybody told her to wait a year but she wants to see if he's OK.

It's everybody who's suffering, the whole family. My dad's taken it very bad because he was very close with Scott. When Scott'd be home, every Sunday they'd sit together and watch football and drink a couple tins of beer. Since Scott got killed, dad's been very moody, snapping at people sometimes. Or one minute he's be fine and the next he'll be in tears.

I don't want to complain because it's Scott who got killed. But like I said, it's the whole family suffering. We'll go on but if I'm being honest the family will never be the same.

Black Watch commander lost 7 soldiers

COL. JAMES COWAN

LT. COL. James Cowan is 40 and alive.

But as commander of the 1st Battalion, the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), his regiment lost seven soldiers since the beginning of the war.

The Black Watch mission near Fallujah became a top news story in Britain because, until then, British soldiers had been assigned to control the southern part of Iraq, where attacks on troops have been less frequent than further north.

The loss of the Black Watch soldiers concentrated the grief of Britons in a small area of Scotland - in and around Fife - because the Black Watch recruits only from that small area and so, it seems, everybody from there knows some family of somebody killed.

Nobody ever wants to lose a soldier, Cowan says from the regiment's headquarters. But that is war.

We're the Black Watch, not the Girl Guides here. We're not a bunch of soldiers who necessarily take counsel of their worst fears. There was no sense that, "Oh, this is a terrible triangle of death." To be honest, the triangle of death was a press invention. I wasn't even sure at the time where it was supposed to be.

Whatever one's views about whether we should have gone to war in the first place, and I understand that there were many people very divided on that subject, I find it hard to believe that there is any real case of withdrawing now.

I believe whatever the rights and wrongs of going there in the first place, we owe it to Iraq, now that we're there, to see them through this and to bring them out the other side and restore peace to that country.

To leave now would be grossly irresponsible and would plunge that country into civil war and to the most appalling levels of bloodshed, that nobody - either a pacifist or one who believes in the use of military force - could possibly justify, and I find people of whatever disposition, who say we should withdraw now, very, very irresponsible.

We lost one soldier in the war, and we've lost six since.

I would address myself to the families of the six who died since. I would say the role the British army is playing in Iraq now is an honorable one and a worthwhile one and so we were right to be there. We are right to be there.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
39°