‘It never goes away’: three Britons on how the Iraq war changed their lives
The Iraq war left a profound mark on the UK. It forced the country to face up to its role, having initially helped rid Iraq of a brutal dictator, in the years of deadly chaos that followed. At home, meanwhile, it acted as the catalyst for one of the most popular domestic antiwar movements the country has seen.
The conflict also left many people in the UK asking: could they ever really trust their political leaders at a time of national crisis again? And could it ever be right to send young men and women to war without having first exhausted all peaceful means – and without a clear idea of what they were even meant to achieve once they got there?
Twenty years on from the Iraq invasion, some of those who were involved have been reflecting on how it changed their lives.
“It never goes away. It’s there from the minute you shut your eyes to the minute you wake up.”
Rose Gentle is talking about the death of her 19-year-old son, Fusilier Gordon Gentle, who served in Iraq with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. But her words could be those of any one of the millions of people directly touched by the conflict.
The course of Gentle’s life was changed irreversibly when she learned her son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Basra on 28 June 2004. He was out on a patrol that was later found to have been underequipped for the job.
She went from leading a quiet family life to running a high-profile campaign for justice for her son and others. “The more I heard about Iraq, [the more] I thought there’s something not right. And that’s what triggered me off to start the campaign to find out why we went into Iraq,” she says in an interview marking Monday’s 20th anniversary of the invasion.
Gentle is a founder member of Military Families Against the War, which campaigned for the Chilcot inquiry, as well as for better equipment for those who were still serving there.
Her campaigning led her to stand as an independent in the 2005 general election against Adam Ingram – then the armed forces minister – in the East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow constituency. She also tried to sue Tony Blair, the prime minister who sent her son to war.
She says she felt she needed to stand to give voice to the families of the bereaved. Political leaders “don’t want to hear the true stories of how the families have been fighting and how they’ve suffered. So I thought: ‘Well, if it’s the only way we can do this, we’ll do it’. People in East Kilbride were absolutely fantastic. They were. A lot of people were so supportive”.
Gentle looks back over the campaigning life Iraq led her to live. Had Gordon survived Iraq – or had he never been deployed in the first place – would she have found another cause to throw her energy into or would it have been different?
“If he was still here and hadn’t been in the army, yeah, probably my life would have been different. It probably would have been. This was just something I felt I had to do for my son … I probably would’ve had a quiet life.”
Now though, she says, her campaigning days are over – replaced by private efforts to bring support to fellow bereaved relatives. But they could start up again if more revelations about the UK’s involvement in Iraq were to come out.
Her son was one of 179 British armed forces personnel or MoD civilians killed in Iraq, while more than 3,000 were wounded. Some of those who made it home physically unscathed were left asking themselves: ‘Why them and not me?’
Craig Mealing, a senior non-commissioned officer, served two tours in Iraq as a combat engineer. “I’ve been quite lucky – no one in my section’s been injured. We’ve just had close calls.
“And other people have, obviously, not been as lucky. Walking away with it, you get a bit of guilt as well: that other people have suffered. I managed to walk away with it and other people haven’t been that lucky. And you get that guilt trip a bit.”
Years later, and having retired in 2013, he found himself struggling with his mental health. “When I left the army, I started to get into trouble, basically. My relationship broke down … And then, I went to Combat Stress [a veterans’ charity] in 2015 and I started the programme there.”
If he could say just one thing to his compatriots, it would be to remember that those who served in conflicts such as Iraq still need their help. If he could say just one thing to his comrades, he would plead with them to come forward and get that help if they could use it.
The key to working out a coping mechanism for his own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he says, was the discovery of a potter’s wheel at Combat Stress.
He says he was “intrigued” by the TV programme The Great Pottery Throw Down: “It’s something I’ve watched in the background and I thought I’d have a go … and I just found [pottery] quite relaxing. For me, it’s a sense of achievement, I find it a bit rewarding and you get something out of it … It’s a way of having a sense of purpose. It’s my way of grounding myself as well.”
He says he was asked to apply to the Channel 4 show, but declined for fear of putting undue pressure on himself and losing his hobby as a means of controlling his condition. “It becomes a chore, not a pleasure. The pottery’s there as a way of helping me relax. If I turn it into a business or something like that, or take it up full-time, it then becomes a chore and it takes that enjoyment away.”
He does not want a return to the bad times. “This year has probably been one of my best years. But, the years before that, I was a mess. A real mess.”
Specific experiences took Mealing back to his time in Iraq. “The heat was just horrendous. It was just so hot. I work in the port London Gateway; there’s an oil refinery there. If I smell on a hot day, the oil, it brings me back into that position again; brings me back to remembering stepping off the plane.
“All I can remember associating to Iraq is stepping off the plane and smelling the oil because it was just constantly burning everywhere – in the distance, the oil fields – and that’s all you could smell was thick oil. And that still affects me now. If I smell that it brings me back into that place.”
Part of the experience in Iraq, Mealing explains, was a cocktail of emotions. It may not be as readily acknowledged in public, but one of those is excitement.
“I’ve been in situations where it is exciting,” says Mealing. “But, when you reflect on it, you go: ‘Oh my effing God, that was close’. At the time, you don’t think like that, you go into autopilot. It is exciting. It’s the time afterwards, when you have time to reflect, you start to go ‘shit that is quite close’.”
Referring to the onset of his PTSD, he adds: “I can’t put it down to a single incident that has triggered that. But I think that a number of instances over the time have made me a bit more wary of stuff. And I think, as you get older, you become more fearful. As a child, as a 16-year-old, it’s exciting. As you get older, when you have children and responsibilities, that fear starts to creep in a bit more.”
Mark, whose surname has been withheld to protect his identity, served two tours as a psychiatric nurse, helping individual personnel process their emotions and advising commanders on how to look after their charges’ mental health.
“There was that sense of excitement, it’s a sense of doing what it’s all about, I guess,” he says of being deployed to join the initial invasion force in 2003.
“You think of my day-to-day job in Germany: a lot of routine; rocking up at the office, having a clinic. Life gets a little bit samey sometimes. Whereas, when you deploy, there’s a lot of unknown elements to it … You don’t quite know the conditions … There were risks there.
“The excitement is the sense of a bit of adventure, a bit of an unknown quantity. It’s away from the normal routine of things.”
But he echoes some of Mealing’s thoughts about reflecting later on what exactly happened. Even though he was an experienced member of the armed forces by 2003, having served in several theatres before deployment to Iraq, he admits he had been somewhat foolhardy as he pushed across the border.
He says his second tour was marked more by fear of a people who no longer wanted the British army in Iraq and of insurgents who would put their positions under indirect fire – rounds often falling close to where he was holding his clinic.
Mark left the army, but his job means he helps fellow veterans look after their mental health. “In my contact with the people I come across within Combat Stress, I can use my experiences to empathise with the guys and girls who have experienced and who have suffered. And I can bring that to the table – I’ve had that shared experience with them. I was there. I know what they’re talking about.”
Referring to his comrades, he says he would expect to see the normal range of mental health issues, albeit the army’s vetting and training processes usually mean lower levels of symptoms such as psychosis. PTSD is, of course, one.
But did Iraq change him personally? “This is the kind of stuff when I would have done briefings, I would talk about; how our experiences change us. Not only when servicemen and women deploy – they change because of their experience – but [also] the people we leave behind, – wives, families – they change because of what they’re going through. We all change.
“Yes, I’m sure I’ve changed. I’d like to think I’ve changed for the better, in the sense of I’m a bit more worldly experienced. I’ve seen the world at large and I’ve witnessed these conflicts that have happened around the world. And then, obviously, in Iraq.”
There is one reflection on the conflict that united Gentle, Mealing and Mark: pride.
In 2017, Gentle was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Glasgow for her campaigning. At the time, she declared herself delighted. So, did it make her proud to have honoured her son? “I’m not the one who’s done proud. It’s Gordon who’s done proud. Gordon’s done us proud,” she says.
For Mealing, it is the feeling that he did the job it was his duty to do. “I’m quite proud of what I’ve achieved because not many people have done what I’ve done. And people take the piss out of me at work. They go: ‘Oh, Uncle Albert over there, with his war stories.’ But I’m quite proud of what I achieved. Iraq, whether I agreed or disagreed with it, I look back now and think to myself: ‘Us, as a British army, we did the best we could have done.’”
Iraq left its stamp on the history of the UK like few other conflicts have. As Mark puts it: I’m glad I was there, part of history.”