In the group we do, they say there’s three things: Jails, Institutions and Death. I’ve done jails, I’ve done institutions, the next one’s death. If I don’t deal with it and address it properly, then I will end up back out there. I will suppress it and I will end up doing something stupid. Because it’s all there in my head, like a can of worms being opened and not having a lid to put on it.Rifleman Michael. A chosen man.
1992, Omagh. Just turned 17, straight from depot. I can actually remember – I was with my brother you see, my brother went through my army training with me – I can remember when we were on the parade passing out. The RSM said “53!” which was me, and “74!” which was me brother, “Posted to Omagh, Northern Ireland!” I fuckin absolutely shit meself, d’you know what I mean?
And me brother just looked at me and winked. He said, “We’ll be alright, we’re together.” So we got through our leave and then we flew straight over to St Lucia Barracks in Omagh. Scary. To be honest with you, I enjoyed being in Ireland. Because our Battalion, the Royal Greenjackets – most of the soldiers out there were doing 6 month’s tours – we were there 2 and a half years. Got to see places, Omagh, went to Fermanagh, Londonderry, Strabane, Clady VCP, Rockwood, we were pretty much all over the gaff. When we left there we went to Cyprus, but I’d’ve done me 10 years in Ireland. Yeah, loved it.
Can you describe the first time you arrived there? Did you have a gun, did you have ammunition?
When we flew over there? No. Cos we flew from Liverpool airport on Manx airlines, and we landed at Belfast airport. And then straight away we were all hurried into this blue transit van, all in civvies. Two lads in the front in civvies, soldiers with weapons, but we didn’t know cos we was put in this blacked out van. We were gonna be driving for an hour, know what I mean. Sitting there thinking: oh my god. And it’s: keep the noise down, keep the noise down. When we pulled up in traffic: keep the noise down, don’t move. And we were all: fucking hell, this is the real shit. Then after an hour and 20 minutes I remember gates opening. That was it, you’d got inside the barracks.
What made it better for me was me brother. He was in a different van, behind us. As soon as we got to the camp, he turned up at a later date cos they took a different route. Yeah, soon as he got there the first thing he did was put his arms around me and say, “We’re gonna be alright.”
What was it like out on the streets for that first tour?
I can remember the first time, it was Omagh town. The first time you’re going out the gate you’re just — everything’s fresh from depot isn’t it? So you’re everywhere and all that.
As you’re gradually going down the streets you just see all the murals on the walls and things. Cos where we were in Omagh right behind the camp there was a place called Lisanelly Heights that was out of bounds to all troops. It was like: well what’s that about? Then when you’re on patrol you’re: “You Brit bastard!” And things come flying at you. Within the first 5 or 10 minutes out there we were getting bricked and bottled and spat at and called names, d’you know what I mean? Yknow, I was: fuckin hell! Every time you’d hear a bang you’d think it was contact or something and all that. But it was every day, it was: “Calm down lads, just breathe. Stay together, stay close we’re fine. We got two teams out here.”
But the pride I had! Walking through a town centre with a weapon. Obviously, with that little bit of — what…? control…? — over what’s going on, the surrounds and all that. I think it was more: “You’ll do as I say.” D’you know what I mean? Doing VCPs (vehicle checkpoints) we were in control. If you didn’t do what I say, you were getting pulled out the car, you were getting searched. If we weren’t happy, your car was going to Enniskillen to get stripped down and all that. If I said jump, and you didn’t say how high, you were going.
The shooters and all that, they call them Players. They’ve all got known by the Intelligence they’ve all got — every guardroom and if you’re going on patrol — you stand there for 15, 20 minutes looking at all their photographs. And for some reason my TR Terrorist Recognition was shit hot. I could see a face — “Blankety once did this”, Thomas Blankety, Karl Brogan, whatever the names were. They said I should be in Intelligence, I was quick, so I was always the point man. The man with the ID or whatever. I don’t know where it come from.
It was a gift you had.
I could spot. I remember one day being out on guard duty in the sanger. There was a big pub, called the Royal Oak or something, right outside the camp. Sangers have four windows. I can remember filling me log sheet. Took me helmet off, feet up and all that. Weapon. I could see a gas van pulled up. I seen two fellas get out, blah blah. Boomf! As soon as I looked down the sight. As soon as I looked at em I thought: I know that, GH, an IRA member. So I just got on the radio. Boomf! “Player out here.” I mean, just silly little things on VCPs. We’d pull em, “You got your license please?” And I’d be thinking, I know that face, I know that face. In seconds the name would come and, “We’ve got such and such here.” Get em out the car and search them. It was a gift I suppose.
The first time we were contacted, that’s when it was like… Boomf! I love this! The adrenaline starts pumping and you’re in control. Fuckin hell! I’m a fuckin 17 or 18-year-old kid and I’m fucking firing, fucking shooting at somebody. It was more of a turn on and a buzz, which was great. But obviously, things happen. We had a contact where one of our lads lost his life in front of us. We had a contact where, the team’s come under contact, three of our lads came under fire. 114 rounds in the car, killed two of em. It’s things you have to deal with after. The investigations, the guilt. There’s two people dead, but at the end of the day that’s what I’m training for isn’t it? At the end of the day it’s him or me. If we hadn’t of got them they’d have probably killed one of us. Goes without saying doesn’t it really. Dunnit?
To me, as a kid, when the soldiers first arrived, in the very very early days of it all, we just thought it was fantastic. It was really exciting, armoured cars whizzing around and people with guns…
But then I can remember being on patrol, in fact it was in Omagh, something had happened in Lisanelly Heights and we’d gone in there. There’d been a contact, and it come over the radio that the car had gone into Lisanelly Heights. Now obviously it was out of bounds and we’ve had to go in there on a foot patrol.
Going through this little cul-de-sac thing there was a bit of an entry way. We could hear what we all thought was fireworks going up but they was gun-flashes and things and there was a couple of weapons being fired up in the air. I can remember we were patrolling down and we seen a group of girls. They were like, “Oh yay Brits!” We thought OK, but we was looking for weapons. They come up to us, “Kiss ya! Can I try yer hat on?” And the next minute they started spitting at you and trying to scratch your eyes out. One girl pulled me — used to have a sling on your weapon, so it couldn’t be pulled off you — she grabbed me, grabbed me body armour. As she pulled, it went forward like that and she tried to pour lager down me. Then smashed the glass and cut me. Little things like that.
So it turned nasty really quick?
On the VCPs (Vehicle Checkpoints) like Claddy… Like on the border going into Southern Ireland, and like The Hump VCP, which was in Strabane. There you’d get cars coming through and you’d stop every car, or every other car, or whatever you thought was suspicious. Every VCP, you would always have a gunner there with a Gimpy, General Purpose Machine Gun, always watching. You’d have your weapon, checking ID and that, letting them through. You’d get them, 90% of them lovely people, “Youse are doing well, made up…” Little things, bags of sweets and, “Are you alright, d’you need a drink?” And all that. But then you’d get people driving through, as they’re going through I’d get shit parcels thrown at me. Bottles of piss. I’ve had petrol bombs thrown while I was on the VCPs.
It sounds really stressful, because the situations you’re describing are hard to get your head around.
I’m meant to be seeing a psychiatrist, because they’re saying… I wasn’t diagnosed with PTSD but they’re saying… From what happened with me last year with the shooting, has brought a lot of things back to me. I’ve started having nightmares, I’m getting flashbacks. I’m trying to… Well we all know, whatever substances we put in ourselves it suppresses it. Puts it all to bed. Nothing was getting relived, I was getting on with life. But since I haven’t been using drugs, it’s bringing a lot of things back. I’ll be honest with you, I do wake up sometimes of a morning, sometimes, a couple of times I’ve pissed myself in bed. I’ve woke up and I’ve been crying and I’m getting flashbacks and seeing lights.
I’ve seen visions there. Seen one of our lads lose his life in front of us. How that happened: it was on the High Street. The road was up above and there was railings all around. The lad — y’know God bless him — that was through one of our own lads, negligent discharge. Accidentally shot him in the head. All the fucking, used to call them Bogweeds, all the Irish round there were: “Ha ha, you Brit bastard!” As we were trying to pick our mate up who’d just been fuckin — half his head blown off. They were all round, cheering at us, throwing petrol bombs at us. At the end of it y’know, we had to fuckin y’know… horrible sights and that’s what I have horrible visions of now. We had to brush his remains down a grid, y’know what I mean? …His blood and his head. Brains. And you’ve got all them cheering, laughing, joking, spitting. Petrol bombs and fuckin bricks. Jus things you gotta deal with. I – I – I – never thought it would affect me. But y’know. Later on when the drugs have gone and you’re thinking clearly, it’s suddenly boomf!
I darent… I’ll be open with you… I’ve nearly never really thought about what effect it would have had on me. But it has had an affect on me, because the last two or three years, I’ve contemplated suicide. A few times. Over trying to get these visions to stop.
It sounds like you are addressing it now very seriously.
It’s a case of having to isn’t it? Otherwise it’s going to lead to… In the group we do, they say there’s three things: Jails, Institutions and Death. I’ve done jails, I’ve done institutions, the next one’s death. If I don’t deal with it and address it properly, then I will end up back out there. I will suppress it and I will end up doing something stupid. Because it’s all there in my head, like a can of worms being opened and not having a lid to put on it.
It’s time to face it. With being clean and in recovery, there is people here that can help. People get PTSD through accidents and things. I’m not blowing trumpets for veterans, but people who have been in wars and zones of conflicts, I think it’s a bit harder for them to deal with. Because they’ve got to deal with that and they’ve got to deal with real life situations out here. Put the two together. I don’t even know the percentage of people who have been in situations like that and come back to civvy street and ended up on drugs or alcohol.
We all feel things, we are all humans.
The last thing I was going to ask you about… I wonder if you think of fire?
Smoke, fire… It sounds weird but, you could smell the loss of life. Do you know what I mean? The bodies that have been burnt and bodies that weren’t found. Bodies pulled out alive. RUC members, and a couple of our lads were burnt. The smell of burning clothes, burnt plastic. We had to carry back one lad and all his clothes was melted to him. I remember burning skin, them pungent smells. Even out here there’s certain things that trigger that smell and automatically your brain goes boomf! And then once you’ve got that smell in your nostrils, it’s like a photographic thing in your memory. Obviously, innit? Fuckin hell, here we go.
Even now when I go to bed of a night I still ain’t sleeping properly. I can go to bed at 2 o’clock in the morning and I’m up at 4 o’clock and I’ll do a full day. I dunno what it is, but as soon as I lie my head down on my pillow something hits my head and I just go. “Here we go again.” And it’s just booooo-wooooo-woooomf!
Before, when we were doing that bit of work there (writing workshop) like when you were saying go through the senses, smell and hearing and all that. What I put down was what had happened. That was real, it wasn’t just what I’d thought of. Some of it was from the night when Georgie got killed. Cos it was a VCP and we went QRF and it went boomf.
Pissing down with rain, dirty sky. I can remember looking up, at the cordon, looking up at the lampposts and I just seen the rain coming down and cars coming past and sirens and flashing round. People on the balconies. I can hear all the cheers and the screams. And bricks landing and bottles landing. And “Take Cover!” Oh it was just…
Michael was interviewed by Philip Davenport, at Tom Harrison House, Liverpool, 2018