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Capt. Doug Beattie, MC, The Daily Telegraph

“And not to call us ‘squaddies’. ‘Squaddie’ is saying we are all the same. We are all different.”

Doug Beattie MC, Capt. (Rtd.) of the Royal Irish Regiment, walks across Northallerton Station car park in a Hawaiian shirt and cotton trousers, his watery-blue eyes smiling.

“Sorry about the car.”- a melodious Ulster chuckle -  “It’s the wife’s. Real hairdresser’s car.” Big frame buckled into the sporty BMW, Beattie, 43, drives us through Yorkshire lanes, lively and chatty, asking about London. He avoids it, disliking crowds. Even Catterick market sparks bad memories: pulling two terrified Baathists from an avenging mob in Iraq in 2003; suicide bombs on his 2006 and 2008 tours of Afghanistan.

Beattie’s first book An Ordinary Soldier narrated the frantic, bitter retaking of Garmsir in 2006, where he won his Military Cross. To quote the citation, “In the initial phase he personally led the fight and guided police in an advance over 1.5 kilometres, outflanking Taliban positions and unhinging their defences.”

Task Force Helmand covers 2008, as Beattie and his small regimental detachment ‘mentor’ Afghan National Army soldiers. It is an intense account of patrols, exhaustion, ambush, death, friendship and fear, movingly told.

The Beatties’ flat is barracks-neat. Margaret, Beattie’s petite, dark-haired wife of 22 years, makes tea. On the wall hangs a forest green Royal Irish banner, presented on Beattie’s retirement as Regimental Sergeant Major, one landmark in a 27 year progress through the ranks.

His Sergeant Major father, and two brothers, served in the regiment. After retirement, Beattie’s father joined the Ulster Defence Regiment during the Troubles. One bored afternoon, the 15 year old Beattie found his pistol in their Portadown home and accidentally shot a friend. (He survived.)

“I remember seeing the hole and the blood. But I remember more that my father was embarrassed.”

Keen to prove his maturity, Beattie enlisted in the Royal Irish at 16. His father, a widower struggling with grief and alcohol, missed the passing off parade.

“I don’t believe he didn’t care but my father came from that era where you don’t show emotion.” He died of cancer earlier this year.

“They had to take his throat box out so he never got a chance to say he loved me, that he was proud of me. I’m sure he was proud. About two weeks before he passed away he hugged me for the first time I remember. I took that as his way of saying what he’d wanted to in previous years.”

Beattie is close to his own children, Luke, 19, and Leigh, 21, (mother of grandson Tristan, one). There is no pressure on Luke to enlist.

“I don’t think that matters. I’m extremely proud of him for the person he is and I tell him and I hug him. He’s a nice guy and there is a lot to be said for nice people.”

This gentleness of Beattie’s surfaced with the MC: its award made him cry. Why?

He holds his hands together on the dining table, looks straight at me.

“Shame, and a feeling of worthlessness: the young men who would never return home or would return home physically or mentally injured, to receive nothing. It’s humbling. And some of the acts I had done in 2006 in Afghanistan, I haven’t been able to reconcile with myself.”

He describes ordering an airstrike on an enemy communications building, knowing it would kill three already injured Taliban.

“I felt it was right. Then you leave Afghanistan, you don’t have that fear, and you think: did I need to do that? If I hadn’t they probably would have lived, would never have fought back.”

The relentless fighting on his second tour changed him.

“In 2008 the fact that I had to take enemy lives never bothered me. Maybe the fact I am sitting here saying, ‘That is the wrong way to feel’ is a way of coming to terms with it. I see myself as a compassionate man. But getting my men out alive was my priority. I didn’t care about anything else.”

Writing about Afghanistan, then showing Margaret, was cathartic but troubling.

“This guy you have known for this many years has the ability to thrust a bayonet through a living person. There’s a fear people would see something different in you, not the loving father.”

Does he still have the Afghanistan nightmares described in An Ordinary Soldier?

“I do and I get taken off guard by loud noises. The sights, smells and sounds of Afghanistan will I think always be with me.”

Why did Beattie, due to retire in 2007, agree to return to Afghanistan in 2008?

“I belonged to the last Irish regiment in the British Army, a small, tight knit group. I knew Afghanistan. I could tell them what to do, what not to and hopefully save lives. I couldn’t watch it like some voyeur on television.”

He still can’t: Beattie recently agreed to enlist in the Territorial Army to train soldiers for Afghanistan. Will he have to return there?

“Well you sign on the dotted line. If things change and they say ‘We need a Captain, you fit the profile, will you go?’ I would.”

What does Margaret think?

“She hates the thought but understands. We’ve had a very strong marriage. Although if I told her I was going back tomorrow there would be big, big arguments.”

Beattie smiles, right arm across a chair back. Tattooed on the forearm are his and Margaret’s names, in Pashtu. But he has had two families.

“In Afghanistan, your family is the men you are with. It’s why our guys do what they do. It’s not for Queen and country, not for the gratitude of the population, it’s for the young men on your left or right.”

How could he repeatedly, deliberately, expose himself to fire in Afghanistan? Beattie returns to camaraderie. “Fear of failure: fear that you have led your men into a situation where one of them is going to be killed. So you want to be where you can influence the conflict. If that is by standing up where there are bullets, you do. Men are doing that as we speak.”

Does he worry he is attracted to war? Again the answer is in his men.

“I do worry. But there is a feeling of worth about commanding young men in situations like that. And it does drag you back. Not to kill. Not that I want to fight. I am just drawn back to men grouped together, going out together.”

Task Force Helmand is thoughtful, compassionate, sometimes disturbing. (Beattie angrily recounts Afghan militias sexually abusing their young chai boys.) But won’t some buy it just for the fighting?

“That is a problem. I’d like people to read the book to get an idea of the soldier. The pain you feel on failure, the pain you feel on success. And not call us squaddies. ‘Squaddie’ is saying we are all the same. We are all different.”

I ask to see this soldier’s medals. The Military Cross feels surprisingly delicate, slight. There are nine more medals, from Northern Ireland to the Iraq War to Afghanistan. A silver oak leaf sits on the Iraq Medal’s ribbon: the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, for rescuing those Baathists from the mob. “The MC was for killing. This was for saving lives.”

8 October 2009

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