Ryan was 22 when we met. He and his friend were racing wheelchairs up and down the corridors of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham UK. The Sister in charge was giving them holy hell and trying to round them up but having little success. Before long another wheelchair joined in, visitors heading towards the general wards looked aghast, didn’t know what to make of it all. Some looked on with pity, most looked embarrassed.
I was there to visit my late mother who was recovering after a fall. She didn’t like the food so as usual I had come stocked up with goodies…some a little too aromatic maybe.
“Mmmmm whatcha got in there?” asked Ryan sniffing the air.
The next day saw a couple of quiche and a fruit jelly or six dropped off on the military ward with his name on the bag.
Over time we got to chatting. Just like many of us can pick out someone in the military it seems the military can spot a medic…even an ex-medic. Just by the way I reacted, unafraid to look at stumps where arms and legs used to be and because I was able to ask where they were in their treatment stood me aside from ‘civvie’ visitors apparently. That and the fact that a few years before I had helped set up the military trauma unit at a nearby hospital seemed to mark me as ‘different’.
There had been four people in the vehicle that had driven over an IED on a dusty road just outside Kandahar that day, all of them lost limbs, the two in the front lost both legs, the two in the back one leg and one of them an arm as well from the resulting roll over of the vehicle. The latter died before help arrived
Ryan and Mike, the other lad in the front, remember little from that time though Mike tells you without a trace of self-pity he looked at a leg lying in the sand and thought to himself ‘some poor bastard just got his day ruined’ whose leg it was he never found out.
Ryan’s first formative memory after the event is finding out he was back in the UK and his mom was by his bed crying. He said that was his first real moment of panic because he thought he was dead, he thought he was in Afghanistan and knew his mom wasn’t, therefore he must be dead. He was ecstatic when he found out he was alive, even the news he had lost his legs didn’t dampen his enthusiasm at that point.
An officer knocked and came into the visitors room we were chatting in…general visiting wasn’t for another hour and I had arrived early to deliver the food. Both men saluted.
“Forgive me if I don’t get up Sir” said Mike. Ryan looked blankly ahead biting his bottom lip in an attempt not to laugh. I made to excuse myself but was told I could stay as he’d just popped in to say hello and had other people to visit.
“Yeah, there’s a few of us here at the minute” Mike said more thoughtful than a minute before. I fetched coffee from the urn in the corner, the officer declined and after a couple of minutes he left.
“Not bad for a Rupert” Ryan said breaking into a fit of giggles.
“Keep smiling chaps” Mike added mimicking the upper class public school accent of the ‘Rupert’ a slang term for British Officers from the upper classes who often have names such as Rupert, or St John (pronounced Sinjun), often followed by a double barreled surname. British spelling and pronunciation often don’t match, hence confusion over names…so what looks like St John Menzies- Dalziel is pronounced Sinjun Mingies-Dee-ell…far easier to call them all Rupert!
So, Rupert having taken his leave we sat down with coffee and a dozen apple and cinnamon muffins that seem to have attracted two more soldiers in various states of disrepair. One lost a foot the other one arm at the shoulder the other at the elbow.
Without missing a beat a muffin was broken into bite sized pieces and popped into his mouth as required, coffee held so he could drink it from a straw.
The conversation ebbed and flowed, none of them unwilling to discuss their injuries, all of them agreeing would be great if a solution could be found, all of them agreeing it’s unlikely that it would happen in their lifetimes. I asked why.
“Because of the culture and the nature of the fighters involved…it will never happen. If this lot get whacked another group will take their place, and another and another. Then one day they will get organised and then the real trouble will begin, they will bring the fight to us.”
Mike took over.
“See they are unorganised to some degree, left hand right hand and all that. When they get their tribal differences over with and get together as a proper unit with a plan we will be in real trouble, and it won’t just be the military they hit, it will be civilians.”
Pete, the self proclaimed ‘No Arm Wonder’ nodded in agreement. “They don’t mind dying” he said quietly.
Ryan added. “Yeah, but that’s not the thing that worries me, they wanna die fine, their choice, but what worries me is when they connect the dots, when they decide that you’re birth country doesn’t matter, if you agree with us join us, that’s when it will really kick off.”
“Nah” said One Foot, they are too disorganised for that, too tribal” Ryan nodded negatively
“You watch mate, you’ll see, first chance they get and they’ll do it. All the ‘I’m a minority I get a bad deal’ types from the East Side (the east of Birmingham is populated by predominantly Muslims) will be up and at it the first chance they get.
“Same with the lads in parts of London” said Mike.
“Leeds is having problems with them as well” added Pete.
And so it went back and forth. Remember this was before the Arab Spring, before Syria and Islamic State.
I’ll let Ryan have the final word:
“The thing is you can’t beat an enemy that wants to die. We are trained to fight tactically, to survive, they are trained, taught, that to die for Allah is good, it’s an achievement, it’s desirable. You can’t fight people who want to die to get their place in heaven with their 72 virgins. They believe this, they want to be martyrs. We want to live and that’s the difference. Tactics don’t count here. When a bloke from the Afghan military or police that you have come to know as solid walks up to a group of girls and detonates a bomb because he thinks they have no right to go to school…how can you fight that? If they get their act together and mobilise themselves properly it won’t just be soldiers with bullet wounds and missing limbs, it will be anyone they decide to blow up and most people won’t see it coming”
Footnote: Ryan is married to the girl he was seeing before he lost his legs, they have two boys and live in a disability adapted bungalow on the outer edges of the city. I have no idea what happened to the other soldiers mentioned in this narrative.