'There was a bang and then I noticed my legs were gone'
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, veterans recall their personal experiences and discuss the recent rows over wearing a poppy. Stephanie Bell and Kerry McKittrick report
Millions of people across the UK will gather in cities and towns tomorrow to remember the war heroes who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.
Veterans will join families, dignitaries and members of the public to lay wreaths at cenotaphs throughout Northern Ireland in honour of the fallen.
The Remembrance Day ceremonies are a vital reminder of the contribution made by these men and women, who put their lives on the line for all of us - men like Bryan Phillips.
Bryan paid a terrible price serving his country when he lost his legs in an explosion while on his second tour in Afghanistan. He was only 27, a father of a young son and was left fighting for his life.
Today, three years on, he has made a miraculous recovery.
Now a proud father of two - Jack (9) and Poppy (nine months) - with his partner Natasha, the Newtownabbey man has also retrained as a locksmith and opened his own business. Next year he also hopes to join the Help for Heroes team, who plan to race across America in seven days.
Bryan was born on Armistice Day and turned 30 yesterday. He says this and the fact his family played a big part in Remembrance Day made him want to join the Army from a young age.
"As a young boy, I always wanted to join the Army. With my birthday also falling on November 11, it was always a special day to me," he says.
"Coming from Rathcoole, remembering our fallen was something we did and my birthday presents always came second priority on that day.
"Growing up, I was inspired by some of the stories I was taught in school of our brave men and women in the First and Second World Wars and, truthfully, from that day on, I knew I was for joining the Army.
"It was a bad thing, in a way, as I knew I didn't need any grades to join the infantry, just a good standard of fitness, which meant I didn't put 100% into my schoolwork."
Bryan was 19 when he joined the Irish Guards. Before what he refers to now as his "accident", he served in Iraq in 2007 and in Afghanistan in 2010 and had also completed overseas exercises in the jungle in Belize and Kenya. He says that the Army was more than a job to him - it was a way of life.
"Everything you did was conducted in a military manner - from being neat and tidy to dressing smart, clean shaven. This was all transferred when I went on to leave the Army. It became natural - even to this day, I'm doing stuff that the Army taught me," he says.
It was on his third operational duty and second tour of Afghanistan, while on foot patrol, that he and his colleagues were warned by radio that a Taliban fighter was in a tree directly in front of them.
As they approached with caution, there was a huge explosion. Bryan remembers little of what happened next.
He had stood on an improvised explosive device (IED), which blew his legs off from above the knee.
"There was a boom and, at first, I didn't really know what had happened until the dust settled down and then I noticed my legs were gone and my arm was badly injured," he says.
"I had managed to detonate an IED. At first, I was surprised I was in no pain until the burning sensation started to kick in.
"I could see bits of my flesh hanging from the tree beside me. Within what seemed like seconds, my colleagues were around me, giving me first aid after eliminating the threat.
"The helicopter was called in to take me back to Camp Bastion. I will always remember being put on the helicopter and the nurse saying, 'Hi Bryan. How are you?' My response was, 'Let's just say I've had better days'."
Bryan remembers nothing after that until he woke up in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. It was then that the critical nature of his condition hit him.
But, remarkably, he accepted his fate straightaway and continues to be positive - despite the terrible implications and the end of his career in the Army. He was also left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but hasn't let it stop him from enjoying a new career and family life.
"I never have been a person to dwell on things, or hold grudges, and I sure wasn't going to let the Taliban defeat me. I was determined to get out of hospital and start my rehabilitation programme to get walking again," he says.
"My rehab was up and down, with numerous surgeries, but I finally got there and I am now up and walking unaided.
"I'm now fully trained as a locksmith and running my own company and next year I'm hoping to become part of a Help for Heroes team to race across America within seven days."
Bryan says he feels gratitude that he survived and is as passionate as ever about the need to remember colleagues and other soldiers who were not so fortunate.
“I believe it is important to remember our fallen, past and present — not only in November, but throughout the year, as without the sacrifices these people have made we wouldn’t have the freedom we have today, which so many of us take for granted, including myself.
“I wake up grateful every morning, as I’ve had many friends that didn’t come home and I can’t imagine what their families have gone through.
“So, for me, just to man up and get on with life is the least I can do.”
Remembrance Day means so much to Bryan that he called his new daughter, born on February 2 this year, Poppy.
As a football fan, he was gutted by the decision taken by the Irish Football Association not to let Northern Ireland players wear a commemorative poppy on their shirts during yesterday’s Fifa World Cup qualifier against Azerbaijan at Windsor Park.
Bryan says football had been a life-saver for him after the explosion and he felt let down by the IFA for not allowing players to wear poppies on Armistice Day.
“The one thing that helps me cope with my PTSD is football. I have met so many great people through going to the games, both home and away, and many fans will recognise me for the fact that I walk around using prosthetic legs.
“They come up to chat and thank me for the service I have done for my country, but to me I’d do it again, as I knew what I was joining up for.
“I hope the people in the IFA don’t believe that the poppy is a political symbol. If they do, I am more than willing to educate them on what the poppy stands for.
“After following my team and forking out a lot of money, I feel let down by the IFA and truly feel they are offending the 18,000-plus people wearing their poppy at the game.” SB
‘The lady thanked me for my service, I was moved’
A few words of gratitude, spoken with sincerity, recently moved Army veteran David Forsey to tears. After a 30-year career in the Military Police, serving all over the world, there is not much that the 55-year-old thought could shock him. But the emotion he felt when thanked for his service at a recent event took him completely by surprise.
David says: “I was shocked and moved to tears when giving a presentation to a Rotary Club recently when the rotarian who introduced me said something I had never heard before in my life — she thanked me for my service.
“I just didn’t know at the time how to react. No one ever thanked me before and I don’t think, as a serviceman, you expect to be thanked, but it was nice and afterwards I was a little bit emotional.”
David left the Army six years ago and has since served as director of The Soldiers’ Charity, raising funds for veterans and their families. He lost nine friends in Iraq in 2003 and his way of coping was to spearhead a fundraising effort for their families.
He managed to raise £30,000, which was recognised with a GOC commendation, presented to him by Downpatrick-born Lieutenant-General Sir Philip Trousdell, who was General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland and a Commandant of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.
During his career, David served in Northern Ireland for 18 years during the Troubles. Despite the horror of the conflict here, he fell in love with the province and its people and made his home in Co Armagh.
A father of two grown-up sons, he says he was only 19 when he joined up and, despite the horrors he witnessed, he says, as a career, the Army exceeded his expectations.
He says: “I was a bit wayward in my youth and joined the Army Cadets in 1976 and everything fell into place and that stopped me getting into trouble. I joined the regular Army in 1980 and worked in three different areas — policing, training and logistics.
“It’s not so much a career as a way of life. You are moving around every few years and making new friends and leaving old ones behind, but you never lose touch with your old friends. I am six years out now and still keep in touch with them.
“No two days are the same and I remember once being in Hong Kong and the next thing I was on a flight to Hawaii, where I spent six weeks with the American military police, which was exciting.”
As well as spending 15 years in Northern Ireland, from 1983, David has also served in Hong Kong, Bosnia, Gibraltar, Germany, France and the US. While he wasn’t personally caught up in any atrocities, he was often on the scene in the immediate aftermath.
“It was a little bit scary and a little bit exciting as a young soldier going to Northern Ireland and it was my first time serving operationally and we were very much thrown in at the deep end.
“A friend of mine survived a car bomb. He had checked the front of his car and got in and drove off and the bomb went off at the back end and he survived without a scratch. We were all extra careful after that.
“We were on the scene of a number of atrocities within minutes of them happening, but the biggest impact on me as a young solider serving here — and the reason I am here now — is how friendly and welcoming the people were. The vast majority of people were always very interested in you.
“Part of my duties involved protecting military patients in the Royal Victoria Hospital and I remember one of the cleaners there was keen to introduce me to her daughter, who was the same age. She was from the Falls Road and it really surprised me, given what was going on at the time, that she was interested in me.
“It felt like home in a sense. You got on a bus and, by the time you got off it, you knew everything about the person sitting beside you. I’ve always said that Northern Ireland is the UK’s best-kept secret — it has city life, countryside and coastline in abundance and I think more people should visit here.”
David is now dedicated to helping veterans, through The Soldiers’ Charity.
In 2012, the charity hired a team of 14 specialist recruitment consultants to advise and guide on how best young men and women who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and were discharged from the Army through injury could find a way back into employment.
The scheme, which ran for three years, helped more than 1,000 soldiers, who were discharged for wounds, injury and sickness, to find new careers.
David has been taking part in Remembrance Day every year since he joined the Cadets in the Seventies and says the annual act of remembrance means as much today as ever to war veterans, as well as the families of those who paid the ultimate price.
He says: “My first remembrance parade was as a cadet of 14 years old and, back then, around the cenotaph there were mostly veterans of the Second World War and the First World War, as well.
“As I’ve got older, the First World War veterans have died out and now the Second World War veterans are on the verge of dying out and you see veterans of more recent conflicts and also the Royal Ulster Rifles, who served in Korea. A lot of them are now in their 70s and 80s.
“It is an important day for soldiers to remember their colleagues and it is good for ordinary people to get out and meet the veterans at the parades and hear their stories.
“It is all so much the better if children come along to the remembrance parades and can speak to veterans to get an idea of what their sacrifice and service has been about.
“I think it is good that the whole nation can focus on the sacrifice the armed forces have given — not only now, but in recent times and not so recently.” SB
‘It’s about recalling those who sacrificed their lives’
Mark Tindale (27), a chef, lives in Portadown with his wife and two small children. He says
I joined the Royal Air Force as a chef in 2007 when I was 18, then last July I transferred to the Reserves.
My father, grandparents and uncles had all served in the British Army so I had grown up wanting to serve. I was stationed in places like the Falklands and Afghanistan where I worked as Special Forces support. I got very good training, not just in terms of the work I was doing, but also as regards physical fitness. You bond with the people you serve with.
I reached Senior Aircraftsman and I was about to make Corporal when I left, chiefly because in the RAF you find yourself living in the middle of nowhere. My wife didn’t drive so she felt very isolated, especially as I was working very long hours. We decided if we came to live in Northern Ireland then she would have the support network of her family and I could spend more time with the family as well.
For me, Remembrance Day is about recalling all those who have sacrificed their lives both from the British Armed Forces and from other countries for the freedoms that we now have. It’s disgusting that controversy has arisen around the poppy – I think some people are trying to use it for their own aims. It’s your choice to remember or not, and people will remember even if you don’t wear one.” KMcK
‘I think about the war a lot ... it was exciting’
Bill Eames (93) is a former RAF pilot. He lives in Lisburn and has two sons, David and Peter. He says:
When the Second World War broke out, I was only 16 and still at Portora Royal School. By 1940, I was doing my senior certificate at the time of Dunkirk. After that, most of us joined the services and I was lucky enough to get into the Royal Air Force.
To become a pilot you need to go through many interviews and aptitude tests, but eventually I was accepted for flying training to become a pilot and I was sent off to America to learn for about 18 months.
Then I started flying bombers, like Albemarles and Stirlings. Everyone would like to have been a fighter pilot, but not many of us actually got to do that.
I was based in various places throughout the war, but most of my operational flying was done from RAF Harwell, near Oxford.
I spent a lot of the time dropping supplies to the Resistance all over Europe.
I took part in D-Day, bringing in troops, and then again at the battle of Arnhem. I was injured there — we were resupplying the airborne operation on the ground at about 600 feet and I got hit by flak. That did a lot of damage to my right arm and right leg.
I was lucky, though; my crew managed to get us back to the UK and got me into hospital. We lost 44 Stirlings that week.
I spent the rest of the war flying all over Europe and North Africa until 1947, when I came back to Northern Ireland.
I became an air traffic controller — I was the chief air traffic controller for 12 years. I worked as a flying instructor, too. I kept flying until I was 80. I think about the war all the time. It was a very exciting period for everyone who survived it.
Remembrance Day is still very important to me. My crew survived the war, but none of them are alive now. I go to Enniskillen every year to attend the commemoration down there — that’s where I’m from and a lot of my schoolmates signed up at the same time I did.
Remembrance Sunday doesn’t just remember my war, but the 1914-1918 war, which claimed so many lives.
I mark it every year and wear a poppy. I don’t see any problems with the poppy.
If people want to wear it, they should. And if they don’t want to, then they shouldn’t.
The Royal British Legion don’t want to see any kind of compulsion to it.” KMcK
‘Wearing a poppy is personal for me’
Kingsley Donaldson (right, 44), lives in Belfast, with his partner and newborn daughter. He has two sons from a previous relationship. He now runs the Causeway Institute. He says:
I joined the Army because of my connection with a great-uncle, Major WJ Hanna, whom I met when I was very young. He had served in both the First and Second World Wars. My father was a part-time soldier so that influenced me too
I wanted to join up at 16 but I was persuaded to finish school and then persuaded to go to university. I started with the officer cadets when I was at Queen’s. I was mobilised as a reservist in 1998 and I finished my service in April 2015 as a lieutenant colonel.
I was in a tank regiment, I was a reconnaissance soldier and then I moved into strategy and became an advisor to the head of the army. I also commanded my regiment, the Royal Yeomanry, which was a big honour.
I left because the chance to go fighting had ended for me — that was why I had joined the Army so it was time to go.
Being a soldier gave me a very calm confidence that nothing was impossible. Soldiers all have a good sense of humour and find a reason to be upbeat.
Soldiers today feel very much in tune with soldiers who fought and died a hundred years ago. Our sense of sacrifice is no less today. The feeling that you are doing something for your country is ever present, despite the changes in society. When you’re very far from home and your loved ones and you are seeing friends being killed or injured, you feel that their sacrifice wasn’t in vain and that they will be remembered. It’s a huge comfort to the families and friends of those killed to know that their colleagues will remember them.
Wearing a poppy is a very personal thing for me. It elicits in me thoughts of people I have known and it binds me to a group of people who have done similar things to me and I take great comfort in that.
I see no reason for compulsion to wear the poppy but I do like the fact that national teams will do their bit to recognise the sacrifice made for them as they are representing their country too.
There’s one more message that’s worth mentioning, people serve and fight for freedom but that freedom includes the right not to wear a poppy if you don’t want to. It would be perverse to fight for freedom on one hand and argue for compulsion on the other.” KMcK
‘Aaron McCormick was a person, not a number’
UUP MLA Doug Beattie (51) is married with children. He previously served as a captain in the RIR and won the MC for his actions in Afghanistan. He says:
Remembrance is incredibly important, the ability of a nation as one to stop and remember the sacrifice of many generations from the Somme to the present day.
In 2010, I was serving in Helmand province and I spent a Saturday evening at a campfire with a young soldier, talking about his life and his future. He was a lovely fellow, the sort that made you want to be proud of him, as a father would feel about a son.
The next day he led his patrol out of the gate, stepped on a mine and was killed instantly on Remembrance Sunday. His name was Aaron McCormick and I remember him dearly. We held a service of remembrance that day — as we would have been doing anyway. We didn’t have poppies or wreaths but the act of remembrance was as strong and as poignant as if we had been standing at the Cenotaph in London.
I would challenge everyone to find out the name of one person who sacrificed their life for their country. Look at them, find out their background and family and what they would have done with their future.
I remember Aaron McCormick. He was the 344th to be killed in Afghanistan, but he wasn’t just a number. I remember the medic Barry Dempsey, who was killed [when his foot patrol was targeted by a roadside bomb].
I also recall the circumstances in which my friend Jonathan Matthews was killed [he died from a single gunshot wound while rushing to help an injured nine-year-old boy after a suicide bomber killed four people at an Afghan army base]. I think we can talk too much about the numbers of people who have died but not focus enough on the actual individuals who lost their lives.
I joined the Army when I was 16. I come from a military family — my father, various uncles and brothers had all served. Initially, I wanted to do something different and decided to be a designer. But then my mother died and I lost direction in life and did some things I wasn’t proud of and I knew my father wasn’t proud of. One day I made a snap decision and instead of going to school I went to the Army recruitment office.
My Army career didn’t have the best start. I was bullied because I was Irish — it didn’t matter that I was Protestant and unionist and from a military family, all that mattered was that I had an Irish accent. This was 1982 and there were terrible conflicts happening so I and the only other guy from Northern Ireland bore the brunt of the hatred. We were in many respects the Muslims of our age.
But I took to soldiering and stayed in the Army for 34 years. My first real role was to fly to Berlin in 1983 and guard Rudolph Hess in prison. I could see how interesting the world was outside of Northern Ireland. It’s very much the case of no two days are the same.
I finished my Army career as a captain even though I still have no education or qualifications.
I’ve been to Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and all over Africa. I didn’t expect to stay more than two years but I stayed because I enjoyed it so much.
My last tour of duty was in 2011. I was 46 years old and I felt every moment of it. I realised I was older, fatter, my hearing wasn’t as good nor was my eyesight.
I wasn’t the best man for that type of role any longer.” KMcK
‘I signed up to protect all the people living here’
Melanie Brown (50) lives in Carrickfergus and works with victims of domestic abuse. She has two grown-up children. She says:
I joined the Ulster Defence Regiment when I was 20 and served for almost 10 years. As a small child I’d always wanted to join the Army though I’ve no idea where that idea came from...possibly something to do with growing up during the Troubles. Having seen what was happening around me I felt there was a lot of injustice and that I wanted to make a difference. I realised that any change for the better wouldn’t happen by itself, that people would have to stand up and make it happen.
It was a risky time to join up as it was one of the worst periods of the Troubles, but you don’t think that anything will happen to you and if it does you assume it will be quick ...
Back then women in the regiment were known as Greenfinches. When I first joined we weren’t armed, though eventually we became the first women in the Army to carry weapons. I did everything else though — went out on patrol, was trained in first aid and operated the radio.
When I left I had a two-year-old daughter and I’d survived a couple of near misses. I was very lucky — if I’d been standing two feet closer I would have been dead. I also felt I’d given the UDR all I could and it was now time to concentrate on family.
Serving here was a little different because your so-called enemy looks and sounds exactly like you. I signed up to protect all the people of Northern Ireland regardless of their religion so identifying the enemy was not an easy task.
I have very strong feelings about Remembrance Day. It makes me think of the First World War and what it must have been like. All war is hell but to have been in the trenches in those conditions must have been unspeakable. In Northern Ireland we never had conscription so everyone who went volunteered. I think about the freedoms I have had, the things I enjoy in life. Someone paid a price to give those to me.
For me the poppy is not political. I don’t wear mine to cause upset or make a political point, I wear mine because all walks of life died during the wars. I respect the people who don’t want to wear a poppy and have no issue with that. I wear mine because it commemorates what was fought for — freedom of choice to wear it or not.” KMcK