Doug Beattie: 'I wear the Military Cross for all the people who served'
Rebecca Black talks to the former Royal Irish Regiment Captain and Military Cross winner about serving in the Army, death on the battlefield, tours of Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Afghanistan and alongside Colonel Tim Collins in Iraq, and, most recently, being elected as a councillor in Craigavon
Q. Did you always wants to be a soldier?
A. When I was in school, I always had this fascination that I wanted to be a designer. Most kids think about things like spacemen whereas I was thinking about designing living rooms.
But when I was in the middle of doing what was then called O-Levels, I pretty much jumped out of school and joined the Army without telling my family.
We had a difficult few years as a family, my mother had died and my father had turned to alcohol as part of the grieving process. Home life was extremely difficult and I hadn't been the best young boy in the world. My father was just happy that I had made a decision. I don't think he ever knew that I joined the Army to try and make him proud of me.
I did feel forced into the military slightly. We are a military family, my father spent 30 years in the Army, my grandfather on my mother's side fought at Dunkirk, my grandfather on my father's side also served in the military.
Q. What was your first experience of the Army?
A. My first experience was an experience of bigotry against the Irish regardless of whether you were a Protestant or a Catholic. The fact you were from Northern Ireland created a degree of bigotry. This was in 1982 when we were still in the throes of the Troubles and an Irish accent would have people on edge.
I found myself being physically abused by those who were in charge of me, bullied terribly both physically and mentally, I remember thinking this was normal.
It wasn't until later on in my Army career, when I became a commander, that I thought to myself they were lacking in the values and standards of a true leader and I went out of my way to show the respect to other diverse people.
Q. What was your first posting?
A. Berlin! At the time the wall was still up. I found myself in the midst of a regiment which was Irish in flavour and make-up with soldiers from the north of Ireland and the south, both Protestant and Catholic, a real mixed bag with an Irish flavour and a British flavour. I suddenly felt at home.
When I first joined it was the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers who amalgamated with the Ulster Defence Regiment in 1992 to become the Royal Irish Regiment. I have stayed with the same regiment all the time.
My first job when I joined was to guard Rudolf Hess at Spandau Prison. That was an amazing experience and all I could think about, was I can't wait to get off duty 'til I go to the local pub down the road.
Q. Did you ever serve in Northern Ireland?
A. Yes, due to a change in policy in 1988 [allowing Northern Ireland soldiers to serve there], I did my first tour of Northern Ireland in south Armagh, which was based out of both Forkhill and Crossmaglen.
Then the policy changed completely in 1989 and as a regiment we were allowed to serve, and I did my first tour as part of my regiment in Fermanagh in 1990.
Q. What was your impression of serving in Northern Ireland as a local man?
A. In those times it was normal to see streams of soldiers with weapons on the street but I always felt like everyone was looking at me and saying what are you doing here, you are a foreigner in your own country.
For all the good we were doing – and we were doing good because we were fighting terrorism at its source – you still had that feeling that people thought you were an unwelcome imposition on their lives.
Q. Do any memories of serving here stand out?
A. In 1990 I was awarded the General Officer Commanding's commendation for my service. That was manning a small checkpoint close to the border near Roslea, called Derryard. It was the scene of a battle where two British soldiers were killed when the IRA attacked the checkpoint. I went in afterwards, the whole sense of being there in this isolated checkpoint and holding it for the length of time is very vivid.
I hate the term the Troubles, makes it sound like some kind of insignificant spat. But it wasn't, it had a massive impact on so many people in the military. I think about all of those people who carry those injuries still.
Q. What did you think of the policy not to let local regiments serve in Northern Ireland?
A. I was embarrassed. I could hardly hold my head up when I stood amongst English or Welsh or Scottish regiments who talked about their time in Northern Ireland when I wasn't allowed to do my bit.
Q. How did your experience of soldiering change in the early 1990s?
A. Around 1991, there was a real shift when the Soviet Union fragmented, the world which had been polarised by the USSR and Nato facing off. The world became so fragmented. If you look at the interventions we had in Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone it shows that the British Army was trying to be an ethical army, a force for good, which it was.
I served in Kosovo in 1999 protecting largely the Muslim population who were under threat.
What they used to do in Kosovo, was if you left your flat people would move into it and occupy it, no one had any papers so people claimed it was theirs. I remember receiving a phone call from a man saying there is a car sitting outside my house and he was scared to go out of the house.
We turned up and dragged this guy out of the car then opened the car boot and saw three children sleeping inside. I couldn't fathom it. The guy explained his wife was killed and this was actually his flat, but he couldn't get it back.
I remember just feeling so helpless because there was nothing we could do. Things like that affect you just as much as killing and watching your soldiers die.
Q. You served with Tim Collins in Iraq?
A. I was Regimental Sergeant Major and he was my commanding officer. I stood beside him when he made his famous speech. After it we smoked cigars and drank Lebanese industrial whiskey in the supposedly Garden of Eden in Iraq. We fought through the country together. It was an extremely proud thing to be involved in.
People will say the whole thing is illegal but, you see if you look at this in isolation you can be nothing but proud of what the soldiers did.
For example, we went into the Rumaila oil fields and I was responsible for 2,000 prisoners of war who were in rags. I watched my soldiers give away their food to them right up to the stage where we had to order them to stop so the soldiers then went and scavenged food. I remember finding two guys with a block of dates using blunt bayonets to cut these dates up to give to the Iraqis. You don't train people to be like that.
I remember watching a burial of a young Iraqi soldier. The guys picked him up and put him into the grave with such incredible gentleness, taking the time to make sure he was facing towards Mecca using a compass, then they went and got his colleague to say some words over the grave.
Again that's not taught, they are taught to bury them and get on with the task. It was moving.
Q. How did you feel about the allegations of British soldiers mistreating prisoners of war?
A. If British soldiers are found to be guilty then they should be charged and disciplinary actions taken against them, be that be the military or by civilian courts. You cannot as a right-minded person say anything other than that, regardless of circumstances.
In terms of the soldiers I was responsible for who had dealings with Iraqis, I never saw abuse and I would never have allowed abuse to happen.
Q. What did you receive your Queen's Commendation for?
A. We had got to a place called Al Madinah, the crowds were cheering and throwing flowers at us. The ruling Bathist Party had been driven out of the town but two had been captured. The crowd gathered round these two men.
They murdered one by dropping a huge slab on his head and they were intent on murdering the second but we intervened and stopped that. I remember charging into this crowd to save this Bathist – who was my enemy in effect – and take him to hospital.
I was very proud to be awarded the Queen's Commendation for Bravery for that, because it wasn't about taking someone's life.
Q. Next you went to Afghanistan?
A. I first went in 2006 and was sent to Helmand to work with the Afghan security services.
I did my best to understand how they lived their lives but you never quite understand because where you can see great things in them like compassion, willingness to share everything that they have, you also saw that they treated people in such an awful way, the corruption was rife and they belittled and abused females.
Q. What was the closest call for you?
A. That tour of duty culminated in a 13-day battle in a place called Garmsir where a very small British force of 13 men had been sent down with some Afghan troops and police. We were told we would be there for 48 hours then a larger force would be sent down to relieve us. But the battle raged on for 13 days. At stages it was hand to hand, I had to use my bayonet on one fighter. You don't know what war is like until you have to thrust your bayonet through the neck of another man.
That was the first time where I saw I had killed someone – on September 11, 2006. I remember it like yesterday. There was nothing about pride or a job well done. I wondered if he had a wife or kids. Sadly, over the next 13 days I had to take many lives.
I received the Military Cross for this. It's a bittersweet thing which I find slightly hard to deal with. Sweet because you are recognised but it's bitter in that I came back and received a medal while others didn't. I nearly feel a degree of guilt, so I always say to people I wear the Military Cross for all the other people who served.
Q. You have an Arabic tattoo on your arm?
A. It is in memory of an Afghan who died in this 13-day battle. His name was Major Sher Wali. He was a police major, he had once fought against the Russians, he had then fought with the Taliban and he now believed his country's future was better without the Taliban.
We became good friends, we shared meals and talked about our lives. He told me about his beliefs and Islam and was receptive to hearing about my beliefs and Christianity. We fought side by side for 13 days and he saved my life on a number of occasions.
Just one example, the battle had been going for nine days, I had gone forward to attack an enemy position and had got isolated with another British soldier. The enemy was closing in, and we were in a really precarious situation. I saw this figure running towards me, Major Sher Wali with his brown cloak flowing in the wind as he ran. He ran through the bullets and dived on top of me as a rocket-propelled grenade exploded just above my head and lay on top of me until all his men arrived and started pushing the enemy back. Then he stood up, looked at me and said: "Beattie, this is not your job to fight, this is my job to fight, your job is to help me".
I just thought there and then, here is the bravest and noblest man I have ever met in my life. He's an Afghan, a Muslim, we have very little in common but look what he has done for me.
Sadly he was killed on the last day of the battle, I felt his loss like that of a brother. I feel it even now, I can still see his face, he had the most glorious smile.
The tattoo is a small poem to Major Sher Wali, a tribute given to him by his men.
Q. What was the most shocking moments for you?
A. I was down in a place called Marjah in 2008, only had six soldiers to hold against the Taliban. One day a 15-year-old suicide bomber walked into our checkpoint, he was remotely detonated by an eight-year-old boy who was walking just behind him. Two Afghan soldiers were killed and six civilians were wounded.
I remember my soldiers fighting to save the lives of these wounded civilians. It was so horrific, the Afghans refused to touch the blood or give first aid. Then I found Afghans were stringing up body parts of the suicide bomber on a washing line. I went up and said what are you doing, and they said we have to show these people this is what happens. After a discussion they took them down.
Q. What's it like going from that to being a newly elected UUP councillor in Craigavon?
A. I think I have brought an awful lot of life experience with me. Those are experiences, values and standards I can bring towards the council. Why I wanted to run is born out of my need to serve. I've spent my life bouncing around the world serving my country but never belonging to a community. Now I have come home, I feel part of Portadown.
I didn't think I'd be elected, just thought I'd have a go, so I am very proud I got elected.
Q. Would you run for the Assembly or Westminster?
A. If there was a place for me I would but if I didn't think I could do some good then I wouldn't run.
Q. Why did you choose to join the UUP?
A. Because I believe that Northern Ireland as a country has a right to exist. I believe it will prosper as part of the UK. Those are the values that the Ulster Unionist Party have. It's not about what religion you are or background. If you believe in those things and equality you are an Ulster Unionist.
I looked at the Northern Ireland Conservatives and liked their message but I thought their brand was toxic. Then I looked at NI21, I liked the brand and what they were trying to say but I thought they were too centred on one personality.
The UUP also gave me the ability to stick with my conscience where I could believe things such as I believe in respect for others, I believe that same-sex marriage has got to be a right. I can say what I want in terms of abortion. I didn't think I would have the ability to do that in the DUP.