Colum McGeown: Catholic from Andersonstown who became a British soldier
When Colum McGeown, a Catholic from Andersonstown, became an Irish Guard, he broke local taboos. But despite losing his legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, he has no regrets. He tells Una Brankin his extraordinary story
Colum McGeown puts on a brave face but comes across as a troubled soul. A seething anger isn't far from the surface of the philosophical therapy-speak, a by-product, presumably, of the counselling he received after losing his legs in a blast in Afghanistan in February 2011.
The antipathy is not directed at the Taliban or his Army commanders and the flawed foreign policy that sent them gung-ho into southern Asia. It is aimed wholly at his Andersonstown background and what he sees as the failure of society here to give him respect and a meaningful life.
At first glance the 29-year-old former Irish Guard has a lot in common with Ron Kovic, the Vietnam veteran played memorably by Tom Cruise in Born On The Fourth of July. ("Great movie – my ex always said I looked like Tom Cruise," he remarks.) Both idealists, they left their blue collar communities to go to war and both were badly maimed in battle. But, whereas Kovic became one of the most potent symbols of the anti-war movement in America, Colum says he would go back to combat and do it all again – even though he can remember every horrific second of the blast that destroyed his legs.
Speaking from his flat near the Millennium Dome in south east London, where he lives alone, he's alternatively calm and intense in his recollections, which are delivered in a peculiar jumble of accents – Belfast, English and transatlantic.
"I knew I had lost my legs 30 or 40 seconds afterwards," he says, matter-of-fact. "I was coherent as it was happening. I had stood right above the IED (improvised explosive device) and there was a crater.
"I took off into the air spinning, about 12 feet, I guess. I could feel my tummy flipping over; I had no control. I hit the ground and landed on my back. I was breathing hard and heaving, and trying to catch my breath, and after a couple of seconds I was dragged away.
"I just felt numbness. People were standing over me saying 'You're going to be okay'. I was thinking 'I've f***ing just been done by an IED' and just hoping I'd still got my d**k and my b***s. I started drifting in and out of consciousness, then I was out."
In his newly self-published memoir, Belfast Boy, he describes being dragged to safety by the 'bared scorched bones below my knees' and loaded onto a stretcher, where 'my legs feel no different as I continuously kick and wave them'. He lost his left leg and half his right leg on the IED, a device similar to a land-mine. After losing consciousness, he came round two days later in a Birmingham hospital's ICU, traumatised and irrational from morphine.
"I thought the Taliban had captured me and put me in one of their hospitals," he recalls. "I was like a mouse, very, very aware. I knew I'd lost my legs. I wasn't angry – I had prepared myself for all eventualities in war. I'd got on the plane not expecting to come back. I got blew up but at least the Taliban hadn't cut my head off. I was still alive."
An apparently deep-seated need to control surfaces when he recalls the six months of physiotherapy he underwent at the Headley Court military rehabilitation centre in Surrey.
"Rehab wasn't hard; it's just a process. Serious pain, but I soaked it up. I work better when I can do things my way. I let them know quickly who was boss. I wasn't depressed. I had visualised the worst, stepping into death, and processed it. I had no post traumatic syndrome.
"I was still wrapped up in Afghanistan for a while back in my flat and it took a while to get used to life outside. I was still wired. It takes time to get back into the matrix of society but the Army looked after me great."
The similarity with Ron Kovic ends there. Whereas the American was left penniless and destitute when he returned from Vietnam, Colum was well compensated by the Government and is planning to take up a degree in geography next year.
Another major difference between them was that Kovic had the love and support of his Catholic family, but Colum felt he had none from his father, a mechanic, or his mother, a housekeeper, long before he did the unthinkable and joined the Army. He had run-ins with local IRA for fighting on the streets and says that, although he finds republican bitterness understandable, he never "bought into" the movement.
He left his Drumisk home and his four brothers and little sister after a huge row a week before his 17th birthday, never to return. His father was undergoing chemotherapy at the time and the atmosphere was highly stressed, he recalls. His parents were in the process of splitting up and selling the family home.
"I was an angry kid – I took it out on my brothers and removed myself from the house. I'd punch up my little brothers. Our house wasn't a pleasant place to live. The anger built up over the years and I'd take it out on them. Mum was the cheerleader of it all; we had to fall into line with however she wanted us to behave. There was a complete lack of empathy, and empathy becomes apathy.
"I had no self-worth and that makes you behave a certain way on the street, on the Gaelic pitch. I wasn't thuggish but I was difficult, and very determined."
When the family home was sold the teenager moved in with his grandfather in Riverdale. He left when his mother joined them.
"I couldn't be around her," he explains. "I'm a bloke; I couldn't be under the same roof."
He moved to a "trampy flat" in Twinbrook and worked on building sites but ended up, at 23, in the Salvation Army Hostel, where he met a former prisoner, Victor, from Enniskillen, who encouraged him to join the army. He applied initially for the Irish Army but was put off by the one-year waiting list.
"Victor's just awesome. He's an oul' hand, much older than me. He did 10 years in jail for armed robbery. Our energies complemented each other; there's a bit of menace in him. We played a game of chess and we talked and walked for miles. It was a great release for me. He nudged me to join the Army. To get his approval, that was wonderful. He's a Roman Catholic, same background and he said 'Go for it'. I do what I want to do. All I needed was a little validation."
There follows a tirade which he then thinks the better of, and asks me not to include, and I have to assure him I won't put a spin on the interview. This happens a couple of times during our talk; otherwise he's remarkably candid and often startling. Good value, as the saying goes.
When he was accepted into the Army he didn't tell his friends or family that he'd enlisted.
"I was in the hostel and removed from them all. It's really irrelevant for me what anyone thinks. Nobody else was going to give me £20,000 a year and a chance to travel the world. It was most probably my only way out of Belfast but who cares – I did what I wanted. It was do or die in my mind."
He says he was told to ignore the subsequent reaction – which he describes as "indifferent" – of his family to his recruitment. In February 2007, he began basic training for the Irish Guards in England and met a woman he prefers to refer to only as Helen, who was to become the mother of his three-year-old son, George.
"Helen is lovely – it's one of the reasons I chose to procreate with her. She does a wonderful job. If I was doing it by myself George wouldn't be so angelic. She's a wonderful mother; I'm an alright father. She's English, middle class. We will never share a bed together again but that's all right.
"She's 40 – I was her toy boy," he continues. "It was physical and intense. I think subconsciously I was planting my seed before going to war, and at her age she was thinking she needed to get a move on."
George was born two months before Colum went to Afghanistan, after a tour of Iraq. He was six months old when his father was caught in the blast, and at 14 months accompanied him to the Irish Guards Herrick 13 Medals Parade in September 2011, where they were photographed with a beaming Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
"We chatted for a bit but I'm not at liberty to say what about," says Colum. "They're two lovely people. Internally their beauty radiates from within."
It's not exactly typical soldier-speak but then Colum McGeown is full of surprises. He claims he would have loved to have experienced the jungle warfare in Vietnam and insists that he wasn't afraid in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I enjoyed it immensely. Can you imagine Mike Tyson if he never took what he did in training to the ring? Can you imagine how unhappy he would be? I would rather go to Afghanistan with the possibility of getting wrecked or killed than stack shelves in a supermarket for 50 years – no offence to a stacker in a supermarket.
"People climb Everest or swim with sharks for the danger, the excitement, the challenge. There's three types of categories for one to join the Army: first, they have been brought up to believe that it is a noble and honourable thing to fight for one's country. Second, it's the last chance saloon. Third, for the excitement and the challenge, to see the world and have a career. I would fall into the latter two."
He responds facetiously at first when asked for his reaction to the anti-war movement's stance that he was simply cannon-fodder for the ruling classes in the pursuit of power and oil: "It's true, of course, but without foreign policy there would be a lot more horse s**t on the roads and the food variety in our country would be very limited ... "
But he goes on to explain: "When I was growing up dad always told us to turn the other cheek but sometimes you can't. I wasn't sociopathic but sometimes people need a good beating. You don't f**k with me. If someone's threatening to stab you, you fight back. That's the street. At the hostel a person was threatening me constantly on the phone and by text. There wouldn't have been much left of his head if I'd retaliated. I joined the Army instead."
He also managed to restrain himself when he was almost confronted by a member of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
"I was standing on a roof, patrolling, with a light machine gun. I saw this Taliban guy, about six-foot-two, walking up the side of the compound. I f**king knew he had a gun on him, concealed on his left side. If I had squeezed my trigger I could have riddled him with bullets, but I thought, 'Is that why I'm here?'
"He realised there were eyes on him and he turned and went back the way he came. And I realised that wasn't what I was there for. Don't get me wrong, though, I can be ruthless when anyone's bad to me."
He maintains Victor and the Army gave him the sense of self-esteem he never felt at home. He keeps in touch with Victor and helps him out financially but he's vague about the level of contact he has with his largely estranged family. His father is still alive, having been in remission from cancer three times.
"He's strong and bull-headed like me. I can look after myself. I don't need to be ringing my mother every day. I don't need my siblings. I'm a polar bear, a solitary animal who gets together with others when it's time to mate. I'm never lonely; I'm very self-contained. I get together with my mates when I need to. I get a bit of a party on from time to time.
"I don't miss Belfast. I'm Irish only because I was born on the island of Ireland. It's just a culture thing. I like the Anglo-Saxon connection. I like to speak English correctly. I have Irish blood pumping in my veins and I have the stubbornness of the Irish, but I am so happy with what the British have done for me."
Although he's articulate, Colum seems to spend a lot of his time watching TV, by the sound of it. He has no formal religious beliefs but believes in a higher power.
"I believe I'm here for a purpose and when that's done I'm out of here. I'm consciousness. Every action I take starts in the mind. I'm inspired by TV mostly. I believe we create our own world and I believe in a higher power but not what's preached down in St Agnes's. There's men there for an hour a week then they're out womanising and drinking and beating the kids the rest of the time."
Has he no regrets at all?
"None. I would do it again. It is just war, I believe that. We did a good job and I enjoyed it immensely. You see it on TV but you need to experience it yourself. It was wonderful when the training kicked in and to be doing it with a company, a group of friends. When you're being shot at, it doesn't matter who's by your side, even guys you wouldn't look at in the battalion."
Writing Belfast Boy was a cathartic experience for him, a way to leave the blast behind. He writes that he can now 'Let go of the pain, hurt and anger that made me a warrior, a fighter, a soldier. I don't need those feelings any more.' Currently single, he says he is committed to launching the "new improved version" of himself and to devoting all his time and energy to his "big beautiful boy, George".
"I'm happy in London. My life is in London, my son is London. He's my responsibility now. I want to get myself out to society and get a bit of self worth again."
Christmas for Colum will be quiet, apart from his time with George. "Just seeing the look on my boy's face is enough for me – he has curly Irish ginger hair and a red face. I'm don't need anything materialistic. I can look after myself. I will be just fine."
Belfast Boy - Contact IED will be published by Matador on December 1. See www.troubador.co.uk/matador.