Doug Beattie MC (55) is an Ulster Unionist MLA for Upper Bann. The retired Army captain is married to Margaret and has a grown-up daughter and son, Leigh and Luke. He talks about his difficult childhood, accidentally shooting a friend as a teenager, the toll his Army career took on personal relationships and Prince Harry's decision to step away from Royal duties.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie MC (55) is a retired Army captain
Q You suffered such deep trauma as a teenager that it has impacted your long-term memory. Tell me about the murder of your uncle Samuel.
A My father, William but known as Bob, was in the Ulster Rifles. When I was 10, he left the military and we moved back from England to Edgarstown, a working class area of Portadown. I'm the youngest of three brothers and three sisters. I'd no idea what the Troubles were about but shortly after we came back to Northern Ireland my brother and uncle came to the door and told my mother that her brother Samuel had been murdered. I remember watching my mother wailing and falling to her knees and not understanding what was going on but realising my mother had been touched by this awful crime.
Q What were the circumstances of his murder?
A Lost Lives says Uncle Samuel (Johnston) might have been a member of the UDA. The Cain archive has him down as a civilian murdered by Irish republicans. I'm not inclined to chase it down. I just remember it having an imprint on my family. It's not something I want to carry forward with any form of bitterness.
Q Worse followed with the death of your mother, Eve, at 42 from lung cancer. You were just 14.
A The two years leading up to that were awful... watching the pillar of the family slowly degrade as the cancer took hold. My routine changed completely. I'd walk to Portadown Tech, then rush back home to sit with my mother again. By this stage she was hallucinating. I remember the day she passed very clearly. I arrived home and went straight up to say hello to mum. She was lying there, her eyes only half-open and her breathing very laboured. Twenty minutes later dad came home, went straight up the stairs, then shouted “someone get a doctor”. He sat down beside her, took her hand and she passed away. My father William (known as Bob) was now in the UDR, he'd seen a lot in his life, but I can still picture his ashen face. I now have an issue with my long term memory. I think some of the traumatic things that happened in my younger life prevent me from remembering other things. That memory of my dad's face is really strong but I really don't have a single memory of having dinner with my mother or of Christmas dinner with my family. I've lost them all.
Q How did your father cope as a single parent?
A When mum died, he was lost. He turned to alcohol and he turned to his memories of his wife, the music they'd listened to, the movies they'd watched. By that stage I was the only child left in the house and dad wanted to share his memories so I became the person he did that with. I'd do a full day's schooling, come home and make dinner for dad coming in from work. Then dad would drink and at 2am he'd wake me up to listen to the music that he'd listened to with mum. It had an incredibly detrimental effect on me and my schooling. I'm not blaming my father. He really struggled to cope. And I was just trying to survive.
Q Shockingly, you shot a friend in the head with your father's gun.
A It's a harrowing story and difficult to speak about. It may also be causing the memory loss. It was a case of a young teenage boy messing about. I remember it vividly, in very slow motion, but can't remember what happened before or after. I thought 'have I killed Raymond?' The gun went off in my hand, the bullet went through the back of his mouth, blood started to come out immediately. I'd never been around guns before. I was looking at pure horror. There's embarrassment too which hasn't gone away. Raymond was hospitalised. He's still a friend and we talk about it. He hasn't any huge physical scarring but that's not to say he's not mentally scarred and that's my fault.
Q But it proved something of an epiphany for you.
A I'd injured someone badly. I'd let down my family. My life kind of collapsed. I had to make my father proud of me again, to get life back on track. My father had been proud when my brothers joined the Army. I didn't want to join the military but if I did I'd make my father proud. I'm talking to you as an MLA but I've no educational qualifications, not a single O or A level.
Q What was it like being a 16-year old recruit?
A I was a “Paddy”. Me and another lad were terribly abused because we were the only young men from Northern Ireland. There were horrific beatings. Some instructors had been in the Troubles in the Seventies; there was bitterness from being in the conflict. I tried to explain that my father was an Army veteran, my two brothers were in the Army but it didn't matter. There was a lot of anger. As Irishmen, we were the Muslims of our time in many ways.
Q A year later, you're guarding Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, at Spandau Prison in Berlin.
A You weren't allowed to talk to him and you weren't allowed to look at him. You stood in your tower and were told your job was to look outwards not inwards. I never got a sense (of him) other than desolation and loneliness. He was the only person in the prison.
Q You served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq and then three tours of Afghanistan from 2006-11. It was in Afghanistan where you first killed a person in 2006, in face-to-face combat. What was that like?
A You do something and everything floods your mind but it's the blink of an eye because you have to keep on doing what you're doing. It's later when you think about what you have done, the huge steps that you've taken, that Everest you've just climbed. I can still see his face. He was firing at me and undoubtedly he would have killed me, if he'd had the chance, and I'm not sure if he'd have reflected on that. It's important to retain your humanity, to think “this was an awful thing that I had to do but I did have to do it”.
Q Do you still think about it or do you compartmentalise it?
A When I'm standing fighting in Afghanistan I can't imagine myself walking about Tesco's and when I'm walking about Tesco's I can't imagine myself fighting in Afghanistan. They're two different worlds. You have to understand the circumstances and context behind what you did. Many people get away by saying “I'm a soldier, that's what I do” and maybe there's a degree of bravado about that. But I was older, already a father, so looked at things differently. For my own sanity it was better I dissected them. I don't think of it every waking moment, but there are things that invade my consciousness, when I least expect it.
Q Being awarded the Military Cross must have been a great honour.
A I feel immensely proud but a degree of shame comes with it too. It's a huge privilege to have been recommended and to have been presented with it by Her Majesty the Queen. But the shame comes in being treated as some kind of hero, a term I'd never use. I'm very conscious of all those who never came home, who were injured, who are still suffering. Nobody is saying to them “here's your shiny medal”. I wear the medal for lots of people I fought alongside including Major Shahrukh, an Afghan who became a great friend and was killed on the last day of the battle in Helmand Province for which I was awarded the Military Cross. He was the bravest, noblest man I've known. I regret taking lives but that's what wars are about. But I also have the Queen's Commendation for Bravery, for saving the lives of enemy soldiers. I'm kind of more proud of that in many ways than I am of the Military Cross. They don't compare in stature but it shows that I was doing the right thing.
Q What toll did your Army career have on family life?
A I was away when my daughter Leigh and son Luke were born. I missed the deaths of both of my wife's parents. I wasn't there to support her and that has a detrimental effect on relationships. I spent so much time away from home during crises, birthdays, illnesses. I came back on R&R in 2008 and was dropped off outside my house. It was pitch black and I walked up to the window and looked inside. Everyone was calm, warm, watching TV. I knew as soon as I knocked the door that life would suddenly change again for them. Briefly I considered walking away, that it wasn't fair of me to disrupt this family again.
Q They must have worried constantly.
A I knew I wasn't in danger all the time but your family is waiting for that knock at the door the whole time. In 2011 in Checkpoint SABAT I was talking to my wife on the satellite telephone, telling her not to worry, when three rocket propelled grenades were fired at me. When I met the Queen to receive the Military Cross, she knew my wife had thought that I was sitting behind a desk in Kandahar, and believed that the damage to my face and hand was because I'd tripped over a computer lead as opposed to fighting a 15-day battle. She wanted to know what my wife said when she found out the truth. Meeting Her Majesty was wonderful but daunting. Just before it, I started thinking about that Mr Bean sketch where he headbutts the Queen and kept telling myself “for goodness sake, don't do that!”
Q Have you post traumatic stress disorder?
A I can go from sadness to deep sadness to feeling depressed and directionless to very tearful. Some of that relates to what I did in the military and some to what I did in the early years of my life. I don't want to be labelled as a person with PTSD disorder although I've no doubt a doctor would diagnose me with it. I just don't want to be in that space. My coping mechanism is to fight it on my terms.
Q Your grandson, Cameron, died suddenly aged 15 months. What would have been his sixth birthday this week was clearly a difficult day.
A We've never had an answer why he died and that's difficult. For my daughter, her husband and their other two boys, I think how even with all of the experience I've got in life, I couldn't protect them against this awful loss. They have to deal with that. I have to deal with the fact that I let them down. I also think of another little girl, Shabia, who was six years old. I held her in my arms in Afghanistan as her life ebbed away. I see her face every single day. (Shabia was fatally injured by a coalition mortar bomb).
Q Are you religious?
A Two elections ago a rumour went round that I was an atheist but that couldn't be further from the truth. I'm not a fan of organised religion. I don't stand on a platform of being a Protestant or a Catholic. That I'm Church of Ireland is neither here nor there. My religion is borne out of incidents like sleeping in a half dug grave in an Afghan graveyard, thinking “I have to leave here” and praying to God that I would get away safely and then that happening. My faith is very personal, very deep.
Q What's your greatest failing?
A I've many. There's that feeling you never have enough, of always striving to do something else, and not realising the aftermath you leave behind. I joined the military to make my father proud but then it became something about me and I didn't realise my home life was suffering because of it. I don't suffer fools gladly. And instead of trying to articulate myself better, I'm quick to lose my temper — people on Twitter realise that.
Q And strength?
A I'm extremely loyal to my family, friends, political party, to the ideals that I think are right and to the people of Northern Ireland.
Q What are you afraid of?
A We all struggle sometimes... I find it easy to talk to a room of 2,000 people but difficult to be understood in a room of five people.
Q Talking of which, unionism is facing challenges. What should it do?
A It's an incredibly difficult time. Because of “shortism” — short-term thinking — we're in a worse place than we should be. Not many in unionism understand what strategic thinking is, everything is a tactical battle. Unionism needs to reach out to people, to bring people with us from the LGBT, BAME and nationalist communities but the parties inadvertently push Catholics away. It's not deliberate but we give off a sense that we're not open. I now have Stephen McCarthy, who was a councillor and had a Falls Road, Catholic background, working in my office. When he didn't get selected as a councillor again I went out looking for him and he's doing a fantastic job alongside Kate Evans.
Q Sum up your identity.
A I'm an Irishman, and some will say “Doug, you need to put the 'northern' in front of that”. Of course I'm British as well, and a Unionist. My identity of being Irish is made up of many different things — the shamrock, Guinness, Gaelic games, St Patrick's Day but also God Save the Queen, the Sash, the Orange Order, Ulster rugby. All of these things are part of me.
Q What do you think of Prince Harry
APrince Harry served his country with distinction and should be commended. He has also done a great deal to support injured veterans. He has decided to take a different route away from royal duties and he should not be vilified for doing so but neither should he retain the privileges associated with someone in royal service.
Q Do you still miss your mum?
A When she was ill, mum would bang a blackthorn stick on her bedroom floor when she wanted something. At her wake, back in the house, suddenly we heard the thump, thump, thump of her stick. Dad started up the stairs before he caught himself on. I can't explain it, but it brought a sense of ease, the sense that we had lost someone but they weren't gone.
Q Did you won your dad's approval?
A Dad lived into his 70s, moved house, worked as a school caretaker. I'd come back with my young family to visit him and we would have a Chinese takeaway and a pint of Guinness. He was a man of his generation, he never hugged me. Two days before he died from throat cancer when he could no longer speak, he handed me a little black book. In it he'd written “I'm really proud of you”. He was never able to say it but I have no doubt he was.