Belfast Telegraph

'I've a lifetime spent at war, witnessed and done some awful things, but nothing prepared me for sight of my grandson lying dead on floor'

War hero-turned-MLA Captain Doug Beattie on how he almost quit his burgeoning political career after heartbreaking family tragedy in May

By Stephanie Bell

As the controversial Chilcot report grabs headlines this week, few people are better qualified to comment on the inquiry's findings than newly elected MLA and war hero Doug Beattie.

The Ulster Unionist politician and retired Army Captain was given the Queen's Commendation for Bravery for his actions in Iraq. He became a well-known figure across the UK after he documented the reality for troops during the conflict in two best-selling books - An Ordinary Soldier and Task Force Helmand.

Mr Beattie served in Iraq under Col Tim Collins, and this week put his head above the parapet to call on the Government to apologise to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

The Portadown father-of-two left his 34-year military career behind when he decided to stand for election as an MLA this year.

It has been a year of highs and devastating lows for the popular soldier-turned-politician.

The day before his election victory in the Upper Bann constituency, he and his family suffered unimaginable heartache when his 15-month-old grandson, Cameron Tindale, died suddenly in his sleep.

Speaking for the first time about the emotion he felt, Doug spoke of his guilt at being elected and how close he came to walking away from politics because of his little grandson's devastating death.

He also revealed how his daughter has been left distraught after results of medical tests which she believes could have saved her son's life arrived five weeks late - on the day she buried her youngest child.

Little Cameron was laid to rest on May 7 as his grandfather was confirmed as an MLA.

In what should have been a moment of triumph and celebration, a heartbroken Mr Beattie was instead struggling to decide whether he should take up his seat at Stormont.

"It really affected my confidence and if affected me personally - I found it incredibly difficult," he said.

"It was bittersweet because I was elected while we were burying Cameron and I wanted to walk away from politics because of the trauma.

"I felt guilty and ashamed that here I was running for election and my family was destroyed."

Mr Beattie said the loss of his grandson was worse than any of the horrors he had experienced in warzones across the world.

His daughter, Leigh, rang in hysterics when she discovered little Cameron's lifeless body in his bedroom in the early hours of May 4.

"I have a lifetime spent at war and have seen things and done things which are truly awful and which I have had to try and get out of my psyche and which have affected me deeply," Doug explained.

"Nothing, though, prepared me for seeing my grandson lying dead on the floor of his own home, or for the feelings of disbelief and dread when my daughter rang screaming in the middle of the night."

A post-mortem was carried out after the tragedy. The family will not know the cause of Cameron's death until the results are through in a few weeks' time, but it is believed that he could have died from a seizure.

Cameron, the youngest of three boys, suffered a seizure in mid-March, after which he underwent an electroencephalogram, which records the electrical activity of the brain, at Craigavon Area Hospital.

The family was told they would have the results in two weeks. Instead, it took seven weeks, and they arrived on the day Cameron was buried.

"My daughter was expecting the results in two weeks and didn't get them," Mr Beattie said. "She assumed that no news was good news, but the day we buried Cameron the letter arrived saying that he was at risk of taking another seizure.

"My daughter blames herself for not chasing up the results and she blames herself for her son's death, but it was the system which let him down.

"I have spoken to the doctor, and he confirmed that there was no process in place for doctors to chase up results when they are not sent out within two weeks, which means that it can happen again.

"My daughter's middle son, Bradley, also suffers from severe seizures and can take up to 15 a day, and now my daughter is terrified every time she goes into his bedroom. "

Doug, who was hugely conflicted when he took his seat as an MLA at Stormont, also explained how his career in politics came about by accident, rather than design.

After retiring from the Army, he joined the Ulster Unionist Party and was asked to stand for a place on Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council in 2014. This year, he was asked to stand for election as an MLA.

"It was accidental, my going into politics," he said. "After 34 years in the Army, serving in places like Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Africa, here in Northern Ireland and many other countries, I have a broad view of the world. At the end of my military career, I still had a will to serve people. I was looking for an outlet, and I looked at all the parties here. The Ulster Unionist Party suited me because it allowed me to be a free thinker.

"I have my own views on things like same-sex marriage and abortion, and I wanted the ability to have those views. I hadn't planned to stand for election, but leader Mike Nesbitt asked me to, so it wasn't by design, it was by accident."

Doug emphasised that despite his military background, he was not biased. "Having been a solider, people of a nationalist background might see me as representing one part of society rather than the other, but I have never lived like that and, in fact, I have always worked with and have friends with a very broad spectrum of people from all backgrounds and cultures," he said.

Doug, the son of a soldier, was "born in barracks" in 1965 and spent the first 10 years of his life moving from place to place because of his father's military career as a Warrant Officer in the Royal Ulster Rifles.

The family eventually settled in Portadown, when he was aged 10. He was only 14 when his mother died, leaving his father to bring him and two brothers up alone.

Doug joined the army aged 16, but did so reluctantly as he would have preferred to have stayed on at school. However, he was keen to impress his father.

While in training for the Army, senior English officers verbally and physically abused because of where he was from.

"As an Irish man in 1982 being trained by English instructors, it was hard," he explained.

"We were the Muslims of our day, and it was a bitter experience. We were physically and mentally abused, and it was racism because we were Irish.

"It was during the time of the Falklands War when men were meant to be men even though they were still boys, and it was difficult."

He joined the Royal Irish Rangers, which became the Royal Irish Regiment in 1992, and in 34 years of service rose from the rank of Ranger to that of Regimental Sergeant Major before being commissioned and gaining promotion to the rank of Captain.

During that time, he was awarded the Queen's Commendation for Bravery for his actions in Iraq, the Military Cross for his bravery in Afghanistan and the NATO Meritorious Service Medal for his peacekeeping contributions in Bosnia.

To Doug, as a former soldier, this week's report by Sir John Chilcot, which concluded that the UK went to war in Iraq before all peaceful options for disarming Saddam Hussein were exhausted, was vital for the current and future health of the country.

"It was for our nation, and our nation needed it to inform our foreign policy and military actions in the future," he said. "I see it as having been important for that reason - to inform our politicians and our military chiefs.

"It did, however, lay bare the failings of the Government and of the Foreign Office."

Doug claimed that when soldiers entered the war, they thought it was "for a just and noble cause", adding: "We did think that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and we were going in to do a good thing.

"Now, in hindsight, we know that was not the case."

He also explained that he was "proud" of the soldiers he served with "under difficult conditions", and said they should not be forgotten in the fallout from the report.

"Their compassion and gentleness has been largely forgotten because of the ills of a few who have destroyed the reputation of the many," he insisted.

"I would ask people to please pay a thought for those soldiers who just did their duty."

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