It’s not always enemy action; war is messy even with all the orders. A friend of mine was discharged because he could no longer hold a gun. He was out on recon in deepest darkest Basra looking for insurgents. As the commander he made sure all his men were safely in the back of the tank before he got back in and returned to base.
His hand was in the way of the tank’s hydraulic door, which sliced off his fingers. He said he didn’t feel much but knew something was wrong. He requested the tank door be opened again and held his hand up to the moon. He could see what he thought was water running down short stumps before he fainted.
His friends picked his fingers off the side of the door and bagged them up. It was all four fingers on his right hand—no trigger finger left, so he had to leave. The army offered him other jobs such as working in the stores department, but none came close to what he wanted to do, which was to be a soldier.
One thing the army drills into you is “cracking on”—basically, getting on with it. I know a few former soldiers who have had limbs amputated. Maybe they’re putting on a brave face, but they just get on with it. D. H. Lawrence said, “I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself,” and I could never find an ounce of self-pity in any of the amputees. These boys and girls were taught never to feel sorry for themselves. They knew that life was unfair sometimes but that they must soldier on. It’s a lesson you learn when you’re weighed down trying to run up a wet hill as the enemy fires at you.
British fatalities in Afghanistan regularly make the front pages, but the amputees aren’t very visible. The Ministry of Defence didn’t allow the publication of the figures until very recently. It’s as if they were hidden. The dead will be remembered every November and the unscathed will carry on with their lives. The amputees will have to change their lives along with their husbands, wives, and other loved ones. Over half of these are returning to work. Some are asking to go back out to the frontline; some are doing exactly that.
And here on the Tube was one of them: Jaco Van Gass, a proud paratrooper. After we’d swapped a few stories about the military I asked him what he was up to next. Jaco reached for his bag. It was his stop. The bag shouldered, he smiled. What was his secret? “I’m off to climb Everest on Tuesday,” he managed to get out as the door’s beep beep beep ended our time together. By the time you read this, Jaco’s crampons will have tasted snow on his way to the top of the world.
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