Leaning over the bar in London’s Union Jack Club drinking rum, I stood on legs of flesh and bone. The soldier next to me stood on legs of plastic and metal. He’d lost three limbs after being blown up in Afghanistan and only his left arm remained. The epitome of soldiering, he faced adversity with humor, telling me he could still hold a pint.
One of his legs cost thirty thousand English pounds. You can get a house for a third of that in Burnley. On leaving the service he says he wants to mentor young kids, and the government agrees with him. They want more soldiers in the classroom to straighten out our kids. Military to Mentors is halfway through a program that saw a hundred former soldiers retrained and sent into schools, and now they’re looking for more.
After leaving the service I mentored young Muslim kids, helping them see opportunities they had in this country and why it wasn’t wrong for them to don a uniform to defend it. I was part of a program to help prevent violent extremism. Mentoring is like therapy: unquantifiable sometimes, but we know it works.
It reminded me of “M,” my first mentor. M now holds a senior position in government and would appreciate the anonymity. I never thought about him as a mentor, but every so often through my life I could feel his influence. It all started when I joined the Air Cadets in Burnley where we met. It was the start of my military career.
I was sixteen and living on a street that had a mosque at one end, a school full of Asian kids at the other, and in between were rows of terraced houses full of arranged marriages. A few blocks had been converted into shops. One sold Halal meat, another jewelry, another Indian clothes. Rather, I should say “Pakistani” clothes; the Pakistanis don’t like being reminded that they used to be Indians. There was also an accountant’s office that sold plane tickets to Islamabad or Mecca, changed currency, provided Internet, sold phone cards, and became the Labour party office at election time. Little Pakistan.
Friends and family told me I was a future doctor who’d marry his cousin. M was having none of this. For me he didn’t see Burnley, he saw the world. He saw a future soldier. I can’t thank him enough for his guidance, and I daresay these words would embarrass him. M was as quintessentially British as it gets. Nobody actually needed a pocket watch on a chain in 1995. M made me soldier on nights when I was meant to be learning about benzene or how mitochondria worked.
Instead of evening prayers at the mosque we’d meet at his house and he’d take me camping. His bedroom had a World War II stretcher, old pictures of young men in uniform, and clutter out of which he’d drag webbing and a rucksack for me. We’d load ourselves up and walk off into the hills around Burnley. En route, M would fill my head with stories of the Falklands War, show me how to find my way using the stars, and let me have a few drags of his cigarette.
Camping for two lads from Burnley was a simple affair. It meant stringing a poncho across some trees next to a reservoir cut into the hills. We’d clear the ground of the biggest branches and snap them over our legs for a fire. M didn’t like the spiders that hung from the branches, and I didn’t like the frogs from the reservoir. We reasoned that the fire would keep both away. We didn’t need it for cooking; you don’t cook Mars bars.
After pitching camp, we’d go exploring. We’d walk through dark woods to the water’s edge, and M would tell me about commando operations from the World Wars. He’d tell me about the British Empire and how the Indians served with the British Army. It was a heady cocktail of adventure and it felt right for me. I wanted more. M would test me on finding our way back, letting me lead the way. We’d rest up, eating chocolate as M played the Stone Roses on his Walkman with speakers.
Two years later, the A-level examination board helped M deliver me to the army. My exam results were abysmal. My parents were distraught. A career in medicine was no longer an option. M knew exactly what to do. He sat me down, lit a cigarette, and rewound Who Dares Wins. After we watched Captain Skellen infiltrate a terrorist group, he took me to the local Territorial Army base.
I signed up to join Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers. M was so proud of me when I got my army number, when I became “25097331 Sapper Sarwar, Sir!” I then transferred to the regular army. Years later when I found myself thousands of miles away in Basra, M wrote to me. Seeing his handwriting on the army-issued blue letters with the Iraqi wind blowing sand into my hair, I could only feel one thing—I’d made it. He’d held my hand until I flew.
During my service I deployed to Cyprus, Kuwait, and twice to Iraq. I qualified in bomb disposal and mine clearance. I skied in Germany, France, and Austria. I jumped out of planes over England. I rescued a young girl off a mountain in Wales after qualifying as a Mountain Leader and made friends who mean so much to me. I never did get that arranged marriage. Instead I met my first girlfriend and fell in love. I’m afraid M won’t be around for your kids; he’s too busy. But I’m glad the government sees the value of the guiding hand.
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