A British soldier has broken ranks within days of returning from Iraq to speak publicly of the horror of his tour of duty there, painting a picture of troops under siege, “sitting ducks” to an increasingly sophisticated insurgency.
“Basra is lost, they are in control now. It’s a full-scale riot and the Government are just trying to save face,” said Private Paul Barton.
The 27-year-old, who returned from his second tour of Iraq this week along with other members of 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, insisted that he remains loyal to the Army despite such public dissent. He said he had already volunteered to go to Afghanistan later this year.
But, he said, he felt strongly that somebody had to speak out: “I want people to see it as it is; not the sugar-coated version.”
His public protest is a sign of the groundswell of anger among the troops, and predictions that more will come forward to break the traditional covenant of silent service. Just last month, Pte Steve Baldwin, 22, a soldier in the same regiment, spoke to The Independent about the way he had been “pushed aside” since being injured by a roadside bomb which killed three others during the Staffords’ first tour of Iraq in 2005.
And on Monday, Cpl Richard Bradley also chose to air his views on television: “Blokes are dying for no cause at all and blokes are getting injured for no cause at all.”
Reacting to Pte Barton’s comments, many soldiers on websites appeared stunned but in agreement. One said: “When I arrived back last year, I was utterly depressed by what I had seen out there and the lack of any progress … any journo sticking a microphone in my grid would have been given enough soundbites to retire on. And I would probably be in the Tower of London.
“I can only imagine that the situation 12 months on is even worse, and it would not surprise me if this is repeated over the coming months by more guys coming back from their third and fourth tours to that midden.”
Pte Barton felt so strongly that he telephoned his local paper, the Tamworth Herald, to speak of the “side you don’t hear”.
The regiment lost one soldier, Pte Johnathon Wysoczan, 21, during its tour, but 33 more were injured. “I was the first one to get to one of the tents after it was hit, where one of my mates was in bed. The top of his head and his hand was blown off. He is now brain damaged.
“We were losing people and didn’t have enough to replace them. You hear about the fatalities but not the injuries. We have had four who got shot in the arm, a bloke got blown up twice by roadside bombs and shot in the neck and survived.”
Most, he said, endured at least one “lucky escape” during their tour. “I had a grenade chucked at me by practically a five-year-old kid. I had a mortar land a couple of metres from me.”
The regiment was based in the Shatt al-Arab hotel base, which was handed over to the Iraqi army on 8 April. Of the 40 tents in the base, just five remained unscathed by the end of the tour, he said. “We were just sitting ducks … On the last tour we were not mortared very often. This tour, it was two to three times a day. Fifteen mortars and three rockets were fired at us in the first hour we were there.”
He added: “Towards the end of January to March, it was like a siege mentality. We were getting mortared every hour of the day. We were constantly being fired at. We basically didn’t sleep for six months. You couldn’t rest. Psychologically, it wore you down.
“Every patrol we went on we were either shot at or blown up by roadside bombs. It was crazy.”
He insisted that the insurgents appeared to be considerably better trained, funded and equipped than had been the case during their first tour of duty.
“Last tour, I never fired my rifle once. This time, I fired 127 rounds on five different occasions. And, in my role [providing medical support], I shouldn’t have to fire.” He added: “We have overstayed our welcome now. We should speed up the withdrawal. It’s a lost battle. We should pull out and call it quits.”