Twenty years after the first barrage of Western cruise missiles rained down on Iraq, the battle scars are still raw among many within the British military community.
Paul Minter, who served in and around Basra during a distinguished 18-year Army career, is among those who have struggled to erase the dark memories from their minds.
In 2007, he found himself in the insurgents’ sights as a Lance Corporal in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, carrying out covert surveillance missions from its base in the southern city.
Having signed up at the age of 17, the Household Cavalry soldier also served four tours of Afghanistan, where he miraculously survived RPG hits and being blown up by an IED.
Suffering the mental aftershocks of war, he was medically discharged from the military, where he last held the rank of Staff Sergeant with the cavalry regiment’s D Squadron.
The veteran, now aged 37, would go on to found Head Up, a mental health charity for the armed forces community, and believes such work is as vital as ever — even at a time when the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are relatively out of sight.
‘Iraq involved the British for quite some time and there was a lot of intense fighting which hadn’t been seen up to that point,’ he said.
‘There were a lot of negative and some positive things which came out of it.
‘A lot of people are still suffering from the impact of what they’ve seen, what they went through and what they had to do. A major factor at the moment is that there isn’t a lot of help for people who are dealing with their troubles.
‘We know from psychology research that it can take anything between five and 15 years for the brain to really compute that trauma, so there needs to be a lot more out there to help people calm their minds down.
‘As a charity, we are trying to teach people different ways to calm their minds down and compute what they have seen.’
Twenty years ago today, the first air strikes were launched on Iraq in what the Pentagon named ‘Operation Shock and Awe’.
A coalition led by the US and UK launched the massive invasion the following day, the precursor to the capture of Saddam Hussein, a bloody insurgency and years of instability which continues into the present.
Paul’s involvement came when he took part in covert surveillance operations across the south of the country as second in charge of a four-man reconnaissance team. Missions included laying up on rooftops and in bushes, with one operation installing cameras on a river between Iraq and Iran narrowly avoiding detection by the latter’s security forces.
Iraq is part of the charity chief executive’s arc of service that has included hundreds of firefights and seeing friends killed.
‘There was a lot of fighting going on around high-rise buildings and whenever we were moving as a convoy there were two or three vehicles that were going to be hit, it was like a lucky dip,’ Paul said.
‘That places the mind under a lot of stress.
‘Because I was in a surveillance role I would watch and see these things happening, without having much of an impact to play on it.
‘I had to sit back and watch it all unfold, even as insurgents were settled in and locked in and ready to attack British and American forces, which was very difficult. As a force we were constantly under indirect fire, you would see a lot of mortars and artillery shells come in.
‘Sometimes people took direct hits, which was very difficult to see.’
Paul, from East Ham, London, also served in Afghanistan, which exacted another heavy toll on British forces in terms of casualties and the lasting psychological scars.
His experiences included being caught up in daily fighting in Helmand Province where he was deployed with the first UK troops in the region.
One deadly incident in 2006, when he was a 20-year-old gunner, shows the combat stress they came under as troops redeployed to help with reconstruction were drawn into intense firefights with the Taliban.
‘We were ambushed quite badly and unfortunately three people died instantly,’ Paul said.
‘Another was severely injured with 80% burns. Three of us survived but we had to fight our way out. They were very traumatic circumstances but the next day we were back out fighting, there wasn’t a lot of time to compute what happened.
‘You didn’t have much time to reflect while you were on leave either, as I was in Iraq just a few months later.
‘I love the armed forces and I’m a big advocate for them but like many industries there just needs to be a bit more done to deal with potential trauma to individuals later on in life.’
Paul was awarded a Mention in Dispatches for bravery in 2011.
However the darker side of his service caught up with him eight years later, when he fell into a deep depression, suffering severe paranoia, anxiety and other symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
He was not the only one with a troubled mind.
A string of friends, including serving soldiers and veterans, took their own lives on what seemed like a weekly basis.
Twenty years since the Iraq invasion
The invasion of Iraq began on March 19, 2003 with a barrage of air strikes entitled ‘Operation Shock and Awe’.
The US and UK-led ground element of the invasion began the next day, with allied troops in Baghdad by April 9.
The then US President George W Bush declared victory the following month, framing it within a war on terror that began on 9/11. However a bloody insurgency fuelled continued fighting across the country.
The rise of ISIS would also mark another grim chapter in Iraq’s post-invasion history. The terror group’s territorial hold was eventually broken by a global coalition, but it still poses a threat to the world.
British combat troops were withdrawn from Iraq in July 2009.
In total, 179 British Armed Forces personnel and MoD civilians died between the start of the campaign and the withdrawal.
Paul was medically discharged in 2020 and has told how after a ‘lot of hard work, digging deep and soul searching’, which was helped by some ‘amazing individuals in the military’, he managed to see bright skies again.
On his first day as a civilian, he began a fundraiser for the charity which would see him run 5,000 miles around the UK coastline in 218 days.
Head Up, which he runs full-time, aims to stem suicides within the military community and promote mental health awareness through helping individuals to build positive mindsets.
‘The five of us who set up this charity have lost a lot of friends to suicide,’ Paul said. ‘I have spoken to friends and family members of those who have taken their own lives who all agree it’s something that is not going away.
‘It’s still happening on a daily, weekly basis at the moment so more needs to be done. There are a lot of people trying to do as much as they can but there needs to be bigger involvement from the armed forces and from the government itself.’
One of the charity’s aims is to create a ‘non-militarised’ country retreat in Worcestershire where guests can take part in seven-day residential courses aimed at mental well-being.
‘As a charity we teach people ways they can improve their overall mindset and wellness through things like meditation, breathing techniques and having a better understanding of nutrition,’ Paul said.
‘We offer different types of therapy, such as with cold water, nature and music, to make them feel more positive than negative.
‘While it might only be for a day or during a residential course, the aim is to make them feel better on a day-to-day basis and to calm minds that may have been traumatised by their experiences in the military on the way to meaningful change.’
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