BDR Marc Tony Joyce (British Army, Op Telic, OEF Veteran)
When Americans think about Southern Afghanistan, more particularly Helmand Province, they’re likely to recall a post-2009 U.S. Marine Corps era that saw us in heavily contended areas with routine violence being a common thread. However, Helmand Province in 2006 to most Americans might as well have been any other part of Afghanistan, in an era that saw over 7 times as many U.S. troops in Iraq. At the same time the British were gearing up in Helmand, an area only American Special Operations had seen any action in. Those Brits, despite their incredible warrior lineage, couldn’t have possibly been prepared for what was about to take place. Nawzad, for all intents and purposes, was a relatively peaceful area located in the middle of Helmand. What happened next in that area is something few Americans know much about apart from a select few British documentaries found in the OIF/OEF sections of YouTube. The Taliban made a strategic reappearance and openly took a violent stand of resurgence. The British soon realized they were in for an absolutely hellish brawl.
Marc Tony Joyce, hailing from Winsford, a small British parish with roots in the salt mining industry, was a young man but already a veteran of the Iraq conflict. Joyce’s growth into a soldier was somewhat predestined in that he’d grown up in a patriotic household, with much of his family serving in the regiments. The true trial by fire still awaited Joyce on those ghostly Helmand battlefields. He was about to be introduced to the ghost town of Nawzad and a smash-mouth conflict that would forever hold a tremendous weight in the historical narratives on Operation Enduring Freedom. Marc would make the journey twice more after that first deployment, gaining a doctorate-level education in the logistical prowess of an always-adapting enemy. Each tour told a completely unique story, each tour dangerous in a different way, each tour would end with more of Marc’s brothers making the ultimate sacrifice.
Can you talk about your life before the Army and how you grew up?
MTJ: I grew up in a little town called Winsford that’s in Cheshire. You wouldn’t know where that is probably being from the U.S. but it’s a bit of a mixture between countryside and town. It’s nowhere near as big as Manchester. I’m 1 of 5 so I have 2 brothers and 2 sisters. It was a busy, busy house. We all grew up together in a relatively “normal” home with two parents that are now still together. They’re good parents. They’ve been married for 35 years and they’ve always been mega supportive. I had a good upbringing so if you’re searching for drama there you probably won’t find anything with them (laughs). I was just a lad so I was into sports and I played everything from football to rugby. I boxed as well and was quite an active kid. I was relatively clever in school. I don’t quite know how to say it to an American other then we were put into sets academically in school. I was a bit of an underachiever but I wanted to be cool and mess around, meet a lot of girls (laughs). I just wasn’t all that interested in school or learning. I got away with it thankfully and managed to go to college (laughs). College is a prep for university and you’d pick a couple subjects you like before you went to university. Luckily, I was clever enough to sort of wing it. I was quite lucky.
I joined the Army cadets in school but that didn’t make the Army 100% certain of a thing. I think everyone in my family has sort of been in the Army apart from my dad, so I’ve grown up with that background. I had quite a military family. They’ve always been very supportive of the Army. I’ve loved that about the Americans every time I’ve been over there. You’re quite patriotic and I feel the same way. I’ve noticed the support quite a bit more in America than I’ve noticed it over here. People don’t tend to be as positive about the military here but my family was thankfully. I made a choice to join the Army and as I was looking to go to universities. My best mate had joined the Army himself. I don’t know why I didn’t join the Army right away. I’d done well in drama in college. I’d done some sort of college interviews and I decided on drama because there were quite a few girls around (laughs). Then I started to get asked about what I wanted to do at “uni” (university) and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought to myself, “What am I doing? Am I going to try to be the next Brad Pitt or what?” (laughs) My best friend at the time, who is still my best friend now, was in the Army at the time. He came home and he was telling me that he’d been warned off about Iraq, so that kind of made my decision for me. I knew right then I needed to join the Army at that point (laughs). I literally walked into a recruiter’s office and chose my best friend’s unit. He was able to put into a word to his sergeant major so I could get his unit after my 12 weeks of basic training. So, when I got out of all my basic and advanced schooling I was headed straight away to Iraq with my best mate (laughs). That was in 2004 when I headed over there.
What was basic training like for you?
MTJ: Basic training was tough because it was a shock to the system and who’s done anything like that before (laughs)? There’s really no prep for that. Out of the 12 weeks you have 4 of those weeks where you can go “DAOR” which is a Discharge As Of Right and within those first 4 weeks you can go “shock to the system” and say “Jesus, this isn’t what I want to do.” At any point during that time, you can walk away straight label. So many people quit in those first 4 weeks because they were just too shocked to handle (laughs). You can tell which ones that won’t make it pretty early on. When they’re pushing you to your limits, it’s 4 a.m. in January, it’s freezing, and they’re bugging you out of your sleeping bags, you can tell on which guy’s faces (laughs) who is going to turn it in first thing next morning. That first bit can be tough. You have to realize, “Is this something I really want to do?” That’s the first bit of growing up.
I chose to be there so I felt like I knew I didn’t want to be a failure. I knew I couldn’t go home to my family as a quitter. I’ve always been quite competitive and I had a few doubters as well. I had some people around me who were saying, “Oh, he won’t do it. He won’t make it.” I had a bit of a phase where I was having a bit of a stinkin’ attitude. I was in that part of life where my mum looked at me and said, “I love you but I don’t like you (laughs).” It was around then when I’d been this sporty kid to where I didn’t want to do any of that. I found myself in a bad crowd and out on the streets doing a bit of drinking and things like that. I didn’t want to go back to that lifestyle. My dad is a typical dad and he said to me, “If you’re going to do it, do it then.” My mum was my mum and she just was worried about me joining the Army. I didn’t really know in my head what I was really going to do. I kind of found myself in training too where I was with 80 other guys in Phase One of training and I was one of the guys who was in better shape. I found my grit there. So, I realized there when I was at my physical limit that I wouldn’t stop. A lot of basic training is that at first and it wasn’t until Phase Two where we really started having to think outside of the box. Phase One is to get the guys out of there that don’t need to be in the regiments.
Where did you get sent after basic training?
MTJ: So, I joined the artillery and I knew that I wanted to be a forward observer. My best mate was doing that so I knew I wanted to do the same. In order to get into the artillery and start my path into the forward observer route, I joined the “Highland Gunners” (now the Scottish Gunners) which is a Scottish Regiment under the British Army. It’s an interesting thing to join a unit that hates Brits (laughs) and the Scots definitely hate the Brits. It took a few years for the Scots to accept me. In fact, it really wasn’t until after my first combat deployment that they learned to accept me (laughs). We’re very clique-ish within the regiments which is very different than the American Army I’m sure. It’s a lot of banter but when shit hits the fan we’re all on the same side.
Talk about Iraq and what that was like for you.
MTJ: I went straight out to Iraq after being in the Army for six months. I’d chosen that unit because they were going to Iraq. Units aren’t always manned to full strength so it was pretty easy to get on a deployment. I made it very clear from the beginning that I wanted to be a part of 19th Highland Gunners. That played to my favor. Command was like, “Good, we will get you there no problem.” (laughs) I couldn’t get into a forward observer role right off because that takes time so I had to deploy in an artillery role first. It’s just like in the American military where you can’t be a sniper right away. You have to train and go to school for that specific role and sometimes it takes time to get that school. I had to do my OP schooling and you have to be selected. I had to be a “gun bunny” as we call it and learn to fire a 155 caliber self-propelled Howitzer.
I’d never spent time on that gun because our unit was tasked out in an infantry role for Iraq. As soon as I got to the unit I deployed with them as an infantryman. I got thrown straight into the deep end without really knowing anyone. It was probably the best thing for me in a way. The best way for soldiers to bond is to go out on operations together. By the time I did the six months in Iraq, I was one of the guys. Even through a relatively short time, that short time was in a combat zone so I found myself very quickly respected. Fortunately for me, my sergeant major or staff sergeant at the time, asked me right away when we got back if I wanted to go to OP School. I’d never actually fired the Howitzer at that point. I got lucky.
What was that tour of Iraq and Basra like for you?
MTJ: Basra was a bit surreal because I was 18 years old and I was less than six months into my service before I deployed to Iraq. It wasn’t until after I’d done more time that I understood how different Iraq was. We did a lot of armored escort with the Marines in the ports. I think the major threat in that area were the roadside bombs. The south of Iraq was more safe than the north so a lot of it was just retaining our dominance. We did a lot of the security at Camp Bucca in the south of Iraq. We were there in ‘05 and we’d go across the border to Kuwait which was a surreal experience. You’re going from Iraq to sudden peace across the border in Kuwait. It was a pretty regular experience that made it very easy to become complacent. I came back from Iraq and felt okay about that tour. Don’t get me wrong because it was still surreal and shocking. It seems so long ago now. When I look back on it now, we had it quite easy there compared to my experiences of Afghanistan which were much more wild.
When did you go to Afghanistan?
MTJ: We were warned off within six months and that was in ‘06. Helmand had kicked off and things started to get pretty wild over there. We got back from Iraq and pretty soon after we were warned off. We were a fire support team and everything changed for the observers. That changed a lot from the Cold War where we were seen as sitting back in an OP and just observing the arcs and drawing panoramic views. Afghanistan completely changed that because Afghan is not that (laughs). That was when we went from tac-groups or tac-parties to a remodel of that. They rewrote the pamphlet on forward observation and transformed that into fire support teams. You’re a lot more integrated within an infantry unit to the point where you become a part of the group.
Everything’s a lot more “danger close” and close quarters to the point where you’re kinetic like the infantry, able to react to every moment very closely. The main choice of weapons became fast jets, Apaches, and mortars. That’s much quicker and we re-rolled from 155 to 105 mm. 155 guns were just too much for that environment. My first infantry unit I was integrated with was 1 Royal Anglian and it was the one Ross Kemp did a major story on. I was attached to A Company and I lived and worked with them. I became their advisor on offensive support so anything that was fired ground to air or air to ground I’d advise the company commander on what to do. That tour was a wake-up call.
How do you explain that tour to people?
MTJ: I still don’t know how to explain that tour of Afghanistan (laughs). Where do you start? I’m not a massive talker about what I’ve done and I don’t talk that often about Afghan. I did three tours of Afghanistan and every one of those tours was unique. I felt my first time was like, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.” Every deployment over there threw something different at us. They evolved as well. They learned a lot about us in those multiple tours and each time I came back it was different. The first tour of Afghanistan was extremely kinetic, a lot of small arms, and they wanted to bring the fight to us.
They were proactive. We were in a ton of firefights. The terrain was a major factor and the green zone as they called it was 50 degree (Celsius, 122 Fahrenheit) heat and it was pretty urban. I’d been in situations in a contact where they were amongst you. They’d come around a corner at 30-50 meters and all of a sudden you’re in a wild west shootout. They were very good at what they did in their flip flops and dish dash. We’re running around in 70 lbs of kit and they’re attacking us aggressively in man dresses and flip flops. It was tough. They were very tactical as well. They knew how to flank us and properly set ambushes in their home territory.
What was that first contact like?
MTJ: That was less than two weeks into Afghanistan when we took our first contact, when we’d been tasked out to Nawzad. What was different about Nawzad was it was almost like a Mexican standoff every day. The brief was like, “If you pass this certain wadi the Taliban has said that they will contact us.” We’d do patrols around the base and you’d get nothing and we’d wonder, “What are we doing here?” Nawzad was a ghost town and all the people had moved out. We finally had a patrol where we were going to step across the wadi and it happened exactly like that. That first contact came as soon as we patrolled over. We moved as tactically as we could and my platoon was contacted immediately. I heard the gunfire and my first reaction was to find cover. Our flanking platoon worked around them and they were hit by a Taliban flanking platoon.
So, we had two platoons in contact immediately and it came over the radio really quickly that we’d taken a hit. Our point man had been shot and I heard that going down the line quickly. That was Private Chris Gray. There was a major adrenaline rush and we formed into a baseline. I remember thinking, “I can’t freaking see any enemy.” There were fields and we’d received contact but we couldn’t pinpoint it. We quickly had to bug out and the mood changed. It had gone from an adrenaline rush to being, “Wow, someone is actually hurt.” The flanking platoon took a casualty as well. We withdrew but it wasn’t until we got back to Bastion (base) that we heard Chris had died. That moment was like, “Holy shit, we’re two weeks in and we already lost someone.” That was the start of the madness in Afghanistan. It was a major eye-opener. It was every day. It was hard and fast combat.
Can you talk specifically about one mission that you remembered that was very tough?
MTJ: That first contact was tough because we lost someone. Our job was to dominate Nawzad so we needed to push past that certain wadi and own the territory. They (Taliban) moved through buildings fast and they tried to flank you at all times. There was one time where one of our snipers was moving through buildings. The OC wanted him to get eyes on for a better perspective on the Taliban and their position. He was moving through a building and came around a corner and literally ran into a Taliban fighter. He stood there and his sniper rifle was no good in that position because it’s a long gun and too long for close contact. He had a glock on his chest rig and literally shot the Taliban fighter right in the chest. That’s how close it was. The contact was so close because the Taliban knew Nawzad like the back of their hand. They weren’t scared of getting in our face and Sangin was similar to that. The other time was my second tour where it was after an OP called Panther’s Claw.
We held an area called Babaji that second tour, and everything was very Sangin focused. Babaji was in this place in the middle of Afghanistan and it was completely quiet at the time. That all changed because it was very overlooked. The worst tour was the second. The first tour was more of a soldier’s dream and we were allowed to do what we were taught to do. Don’t get me wrong. That first tour was extremely kinetic but it was war in the way you’d dreamed it to be. We were better soldiers than they were so we felt superiority. We’d do tenfold to them what they’d do to us once. What changed with the second tour was they’d gotten better. The IEDs were what changed the tide. What do you do about that? They started using carbon rods which the metal detectors couldn’t pick up and that introduced a whole new complication. It was almost like Russian roulette where we’d never knew what we’d get. They’d throw a 5 kilo detergent explosive together that was homemade with a battery pack. They’d introduce that connection to a pressure plate and our metal detectors would find those metal connections. When they found out how to use carbon rods, that killed our metal detection ability and effectively made the explosives almost impossible to find. They were relentless.
There was one time outside of our PB, PB 4, where we had EOD come in and within a 400 meter space our EOD found 50 IEDs. It became where a man in our stack out front with a metal detector and night vision, wasn’t good enough for finding IEDs. It became up to I-Star and fast jets to find those guys in the action. They were getting so good at the process that guys wouldn’t even want to leave the wire. It became mentally intimidating. At that point on the second tour I was a section commander. I had to continually keep my guys pumped to go out because they were getting sick thinking about the possibilities. You’d have guys vomiting thinking about the good probability of hitting an IED. In that first tour, you felt like a true soldier even when you lost guys. You felt that there was a real opportunity to match up with the enemy and beat them on their own turf. In that second tour, we were dealing with fighting against bombs and when a bomb meets a human, bombs win. Within their tactical design, they’d wait for the IED to go off then come up from a murder hole (dug-in hideout) with small arms fire fully knowing you’d be incapacitated by that IED explosion. That second time, they were patient and very deviant. They learned our drills as well. They knew that when they took pop shots at us just to get our convoys to move off the side of the road. Once we’d moved off the road there were explosives waiting for us dug into the culverts and ditches. Guys would stay on the road and risk getting shot rather than diving into a ditch and getting blown up. That became the demoralizing factor and it made a lot of the guys not want to leave the base walls. That’s when I realized that this place I’d been in before had changed. It’s like I’d never been there. All the work we’d done prior seemed to have disappeared. It was like being back at square one.
What do you remember about the guys you served with?
MTJ: That second tour was tough in its’ own way. We were in the worst areas of Helmand at the time. PB4 was known to be the most dangerous part of Helmand. We were about a company strong and so you’re talking about 90 guys. That’s a fire support group, where your attachment was about 90 strong. I’d say in those 6 months we took 33 “Cat A” casualties (wounded). We had 6 KIA (Killed In Action) in that group and 27 out of the fight. I’d say about 90% of those were attributed to IEDs and 10% small arms fire.
What’s the feeling of when an IED goes off and you know someone’s hurt?
MTJ: I remember the first time I experienced an IED going off. I’d done Afghan’ in ‘06 and did 3 months in Nawzad and 3 months in Sangin and I don’t remember one incident of an IED going off. It was completely small arms fire. The second tour was ‘09 and it was almost no small arms fire and almost all IEDs. It was pretty much like we were fighting a completely different enemy. We were going out on a 2 week operation and we were about 150 meters out of base camp. It was actually the medic in front of me on a patrol line. I wasn’t sure what happened but the blast blew me off my feet. I lost my rifle and was on the ground and I remember thinking, “Alright, do I still have my boys (laughs)?”
Then I looked for my legs of course and realized I was okay. Our medic was screaming but I couldn’t see a thing. We found him in the ditch and that was the first time I’d seen a guy in complete shock. He’d lost both his legs. We applied our CAT tourniquets and called in a nine line. We got him on a stretcher and took him back 150 meters to the PB. There was a lot of screaming and he was having to come to terms of losing his legs. With him being a medic, he began to calm down and told us what to do while we were working on him. All the casualties I’ve seen have been different. Some guys I’ve seen have been able to help us work on them and some guys go into complete shock and go under.
How do you describe that to civilians?
MTJ: I wouldn’t know how to describe finding a way to stay calm if I was going to describe it to civilians. I’ve seen tough guys freeze in that situation and their body just shuts down. You don’t know how you’re going to react until it happens. It’s scary, you’re nervous, and you have to move in that situation. The most worrisome thing for me is when it started to become the norm. I got used to bandaging people and throwing on tourniquets. In that part of Afghanistan, it became almost “another day at work.” I felt numb. I began to wonder if it was normal to feel that way. I knew that it was how I needed to feel to be successful in war time it but I wasn’t sure if it was healthy to feel that way. I realized I was losing my innocence and so that’s the struggle. It’s not the place to be emotional but I didn’t like losing my sensitivity. It took me a long time to get over it.
After doing three tours of Afghan, I just hoped that I’d get that sensitivity back at some point. I was working the joint fire cell on that third tour, coordinating teams on the ground so I wasn’t in that same infantry role I’d been in on the other tours. It was good but it was hard because I had to listen to the guys on the ground doing the job I used to do. That tour was when I got hurt ironically enough. One of the FST commanders got shot so he was CASEVAC’d (Casualty Evacuation) back to the U.K. I was sent out to do the commander’s job. I was the highest qualified that you could be as a forward observer, so they sent me out in that position to do a captain’s job. I’d already been out there for 4 or 4 ½ months. Those first two tours were the toughest though. I took me awhile when I got out of the Army to regain that sensitivity that was necessary for being a normal citizen. I suffered in my relationships and it was really only in the last couple years that the barriers were broken. I became an emotional wreck for a bit. I remember being out of the Army for about 12 weeks and being a bit of an emotional wreck. I finally was dropping those barriers and they came crashing down. There was no time to be a mess about it over there.
What do you feel was your worst experience over there?
MTJ: I’ve had some rough experiences overseas, but one of the worst was an experience with IEDs that I was involved with in Babaji in ‘09, in a Taliban stronghold called Padaka. Nobody had been there coalition wise, so we knew it was where they did a lot of their infiltration. A lot of the activity was coming from there. We were building up to an operation to assault that area and we went in with the lead platoon when we came up on a VP (Vulnerable Point). A lot of Padaka is like that. We went into this alleyway and our lead guy hit an IED. So straight away we moved some of our guys to the rear and put some defense in place. It just so happened that was the trigger IED that set their ambush. It was a pull release IED where a guy was sitting behind a wall and had pulled the release to make it go off. As we were dragging the casualty back he pulled another release and hit us again. So one guy was hit twice.
He lost his leg on the first explosion and the second explosion took his other leg. The four guys carrying his stretcher were taken out of the fight as well. We went from one casualty to six or seven in an instant. We were only a team of like ten guys on the ground. So that means we had three guys, including myself, trying to sort it for seven casualties. Those aren’t good odds (laughs). Sergeant John Amer, our platoon sergeant, was one of the guys on the stretcher and lost his legs at a very high point. I treated him and thought he’d be okay once we got him on the MEDEVAC. I was sort of in a good place thinking he was well. We got back into Bastion and heard he was alive. A couple of hours later he passed away on the surgery table. That was probably one of the worst incidents over there for me. That was extremely tough. It was just an absolute mess and it put me in a weird place mentally for a time.
Did you feel like you accomplished a lot out there?
MTJ: I felt like we did accomplish a lot in Afghanistan. People are different. I’m sure you’ve spoken to a lot of different soldiers. Everyone joins for different reasons and I still know lads that think it’s the worst thing they ever did (laughs). There are still lads that don’t even understand why they did it. I had a sense of purpose and I can’t exactly tell you why I was in Afghan (laughs). But for me, it had to happen. I was there supporting my friends and I knew that someone had to do it. I knew we were the good guys and I knew it was our job to fight terror. I felt proud. In some ways, those were the best moments of my life and in some ways they were certainly the worst (laughs).
How did you as a leader get your men up every day to get out there and do your job?
MTJ: You can be the best at your job but if your guys don’t buy into you, they won’t commit to you fully. It was a constant of leading by example for me. I lived with them, ate with them, and we were friends. And I think it’s fact that if your men buy into you, you’ll be successful as a leader. I didn’t delegate too much or act like I was any better at the job. I just made them realize I was in it with them, and I was going to do anything they did. It meant being as tight as I could be with them.
What were some of the regional issues with where you were?
MTJ: Those men have grown up there. If the Taliban came into Winsford and my home area, I’d know it like the back of my hand. I suppose that’s a major factor to fighting them. They’re lighter than we were as well. They blend so well into the civilian population. On the first tour, we knew who the Taliban were and they’d fight us straight up. Then they became very clever and they’d start blending in with the population. They’d stash their weapons, and fight us in a more subliminal way.
How did the rules of engagement affect your ability to fight?
MTJ: The rules of engagement got harder to deal with the longer we were there. It became a massive issue. The whole of my first tour our rules of engagement didn’t change. Rule 421 wasn’t free reign to do what we wanted but if I felt that the person I was looking at was Taliban, I had permission to do a lot more. The Taliban knew it. It got to the point with the rules of engagement where I could positively ID (identify) a guy and he’d been shooting at me, but when he set that weapon down, he became a civilian. I couldn’t fire at him even though I absolutely knew he was a threat to life and an enemy. That’s a massive problem. Another tactic that was very successful for them was firing from mosques. The collateral damage was a big worry and so we couldn’t blow up mosques because they were sacred areas. Listen, nobody goes out there to blow up mosques (laughs) but the Taliban knew we wouldn’t shoot at the mosques. So, they’d then move to mosques and shoot at us from these mosques.
It got to the point where we’d have to pass it up the entire chain of command in order to get any type of authorization to fire back at these Taliban fighters shooting at us in mosques. You can imagine how long that is even if the call up the chain of command took five minutes. That’s five minutes of being shot at while we couldn’t do absolutely anything. Guys are becoming casualties while you’re waiting on the chain of command to clear you to fire back. That’s how stupid it got. So it got even more stupid when the Taliban started purposely bringing women and children into the mosques with them. They knew we wouldn’t drop artillery or bring in Apaches because that would risk way too many civilian casualties. I’ve watched from surveillance and I-Star where guys would wander into a building with women and children. They’d move to the next building and take those same women and children with them. They knew we wouldn’t take action on that building. Obviously, I didn’t want to kill civilians and I didn’t want to go down for war crimes so that wasn’t going to happen (laughs). They were clever. It became a battle against the Taliban and a battle against restrictions. How do you win that war? It became worse and worse. The more eyes were on Afghan through the media, the harder our job got.
What do you remember about your times in Afghanistan and some of your best friends over there?
MTJ: I look up to Major Dom Biddick who was the company commander of A Company. He’s a guy I will always look up to because of how good he was at what he did. He was a natural born leader as well as one of my FST commander’s, Captain Charlier Harmer. He’s another guy like that. In terms of my team, this guy I called Frew Dog and he was one of the smallest guys. He was like 5’4” so he had that little man syndrome where he felt like he had to make up for it. He did make up for it (laughs). He was nasty in his job and worked super hard. I spent a lot of time in Afghan with him and we became super close. We actually had a situation over there where it was me and him.
We were in a contact and we could hear the Taliban on the other side of the wall. We could hear them and Frew Dog decided to pull this red phosphorous grenade (incendiary type explosive). The Taliban were on the other side and he pulled this pin and he threw it. It was absolutely worst time in his life to make a bad throw and he made a bad throw of it (laughs). It hit the top of the wall and it bounced back and we looked at each other. We had to run and dive because we literally thought we’d be the first two guys in the Afghan War to red phos ourselves (laughs). Red phos I think has been banned now but it will burn and the only cure is to cut the skin out. That wouldn’t have gone down well (laughs). It’s pretty funny to look back on now.
You obviously had some great experiences over there. Can you talk about how that’s continued in your life now?
MTJ: I did just over 10 years in the military. I didn’t leave the Army how I wanted to get out of it. I had a major back injury in Afghanistan after I got blown up. An IED went off where I’d stepped over it and the guy behind me knelt down to sort his radio out. The blast went off so it was near the corner of this building and the blast blew me off my feet. I was very disoriented and I checked my body parts once again. I knew something wasn’t quite right because my back felt in a bad way. I wasn’t quite paralyzed but it wasn't quite right. We’d gotten into a contact too so I managed to fight through that contact. I patrolled back to the PB with a broken back and I got checked over after that. They told me my L4, L5, and S1 were crushed. The vertebrae had gone inwards and it was touching my spinal cord. So, I had to have a spinal fusion after that with synthetic vertebrae implanted. Then, I had a metal casing attached to that in order to protect the synthetic parts. That’s where I was in a bit of a limbo.
The guy that knelt on the IED died and another guy lost his legs so I was at least alive and whole. I spent the last part of my career rehabilitating at Phoenix Housing and a lot of other areas sitting under medical review. I made a good medical review but the army decided to review me. They told me I was no longer fit to be a forward observer. The options after that were fairly limited. I was working in the Army clothing store for about six months and that didn’t last (laughs). I knew I wouldn’t retire army at that point. I was in a senior role and I was at a point where I could stay in for the long run, or make something of a civilian life. It’s a bit harder in your 30’s to come out and start a career. I was 29 at the time and realized I was becoming very bitter. I didn’t want to leave the Army bitter. I didn’t want that negativity to affect everything else. I had a great career and I didn’t want to be that guy that stayed in but always complained. In terms of being a soldier it can’t really get any better than my time there.
Did you have any experience with the Americans?
MTJ: I had some experience with the Americans over in the States where I worked with the Air Force and their CCTs (Combat Control Teams). Nothing against the Royal Air Force but the American Air Force is really good. I’ve worked a lot with U.S. Apache pilots overseas as well and it was awesome to know they had our backs. I also worked with some American EOD teams that were great in Afghanistan. The relationship between Americans and the British is brill (awesome). The Americans are so patriotic and they love their country and they always showed us a ton of love over there.
They’re always very optimistic and I’ve never come across an American who didn’t believe in our relationship. Us Brits are a bit more uptight and snarky (laughs). We think we’re cool, don’t we (laughs)? I’ll never forget spending time in Tucson (Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Gila Bend) and we were with some American Marines at a bar. This American Marine was drinking with us and he got drunker than the rest of us very quickly. He told us quite a few times how much he loved the Brits and that he really respected us. He had this card in his wallet and it said, “Don’t drink, gamble, or fight with the Brits because you’ll lose.” (laughs) It was pretty clear they respected us.
What was it like getting out?
MTJ: It was tough when I got out because my back was still hurting pretty badly from the surgery. I felt like I was two different people and I used to look back at the Army version of me and think, “I used to be so awesome. What happened to that man?” I didn’t feel like I had as much use to society anymore. My body changed because of the injury and I wasn’t in as good shape obviously. Then, my girlfriend and I split up at the time. There were many times I thought about going back into the military. I’m glad I didn’t get back in though.
That part of my life is over and it was great for what it was. That back injury wouldn’t allow me to do that job anymore anyways. It’s been a blessing. It was also tough with doing a lot of jobs I didn’t like just to pay the bills. I remember my first job out of the Army was in an office in Manchester and it was like business development/sales. I remember thinking, “I fucking hate this.” (laughs) I couldn’t do it. It was actually a good job with good benefits, a company car, and a company laptop. I didn’t see that because it honestly just didn’t make me happy.
Was it tough for you mentally knowing your Army career was over?
MTJ: I was quite a proud person but my family spoke up and told me I needed to go see someone. Honestly though, talking to a professional never really helped me. I suppose that seeing a counselor is useful for a lot of people, but I don’t think it helped me. I felt like they were just doing it because it was their job as a psychologist. Talking to someone that probably doesn’t care all that much isn’t my idea of therapeutic. I’m not saying that’s the case for everyone because obviously being a counselor is a thriving business (laughs). It just didn’t help me personally.
I think what helped was talking to my friends and family. I still have days where I go under a bit and don’t talk as much. I think that’s kind of natural. I don’t think that’ll ever completely go away. I think it’s just accepting that and learning to cope with it. Having the right people around you plays a big part. I’m a very lucky person to have a wonderful support network. My mom and dad are brill. I have a very large family and super close friends. That environment is very therapeutic for me but not everyone’s lucky enough to have that. I know guys since that have taken their lives and have even left behind young families. That’s an awful reality.
Do you think grounding is one of the major issues with suicide?
MTJ: There needs to be an established middle ground for getting out of the military. It’s hard to adjust for a lot of the guys but even harder when you don’t have support. The government or military needs to do a better job of establishing that transition assistance. There needs to be something there for people getting out. I know they say they try to do more but when I got out I felt very much like, “That’s it. They don’t care anymore.” I was no longer of use to them and I certainly felt that way. There are a lot of things that need to improve.
There are things out there like the British Legion that certainly help but even then, you have to put the groundwork in to get anywhere. You have to be told you have a problem and then contact them. Then there’s a process and I think it should be the opposite way around. I think veterans should be followed around by administration in order to make sure we’re taken care of properly. A lot of guys struggle admitting they have issues. You yourself obviously have a lot of experience interviewing guys but a lot of people don’t know how to ask us the right questions. Sometimes, we need to be actively pursued.
What’s it like with the support from the U.K. when you get back?
MTJ: I’m not one to be bitter but I didn’t feel like there was any support from the U.K. when I got back. I feel like it really didn’t exist (laughs). I almost feel now as if it was just a job. To the U.K. it’s almost like I was performing a regular office occupation. I’ve experienced the support when I was in Tucson out at Gila Bend. I don’t think there was one single time where we were out with Americans where I paid for breakfast. The support there really is phenomenal. Nobody would dream of that in the U.K. In fact, I’d probably be told not to wear my uniform in public. That’s what it is around here. If I stop at a petrol station me wearing my uniform is seen as a hindrance. It can be offensive to the public. That’s how it is.
How has cross fit been for you and M Squared in particular?
MTJ: The community here at M Squared is phenomenal. It’s like being on a team again. The camaraderie is amazing and I really feel supported here. It’s filled that hole in my life from the Army. It’s soul-soothing in a lot of ways and a bit healing. Em and Simon who you’ve met today are all just that close to me. If I’m having a down day they’ll immediately check up on me. We do everything together pretty much. That’s that part of my life now that’s kind of taken over for the Army. They’re completely different in a lot of ways but they also bare a lot of resemblances.
What do you think is the most therapeutic thing for being in that gym environment?
MTJ: Being in the gym is one of those things where I can push myself. The difference to me between a regular gym and cross fit is the intensity and the teamwork. In here, I really feel the camaraderie of the squad and the toughness of the exercises. We help each other through that. I’ll push myself and they’ll push me and I’ll push them. It’s an amazing feeling in getting that adrenaline back and pushing boundaries. There is that element of jacking my heart rate up and pushing my body to the point where it wants to fail.
What are you doing this month with this WOD?
MTJ: I decided to take up a charity challenge with Scotty’s Little Soldiers. It was actually founded by a widow of a soldier who was killed in action. She was left a widow with a couple of kids. She started a charity to help her get through it and help others get through their losses. It really took off to the point where Prince Harry himself is donating all the money from his wedding to Scotty’s Little Soldiers. It’s a charity I’ve gotten close to because I’ve known quite a lot of guys that have left families behind themselves. It’s close to my heart and really touches a nerve.
I talked to Scotty’s Little Soldiers and I decided to come up with a special month devoted to them. We tried to come up with the worst, hardest thing we could do (laughs) so we came up with “Hero Month” where we honor a fallen soldier. The Americans have named a lot of WODs after their fallen heroes like the famous “Murph” named after Mike Murphy. So, I’ve got to do one Hero WOD every day for a month and there’s no rest days. It’s going well but it’s very tough (laughs). We’ve raised a lot of money so far, about 600 pounds (776 U.S. Dollars) in fact.
You haven’t received an compensation for your back?
MTJ: I didn’t get any compensation for my back and I went to court about it at first. I’m grateful that I’m alive and alright but I felt a bit dispensable from the Army. I felt like I was disposable and like I was of no use when I got out. I felt a bit shitty about it to be fair. I ended up seeing the British Legion and they ended up kind of taking the British Government’s side. I felt like I put my body on the line for my country and it was almost like two different sides of my life. I loved my Army career so it was really hard to deal with. I was good at my job and very combat effective. I went on quite a few tours, promoted fast, and had a gleaming record. I was always told I was going places and had a bright future by the regimental sergeant major. The Army was telling me I was good at what I did. Then, when I got injured it’s almost like the Army started telling me the opposite. It was as if to say, “You’re injured and now you’re no good for us anymore.” It was like, “Thanks for your service but that’s it.”
I don’t mean that about my buddies either or the people around me. It was just the system. It was little things like when I hurt my back I had to be at home on sick leave. I had to move back in with my mum so she could take care of me and I hadn’t been home since I was 17 years old. I was forgotten about and nobody came to visit to check on me. My battery sergeant major made me feel bad about it and made me feel like I was faking it. He’d never even met me and when we talked he made me tried to guilt me about being home (laughs). I was bed bound and barely able to move. I had this sergeant major calling me and asking, “Are you drinking alcohol? Are you taking drugs? Are you feeling depressed?” He went on to say, “You missed a dental appointment so you’re getting disciplined.” I was beside myself and said, “Do you understand what’s going on here? I’m bed-bound with a back injury from an IED explosion.” It’s like he knew nothing about my background and was literally just ringing me up with no information. It wasn’t right. I started to get really bitter when those things happened. I went through court after that. The Army turned around and said, “You’ve made a full recovery and there’s no permanent damage.” I did make a great recovery but that was because I had a lot of drive. I almost felt like if I’d sat there depressed at the bottom of a bottle and not gone through rehab, that I would’ve been rewarded for that (laughs). I felt like I got penalized for making the best out of a really bad situation.
If you could tell civilians one thing to kind of get rid of a stereotype what would you tell them?
MTJ: That’s a tough question to be honest. Serving isn’t for everyone but the only way you’ll know that is if you go and do it. I’ve even seen lads do tours and do one and realize they’re not built for the Army. They may even perform well enough overseas but mentally just not feel like it’s right for them. Whereas a guy like me, keeps coming back for more. I was meant to be a soldier. If I ever had kids of my own down the line and my son said to me, “Dad, I’m going to join the Army,” I’d definitely support him.
I’d never discourage it but that wouldn’t mean it was necessarily right for him. He’d need to figure that out on his own. As much as there were times where I wondered what the hell I was doing in, I’d still say it made me who I am. I got out at the right time when I needed to. The Army isn’t just a job. It’s a lifestyle. You have to be 100% in it otherwise you probably need to get out. I realized that I wasn’t the soldier I’d been and it was about that time that I knew I needed to leave it. I don’t regret a single bit though and if anyone came to me asking about it, I’d say to do it.
What do you think the U.K. can do better in taking care of soldiers coming back from operations?
MTJ: I don’t know what we’d do to get there, but what I do know is that people like yourself are doing the right thing in opening people’s eyes to the realities of what we go through. I hope that these things continue. I think that soldiers need to speak up about their time in but I also think that can go the wrong way. That kind of thing can lead to too much preachiness. You’ll find that most of the genuine people who really did combat tours and had a tough go of things overseas, are humbled by their experiences. The guys that usually have too much to say are full of shit anyways (laughs). They’re pretty easy to pick out.
I still think there’s a major gap in understanding of what we go through overseas. There needs to be more of an understanding in the civilian population. I’m not saying everyone should join but the awareness still needs to be better. Now how do we get there? I don’t really know. I think there needs to be more of this in what you’re doing. The more of this, there more people will understand. People need to meet us in the middle a bit because I don’t think it’s our job and we’re not good at asking for help. I think it would be a bit weird if we were like that.
Who’s been your greatest support system since you’ve gotten out?
MTJ: My parents are brill and they’ve done a good job of supporting me. You’ve seen Em and Si today and they’ve been incredible as well. You can see that I can be myself around them, and that means the world to me.
What do you think is so difficult about the war on terror?
MTJ: I think the most difficult thing about fighting the war on terror is probably ourselves. We, as U.K. soldiers, don’t feel fully supported by our country. Veterans are getting beat up over here for things that happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Ireland back in the day. They’re getting pulled into courts over things decades ago. We touched on it yesterday. I’m quite a patriotic person and I felt like I was fighting the good fight. Queen and country is a very real thing to me. Not everyone is like that, but I’m proud of that. I think when you take that away, and don’t have the full backing of your country then why the fuck are we fighting for it?
People talk about soldiers committing war crimes and those things do exist to an extent; but honestly, I’ve never come across a guy in a wartime situation that had bad motives. I’ve come away from things blown away by the abilities of 18 year old men in battle. I’ve never been in a situation in five tours where I saw someone come even close to doing something purposefully wrong. I think it’s a witch hunt in a lot of ways, what’s going on now. Someone over there might’ve done the wrong thing but that’s humanity. One bad soldier doesn’t make all of us bad. One bad human doesn’t make all humans bad. 99.9% of the time soldiers are doing the right thing overseas. Exploiting one situation and treating that like it’s the majority is beyond ridiculous.
How do you want people to remember your legacy and who you are?
MTJ: This is going to sound dead corny (laughs) because I’m a corny kind of guy. I wondered myself, “What makes me a good soldier?” It comes back down to your C drills and it comes back down to integrity, courage, and honor. I think those are the things that make you a decent human and those same things are what make a great soldier. At the end of the day, I’d like for people to say I maintained my integrity, I was robust, and a brave individual that would do anything for his family. That’s how I want people to remember me.
Marc is just one story of thousands that many of us are unaware of, in a war that’s still going on 12 years from the date of his first OEF tour. The British tale must be told as it serves as both a startling lesson of what we can improve upon against an ever-adapting enemy, and as a reminder of the U.K.’s strengths as a first-rate American ally. The honest-to-God truth is that the British military is fighting an enemy at home as well, in the form of their own parliament. Rules of engagement that place their own war-fighters in direct harm’s way, have absolutely no place on the battlefield and are a horrifying consequence of “neutral” actions taken by suits that have no actual understanding of the battle space. No matter what side of the coin you find yourself on politically, we can all agree that more must to be done to protect men in an occupation that demands deadly action.
Trying to “pretty up” a profession that calls for men killing other men, is a slippery slope to say the least and creates the direct possibility of a disastrous outcome for democratic values. Marc’s honesty in these areas is a refreshing outlook on a war on terror that may never find an ending. We hope that in the future more step forward and make their fellow countrymen well aware of the distinct disservice they perpetuate by not properly honoring those who’ve fought. While we’re well aware of a great many British who are impeccable patriots, very proud of Queen and Country, the warrior culture is not being summarily celebrated for its’ distinctive sacrifices. That’s truly a tragedy. Although Marc won’t cry about this lack of support, this blog as a movement will continue to serve as a forum where men and women veterans alike can speak for themselves uninhibited. We are at out best when we stand united through a mutual respect and understanding that men must journey into the darkest places and do whatever it takes to win the fight. Thanks to Marc for being a part of the project.
We’d also like to thank Em Saville, founder/owner of M Squared Fitness for her kindness in allowing us to document Marc’s story at her gym. We don’t take that lightly and having documented quite a few stories in various gym environments, we’d have to say M Squared is easily one of the best. Check them out at www.msquaredfitness.co.uk, on Instagram: @m_squared_fitness, and on Facebook: @CrossFitMSQD. We’d also like to thank the company that made this whole trip to England possible, effectively sponsoring the trip. Daisson Hickel, owner of The Java Can, is an active duty 7th Special Forces Group soldier. His team helped make this whole excursion a reality. The Java Can is an outdoorsman’s coffee making product with components that fit entirely in an ammo can. You’ll see these U.K. blogs all sponsored by them. Check out The Java Can at www.thejavacan.com, on Instagram: @thejavacan, and on Facebook: @thejavacan.