Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Solemn Tribute by the Village of Wooten Bassett to British Military who made the ultimate sacrifice - Soon to be no more.

My affinity for the British people and all that Britain represents is understandable as they are the one true ally we have in the world. I have served alongside Britain's military and they are a good lot. The President has demonstrated he doesn't see it that way but our disagreement is based on his warped view of what is right and my knowledge that he is dead wrong.

The special relationship we share with the British goes beyond politics and all things current. We are a nation borne from the original 13 colonies which were British and our greatest minds were educated in the British tradition. We share military and folklore, we are cut from the same cloth. I feel that the people of Britain will always be there for us as we will always do our part to assist our neighbors "across the pond".

Here is a story that details how the citizens of one small British town decided to do their part to recognize the sacrifice made by their military and how due to changes mainly driven by cost cutting, they will no longer be able to pay their solemn tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

SPECIAL INVESTIGATION: Ending Wootton Bassett repatriation procession is a cynical attempt to conceal the price of Britain's misguided wars
By Gerald Seymour- UK MAIL

6th August 2011

Nothing had quite prepared me — certainly not the occasional clips on TV news broadcasts — for the raw emotion and pain on the High Street in Wootton Bassett when a repatriation procession in honour of dead British soldiers goes through the town.

The experience of watching the hearse with the flag-draped coffin come up the hill and then crawl to a stop in front of the bereaved families and friends, and in front of the solemnly lowered standards of the organisations for veteran servicemen, is gut-wrenching.

The civilian population of Wootton Bassett has taken over, reclaimed these young men who are brought into the town on their way to an Oxford mortuary

It is also, for most of us, our only moment when we can touch, feel, experience something of the distant and faraway wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have seen military men being mourned before. During the scorching summer of 1967, I witnessed the soldiers of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders — the battalion commanded by the charismatic Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell — make their farewells to their colleagues killed in Aden and buried in the Silent Valley cemetery.

As a reporter for ITN’s News At Ten, I covered the final withdrawal of British forces from that God-forsaken colony, much of it under sustained attack from local gunmen. A formal ceremony, with pipes and an officer’s address and a padre’s prayers and impeccable parade ground drills, was on show.

It was a demonstration of the military’s respect for their own. Not a wet eye, and not a choke in a voice.

In the Lower Falls of Belfast, in the early days of the Army’s war with the Provisional IRA, after a sniper had killed an infantryman the soldiers would react with a bloody-minded defiance.

With a camera crew, I was there to watch an intensely moving few minutes staged by the Green Jackets in that blood-soaked time at the end of 1971 when Army casualties soared.

Under leaden skies, the main street outside the barracks was blocked off. The traffic of this principal artery into the city of Belfast log-jammed and a coffin was brought and laid on hurdles on the central white line.

There are so many people who have never heard a shot fired in anger but feel obliged to stand in solidarity with the mourners

Prayers were said, a hymn was sung. Only when the hearse had left for nearby Aldergrove airport was the traffic in that vehemently Republican area allowed to flow again.

Many years ago I handed in my Press cards and became a full-time writer: setting myself the goal of trying to be a witness of my country’s sentiments and moods, to feel its pulse and reflect it.

With an idea for a new book about our soldiers who die in Afghanistan jostling in my mind, I was drawn to that small Wiltshire town on a repatriation day.

Compared with those ceremonies I’d seen in Aden and Belfast, Wootton Bassett is so different. The civilian population has taken over, reclaimed these young men who are brought into the town on their way to an Oxford mortuary.

It’s not the soldiers in uniform who stand on the pavements, erect and unblinking as they salute in pressed fatigues and polished boots, who are in the forefront.

Instead, dominant among the silent watchers are the men and women of humble housing estates, of the British Legion clubs, the shop staff and the bank workers who line the High Street four or five deep — or the grey-haired and grizzled bikers in their leather jackets.

There are so many people who have never heard a shot fired in anger but feel obliged to stand in solidarity with the mourners, and so many who know next to nothing of Basra and Al Amarah and the communities of Helmand province, but would feel a sense of shame if they missed a fallen soldier coming through.

The military are there, but are sidelined. Dignitaries are absent, and not missed.

My most poignant memory of Wootton Bassett is the sound of the heart-breaking weeping of a mother beside the hearse, breaking the quiet all around her . . . and so many people that day blinked away tears.

However, not for much longer will the crowds, quiet in respect, be on the High Street.

By next month, the nearby base into which the bodies are flown — RAF Lyneham — will be winding down for closure, and all further fatalities will be taken to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

The hearses, then, will avoid Wootton Bassett and will divert instead from Brize and around the outskirts of the town of Carterton, and have a shorter run to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford where post-mortems are performed for local coroners.

Don’t hold your breath and expect ministers and MoD civil servants to facilitate the recreation of the Wootton Bassett mood at Carterton.

Families I’ve spoken to, and the NCOs who escort them, have told me of the comfort the bereaved take from the solidarity of the crowds on the pavements. The support is tangible but not welcome at the top echelon.

Senior officers will be happy to get rid of the Wootton Bassett business.

They believe the stop in the town, not more than one minute, to be ‘mawkish’, ‘sentimental’, no doubt similar to the ‘emotional incontinence’ with which a columnist described the reaction to Diana’s death, and — above all — they fear it is leeching away the nation’s tolerance of these overseas adventures.

Also they don’t like the nation being reminded of what many lining the route call ‘these bloody bombs’, or these ‘bastard things’ that take so many of the lives, and maim so many more.

The roadside explosives that wrought havoc in Iraq, and those buried and hidden beside tracks and in compound walls through Helmand in Afghanistan, are a new weapon in warfare, terrifying to troops and creating nightmarish tensions.

They have stripped away the superiority of the training of Nato troops and their equipment. The bombs have tilted the balance between the resources of western forces and a peasant militia, perhaps to the level where such wars are unwinnable.

Three out of every four repatriations have been the result of deaths from so-called Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

In addition, there are hospital wards and rehabilitation units crammed with the cruelly injured amputees, struck down by IEDs. Alongside them are the hidden time-bomb victims of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The Help For Heroes campaign is a truly wonderful expression of the public’s generosity — but as valuable and with little of the glamour is a charity called Combat Stress, dedicated to helping the young men who have patrolled in Basra or Helmand and are left devastated by the tensions created by the hidden bombs, nerves stretched to breaking point.

Many of the PTSD symptoms of acute depression, alcohol-dependency and violence will surface when the soldier is back home. The IEDs have left a devastating legacy in our society, and it will be with us for many years.

I’ve been at Wootton Bassett when the bodies of Ammunition Technical Officers — the bomb disposal people — have come through the High Street. Some have been killed when, exhausted from the number of jobs heaped on them, they have made one fatal mistake while defusing a device.

Others have been targeted by Taliban snipers who know that a bomb disposal man will always try to make safe a bomb, and will linger there and expose himself, not simply blow the wretched thing up.

Why? Why do these men take such fearful risks to defuse the devices? Why do so many hazard their lives in dismantling IEDs?

Only by standing in the crowds at Wootton Bassett can you begin to appreciate the extent of their commitment, their sacrifice. They treat these lethal pieces of electronic engineering as if they were potential evidence in a criminal prosecution. They act, almost, like the scenes-of-crime teams in a British city.

They are defusing the bombs so that the working parts can be flown back to laboratories in Britain and the U.S. where state-of-the-art science can examine them. Which bombs are made by which engineers at which work bench is basic to the investigation: every engineer leaves a trace of his work in manufacture and assembly.

They’ll look for the origin of the parts — where the circuits, fuses, wires, computer chips came from and where they were shipped to. And they’ll hunt for the engineer’s DNA: was the air-conditioning not functioning in his workshop, did a bead of sweat drip on to the circuit board’s plastic surround? Did he prick his finger and leave a microscopic speck of blood inside the bomb package?

The Americans alone have spent $20 billion on the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organisation, a U.S. Defence Department body established to help overcome these infernal weapons.

It’s an incredible sum, but it points up the devastating power and influence on the battlefield of the roadside bomb. In this cat-and-mouse game there would be few American or British scientists, or soldiers, confident of supremacy.

Top of the target list are the bomb-makers. If identified by the laboratories and located by intelligence they will suffer ‘interdiction’, the sanitised phrase for extra-judicial assassination.

The difficulty — not inconsiderable — is that the bombs are mostly made in Iran and smuggled into Iraq or Afghanistan.

A British bomb disposal expert, who has defused scores of sophisticated devices, gave me a word picture of his typical enemy.

‘An Iranian engineer in his mid-30s, he would have a family — wife and children — has an electronics degree from a Tehran university, and perhaps another from one in Europe.

'His religion would be a major motivation along with a fervent patriotism. He believes his intellect is a gift from God, is an egotist and a perfectionist, something of a genius.’

A genius intent on carnage and whose bloody handiwork can be seen week by week in the tragic procession of bodies through Wootton Bassett.

An hour or so before a repatriation, the bay at Swindon bus station for the 55 or 55A services to the Wiltshire market town begins to fill. There are men from the last National Service intakes and widows whose late husbands were long in the military. A few have dressed smartly for the occasion, most are in their everyday clothes, but men wear miniature medals and often have a faded beret with a polished cap badge.

They are utterly decent people and I came to feel privileged to know them a little. Friendships will have been formed since Wootton Bassett began, but the greetings are subdued and there’s no laughter.

When dropped off by the bus, they wander down the High Street to find a place to stand — near the book shop or the bakery or the bank or close to the Cross Keys pub. There is a man from the West Midlands who has missed only one — when his road was deep under snow. There is a veteran who flies in from Northern Ireland each time.

They have become a Band of Brothers. But I sense that most find it hard to link this sleepy little town with the precision work done in a workshop in Iran, with the foot- soldiers bringing the crates of ready-to-use bombs towards Basra or Al Qurnah or along desolate mountain trails skirting military outposts in Herat province.

Only when the bell in the tower of St Bartholomew and All Saints in the town tolls is the link forged.

It is so difficult for us who have never seen the combat, first hand, in Iraq and Afghanistan, but have only stood and watched and been a witness in Wootton Bassett, to comprehend the new warfare of the roadside bombs, and assimilate the cost we have asked our servicemen to pay.

When the hearse and its escort pulls away, the town is left with a great numbed sadness, and a sense of a fogged confusion . . . and soon repatriations will shift to RAF Brize Norton, and the High Street here will see no more of these gatherings.

It is wishful thinking to hope that Government will intervene and offer mourning families more of an occasion on the new route from Brize Norton.

They’ll draw the least possible attention to the price paid for involvement in the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Myself, I don’t want politicians or the Ministry anywhere near the cortege once it leaves an RAF base. Wootton Bassett grew from a small and unlikely beginning and developed a unique character.

After the move to Brize Norton, perhaps something new will be forged with its own mood and singular identity — the people dubbed as ‘ordinary’ will surely make it happen. But it will never be able to match the proud dignity of this town where spontaneity, not ceremony, has always ruled.

A man broke the silence at one repatriation. While family and friends loaded the hearse roof with red roses, he shouted, ‘Well done, lad, well done’.

Another man took the cue and called out, ‘Good boy, good boy’. Tears flowed free.

Whatever the future route, however much Government might wish to keep hidden the sorry toll of its foreign adventures, there are — thank God — so many good people who will make sure the families know that the sacrifice of a loved one in that awful dust and dirt of a faraway place will not be forgotten.

Gerald Seymour’s latest novel A Deniable Death is published by Hodder at £12.99.

No comments: