Saturday, 28 November 2015

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Carlisle soldier lucky to be home for Christmas

‘You feel that everyone has forgotten you. You are in the loneliness of operations, you phone home and everyone else is out partying and enjoying themselves.”

Mike Little photo
Mike Little

December 2007 was Mike Little’s worst Christmas ever. While his friends and relatives were celebrating in Carlisle, he was shivering in the bitter cold of an Iraqi winter’s night.

He now regards it as among his most miserable army experiences.

It is a surprising claim from a solider who had his left arm shattered by a Taliban sniper in Afghanistan and also had to hold a close comrade as he lay dying.

Mike underwent both these both horrific experiences in June and he used to suffer regular nightmares and flashbacks as a result. But when facing enemy gunfire, he explains, you are so focused on the job in hand and so fired up with adrenalin that you don’t have time to feel bad.

When he looks back on that on that Christmas in Iraq, the 25-year-old soldier says: “I would go so far as to say it was one of the worst times I’ve had.”

Naturally he understands the emotions troops now out in Afghanistan will be feeling.

The army lays on a Christmas meal for the soldiers. Mike recalls: “They try to make it fun. We all sat down for dinner and we had two cans of beer each, and party hats and that. You miss home but you are with your mates, all the lads you stick up for.

“But after that it’s back to the loneliness. You just think: ‘I wish I was home. I don’t want to be here.’

“It was my little boy’s second Christmas that year. I was scared I was missing out on him growing up.”

This week Mike will be having Christmas dinner with his grandmother in north Carlisle and spending time with his fiancee, his four-year-old son Rhys and his friends. But he has great sympathy for what other soldiers will be going through.

And he is likely to be going through it again himself next Christmas. Mike is a lance corporal with the First Battalion Duke of Lancaster’s regiment, who are due to return to Afghanistan late next year – and are almost certain to be there next December 25.

Mike joined the army four years ago, fulfilling a boyhood dream. He had been a successful member of the cadets and when Rhys was born he felt he needed a reasonably well-paid job with good promotion prospects.

Injury and death are occupational hazards for soldiers and they have to be trained to put them out of their minds. But Mike is well aware of how fortunate he is.

Many of his comrades haven’t lived to see this Christmas. And he would have missed it himself, if the sniper who shot him hadn’t missed his head.

“That sniper wasn’t aiming at my arm,” Mike says. “I’m just lucky he was a poor shot.”

The soldier’s training not to focus on danger has clearly worked well. As Mike and I talk in his elegant home off Warwick Road he comes across as cool and relaxed and shows no outward signs of what he has been through.

It is only when he rolls up his left shirt sleeve that it becomes apparent. A long zigzag of a scar runs along the front of his upper arm, where the sniper’s bullet tore through his bicep. Another shorter scar at the back shows where it left his body, taking a third of his tricep muscle with it.

Mike had been manning a watchtower at the time the sniper caught him, and tells the story without drama, but with straightforward simplicity.

“I had only been up there 10 minutes when there was one shot and it threw me down on the floor.

“I didn’t know what had happened and then when I looked at my left arm, it was just hanging there by the flesh because the bone had shattered. Then the pain hit me and I screamed.

“It was the worst pain I’d ever felt, but the adrenalin took a lot of the pain away. My thought was just that I needed to get it sorted.”

Mike was airlifted to the field hospital by ambulance and then flown back to a hospital in Birmingham. “Two days after it I was back in Britain.”

His relaxed attitude amazed the nurses there. “They were shocked that I wasn’t as traumatised as they thought I’d be. But I like to try and keep fairly chilled out.”

Later he suffered some nightmares and flashbacks but adds: “I haven’t had one for months now, except on Remembrance Day, when I had a little cry to myself.”

And the physical damage is mending as well as the psychological damage. Metal plates were fitted in his upper arm and with regular physiotherapy the limb is regaining its strength.

“My arm’s still weak but I’ve got more movement back in it and they think I’ll make a decent recovery. And I can lift a pint glass okay!”

Mike knows many other soldiers have not been so lucky. “I count my blessings every day,” he says.

Only a week before he was shot in the arm, Fijian soldier Taniela Rogoiruwai – known to his comrades as Rocko – was shot in the side while guarding bomb disposal experts.

Mike and Rocko had both been due to return to Britain in August and as two men ran up to help Rocko, Mike ran over, hoping a familiar face would comfort him.

“I held his hand because he was panicking and I told him: ‘We’re both going home soon. You’ll get to see your boy.’ I kept on talking but none of it was registering.”

Rocko was flown to the field hospital and three hours later the news came that he had died there.

It was tragic for everyone who knew him, as it has been with all the deaths in Afghanistan. Mike knows he could easily have been on the same list of deaths if the bullet that shattered his arm had been a few inches higher.

But when he joined the army he wasn’t deterred by the fact that Britain was involved in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And his injury on his last tour of duty hasn’t put him off returning next year.

“It will make me raise my game. It’s inspired me to want to work harder.”

For the soldiers’ closest relatives Christmas is an anxious time of year.

“The lads know what’s going on out there, but the families know nothing. It’s not as if they can phone up and ask.

“Christmas is meant to be a big family event, but if you have a loved one away you can’t fully enjoy it. The worry is always at the back of your mind.”

For the soldiers themselves out in Afghanistan next weekend, the problem isn’t anxiety but the terrible sense of loneliness and isolation, which Mike remembers from Iraq.

“On Christmas Day I’ll be thinking of them.”


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