Iraq War: 20 years on
On the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, we spoke to our blind veterans who lost their sight in the conflict. Their stories are a fascinating insight into the experiences and sacrifices of our Armed Services.
On 20 March 2003, the United States and her allies launched an invasion on Iraq. After six weeks President George Bush announced combat operations were over but British soldiers remained in Iraq for another six years as attempts to stabilise the country failed and an insurgency against the occupation ensued.
179 British troops or Ministry of Defence civilians died during operations in Iraq. Many more were seriously injured.
Simon and his squadron, 2nd Lancashire, were among the first to cross the border into Iraq 20 years ago.
“I remember it being quite surreal, you’re going through the really rural areas just over the border and the local people have got no access to any media whatsoever. They’re waving at you and putting their thumbs up. They had no idea what was going on.”
It was on Simon’s second tour of Iraq in 2006, that he was severely injured, leaving him blinded.
On 6 December, Simon and his team set out on a patrol mission in Basra and successfully recovered a vehicle under heavy fire. Thick dust prevented the recovery vehicle from safely manoeuvring to pull away. Simon put his head out of the turret to check the route was clear. As he pulled back in, he felt an impact on the side of his face, he had been shot.
The bullet caused his palate to collapse and Simon had to hold his own airway open for the 25-minute journey back to base. He remained conscious until he arrived at medical facilities and was placed in an induced coma.
17 days later Simon woke up in a Birmingham hospital, his face encased in a metal cage.
“It took a while to comprehend my injuries and much longer to come to terms with the news that I’d lost my sight.
“When I did start to understand that a bit more, that’s when I got angry, then upset, then depressed. I just felt cheated. I felt like I‘d done everything right on the battlefield and this is what I got for a reward."
Craig went to war in 2003 a week after his 18th birthday. He and his regiment, First Kings, were excited to be heading to Iraq.
“It was all I wanted to be. I’d trained so much to do my job. I quickly went out there and realised that it’s not a game or a war film. It’s actually real.”
Craig’s second tour of Iraq began on Remembrance Sunday in 2006.
Craig was based in Basra working alongside special forces on reconnaissance; his regiment were averaging a strike operation every three days. The day he was injured, Craig had been dispatched as part of a team to arrest terrorists.
“My job was to raid the house, secure all the men of fighting age and put the women and children in a separate room. That day all hell broke loose.
“I was on the building’s roof, fighting for about 20 minutes before I was struck by two rocket propelled grenades. They’re normally used for shooting at armoured vehicles or helicopters and the damage they inflict is brutal.”
Craig received serious injuries to his arms and head. He was treated in Basra and Balad and sent to Germany once he had been stabilised.
Back in the UK, Craig spent months in hospital. He was determined to adapt to sight loss and to get mobile again.
While visiting one of our rehabilitation centres Craig met a Second World War veteran who had been blinded at the Battle of El-Alamein in 1942.
“George shared with me how angry he’d been until one day he thought ‘Who am I actually angry with? Where’s this getting me?’ He told me to move past my anger and accept my situation. That meeting made me who I am today."
Ben’s regiment, the 2nd Battalion Light Infantry was sent to Iraq in May 2003. President Bush had declared combat operations over, but the fighting was still ongoing.
“It was a mad dash to get ready but ultimately we were happy to be going and to be doing the job we’d been training for. We spent the first week acclimatising, training and gathering kit.”
It was during Ben’s second tour of Iraq in August 2006 that he was injured by a roadside bomb.
"During the first tour I’d gained combat experience and I somewhat knew what to expect. We knew from watching the news that things had escalated by this time with militia activity, but I wasn’t worried about going back.”
On 25 February, 2007 Ben and his regiment were conducting routine patrols south of Basra. Their purpose was to deter the enemy from firing at the bases.
“The next thing I remember is my friend holding a dressing to my head, he looked horrified. He said, ‘You’ll be alright mate’ and I thought oh god.”
The doctors and nurses at the US military field hospital in Balad were unable to save Ben’s eyes.
“It was back in the UK that I discovered I’d lost my eyes, I remember feeling resigned to it, there wasn’t much I could do, I couldn’t turn back time.”
Ben now has two children and is the current European Winter PARA Sports snowboarding champion after winning gold in Poland in 2020.
“I didn’t think I’d get back on a snowboard but once the dust had settled, I realised I can do these things if I want to. The military way of thinking is to find a way to get it working and we did.”
Honour the service of our Iraq War veterans
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