Traumatic Tales from the Frontline: Brian Wood on His Battles & Betrayals
In May 2004, close to the city of Al-Amarah in south-eastern Iraq, British Soldiers on patrol were ambushed by Iraqi insurgents at a British checkpoint called Danny Boy. A handful of other soldiers were called upon to assist in the battle that ensued against around 100 insurgents, in what turned into one the fiercest engagements of all the conflict there.
A 23-year old Brian Wood was one of those involved in what has come to be known as the infamous Battle of Danny Boy. He showed incredible courage that day after he was forced to lead a charge across open ground in the face of the heavy fire being laid down by militia fighters. For his outstanding bravery Wood was awarded the honour of the Military Cross.
But five years on from the fight that saw him become a hero, suffering from PTSD, Brian Wood and his fellow troops were dragged through a lengthy trial for war crimes that held no foundation. In his compelling bestselling new book Double Crossed: A Code of Honour, A Complete Betrayal, Wood recounts the terrifying experience on the battlefield and the even more harrowing court case that followed.
For all the mistakes made by the government in the Middle East at that time, perhaps their biggest error of judgement was to betray the very troops they sent out there in the first place.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Brian recently where he talked to us about that conflict, what it was like receiving the honour of the Military Cross from the Queen and the scars that courtroom drama left on him.
The MALESTROM: Tell us about how you found yourself in the military? Your father who is ex-forces had a big influence on you, didn’t he?
Brian Wood: A massive influence. To be honest he was my idol really. When I was growing up he used to call me his shadow, I was always attached to him, whether it was his fitness training, whatever, I wanted to be a part of it.
He just had incredible values and he instilled them in me. Once I didn’t make it as a professional football player, the obvious thing was for me to follow in my Dad’s footsteps, because my brother was serving also, and around the dinner table there was some displacement there cause I didn’t have that bond or connection that those two had. I wanted that, so I kind of went away and started that journey.
TM: Football played a massive part in your early years…
BW: Football was a huge part of my life. It still is now. Going through recovery I reached out and was coaching kids, a big part is giving back to the community. That really means a lot to me, kids who wouldn’t have had an opportunity, from the estates.
I’d make sure they got picked up and purchase the kit myself, just so they feel part of something, I think that was really important. They were looking after me just as much as I was looking after them.
Charity as well that’s a big thing for me, giving back to them, not just military ones, like my regimental benevolent fund, but also civilian ones. I know that a lot of the other guys who I’m friends with like Foxy and Ollie Ollerton, they do the same with their charity work. I cycled across America with a team of ten, which was an incredible journey, I’ll never do it again, but it was good.
TM: Your superiors weren’t always happy about you pursuing football…
BW: No. I mean I was a soldier, right? They were very tunnel vision with that. Even though the bigger picture was, I was representing the army at combined service level, so you can’t get any higher than that.
That’s army, navy and air force, so to represent them holds you in high esteem. My sergeant major was very narrow-minded in thinking you’re a soldier, you should only be doing soldier stuff. So it was taking the rough with the smooth, but representing the combined services was just an incredible feeling.
Every time I put on that shirt it must be a similar feeling to how the players who are in the Premier League feel when pulling on their England shirt. It was that feeling of pride and passion for the army.
TM: And it wasn’t long until football turned to fighting…
BW: That’s right. In 2001 after The Twin Towers were hit, the dynamics changed from travelling the world playing sport to going into operations back to back.
TM: What was that feeling like the first time you landed in Iraq?
BW: As a soldier, you want to go and test yourself in environments where it’s hostile and understand how you’ll react under enemy fire, how you’ll command. But you’ve got to be careful what you wish for also because people are chomping at the bit to go out on operations, but it’s pretty demanding.
I was excited – clearly. I was looking forward to going out, and from the information I was getting, I knew it was really hostile, especially in Al-Marah, whereas North of Basra was really kinetic at that stage. We kind of landed and then there was a fight.
TM: It must have been a wrench to leave your young baby, Bailey, to go off on duty?
BW: I left Bailey when he was just four months old. Leaving him at that age, a newborn baby, to go away, I really didn’t know what to expect, to be honest.
You just have to try and detach your emotions, it wasn’t selfish, I just knew I was going to go away for a long period of time and doing that I had to detach myself, kiss them on their foreheads and then just leave without really knowing what I’m going into. I didn’t think what if I don’t come back to see him? You do have the odd thought, but you have to get rid of them sharpish.
TM: The Battle of Danny Boy is told in vivid detail in the book. One of the incredible things was the fact you didn’t sustain serious injuries to your men?
BW: Do you know what, I’ve always said, I’ve never been overly religious, but there had to be someone looking down on us that day, because how we achieved what we achieved without sustaining any casualties is just mind-blowing, especially cause of the weapons systems which were taken from the positions, there were some powerful weapons there.
Traditional AK-47s, you had the Dushkas, RPGs, there was a hell of a lot of weaponry that if you’re hit you’re pretty much ended really. And it was kind of in and around your feet, the rounds were that close and zipping past your ear where you could hear it.
TM: There’s a part in your book, before you leave the Warrior, where enemy weapons are absolutely pounding the vehicle. That sounded really rough…
BW: The vehicle was shaking. I’d been in the country for about a month at that point so I knew there was a lot of enemy fire. I’d experienced it, but this was something different, it was overwhelming. To then get told to standby to get out of it, it was like ‘bloody hell’.
TM: There was a real sense of WWI at that point, you and your boys going over the top into the unknown when you all ran out of the Warrior…
BW: That’s what it was, it was old school. WWI & WWII type stuff. My radio had died as well, so it was all hand signals and with true British courage and values we just went over and hoped for the best really.
TM: Adrenaline must have taken over at that point, of course, there’s fear, but you’re doing a job?
BW: Of course. People have got their own analysis of fear. For me it’s just will I scare? Well, of course, fear is contagious, you have to grab it before it takes over you and leaps into your men.
You’re the commander, you’re going to be leading these men out of this vehicle, so, therefore, I just had to use it to drag me out of that vehicle, I used it to the best effect. I experienced all sorts of emotions, as I said in the book it was like an out of body experience when I was going across that open ground.
I would never have known unless I was hit and killed outright because you are pumped with this drug that you can’t explain, so you feel superhuman.
TM: In terms of dealing with fear, you talk in the book about a cigar moment…
BW: Everyone is entitled to that pause, one, two, three, cigar moment, you take yourself out of the situation, you’re still entitled to do your assessments, your estimates and you’re still entitled to make your decisions and then you reengage back into the bubble.
TM: That attack near Al-Marah after leaving Broadmoor seemed horrific. That was where Johnson Beharry was badly injured?
BW: That was a big one. Johnson Beharry who won the Victoria Cross, that was his situation where again we got smashed by the militia from the rooftops and he got a direct hit to the face with an RPG, obviously his vehicle then came to a halt because he was the driver.
It was carnage really, I got out to the back of my vehicle and onto his front decks and I looked in the driver’s seat and I could see there was blood everywhere and he was unresponsive. Then we just had to get on with it really, drag him out and administer first aid on him.
TM: You went into ‘protecting your comrade’s’ mode?
BW: The thing is, in the moment, you don’t really think. A lot of things as a soldier you do on gut instinct and what you believe in. I know that’s a bit of a cliched saying but you’d definitely take a hit for a brother or an oppo, you would take that risk and that’s a risk everyone takes, not just me, the military as a whole, everyone’s singing off the same hymn sheet.
TM: There’s respect on both sides from you two as you both saved each other’s lives?
BW: We’ve got a mutual respect. He saved my life when we first got hit when I was up to my knees in diesel and shrapnel in the back of a vehicle and weeks later I’m dragging him out of a vehicle. So we’ve got that mutual respect for saving each other’s lives.
TM: How proud was that moment when you received the military cross from the Queen for your actions?
BW: It was an incredible feeling, even my Dad who’s a non-emotional, powerful individual, he said to me, “I’m five foot eleven son, but today I’m sixteen foot five.”
He felt so proud. Going into the Palace was so surreal, we had an argument before we went in. He was driving in London and getting all flustered because of how busy it was. I said just get out and let me drive and he pulled over and I ended up driving our tiny little Corsa in my full-service kit.
The moment was so big for all or us, I was with my wife and my Mum, and Dad was really nervous, we were going into this incredible thing, bear in mind I was only 23 and didn’t really know what was going on, it was crazy. But I was so proud, other than my kids being born and my wedding it was the proudest day of my life.
TM: If we can move on to talking about the effects PTSD had on you. It took you a while to acknowledge it, but over time you came to the realisation that you might need help?
BW: Look, when you’re in an all-male organisation and there are 900 blokes wanting to be the best version of themselves, the best leaders, the best commanders and it’s a non-emotional environment, all of a sudden I’ve got a few things that are going on in my headspace, which I did think there’s not a chance I would go and speak to someone about, because I was so scared about the reaction from my peers, the soldiers I was meant to be leading.
Would I de-motivate them? Would they not follow me? Would they question my leadership ability? All of these things were overpowering me, but what it was doing behind closed doors was causing all kinds of issues because I wasn’t brave enough to seek that help until I was down training with the Royal Marines and I had a great conversation with a really inspirational guy who said, “no, you need to.”
So subsequently that’s what I did, it took me eight years, but I never say it was eight years too late, it was eight years too long. It wasn’t too late because I did it. It’s important I talk about it, I like to talk about the growth now. With the disorder, you have to go through hard times in order to grow, evolving through adversity and get to where I am today.
Yes, it has been a journey and there’s been a lot of lessons, but there are a lot of things to take away and help inspire other people who are going through difficult times themselves.
TM: Is that stigma towards these issues going from the military?
BW: Is it going? No. There’s not much movement yet. But there are more conversations going on? Absolutely. I’ve been asked to come in and speak with the Infantry Battle School and I’m going to Cyprus this year to speak to an infantry battalion about having the courage to seek help once it’s needed. Because there are still a lot of issues around it in the military at the moment. It’s not there yet, but there’s traction on it, which is great.
TM: The latter part of the book focuses on the legal issues that came about in 2009. Can you tell us about that moment you first heard about the Al-Sweady Inquiry?
BW: I was kind of in disbelief if I’m honest. Disbelief that firstly it was done through a letter, to find out everything was going ahead through a letter was kind of shocking. I then spoke to my regiment who told me what had happened and then it was heartache, anger and the start of an emotional journey.
I didn’t understand this fight because I wasn’t trained for it, I wasn’t educated on it or prepared for it, I didn’t know how to deal with it. Having friends and family raise questions when it went public, they’d phone up and say was this thing they’d just read in the paper true? I was forever justifying my actions, and I found it really hard to continue to do that when all these allegations of murder, mutilation and mistreatment were of the most serious.
I’d never been that sort of person, we reacted to a violent ambush and we achieved what many thought would be unachievable, then to fight this secondary battle with my name and my fellow soldier’s names, because it wasn’t just me. And there was my regiment and the name of the British Army being tarnished.
To go through that whole process of longevity with statements and just revisiting everything again, I could not shake the battlefield away, I was constantly reminded of everything and the bottom line is, it was all lies. But how do you explain that it was all lies? It’s so difficult when people are questioning you, it’s so hard and that’s where I was at, it was an emotional roller coaster.
I was proud to have served and I still am proud to have served in the British Army, it’s made and shaped me into the man I am today. I owe them a lot, I really do, but this was just despicable how it even was ever allowed to go into the public domain. How the Government allowed it to go into the public domain and also paying for the likes of Phil Shiner (the lawyer representing the Iraqi soldiers) to conduct this, was just betrayal, the ultimate betrayal.
TM: The fact is here you are a hero, given the Military Cross, then you find yourself in this situation…
BW: Decorated by the Queen and then betrayed by the government and the likes of these shyster lawyers who hounded us. They fueled post-traumatic stress, they ended careers. They’ve done all types of barbaric stuff and it took so long, it was a five-year intense period where I was trying to let people know I wasn’t a part of all these alleged atrocities.
We just did our job and did it well. I really hold my values, which the military has taught me to the highest esteem and try and live by them each day, then all of a sudden to be in a dock stripped of all my values, my integrity, it just shredded me.
TM: Re-tracing all those moments for the statements must have been the most harrowing thing?
BW: It was horrendous. Sitting in court was the longest three and a half hours of my life. And these people had no credibility.
They just don’t understand battlefields, battlefield confusion, the noise, the decisions that you have to make in extreme circumstances with a split second to do it.
Because if you get it wrong it’s peoples lives at stake, so for them to pick away at everything, it was just disrespectful and heartbreaking.
TM: Another striking thing from the book was you meeting the representative from the MoD before you went into court, no wonder that angered you…
BW: That was five minutes before. She came in and said, “I’m representing you from the MOD”, I was like “where have you been for the last nine and a half years?” Crazy.
TM: Do you still feel betrayed?
BW: I feel massively betrayed by the lawyers. The Government did betray me also, by not giving me support, especially for my family, they never reached out and asked if we needed anything, any support, any security. Not one phone call or text message. And I feel hurt by that.
The British Army has got a few lessons, they could have done a little bit more, but obviously I am passionate about the Army, I love and respect them, but there are lessons to be learned, so hopefully, the book will highlight some of those and people can learn a lot from them, I hope they do.
But do I feel betrayed? I did at the time, I still have some bitterness from the Government allowing things to happen when they could have got around us and looked after us a bit more.
TM: If you could change one thing about the system what would it be?
BW: If something like this happens again there has to be a statute of limitations. You can’t hound soldiers ten to fifteen years after the conflict.
There’s got to be a limit because you can’t drag people into court… I can’t remember what happened yesterday, let alone ten years ago, then getting people to re-live it, it’s just crazy.
TM: Is there a piece of wisdom or a mantra that you’d like to share with us?
BW: Forged in battle, tested through adversity.
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