The following is an excerpt from Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan, by Toby Harnden, available on Amazon:
“For the rest, it will remain”
[Lieutenant Colonel Rupert]’s Thorneloe family, like all the families of the fallen, was left with a deep void in their lives. After the memorial service, John Thorneloe spoke to a local mayor whose son had been killed in Northern Ireland. “How long does it take to recover?” he asked the mayor. “You never will,” he replied. Time did blunt the grief. “I’m much more at ease when I’m talking about him,” said Major Thorneloe, speaking six months after his son’s death. “But I just never stop thinking about him. Wherever I go, I see him. I walk the dogs for about an hour a day in the park and that’s where he used to take his ponies to play polo. I see him. When I want the back door of my car open, I have to click twice. And every time I do that, I remember him because I didn’t know how to do it and he said: ‘Oh, you’ve got to click twice.’ All those things.”
Sally Thorneloe moved to Wiltshire, as she and her late husband had planned. Corporal Kevin Williams came to visit her and she felt comforted that “the last voice that touched Rupert’s ears” would have been kind and reassuring. “I hope, I pray that it would have calmed Rupe in that last moment. I’m very pleased that it was him.” Every night, Hannah would say her prayers as part of her way of talking to her father. “Daddy, I had a good day, I hope you had a good day too,” she would say. When she was given a bicycle, she asked whether her father had one too, because if so perhaps they could cycle and meet together somewhere. The trampoline in the garden, donated by the Guards welfare fund, was a way of getting closer to her father up in Heaven. One day, Hannah said she wished she had a long ladder so she could climb up and meet him. Sally Thorneloe decided it was best for her daughters to be able to talk about what happened to their father. “He died because the baddies put bombs underneath the roads,” she would say. “Daddy was trying to help people and the baddies didn’t want him there.” John Thorneloe publicly criticized the government for failing to resource the war in Afghanistan properly. Sally Thorneloe was less outspoken but also had her views. “If you are going to send an army to war, the government of the day should ensure that they are properly equipped,” she says. “You can’t, and you shouldn’t, cut corners. It doesn’t work and we’ve seen the results.”
Capt. Terry Harman did not break down and he brushed aside suggestions that he see a military psychiatrist. “The shell that is the human being is fragile,” he said. “It’s a bit fractured. We crossed the line of humanity. It’s difficult to fire a round knowing you’ll kill somebody. It’s also difficult to have to sit there and take incoming rounds. I get irritated and agitated by some things. But I’ll be all right.”
Nine months after he returned from Helmand, Harman resigned from the Army to take a job in the United Arab Emirates as the leader of a youth development program. He had been promoted to major but the job of Regimental Quartermaster would not be his, so it was time to go. It was not how he had expected his career to end, but he insisted he had no regrets. “I joined as a happy guardsman and I left as a happy guardsman,” he said. Hanging his uniform up for the last time, he knew he would never forget what had happened in Helmand but felt confident that in time he could be at peace with it. He was proud of his regiment and of his 24 years as a Guardsman. “It’s finished,” he whispered to himself. “Let it be.”
Whether a veteran or a teenager born after the Gulf War of 1991 who had to wait to turn 18 before being sent to Helmand, no man came back the same. Some left limbs there; all lost friends, comrades and at least one commander. Some have already lost their minds, and the will to live, to the horror of that place and time. Death was a fear, a companion and, for the unlucky few, an outcome. For them, what happened in Helmand is over. For the rest, it will remain.
Toby Harnden is the author of Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan. He is also the Washington bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London, and has spent more than a decade reporting alongside American and British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.