An invitation to attend a medals parade at Sandringham dropped through my letter box in October 2009. The new Colonel-in-Chief of the MERCIAN regiment, HRH Prince Charles, had asked to present Afghanistan medals to those who had been on tour for the first time, to meet wounded soldiers and see families of the bereaved. An invitation that could not be refused.
I had now received a bottle of ginger-infused vodka, a personal letter and an invitation from the Prince of Wales – I must have been popular in the royal household. I was pleased with the interest. It helped fill some of the void, the emptiness I was now feeling: a sense of disinterest I was being consumed by. My own regimental family, the Royal Welsh and 2 MERCIAN, were ignoring me. Were they deliberately taking no notice of me? I seemed to be getting more correspondence from the Prince of Wales than from my own Commanding Officer.
Desert combat, unsurprisingly, was the parade dress. My original combats were lying bloodstained someplace. I think Melissa knew where; given by a liaison officer in the belief my wife would want the clothes I was blown up in, they had been reluctantly accepted and then forgotten in a neglected space.
My spare set had forged increasingly stubborn creases, in a cardboard box, in the dumping ground of a spare attic space. Military lives are pushed, ever carelessly, into more and more boxes: increased baggage with increased military experience.
I was unnerved trying on my spare set. I felt uncomfortable; it was unnatural putting them on again. I did not think about the injury but rather my last memories of the tour; of watching the helicopter receding into the distance. My melancholy was interrupted:
‘Daddy, what are you doing? You’re not going to Afghan again are you?’ A look of despair on Olivia’s face, her searching eyes and lowered jaw, she stood in her pyjamas in the frame of a bedroom door.
‘Of course not, Livvy, this is for a medal presentation with Prince Charles. It’s ok, I’m not going out to Afghan again.’
‘Promise me, promise you’ll never go again.’
‘I promise Olivia. Come here, give me a hug.’
I believed I would not go there again, the first time I had thought like this since my injury. In fact, I did not want to go. No longer was I inspired or challenged by fighting. Reality had smashed into my skull and damaged the foundations within me.
This was now a different challenge: unease with combat, being an Army officer, being me. Getting injured again scared me; a consequential, mundane, emotionally tortuous and draining recovery process.