A decorated war hero has admitted he can no longer watch war films after seeing real-life action in Afghanistan and Iraq
- Credit: Su Anderson
He’s been decorated by the Queen for bravery and greeted by George W Bush, but that doesn’t keep the demons at bay when you’ve stood at the gates of hell.
Trevor Coult tells Steven Russell about the legacy of life at the front line. A very dangerous front line indeed.
Fuelled by the promise of adventure and adrenaline, teenager Trevor Coult couldn’t wait to join the army. Military service was in his family’s DNA. “You had all those films coming out, like Missing in Action, and it looked exciting.”
A couple of decades or so later, after tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldier knew something fundamental had changed inside.
“I don’t watch war films any more,” he says. “The last one was Lone Survivor and that nearly sent me over the edge. It was so realistic.”
You may also want to watch:
For Trevor ? who had traded bullets with Taliban, dodged their rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, and seen pals die ? it stirred bad memories. “I tossed and turned that night in bed. I couldn’t sleep properly.”
It wasn’t just the legacy of battle that could cause anguish. “I was watching EastEnders and Kat Slater had her baby kidnapped. I broke down crying, on the settee. My emotions were messed up.”
- 1 Matchday Live: Town beaten 3-0 after Harrop's red card
- 2 Cyclist dies after collision with car in Bury St Edmunds
- 3 Ipswich Town closing in on appointment of new chief executive
- 4 Cafe owner 'very emotional' after mystery customer leaves £500 for staff
- 5 'Buzz' about town as pub prepares to reopen under new family management
- 6 Woman arrested on suspicion of drink-driving following A14 crash
- 7 Serious crash closes road in Bury St Edmunds near A14
- 9 'Our supporters are tired and bored of us' - Cook on 3-0 loss at AFC Wimbledon
- 10 'It's time to embrace a new challenge' - New Ipswich chief announces Bristol City exit
Trevor, then still in the army, was falling to pieces.
In the cruellest of ironies, he was by that stage based in Colchester and working in trauma risk management with the military detention and correction section.
“Anyone with problems would come to me. I was trying to signpost people to the right agencies, but I was driving home and stopping the car and bursting out crying. I couldn’t deal with it.”
Trevor was sent home from work in February/March last year. He was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and assigned a community psychiatric nurse.
His life had become one of anxiety, sweating, frustration, anger ? caused by the drip, drip, drip, bang, bang, bang of living under fire.
“If anyone tells you, who’s been to Afghanistan, that they’ve never been scared, I’d say they’re a liar.”
Part of his therapy, he recognises, has been writing a book. First into Sangin is largely about being part of a handpicked force sent to the town in Helmand province. He was a section commander.
Soon the troops were besieged by Taliban. Regular attacks became the pattern. This was war in the raw.
Patrolling carried the ever-present threat of buried explosive devices, trodden on or activated from nearby. They killed and maimed his pals. They stole much of his hearing.
He speaks of the loss of section commander Luke McCulloch, killed by mortar in 2006 and left lying, his spoon still in his mouth. “A full-of-life character. Good soldier. Pain in the backside, sometimes, but, then again, so was I. I took that a bit hard.”
Another awful day, in 2008, when radio operator Justin Cupples died in an explosion. “Puff of black smoke and screaming.” Their interpreter had fingers blown off, and much of his face. Justin suffered catastrophic injuries. “You see the dust sitting on the eyeballs, straightaway... That was a terrible day.”
Trevor’s struggled to come to terms with some of the things he’s witnessed, which is why he wrote down his story. “It’s helped me get rid of all that stuff. It was eating away at me. Different things; things I couldn’t tell the wife. She’s reading it at the minute. There’s her copy.”
In a few days, he and Luba will have been married six years. She was working for an airline when they met at Gatwick. She’s done a great job supporting him, he says. “She knows that sometimes I go off on one.” Is there a lot she doesn’t know about the darkest moments ? details she’ll read in the book? “Yes. There are things in there you would never normally say.”
He hasn’t swept things under the carpet ? acknowledging, for instance, mistakes made during crazy times and justifiable in their context. Like shooting dead a suspected suicide bomber on a motorbike who didn’t stop riding towards them. He turned out to be a teenager who was deaf, fascinated by soldiers and just wanting to follow them around.
In many ways, Trevor says, Iraq and Afghanistan were the best times of his life, in terms of his career. “You got to do everything you’d been taught: how to do an ambush, live firing drills, calling fast air (support), mortars, clear bunkers, fire every weapons system. Fantastic. The flip side was taking casualties and having your friends killed.”
You can see how it takes a toll.
Trevor’s father was in the army ? one of the first soldiers to arrive in Belfast. His mum ? in the Royal Signals ? was from the city.
Trevor grew up on the outskirts, his “fantastic” childhood rarely touched by The Troubles. “Every so often you would hear a bang and see smoke coming from Belfast, but that was it.”
He joined the Royal Irish Regiment in 1994, still wet behind the ears. Linking up with a battalion in Cyprus was a culture shock. The guys had finished a horrendous tour of Bosnia and there was some serious drinking going on.
By the time of the Iraq war, which began in 2003, he’d been promoted to corporal and sent to Catterick to train recruits. Trevor played every trick he could to get sent to Iraq, and eventually swung it... only to find it an anticlimax. “We went driving round Iraq, looking for a battle! We were right at the front and people just surrendered,” he laughs. He was back in Iraq in 2005. “That was interesting...” says the man known as Speedy for his running prowess. It was more than that. It was the time he won the Military Cross for exemplary gallantry while part of the protection force escorting senior personnel. On November 6 his group of vehicles was ambushed near Baghdad, on a road known as the most dangerous in the world.
Reports said three insurgents with machine guns stopped the convoy and opened fire. Trevor was “top cover” sentry at the back. It was his first time in the role. He shot at the insurgents, directed his vehicle so other crews could retreat, and remained at the heart of the action to protect a stalled vehicle.
He remembers the day clearly, but everything happened in a flash. There was a stationary vehicle, a suspected suicide bomber, in front. Then it reversed towards the convoy at speed.
Trevor’s role as top cover was to scan an arc running from “12 o’clock to six o’clock”, so he did his job while others dealt with the incident ahead. He saw a couple of men go across the right-hand side, carrying a machine gun. He started firing, and got the driver to bring their wagon alongside a vehicle taking incoming fire, so they were in the line of fire instead. Trevor managed to kill the attackers.
He recognises that, for morale, the military needs to celebrate success, but doesn’t see himself as standing out in this incident. “To be honest, it annoys me – to see people getting medals. It’s nice to get one, course it is, but it’s not an individual effort; or very rarely. Victoria Crosses are completely different. To get a VC, these guys do extraordinary things.
“I don’t think mine (the MC) was that special. I made a couple of decisions, in order to get things to move... Unfortunately, someone gets written up for that event, and in my case it was me.”
What was it like afterwards? “I remember getting back into the camp. I don’t smoke, but I remember having a cigarette and my hand just shaking. Put it in my pocket. That was my very first contact with enemy.”
The decoration would later cause some friction. “There were quite a few people who thought they should have got an MC from it. I didn’t want to wear it. I do think the medal ought to have been awarded to the patrol, but unfortunately patrols don’t get medals.”
There was little opportunity to reflect on the first time he’d killed someone. Before long, he was selected for a battle group put together by 3 Para (Parachute Regiment). They were heading for a province in Afghanistan few had heard of. Helmand would soon become a household word. Trevor left Iraq at the end of January, 2006, and three months later was in Helmand. The six-month mission aimed to help the Afghan police and army bring stability. “Afghanistan made Baghdad look like a walk in the park.”
The threat from IEDs, improvised explosive devices, was ever-present. “I take my hat off to the guys at the front, looking for bombs,” says Trevor, who was a section commander. “Each one of those guys came back changed. It’s a scary job.”
The series of military operations ran under the codename Herrick. Trevor did six or seven months on Herrick IV and was back two years later on Herrick VIII. Later still came XV, when he looked after captured insurgents.
His last tour of Afghanistan came in 2012. By late that year he was in Essex as a trauma risk management co-ordinator, but his own demons were rising to the surface.
Today, he’s doing well. He takes anti-depressant and beta-blocking pills, but aims to come off them.
There’s no cure for PTSD, he tells me. “The thoughts and things you’ve been through, they’re always there, but what they do is give you coping mechanisms. They used to be right there” ? he jabs his forehead. “Now they’re out of the way a bit.”
He laughs about some of the strategies: breathing exercises, for instance. Then there are butterfly hugs, where you cross your arms over your chest and pat the tops of your arms. “You can do that at home, but not when you’re out in the street!”
He couldn’t stomach Colchester, with its military firing ranges and noise, so last September moved to a village in east Suffolk. “This place has been fantastic for me. I can walk out in the woods with my son” ? Sebastian’s four ? “and do different things. It’s very peaceful. This is ‘bringing me back’. There are not too many shops, which is good. I didn’t like being in crowds.”
Trevor was medically discharged from the army in February, after 19 years and 216 days of qualifying service; 22 years would have brought a full pension. Though his money dropped from about £2,500 a month to less than £1,000, he admits to a sense of relief.
He has plans ? he’s studying bushcraft and aims to use it to help ex-service personnel recovering from PTSD ? and is a patron of the charity Veterans in Action.
Trevor thinks there’s still a fair bit of stigma about the condition, and that the UK could spend more on mental health. It’s ridiculous, he argues, to give aid to India when it’s running a space programme. The cash would be better going to the NHS.
What if Sebastian wants to join up, like his dad? “I’m going to try to persuade him not to, to be honest. Gone are the days when the army just went around doing adventure training. It’s now a very dangerous job. It’s not until your mates start dying around you that you realise ‘Wow, this is real; this isn’t fun’.”
There’s a framed image on his living room wall of the Queen presenting Trevor with the Military Cross in December, 2006. A few metres away is a framed action picture of him in battledress. It includes a replica of the MC.
This was all a gift, paid for by well-wishers in Northern Ireland.
There isn’t anything else on show to tell visitors of his military past.
“All this stuff goes upstairs. I don’t have it out,” he says, gesturing at the scrapbooks (collated by his proud dad) and pictures he’d hunted out because I’d asked for them.
Trevor pulls from his pocket a paperweight-style memento bearing the US presidential seal.
It’s a souvenir of his visit to Washington DC in the spring of 2008.
He was chosen to go to The White House to meet George W Bush ? the president keen to greet personnel who had served alongside American forces in the fight against terror.
Mr Bush he found a “very ‘small’, very funny guy. He was nice”.