He suffered severe head injuries while serving in Iraq, but Johnson Beharry VC tells Sarah Freeman why it was the psychological wounds which cut the deepest.
On April 27, 2005, a young man who had grown up in Grenada became a poster boy for the British Army.
His name was Johnson Beharry - the first living recipient of the Victoria Cross in 30 years - and following the formal ceremony at Buckingham Palace as he posed for photographs outside, there was not a trace of emotion.
However, as he stared ahead, the sunlight reflecting on his medals, he knew he wasn’t the same person who had flown out to Iraq as a sergeant with the 1st Battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. That evening, like every other evening, he also knew the flashbacks would return.
“I wasn’t in a good place. I loved the Army, it was my life and then all of a sudden I was out and struggling to find a new direction.”
We’re speaking at the launch of a new exhibition at the Thackray Medical Museum next to St James’ Hospital in Leeds which looks at changes in warfare medicine over the last 100 years. Beharry, now 34, cuts a confident figure as he chats to journalists, but he admits a few years ago he would have declined the invitation.
“For someone who has spent so much of the last few years in and out of hospital, a medical museum in the grounds of a hospital is not the ideal day out, but you know what? It’s ok. I feel ok. I guess I was the opposite of most people who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. I didn’t bottle it up. I could talk about what had happened or at least what I could remember, but I couldn’t listen to my own story. I still can’t.
“If that was me,” he adds pointing to a screen in the exhibition where a fellow injured soldier recounts her story on a video loop. “I would have had to walk away.”
It’s not hard to see why. In 2004, within the space of six weeks Beharry was involved in two major incidents in Iraq. On May 1, he was the driver of an armoured vehicle which had been called to help a foot patrol caught in a series of ambushes. Hit by rocket propelled grenades, which injured the platoon commander, the vehicle’s gunner and took out radio communications, Beharry had to make a decision. With the Warrior’s periscope damaged, he knew the only way of steering the vehicle was to throw open the hatch and literally put his head above the parapet.
He didn’t waver. Despite coming under constant fire, he not only lead his own crew and five other Warriors through the ambush, but he also managed to deliver his wounded colleagues to safety.
It was a sobering day for the battalion, but worse was to come. On June 11, Beharry was again at the wheel when a grenade detonated just six inches from his head. Shrapnel punctured his brain, but he somehow regained control of the vehicle and again drove his men out of the firing line before losing consciousness.
There was no doubting he was well deserving of the military’s most prestigious honour - the citation noted that he had displayed ‘valour of the highest order’ - but when he found himself before the Queen less than a year later, his recovery was only just beginning.
“At least they gave them something to do,” he says, looking at one of the exhibition panels on early treatments for shell shock. Following the First World War, men who returned from the trenches with deep psychological scars were often put to work making wicker baskets. “It’s when you’re not doing anything that it’s worst.
“I still don’t like nights. I don’t sleep well and there is nothing to distract me. I’ve had to develop things to help. I like looking and listening to water. There’s a river near where I live. You’ll often find me down there just staring at the water. It means I don’t have to think.”
Beharry’s lowest moment came in 2008. While he had been promoted to lance corporal, had seen his portrait hung in the National Portrait Gallery and had brought the FA Cup onto the pitch at the new Wembley Stadium ahead of the final between Chelsea and Manchester United, public support had done little to quell his private nightmares. That December he drove his car at 100mph into a lamppost. He’d wanted to end his life, but walked away unharmed.
“That was my turning point,” he says. “I’d survived being blown up in Iraq, I’d survived the crash. At that moment I thought, ‘right, if I can’t die, I better start living’.”
If the Army had taught Beharry one thing it was not to hide from the difficult and the painful. While his first marriage ended in divorce, he is now settled with second wife Venice and the couple have a young son Ayden. Becoming a father, he says, has been a big part of his rehabilitation.
“He gave me something else to focus on. Let me tell you last night was amazing. I was sitting in my front room and Ayden stood up for the first time. He was so pleased with himself he kept on doing it, again and again. Those are the moments I live for now.”
It took him a long time, he says, to accept he would never go back to the Army - he even tried to visit his old battalion in Afghanistan. However, he’s beginning to fill the void with the launch of the JBVC Foundation. Its aim is to work with troubled teenagers and with a pilot scheme underway, he hopes it will eventually have a national reach.
“Initially I wanted to set up a charity or a trust which was somehow Armed related. But I soon realised that there were so many military charities and I’m not sure they are getting the best results. It seems to me that if you have too many organisations with the same good intentions, but doing the same thing, resources just get spread too thinly. I knew it would be hard to make a difference, so I looked elsewhere. There are a lot of kids out there who have never known routine and if someone doesn’t catch them they will end up in awful lot of trouble. That’s what the foundation is designed to do.
“It’s about getting them to a point where they can get up to go to work on time, where they can deal with being told what to do. That might take six weeks, it might take six months, but I don’t put a time limit on our help. I want us to be able to deal with them as individuals.
“It’s going to be hard work, but that’s one thing I’ve never been afraid of.”
Beharry lived in Grenada with his seven brothers and sisters before moving to the UK in 1999 and it was two years later that he joined the Army.
“I had no intention of becoming a soldier. I was working in the building industry and having a pretty good life. One of my friends was thinking of joining up and I went with him to the recruiting office. When they saw me, they said, ‘You wait there, we’ll get someone from your country to talk to you’. That was it. The next thing I knew I was at Catterick doing my training.
“I think I’d always been pretty disciplined, but Army discipline is different. It’s something I’m thankful for now, it kept me strong.”
Since receiving the VC, Beharry has toured the country speaking about his experiences. He says, he is now comfortable in the spotlight, but is reluctant to overestimate his achievements.
“I met Harry Patch once,” he says of the man who was the last British surviving soldier known to have fought in the First World War. “I was speechless, knowing that I was next to someone who had been in the trenches. But you know what? He sent me a letter and in it he said it had been an honour to meet me. He was a real soldier and that’s all I want to be.
“I still have a pain in my head. It’s bad right now, but it’s not going to go away, so I just have to live with it. I’ll keep on speaking about what happened and representing the Army, but I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for them, those men who didn’t make it. I’m not the only hero.”