(first published Guardian, 7th June 1995)
In early 1995, I was commissioned, by the Guardian’s G2 section, to write about Parachute Regiment basic training. At the time Private Lee Clegg of 3 PARA was in jail, serving a life sentence, for the murder of a joy rider in Belfast in 1990. The following was not published until the June of 1995 and coincided with the release of Private Clegg on licence. Three days later, on June 10th, It was also published in the Irish Independent.
Para Normal? The Making of a Fighting Man
Jailed paratrooper Lee Clegg was trained in the army’s hardest boot camp. As KEN LUKOWIAK recalls, that means being taken apart and put back again the Para way.
By Chance I returned to Aldershot last week. Ray and Dave, both ex-Para, both “down south” – the Falklands – with me, needed a lift to the outskirts of the town to pick up a repaired car. I was driving to Cornwall anyway, so it was no hardship to drop them off.
Along the M3 I put up the idea that as we were so near why didn’t we go into “The Shot”. Visit a couple of Para pubs. “No, I’m a civvie now Luke, don’t mean a thing to me anymore”. “Yeah, it’s behind me now, that Para shite. Over. Gone.” So, I dropped it. I’m a civvie myself.
Then Ray told us about this Argie prisoner in Port Stanley who had been found walking around with his dead brother in a kit bag. I said I thought that was touching. Ray and Dave agreed.
Our route took us past Browning Barracks, headquarters of The Parachute Regiment, where we had done our six months basic training. As nightmares go, the three of us could all come up with a few based in and around that place. So we did. And what we had been told at the time turned out to be true. We laughed about it. By the time we reached the turn off the decision had been made; we wouldn’t go into the town – just go past the old prison.
As we drove past the main gate Ray asked if we’d seen the “hat” (Para speak for any soldier not in the Paras) who looked about twelve, with a weapon standing on the barrier. I told him to stop being stupid. There was no way a crap hat was going to be guarding our Reg Headquarters. “I’m telling you Luke, there was a bloody hat standing on the gate. It’s all different now. That defence cut-back bollocks, we have to share the place with the hats.”
Dave hadn’t noticed the hat either. He’d been too busy looking at the two captured Argentine artillery pieces on the lawn. “You wouldn’t think they were the same bastard things that were at Goose Green would you?” And we wouldn’t. So we all told a story about a shell. One that had exploded near us and had been fired from one of those polished things that sat over there.
The argument about the hat was settled when Ray shouted “What the fucks that then?”. Walking on the tarmac that we marched our pass-out parades on was a whole gaggle of crap hats. Chewing their little girl sandwiches and sipping poofy Ribenas.
There was only one thing for it. Stop the car and go over and rip their throats out for daring to even think about walking on hallowed ground. Never mind eat their bloody lunch on it. Then the three of us laughed at how “airborne” we were and I remembered the first time I marched into the square.
A group photo had been taken that day and later pinned to the platoon noticeboard. There were 63 of us in it. Six months later only 13 remained. As people dropped out, a cross was marked on the photograph. We were told that the ones with crosses weren’t man enough to become paratroopers. And at that time that’s what it was all about for me. I joined the Parachute Regiment to become a man.
We next passed Bruneval Barracks. The place we marched out of to board the coaches that took us to the ship that took us to the Falkland Islands. So, we talked about the day we left for what we had been trained for, and about the day we returned. And we remembered the friends who had not. By the time we had remembered all the dead – though not weeping about it, you understand – we were in the town centre. We thought we might as well have a drink in one of the Para pubs. We chose the nearest, the Royal Exchange. In our day the Exchange had been a Para Engineers pub. Airborne is airborne, but it wasn’t a Para Regt pub. It was now. One hundred per cent Para drinking whole. Hanging everywhere were photographs and paintings and plaques dedicated to paratroopers. Past and Present.
As soon as we walked in we belonged. Drinks were ordered with a “Yeah, the three of us were in the Reg. 2 Para mate. We were down south together”. Then we drifted off in different directions to study the photographs and, although not admitting it, look for faces that used to be us. Dave found his first. A company photograph taken on June 15th 1982, outside the church in Port Stanley. The three of us remembered the other faces and tried to put names to them. “What’s his name? Micks blew him up in Ireland. You remember?”
And we did. In a bar-cum-museum-cum-mausoleum in Aldershot we couldn’t stop ourselves. And it felt like it was all only a few months ago.
In the end we took in another three pubs. We met friends we hadn’t seen in years and heard about others dead, alive, working in South Africa, fighting in Bosnia, diving in the North Sea, even married with three kids and working as a postman. The topical topic though, was the number-one most famous paratrooper at the moment – Private Lee Clegg, 3 Para, doing a life stretch for “whacking” a joy rider. “Call himself a paratrooper, he deserved life, he only got off four rounds!”. And once more we laughed at how airborne we were.
Then to show how grown up, and un-airborne and civvie-like we now really were, we had a go at talking about Clegg without any paratrooper bias. And we agreed that basically, all boys together, if some joyrider crashes through on you, you open up. It’s what you’re trained to do and it’s not right that he’s banged up, and it could have been us, and after all Belfast anit’ Blackpool, and a lot of us got killed there, though fair is fair, we run around all day playing big bad arsed paratrooper, so if we get blown up, well, we can’t go whining on and complaining about it, but likewise, if someone goes nicking cars and crashing through army checkpoints they shouldn’t complain to much when they end up with 40 bullets coming through the rear windscreen.
Someone asked if we’d read in the Daily Mail about old Cleggy getting on his knees every night, in his cell mind you, and praying for the mother of the joy rider he’d killed. I can’t tell you how hard we all laughed.
And I shouldn’t have. Because five years earlier, I had prayed for the mother of a soldier I saw killed on the Falklands. And Christ only knows what it must have been like to be told that you pulled the trigger that fired the bullet that took the life of a teenage girl.
I think we all took moments, between the Para bullshit and the civvie make-believe, too stand and think. You know that you don’t want to harp on – the Falklands and (hand on brow) “Oh, the war”, so you try not to. But stood amongst it all again it was just impossible. So I wondered about having once been a Para. What it meant. What was done to me, with my own consent, to turn me into one?