Sunday, 4 April 2010

From Hero to Zero

When the sniper opened fire, Michael Clohessy reacted first and fastest. It was the summer of 2004, and the 26-year-old private from Walton in Liverpool was serving with the 1st Battalion the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment in Basra. In the clipped assessment of one officer, he was “a cracking soldier, super-fit, bags of potential, and very mature”.

Indeed, during the battalion’s deployment at Basra’s Old State Building, when the British Army were engaged regularly by insurgents, Clohessy had more than proved his worth.

So, when a sniper started taking pot shots at a joint British Army and Iraqi police patrol on a patch of wasteland, Clohessy knew what to do. He shouldered an injured Iraqi policeman and took him to safety behind a nearby wall, before pushing two of his colleagues, who had momentarily frozen as bullets thudded around them, out of harm’s way. He then moved into the open ground and returned fire on the enemy with his machine gun. “I don’t know whether I hit him or not, but I pretty much took down the building with him in it,” he remembers. Either way, the sniper was silenced.

Nine months later, Clohessy stood before a judge at Liverpool crown court, on trial for grievous bodily harm with intent and affray. He had just begun his second tour of Iraq when he was pulled home to appear in the dock. The court heard that Clohessy had committed a violent assault outside the Barlow Arms pub in Walton, in Liverpool, on December 31, 2003, at a New Year’s Eve party that had gone haywire. His victim, William Littlemore, suffered a fractured skull and permanently impaired vision as a result of the attack.

During the proceedings, the court also heard about Clohessy’s valour. He was, said his barrister, a hero who had “saved the lives of two young soldiers and also an Iraqi policeman” in a display of great courage. Nevertheless, the soldier was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. The judge took one year off his term on account of his service. He spent three years “rotting in a bastard cell” before being released in 2008.

Clohessy has since returned to the streets of Walton where he grew up. When we meet, he is unemployed, psychiatrically unstable and bitter. Physically, he does not betray symptoms of breakdown — he is fit and tanned, with close-cropped hair, large ears and a flashy smile. But he drinks heavily. During our interview, he downs vodka with a friend before noon. His mother, who now sees him rarely, thinks he is also using cocaine.

When Clohessy speaks, he does so in rapid-fire bursts, before losing concentration. The tour of Basra with the Cheshire regiment was, he says, the only time in his life when he felt a true sense of purpose. But when he closes his eyes he can still picture dead Iraqis. He can still smell the cordite from expended rounds. He remembers being particularly shaken when he was assigned to collect the body of Gordon Gentle, a 19-year-old Royal Highland Fusilier, whose Snatch Land Rover was hit by a roadside bomb in Basra. An official inquest would later say that Gentle’s death was avoidable — the army had failed to install an electronic countermeasure against IEDs called element B onto his vehicle, which might have saved his life — and his mother, Rose Gentle, is now one of Britain’s most vocal anti-war activists. Clohessy remembers kicking her son’s boot as he lay in the hospital, and battling with the reality of what he was witnessing. “Jock was alive this morning,” he says. “Now he’s dead. I thought, ‘What the f*** is going on here?’”

Clohessy tells me he is prone to fits of guilt and depression that started in prison, when he was locked up with nothing to do but “go over and over in my head about the war”, and which continue to this day. Four years ago, after a series of violent incidents and flashbacks, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a doctor who visited him in prison. Sometimes his rage becomes so intense that he shuts himself in his house and refuses to see anyone for days. Meanwhile, he struggles to maintain relationships, including his relation-ship with the mother of his six-year-old son. This is unsurprising: Clohessy sleeps with a sword under his pillow.

We send too many ex-servicemen to prison. How many, nobody is sure. A recent study by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) estimated that there may be as many as 8,500 ex-servicemen in prison out of a total prison population of 92,000. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the organisation, believes that around 8% of Britons in jail are from the forces. The vast majority of these offenders are from the army, and a large majority of the ex-army are from the infantry. But other groups have taken issue with Napo’s findings. The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence conducted their own survey, which they published in January, concluding that only 3% of the prison population were former members of the military — around 2,500 veterans in total.

Who to believe? Fletcher brought attention to the issue after hearing anecdotal evidence about the problem. He conducted his own inquiries via email with probation officers. On the basis of his calculations (supported by the fact that America’s ex-service prison population is around 9%), Fletcher believes the government has underplayed the numbers.

Certainly, the issue was striking enough for the Howard League for Penal Reform to begin an inquiry. “We began on the basis of the Napo figure, which has now been cast into doubt,” says Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League. “But

I suspect the truth is that the figure is somewhere between 3% and 8%. And that still makes servicemen by far the largest occupational group in prison. That is well worth investigating.”



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