Outsiders in London
All photographs: copyright © Milan Svanderlik - London - UK
GARY AREEF BARNES (# 40)
Gary Areef Barnes
Born in Manchester, Jamaica
Father & Mother both born in Jamaica
Ethnic heritage / Father: Indo-Caribbean / Mother: Afro-Caribbean
Gary and his older brother were born into a very poor family in Jamaica, with his mother sustaining the household by cleaning people’s houses and other manual work. Gary has only a slight recollection of his father, from when he was very small, but he soon disappeared from their lives, not to be seen or much mentioned again. When Gary was just over five, his mother left Jamaica for England, driven by economic necessity; she left her sons with relatives until such time as she could establish herself in the new country. In a recent interview in Chiswick, Gary recollects: “As a five year-old, I felt the loss of my mother deeply, and having to live with relatives, who had their own children, made me feel like an outsider. My brother felt sort of abandoned too but, being younger, I think I suffered the loss of our mother most. I buried my feelings deep inside and became withdrawn and quiet, living in my own world; that was my way of coping. Both of us felt that we were no more than appendices to our host families and that’s how we were treated - on occasions, we went hungry.”
Gary attended the local nursery and primary schools and, despite being quite an introvert kid, he quickly had to learn how to fit in; his way of doing this was by adroitly adapting to the circumstances. This ability to adapt, learned as a small child, has remained one of Gary’s important survival skills right up to the present day. “I was easily led and sometimes this was a good thing but sometimes it wasn’t.”
Over in the UK, their mother initially settled in South West London and would have had to overcome all the initial obstacles every new settler has to face. She found jobs as a cleaner and as a carer in a nursing home, and, more significantly, she remarried too. Gary was just over 10 when he was able to rejoin his mother in London and though their reunion was undoubtedly a joyful event, she already had another little boy by then, with her new husband, so Gary was no longer the baby of the family. “My migration to London was quite sudden; as I didn’t really have time to imagine what England might feel like or look like, this made moving to a new country rather a frightening time, though it was exciting too, of course. The change of climate from Jamaica was profound: even though we arrived in the middle of Summer, I felt so cold. And having arrived from a country where the majority of people were black, it was very strange to be in a minority in an overwhelmingly white London, strange to be in the vicinity of, and have to deal with, so many white people. We lived on the Clapham Estate, which was largely white, but later on, we moved to the notorious Stockwell Park Estate, in Brixton, which was almost completely black.”
In London, Gary immediately started at secondary school, attending Archbishop Tenison’s School in Kennington. This seemed quite grand and well-equipped compared to the Jamaican primary school he had left, so Gary felt very privileged. However, it is easy to imagine how many adjustments he must have had to make simply to fit in, and how demanding it must have seemed to learn how to take advantage of all those resources now available to him. “I still had my strong Jamaican accent and despite the fact that I was introverted, I got noticed almost straight away and within a week, I was asked to join what was later to become one of Brixton’s more infamous gangs. Joining this gang was bit of a ‘baptism of fire’, however; initially, I’d refused to join so on that very same day, I was ambushed and beaten up by gang members. I suspect they saw me as someone who could be easily led, someone who could be be useful to them and do things they might consider too risky themselves. The violence shown to me had a profound effect: the following day, I came into school with a knife, just in case, as I no longer felt safe. I also finished up fighting all the other boys who’d dared to gang up and assault me. I felt that now I was on my own and I needed to be able to be strong, to defend myself, and to learn how to combat the bullies - all this happened within my first week at a London school. Of course, my sudden transformation from quiet, introvert new kid to a boy who was willing and able to defend himself made me even more attractive as a potential gang member; now they were really keen for me to join up. Well, I mentioned that I was easily led and so it proved on this occasion, but at least being a member of the gang gave me an immediate sense of belonging in the vast, strange metropolis I’d just arrived into. Inevitably, and it wasn’t long after I joined the gang, I started deviating from the straight and narrow path at school: we started by stealing bikes and mopeds; then we got involved in all manner of petty crimes; and we got into the way of roaming the other estates and other schools, fighting with rival gangs in the locality. And I was still only 11.”
But unusually, in stories such as these, Fate proved kind to Gary: just when he seemed to be seriously going to the bad, Gary had the good fortune to come across a rather visionary teacher, a Mr David Bromfield, who recognised this young lad’s potential, took him under his wing, and encouraged him. With some focussed support and direction, Gary started to blossom, making the progress he might have failed to do otherwise, succeeding notably in the French and Arts classes which he particularly enjoyed. Despite the rocky start, Gary went on to complete his secondary education moderately well, and certainly a lot better than might have been predicted.
Asked how he coped with puberty and becoming a teenager, Gary elaborates: “Back in Jamaica, the idea of manhood, in all its forms, is thrust into your life well before the arrival of puberty. You learn about things long before you can understand them properly. In Jamaica, even when there were children around, sex in all its forms was spoken about quite openly and you got to see many things going on around you every day. As it happens, I was a bit of a late developer, with my beard and body hair only growing properly when I was twenty; of course, I was teased about that mercilessly. Mind you, when I was at school, it was the norm for all gang members to have several girlfriends and I was no exception; however, I differed from the others in that I was shy and I think it was my shyness that appealed to the girls who were drawn to me.”
Garry continues: “When I was thirteen, Mr Bromfield was instrumental in helping me to join the Army Cadets and so helped me sever my links with the gang. He also seems to have arranged for me to be placed among other pupils who were new arrivals to London and who thus had to overcome the very obstacles that were already familiar to me - I think he must have spotted the empathy that is a part of my personality. He was certainly one of those very perceptive teachers you remember for ever, the kind of person who sees a kid’s potential and helps unlock it.”
“Having missed my family during my formative years, I always felt that I wanted to belong to something - hence the gang membership, I suppose - and in that way, being an Army Cadet suited me right down to the ground. This need to take part, to belong, lives with me still and I am one of those people who could never sit at a desk in an office cubicle, on my own with a computer terminal, managing some solitary task. I need to be part of a team, to participate, to cooperate, and to feel involved. These days, I love being involved in the Stockwell Park Community initiatives for that very same reason.” Gary did well in the Cadets; indeed, he excelled, speedily becoming a Cadets Sergeant Major and commanding 300 youngsters at the tender age of 16.
Having otherwise no clear vision of what career path to take, not surprisingly perhaps, Gary decided to continue with what he had excelled at: he joined the British Army, undertaking his Basic Training at the Army Training Centre, Pirbright. “Having come from the Cadets, where you were treated as a kid, at the ATC, you were definitely treated like a man and the basic training certainly came as a bit of a shock, both to a young body and a young mind. Aggression and adrenalin were ever-present; strong language and coarse expletives from those in command were something you just had to get used to - you were deliberately broken down in order that you could be put together again, but in a stronger, fitter form, in a form predetermined by others, the form of a British soldier. I was no exception. I was reduced to tears on many occasions and during those weeks of Basic Training, I often felt totally exhausted, with no strength left and no will to go on. But, of course, nearly everyone does manage to go on. For the majority of young men, this was the first time they had been away from home and quite a few of them shed homesick tears in private, missing their mums. I was different; I wasn’t used to having my family around me so I didn’t really miss them. Despite the tough training regime, I felt strangely that I belonged where I was.”
“In Basic Training, I was the only black person and not a single day passed that I wasn’t reminded of it. Every day, I was subjected to racist abuse, and once again I had to fall back on my well-honed ability to adapt to new circumstances. It was almost like being in combat: instead of running away, I got closer to my enemy in order to neutralise him. I turned every racist insult into a joke or into banter, but what I didn’t quite realise at the time is that these sorts of experiences have a cumulative effect, they hollow you out from the inside. Even now, after so many years, I sense that these experiences have eaten into my soul. It was the first time I had experienced persistent, blatant racism and not only from my fellow recruits but also from the officers, from the whole Army, in fact. Our trainers used racist insults as the norm, presumably to break me, to toughen me up, but in a way, that sort of gave official permission to all the others to do the same. The use of racist language became a norm in much the same way as homophobic language is still the norm today.”
“I managed to survive the 16 weeks’ Basic Training, but it was undoubtedly a period in my life that I shall never forget. In fact, I was there longer than usual, having fractured bones in both of my feet during one of those extremely arduous marches, laden down with masses of heavy kit; I was incapacitated for five weeks. It’s always said that boys become men during Basic Training, and that those men then become soldiers. The ones who fail are just cast aside, never to be heard of again; they are the Army’s rejects.” Though each and every day, Gary had to suffer being treated as a black man first and anything else second, he made sure that he excelled. In his modest way, and only reluctantly, does Gary mention that he finished his Basic Training with flying colours, even earning himself a trophy, and all that in spite of the daily racist taunts.
Towards the end of Basic Training, Gary was called in to see his Commanding Officer where he was offered an opportunity to join the elite Household Cavalry, to become one of the Queen’s Royal Guards. This was a great honour but also a clear sign that his abilities and perseverance had been recognised. Perhaps it should also be remembered that, by this time, the British Army had become somewhat torn, between the traditionalists and those who believed that the Army should reflect more accurately the ethnic mix that now obtained in contemporary Britain, which it most definitely did not. Indeed, as late as 1961, it had been possible for the Army to publish the following statement in an official document quaintly called, Recruitment of Coloured Personnel: “The strength of the British Army has always depended on the reliability of the individual soldier. The reliability of coloured soldiers is not certain and therefore too great a dilution of British units would be dangerous.” This was the sort of ingrained prejudice with which black and Asian soldiers had to contend.
The Household Cavalry, one of the handful of elite Guards regiments, was and remains one of the mainstays of Britain’s royal pageantry but, in 1996, the Commission for Racial Equality had labelled it ‘institutionally racist’. It was 1990 and it had taken almost 300 years for the regiment to recruit its first black Guard; this was Richard Stokes, who was subjected to intolerable racial abuse and quit within the year. Stokes later wrote: “The others [his fellow guardsmen] threw bananas at me, stubbed their cigarettes out in my food, and called me names like ‘nigger’ and ‘coon’. Before I left the Army, I was also receiving hate mail from guardsmen in two other battalions on a regular basis.” Then, seven years after that, Trooper Mark Campbell managed to survive for 17 months, after which he is understood to have been discharged on (dubious?) medical grounds - the real reasons may be imagined.
So, following in these inauspicious footsteps, Gary joined the Household Cavalry in 2001 at the age of 17 with a great deal of publicity orchestrated around his arrival. The Army was keen to repair the damage to its image and put an end to the embarrassing publicity; indeed, the progressive forces within the Army were genuinely keen to bring about a change of attitude and to open the Guards regiments to the greater diversity amongst British soldiers serving in other regiments. Now it was Gary’s turn to be in the limelight, the focus of press attention, and I asked him how he had actually been welcomed by the other guardsmen. With some hesitation, Gary responded: “I remember quite distinctly that everyone seemed to be just staring at me, as if I had arrived at completely the wrong place, or entered through the wrong door; I felt like a total outsider in the Hyde Park Barracks. And, though it might seem a bit strange to the general public, it wasn’t in fact uncommon at all: I was about to become a Royal Guard, in a mounted regiment, without ever having been near a horse.”
Not unexpectedly, bearing in mind Gary’s achievements in Basic Training, he responded to the initial training exceptionally well, even though the process was certainly arduous. All the kit, including an archaic and elaborate dress uniform, had always, without fail, to be polished to the highest standard; this took hours. “I remember the first time I did it, it took me perhaps 20 hours and even then it wasn’t right. The pressure created by endless demands for the very highest standards was intense and some individuals just couldn’t sustain it: I witnessed one young solder throw himself out of a window in sheer desperation, unable to cope with the constant, exacting standards that were insisted on. Others committed even more desperate acts in order to escape from it all. People always just see the glamour, the beautiful horses, the imposing uniforms, the marvellous pageantry, but behind the scenes, the pressures were often beyond human endurance, brutal almost - the horses were treated more humanely than the soldiers!”
Gary deployed his well-honed skill of adapting to the circumstances, a skill that had almost always worked for him in the past. With all his might and determination, he threw himself against what looked like insurmountable expectations, targets and tasks, until he finally mastered them. Having started the day he joined, the blatantly racist taunts continued, of course, and Gary carried on striving to deflect these through humour and joking, batting them back as best he could but feeling the pain nonetheless. While the racist language and banter were ever-present, he had no doubt that some insults were calculated and clearly orchestrated at a senior level: “I give you one small example: my first horse, the horse that I was given to look after and to ride, was a white horse; this was quite unusual in itself but the name of this particular mount just happened to be ‘Zulu’. So the black cavalryman riding a white horse called Zulu became a source of endless amusement to my fellow Guards and to the officers alike. I understood only too well that there was no point in complaining - we all knew what happened to men who complained - so you simply had to have broad shoulders and take the barrage of insults on the chin.”
Asked how he’d got on with the horses themselves, given that he’d had no experience with horses before, Gary smiled broadly and continued: “They were lovely creatures and they loved me; at least they didn’t care if I was black. Despite the fact that only a month before, I had hardly ever clapped eyes on a horse, I progressed so well that I took part in the regimental show jumping competition and won high praise.” Naturally, for sound PR reasons, Gary was frequently on display, splendidly mounted and on guard duty in Whitehall, in his magnificent uniform and astride his beloved, impeccably groomed steed. Because he was black, he always attracted a great deal of attention from both passers-by and tourists. “I did enjoy the theatre of it all, the interaction with the public, and it always feels great to be photographed and admired. During those two hours on duty, you would forget all the toil and the hard work that went on behind the scenes. Of course, I was well aware that the officers were keen to have me there, up front, as a highly visible demonstration that the Household Cavalry was now a more inclusive regiment, one that welcomed soldiers from minorities.” Unsurprisingly, all this attention caused some resentment back in the barracks. The Army was keen to show off its serving black guardsman and Gary was asked to take part in most of the training, promotional and recruitment videos, as well as lots of other media events, and unsurprisingly, this led to others feeling excluded.
Gary’s first year in the Household Cavalry was the hardest; the training was intense and the pressure was sometimes almost unbearable - there was practically no time left for anything other than being on duty, maintaining the kit, and caring for the horses. “At a later stage, when everything had settled into something of a routine, the hard work and the pressure certainly continued but many of us became alcohol dependent as a means of coping. It was astonishing how much booze we consumed during our modest free time. Superficially, I enjoyed the camaraderie and sometimes, I even came to feel a genuine part of it all, though I still knew at heart that I was still not really accepted as ‘one of the lads’. As a black man, I always felt that I could never be fully a part of what was an almost entirely white regiment. I am pleased to say that I did establish some genuine friendships, friendships that I still cherish today, and while racism certainly exists in the Army, that doesn’t mean every soldier is a racist - the same could be said for the country as a whole. I fully understand that lots of the lads who are recruited into the Army are naive; many have lived all their lives in the provinces, and most of them have never had any real contact with black people. It is therefore hardly surprising that so many of them respond the way they do. And, sad to say, they don’t always have the best example set for them by their officers.” Well surpassing the record of his black antecedents, Gary continued to undertake ceremonial duties as part of the Household Cavalry for over three years.
Some cavalry regiments evolved into tank regiments so, following his service on royal guard duty, Gary continued his Army service in Windsor where he went to train for combat. In 2003, when Gary was 20, his regiment was sent for a six-month tour of duty to post-conflict Banja Luka, in Bosnia, as a part of NATO/UN operational force, hunting down war criminals and clearing minefields. While the war was officially over, his regiment witnessed at first hand both murders and the torching of homes, all in name of religion and ethnic superiority. “It was my first experience of war - or perhaps I should say the consequences of war - and what I saw was horrific. The suffering, pain and destruction that one group of people could inflict on another was astonishing, and these were all people who had lived in harmony for decades. It was a dangerous job too, with the clearing of all the mine fields.”
“This was also my first experience of being abroad in uniform and, faced with mayhem and death amongst soldiers and civilians alike, I not only became acutely aware of the fragility of life but I also began to understand the value of family support, of having people back home who cared about you, perhaps someone who loved you, and who feared for your safety in this nightmarish Balkan war. I couldn’t help but see other soldiers regularly receiving letters and parcels from their families, whereas nothing ever arrived for me - I just felt disconnected from my family. When I joined the army, aged 16, I sent half of my modest wages back home to my mum each month - at that time, my sisters were still at school. Now, I could hardly help noticing that the only calls I ever seemed to get were to enquire about when the next instalment of cash was likely to arrive. No-one ever bothered to ask about me, how I was coping, if there was anything I needed, or how I was putting up with the racism. Inevitably, as the months passed, I felt the distance growing greater between my family and me; I began to wonder if anyone really cared about me at all.”
“Despite being the butt of racist taunts and banter, over time, I felt my regiment had become my new family and, of course, now we were in a theatre of war, the camaraderie, the sense of interdependence, and our reliance upon one another for our safety and wellbeing was very real and deeply felt. The experience of war had brought us closer, and we all now understood the importance of the training we’d received, the need for discipline, and the strong bonds fostered between men to protect one another.” For some soldiers, the regiment was the only experience of real closeness to another human being that they had ever had, a closeness they had never experienced at home. That is also the very reason why so many soldiers return to civilian life unable to reconnect with society; they cannot find again in the civilian world those very close, supportive bonds with others - that collective spirit and sense of common purpose possessed by soldiers - that they have had with their comrades, and so they flounder.”
While the war in what had once been the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was still smouldering, a new war front had opened up: in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, releasing ‘shock and awe’ upon the world. Gary’s regiment was flown to the Canadian prairies for four months’ battle training, in preparation for active service in Iraq, after which they were indeed posted to the new war zone. “Personally, I had the deepest reservations about the Iraq War and I was very unhappy being any part of it. Indeed, as time went on and more and more questions arose in my mind about the morality and effectiveness of the war, I became increasingly convinced that probably the best option for me was to get out before it was too late. I decided that, before I returned home in a Union Jack-draped coffin, I would quit my army career and not to return to Iraq. I was 25, I had been a professional soldier since I was 16, and I thought I had served my country long enough.”
Gary returned to his family home in the heart of London - from one war zone to another, you might say! The Stockwell Park Estate which, because of the level of crime committed there, had in the past been almost a ‘no go’ area to the Police and to the other emergency services, had finally begun to turn round as the result of what was a unique process driven by community initiatives from within. Gary was asked how he’d been welcomed back at home and, almost tearful, he recounted this experience: “I was truly shocked: my own room in our house had been taken over by one of my brothers and was being used as somewhere to breed dogs and raise puppies; everything that belonged to me had been trashed; clearly no-one cared anything about the things that were part of my life. Perhaps this was how they retaliated when I stopped sending my wages home regularly some months before - perhaps I’d sort of forfeited my room because I didn’t pay up.”
“On the other hand, some people in the community, as well as some of my old acquaintances from the estate, treated me like a hero. Others almost seemed to blame me for Britain’s part in the Iraq War and for the destruction it had caused - they chose to forget that, as an ordinary soldier, you have no say at all in what wars are started, you’re just a pawn in the games that countries play. But what this critical reaction did lead me to notice, however, and what took me aback more than anything else, was how many youngsters around in South London were embracing Islam as a religion - perhaps as a sort of protest. Half of the people I’d been to school with had become Muslims, or would do soon afterwards, and some even became radicalised. Though to this day, I continue to be perplexed by the scale of these conversions, the cause seems clear enough: almost as a reaction to the collapse of western values and the onslaught of radical free-market policies, young people were searching for an alternative, something that might offer hope and a sense of belonging, and Islam seemed to offer an alternative, less materialistic view of life.”
“I had some degree of fear about how I’d fit in, how I’d reconnect with the place where violence had been a part of life, where stabbings and shootings had been frequent, and black on black violence, child on child crimes almost daily occurrences. Of course, the others were fearful of me; knowing that I was an ex-soldier, a trained fighter, they were fearful of what I could do to them. Having left my regiment, I missed the supportive network of comrades, and feeling now disconnected from my family too, I felt understandably very much on my own. I also faced the not inconsiderable conundrum of how I was going to get by; what was I going to do next with my life. For the first two weeks at home, I just stayed within four walls, not wanting to venture out. I almost returned to the old world of my introverted childhood: I felt unwanted and unloved, as if I’d returned home and no-one had noticed, or didn’t seem to care if they had. Sometimes I felt nostalgia for the Army, as if I would almost have preferred being in a war zone, because at least when I was in the Army, I knew what I was doing, what my purpose was. Now, I was surrounded by youngsters who didn’t care, kids for whom life appeared to be worthless and who didn’t seem to have any morals or conscience, youngsters who really would do anything, irrespective of the consequences. That scared me.”
“Gradually, a few people started to gravitate towards me, trying to befriend me, but they were all the wrong people from the past, criminals who were associated with drugs, robbery and gun crime. They offered me the survival options that were the norm for them and, because in many ways these were the easy options, I gradually drifted back into it all. Without wanting to incriminate myself, and I hope you will understand that I am reluctant to say very much, but faced with the difficulty of getting a job, I gradually drifted into crime as the best means of survival. Indeed, because of my Army background and the respect that that generated, I was almost assured a leading position in the gang.”
“Then my life seemed more or less to cave in. I knew that most of what I was drifting back into wasn’t right; I also knew that I was in the company of people I’d rather have had nothing to do with. Frequently, I felt intensely alone, with no apparent purpose to my life at all. So I retreated into my flat, almost never venturing out. I had no connection with the outside world; I didn’t even speak with my mum, who’d moved back to Jamaica by then, nor did I want to speak to my sisters. Indeed, I didn’t really want to talk to anyone. Not having any money, I accumulated rent arrears; then my electricity was cut off and I lived without power for months. I didn’t bother to wash; I hardly ate anything; my hair even started to fall out. I was totally on my own, locked inside my own pain and darkness, with only my past and no hope for the future. I was also convinced that no-one cared about me either: my family didn’t seem to care; the Army didn’t care; no-one even knew I existed. I became a down-and-out, really. That was the most difficult, the darkest part of my entire life.”
For the first time in Gary’s life, he seemed unable to employ his characteristic skills and adapt to new circumstances, to turn things around, to overcome the obstacles, and to turn disadvantages into opportunities. “Perhaps I should have knocked on the doors of charities which I suppose I knew were there to help, but that would have been out of character; in the past, I had always managed to find a way through, on my own. Except that now, I couldn’t see the way ahead at all; my dreams had somehow been crushed and I couldn’t rediscover a place in the world for me. To this day, none of my family know what I went through at that time; indeed, the fact remains, none of them bothered themselves to find out how, or if, I was coping.”
“Then one day, I watched my door being kicked down with great violence, wrenched off its hinges, and 20 or 30 police officers charged in; they pinned me down and searched my home. Out of malice, someone had tipped them off that I was the ring leader of a gang on the Stockwell Park Estate. I tell you, that was one of the happiest days of my life: I had a sudden revelation that there was someone left who could be bothered to open my door - batter it down, even - someone who had taken the trouble to notice my existence, irrespective of their motive. I was petrified at the time, of course, but in the same moment I almost wanted to embrace those policemen: they were in uniform, they were acting as a team, they were together, on a mission, acting as one, and they brought back for me all my best days in the Army. Except that I didn’t feel at all like the enemy; I didn’t feel I was in danger; I almost felt, in fact, as though I was the one being rescued, freed from the inner demons and the solitude that were driving me towards destruction. The Police found nothing in the flat, of course. I was taken to the Police Station where, once I was recognised as an ex-soldier who’d fought in Iraq, I was treated with great respect. I could see that they felt sorry for me, for the way I looked, for the terrible state I was in.”
Asked if he maintains contact with his regiment or with those of his former comrades who are now civilians too, Gary responds: “Yes I do, but I am also conscious that many of them struggle with the world outside the Army just as I did: two of them went to prison soon after leaving the Regiment, mainly because of drug- and alcohol-related violence, and many simply cannot cope. So, while I had sunk down pretty low myself, I did succeed in emerging from the darkness and now I class myself as one of the luckier ones.”
Gary is quite right in saying so. In 2009, even before the after effects of the British involvement in Afghanistan, it was estimated that 20,000 veterans were in some way in contact with the criminal justice system; of these, 8,500 men were behind bars, making up almost one tenth of the prison population. Most studies concur strongly in indicating that because many ex-soldiers suffer severe mental trauma during engagements in combat zones, when they return home to civilian life, their marriages or relationships often fall apart and they turn to alcohol or drugs as a strategy for coping. Domestic violence, GBH and criminality will frequently follow. Probation Officers often comment that the majority of ex-soldiers referred by the Courts for supervision had not received adequate support or counselling on leaving the armed forces. It is estimated that the number of ex-servicemen in prison is likely to grow further as 20,000 more troops will soon be returning to civilian life as a result of defence cuts. They have effectively been made redundant and many of them will struggle to make the transition back to civilian life, especially when many of them will be returning to regions where there is already high unemployment.
“It stems from losing people I cared for, and taking somebody’s life away ... these mental issues are invisible.” So said Robert Kilgour from north London, in an interview in 2012; he had served in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and in the First Gulf War, returning to civilian life in 1993, at the age of 22. Since then, he has been jailed repeatedly for assault. “One day you’re killing, the next you’re saying ‘hello’. They train you up, but don’t de-train you to go back to civilian life,” he said. “They need to open centres for squaddies returning from war. I was getting into trouble all the time. I’d drink to suppress my feelings. I was temperamental and hard to live with, causing a split with my wife. It stems from losing people I cared for and taking somebody’s life away. People can see a broken leg or arm, but these mental issues are invisible.”
In 2011, more British soldiers and veterans committed suicide than were killed in battle. During the Falklands War of 1982, some 255 UK personnel were killed in action; however, by 1993, the veterans group announced that this number had been exceeded by the toll of veterans taking their own lives.
In an article in the Sunday Mirror of July 2013, Ben Glaze wrote: “Up to 9,000 British heroes who served Queen and Country are homeless after leaving the military. Shockingly, ex-service personnel account for one in 10 rough sleepers across the UK.”
Inevitably, some of the above statistics are disputed by the Ministry of Defence and while the exact figures and precise statistical data can be endlessly scrutinised and debated, there can be no doubt about the grim reality of how difficult it is to return to civilian life from active military service, especially after recent service in a theatre of war.
As a soldier who has succeeded in coming through the tribulations of demobilisation, Garry continues: “That was the turning point for me. I knew that I had to find the strength to turn my life around. I decided to keep clear of all my old associates from the estate, I tried to rediscover and to nurture the moral strength I felt I had always had, and I tried again only to do good things. I tried to re-establish my contact with my grandmother and some other members of my family; I took myself to the dentist; I went to the doctor, where I opened up to my GP about being in the house for months, living like a recluse, and I was referred to see a psychiatrist. Six months of therapy helped me to speak about things that were locked deep inside me, troubles that had accumulated there and were pushing me towards breaking point.”
Gary also got involved once more with the Stockwell Park Community Centre, this time as a volunteer, feeling that once he had sorted himself out, he felt strongly the need to help others. For two years, he mentored youngsters at the Centre, helping to keep them engaged and out of crime. He also set up a local ‘Cadet Initiative’ which was well-attended and introduced into the often unruly lives of youngsters a sense of discipline and order, together with an understanding of the importance of teamwork and interdependence. The kids respected Gary for two reasons: for the fact that he had been in the Army and at war; and because he had once been seen as one of the leading and best-respected figures in the local gang. He was one of the few people to whom they were willing to listen, so he was in a position gently to influence their minds and to affect their behaviour, often more productively than their parents ever could. He also started to sort out apprenticeships for them and, if they did something wrong, he was the person who was strong enough to go to their parents and to discuss the matter when others would have been fearful of doing so.
Gary managed to get his first job in the film industry (it was a documentary) as a ‘runner’ and it is not hard to see how well cut out he is for the job. Intelligent, observant and highly organised, Gary could have had no better training for this demanding role within a film production team, than his years in the Army. He is now associated with a growing number of film projects and is gaining more confidence daily; excelling once more, his progress seems almost assured.
In one way or another, an outsider almost from childhood, Gary is asked to describe what he sees as the disadvantages of being on the outside: “Missing out on life in general, being an outsider often made me feel simply excluded, almost never a good feeling. Being constantly reminded that I am black is deeply irritating too; if you come from somewhere else, you often feel that you just don’t belong.”
And asked if there are any advantages, he says: “I feel I am free to make my own decisions. Looking at the world around me from a different perspective, from the outside, I often see the bigger picture and perhaps understand the human race a little bit better.”
Invited to consider if he would have been an insider if he could, Gary observes: “At this time now, at my age, I almost prefer to be on the outside. If I hadn’t experienced the treatment I got as an outsider, I wouldn’t be the person I am today; I wouldn’t have the knowledge about life that I now have. Having been in the Army and having experienced warfare at first hand, I am now totally opposed to war. I do not respect and I largely mistrust governments; I mistrust religions too and the dogmas they preach; I have seen at first hand what governments and what religions can do.”
Interview Date: 27th March 2014
Updated: 24th May 2014
Amongst the first black soldiers in the Household Cavalry, Gary Barnes has served in Bosnia and Iraq. Gary excelled and, despite being the long-suffering butt of racist taunts and banter, eventually came to feel that his regiment had become his new family; in the theatre of war, he found that the camaraderie, the reliance of one soldier upon another for their common survival were very real and deeply felt. This is the prime reason, he thinks, why many soldiers return to civilian life unable to reconnect with society. They cannot rediscover as civilians those very close, mutually supportive bonds with others - the collective spirit and common purpose of soldiers - that they have shared with their comrades; in consequence, they flounder.
Photography: London 27th March 2014