Military Cross in Iraq then years later smeared as war criminal

Betrayed by the country he fought for: How hero soldier won the Military Cross for unimaginable bravery in Iraq then years later was smeared as a war criminal by leeching lawyers

The holding room where I’m waiting is clean and quiet, but the air conditioning is making me cold — a far cry from the blistering heat of the Iraqi desert.

I have been summoned here to recall, and defend my actions in, the battle there nine years ago.

I’m shivering a little and nervous as hell. I’d be more comfortable out on the battlefield with people firing at me.

That’s the sort of enemy I know how to handle. With this one, I don’t know where to begin.

‘As the Queen pinned the medal on my chest, she said it was rare for her to hand out such awards. She told me to wear it with pride, and I promised I would’

Through the door I can hear the hum of the main inquiry room as lawyers and clerks talk, take their seats and fire up their computers.

There are people in there who want to bring me down. Lawyers with small glasses and big reputations, who have levelled all sorts of accusations against me and my fellow soldiers. Mistreatment. Mutilation. Murder.

They are lying in wait, ready to ambush me, just like the militia I faced in the Iraqi desert.

They’ve compared our behaviour to the Japanese in World War II and the Americans at My Lai [when troops killed unarmed Vietnamese civilians]. One described the events that day back in 2004 as ‘one of the most atrocious episodes in British Army history’.

My lawyer is out there, too, the one assigned to represent me. We’ve been through the statements I’ve already given and discussed what I might be challenged on. Keep your answers short, he advises.

They’ll want you to talk, wait for you to trip up over your own words. They’re going to try and goad you, make you angry, force you into saying something you don’t want to say. It’s combat but on their terms, not mine.

Also in the inquiry room is the lawyer from the Ministry of Defence. She’s just popped in to introduce herself and say hello. That’s the first time anyone from the MoD has spoken to me about this whole inquiry — five minutes before I’m due to give evidence.

Brian Wood on patrol with 4 Platoon B Company in Helmand in 2012: ‘I’d be more comfortable out on the battlefield with people firing at me. That’s the sort of enemy I know how to handle’

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I’m surprised and shocked by that. I thought after everything I’d been through that I’d get a bit more support than that. But no, they’ve kept their distance, left me to fend for myself.

And now the moment has come to face my accusers. I’m escorted into the inquiry room, acutely aware of how everyone is watching me as I approach the dock from where I am to give my evidence. My heart is in my mouth, each slow step feeling like I’m walking through treacle. My reputation, my livelihood, everything I hold dear, are on the line. I could even end up in prison.

As a British soldier, I’d acted with honour, been through hell, done everything my country asked of me — and been betrayed. How did it ever come to this?

When I was a boy I had high hopes of becoming a professional footballer and had trials with Chelsea and Reading. It didn’t work out — I was too skinny apparently — so I joined the Army instead, following in the footsteps of my father and brother. It seemed the obvious thing to do.

I had two tours of duty on the front line in Kosovo during the Balkans war before, aged 23 and a newly promoted Lance-Corporal, I was posted to Iraq with my regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, in 2004.

This was Iraq post-Saddam and the tour was billed as a peacekeeping one — hearts-and-minds stuff with the locals as the country reconstructed itself after the war. That turned out to be b*****ks.

From the start we were targets for the so-called Mahdi militia army of insurgents, who didn’t want to fight it out face-to-face but to mortar us in our beds at the camp, bomb the cookhouse when we were trying to eat and send children in with bombs to do their deadly dirty work.

Brian Wood returning home to his family after touring Afghanistan

Amid the growing unrest, the decision was made to take the fight to the enemy in a series of operations to arrest bomb-makers and key Mahdi commanders. We plunged into full-on war-fighting in which I saw colleagues being speared with shrapnel, petrol-bombed and pulled out screaming from burning vehicles. I almost lost my sight after one attack.

And then came Danny Boy.

May 14, 2004, started like so many other days, with a rocket attack on our camp at Abu Naji.

We were ordered out in our Warrior armoured fighting vehicle to see if we could catch the enemy mortar team. While we were doing this, word came through that a platoon of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had been ambushed close to a vehicle checkpoint known as Danny Boy on Route 6.

The next minute, we were heading there, me sitting in the back, along with the two other ‘dismounts’, poised and ready to leap out and into action when we stopped.

From up on top, Sergeant Broome (known as Stick), the vehicle commander, was giving us constant updates on what he could see.

Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, we were hit by an overwhelming hail of firepower.

Brian Wood collecting his MC at Buckingham Palace with his wife Lucy and parents

We skidded to a halt. Our gunner, JC, returned fire from the turret but in the back, all we could do was sit there, listening to the rounds spraying up against the vehicle and waiting for Stick to evaluate the situation and give his orders.

There were 10 to 15 militia out there, Stick told us, dug into some sort of stronghold in the desert. ‘They’re in zigzag-type trench positions, just popping up, engaging, getting down again.

We’re not having any effect from here. We need boots on the ground. I want you to dismount.’

‘What the f***!’ I thought, as the firing continued. Go out into that! I could feel my heart going ten to the dozen, smashing up against my body armour.

But I told the boys: ‘We’re going to get out of this vehicle and launch a close-quarter counter-attack on to the stronghold, OK? Stand by and get ready to go.’

They looked at me as though I was mad.

Fear threatened to rip through my veins, but I knew I had to control it. Fear is contagious and the other lads were looking to me. ‘Lads,’ I snapped. ‘This is happening.’

I took a deep breath. ‘Stick,’ I said, over the intercom. ‘We’re ready to go.’ ‘OK,’ he said.

‘There’s a gully to the left. If you go for that, I’ll give you covering fire. Stand by. Five, four . . .’

On the count of three, all hell opened up as our gunner blasted the enemy with covering fire. The door opened, I squinted in the brightness of the daylight and the five of us sprinted as fast as we could for the gully.

From there I could see the enemy stronghold 120 metres away, with lots of heads bobbing up and down as they returned fire.

My radio wasn’t working so I couldn’t wait for further orders from Stick. I decided we’d go hard, fast and aggressive for the enemy position.

On my command, the five of us scrambled up and zigzagged forward, leap-frogging our positions, stopping to go down on one knee and return fire before setting off again.

What we were doing was crazy, running across open ground towards a trench full of militia. It was World War I, going-over-the-top type stuff. Exactly as the British Army had fought down the centuries: a combination of courage and hope. The fact that none of us was killed is astonishing.

Brian Wood winning the County Cup final as a schoolboy footballer

Step by step, we got closer to the enemy trench until we could see their surprised faces. They clearly hadn’t expected us to take the fight to them.

Some began to withdraw, making a run for it. Those who remained threw down their weapons and put their hands in the air.

It was a confused situation as we stormed into the trench. There were bodies, prisoners, weapons, a lot of shouting, a lot of gunfire overhead, a lot of tension and uncertainty. My body was still pumping adrenaline from the firefight, but we went immediately into ceasefire-and-arrest mode, as we were trained to do.

I ordered those who’d surrendered to get down on the ground. I noticed one in particular was very jumpy, his hands moving as if he was about to try something on.

Since there was fire still coming at us from militia who’d fled but were continuing the fight from a new position, I grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him down, for his own protection as well as to stop him being a threat.

I got panicked that one of the prisoners might grab a rifle and turn it on us and so I had all the weapons collected into a pile out of the way. Then we hand-cuffed the prisoners with plasticuffs and put blindfolds over their eyes.

By now, more British troops had arrived on the scene — two further Warriors and a couple of Challenger battle tanks.

Among the new arrivals was the vastly experienced Sergeant Major Dave Falconer. ‘Is the battlefield clear?’ he asked me, and I had no choice but to tell him it wasn’t because I’d seen some of the militiamen fleeing the trench. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘We need to do a clearance patrol. Fresh magazine on. You are going to take me to where they went.’

So the two of us set off across the open desert in search of the enemy.

‘Target left!’ A militia fighter appeared as if out of nowhere from another ditch, his weapon raised. As soon as he saw him, Falconer put a number of rounds into his chest. ‘Target down!’ Falconer shouted. ‘Move!’

As I moved, another fighter stood up, no more than ten metres away. I dropped to a kneeling position and fired. When I hit him, I could hear him coughing and struggling to breathe his last gasp of air as he crumpled to the ground. I can still hear that noise now.

We started to head back towards the main trench when I saw something flicker in my peripheral vision. I spun round and saw two more militia men, standing up with their arms in the air.

I recognised one of them. He was an Iraqi policeman we’d recently taken into our camp at Abu Naji for mentoring. We’d trained him up — and he’d switched sides. I felt betrayed, but that was the nature of the war we were fighting. You never knew for sure who was an enemy and who was not. We didn’t have any plasticuffs with us, so we had to put one arm behind their back and walk them across to the main trench position. One was wearing flip-flop sandals, which kept coming off so we frogmarched him back barefoot.

I was exhausted. Mentally, physically drained. But even now my ordeal was not over. In fact, it was about to get even worse. ‘Woody,’ Falconer said, ‘we need to go back out there and collect the bodies.’

This was an unusual request after a battle, but a call had come from brigade headquarters that one of the insurgents we’d killed might possibly be Bravo One — the codename given to the main militia leader. If he was dead, that would be a big deal. It had to be done.

It was a horrific task combing through seriously messed-up bodies from the gun battle, covered in blood, wounds exposed. Some were so disfigured and opened up that you had to be careful just to keep the parts intact. Horrible, horrible details that lodged firmly in my head space. To take another person’s life — as we had done — is a lot for the mind to process. But to pick up that body afterwards and load it into a vehicle: I wouldn’t wish that upon my worst enemy.

Brian Wood’s grandfather, Robert Patrick Wood of the Highland Light Infantry, India 1930-7 

Out of everything that happened that afternoon, this was the part I struggled with the most in the months and years ahead. The memory would come back to me repeatedly. It was what I’d dream about, and what would wake me up in the night with a rush.

Afterwards, I didn’t talk about Danny Boy with the other guys, but a couple of days later, the military police arrived to take statements from everyone. It was quite cack-handedly done. I gave my account with one eye on the clock because I was on call for duty in five minutes’ time.

It wasn’t very thorough, which at the time was fine by me. It just felt like a bit of admin to get done.

Looking back, it would have been much better for everyone concerned if the RMPs had been more rigorous in their approach. That might have saved everyone a lot of grief and hassle. But no one was thinking in that way at the time. It was more a case of job done, get on with the next.

And that was precisely what we did. I finished my tour in Iraq and went home.

Months later I was on a training course in Wales when two men from SIB, the military’s Special Investigations Branch, came looking for me.

‘We need to talk you about the Battle of Danny Boy,’ they said and pulled out the statement I’d made. ‘There are just a few discrepancies we need to clear up.’

For example, at one point I’d written that there were four prisoners in the Warrior and at another that there were three. I said it must have been a mistake when I was tired, or I’d misremembered, but there was nothing more to it than that. They then showed me photographs of the prisoners we’d taken and asked if I recognised any of them. I picked out the one who’d been an Iraqi policemen.

I also had to look through pictures of the Iraqis who were killed. The photos were grim and it was upsetting. I’d been trying to get over the trauma of Danny Boy, and now I was being sucked back into it. But I did as asked, looked at each photo and said I didn’t recognise any of them.

Wood handing water to his friend and double amputee Jay Baldwin during our epic 3,000 mile bike ride across America

The questioning went on for about an hour and wasn’t aggressive. There were no direct accusations at that time, but a long fuse had been lit that was to slow burn under my life until it exploded into the full glare of a public inquiry.

And yet at the same time, my deeds in Iraq were recognised by the Army when, to my surprise, I was awarded the huge distinction of a Military Cross.

The citation said that during the Battle of Danny Boy, my ‘level-headed leadership and swift, courageous action were an inspiration to his men and an example of text book infantry tactics employed in the face of numerically superior and heavily armed enemy.’ I had apparently demonstrated ‘the highest virtues of a young Junior NCO’ and was ‘worthy of the highest public recognition’.

The investiture was at Buckingham Palace — the same one at which Johnson Beharry got his VC — and as the Queen pinned the medal on my chest, she said it was rare for her to hand out such awards. She told me to wear it with pride, and I promised I would.

The first time I heard about the Al-Sweady Inquiry was in December 2009. I’d just completed a Commando training course and been presented with the much-prized green beret, but my mind kept going back to a phone call I’d had from my wife Lucy.

In the five years since the Battle of Danny Boy, a human rights lawyer named Phil Shiner had been clamouring for some sort of inquiry. He had been involved in the case of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi who had died in British custody in 2003.

A number of soldiers were charged with assault and the inhumane treatment of detainees. One pleaded guilty and was jailed for one year. The MoD paid out just under £3 million in compensation for ‘substantive breaches’ of the European Convention on Human Rights.

That judgment changed attitudes. The perception grew in the media that mistreatment by the British Army was a regular occurrence, and, on the back of all of this, the accusations about Danny Boy resurfaced.

A group of six Iraqis — five involved in the battle and the uncle of Hamid al-Sweady, one of those killed — claimed they had been ill-treated by British troops.

Rather than being fighters, they said they were innocent civilians and farmworkers caught up in the crossfire, while insurgents who had been captured alive had then been ‘murdered’ back at the base.

The MoD dismissed the allegations, saying there was ‘no credible evidence’, but Shiner disputed this. In February 2008, he published a dossier about Danny Boy, accusing British troops of torture and the mutilation of bodies and suggesting that up to 20 Iraqi captives may have been executed.

In November 2009, a public inquiry was announced, and Lucy was calling to tell me there was a letter from solicitors about it waiting at home for me. My immediate reaction was shock. I’d had no inkling this was going to happen.

It turned out I’d even been assigned a solicitor by the MoD to represent me. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, but it terrified me.

The solicitors said the evidence of the Iraqis wasn’t very credible, which was a relief. But over the next 18 months they had endless questions. Did I hear gunshots in camp when the prisoners were taken back? Did I see someone’s eyeball being pulled out?

Brian Wood as a schoolboy

I was being asked, years later, to try to remember events in minute detail — cross-checking my memory with accusations made by Iraqis. Every question was like the flicking of a switch, making me see the horrors of Danny Boy again.

My statement was finally presented to the inquiry in February 2013, and only then was it confirmed that I was going to be called to give evidence.

To my mind, the decision to call an inquiry was all wrong. The authorities should have done the factual research first — they could easily have called in the International Red Cross to do it for them.

Instead, they put my name, my regiment’s name and the British Army’s name right up in the public eye when it did not need to be. The media coverage hung us out to dry and the Government let them do that. The emotional impact was huge. I’d gone from being rewarded for my actions by the Queen to having the Government undermine me.

Of course there has to be an understanding of human rights in how troops behave. But there has to be a duty of care, too, to the soldiers involved. There was none of that for us or for our families. I was worried, too, for our safety. Once your name is out in public, then there is the potential for you to be made a target. I triple-locked the doors at night and checked the outside of the house for anything unusual.

And waited as patiently as I could to have my say — and see off my accusers.

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