Even the toughest soldiers break Interview with Royal Irish Regiment veteran Trevor Coult MC
The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have been synonymous with civilian clad insurgencies and indiscriminate Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). These conflicts have resulted in high casualties for those involved. Soldiers deployed to these regions have seen friends, comrades and civilians killed and maimed. As well as the physical injuries incurred soldiers returning home have to learn to deal with the invisible scars and trauma of war; Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Trevor Coult served with the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment from 1994-2015. To help him deal with PTSD he wrote ‘First Into Sangin’ the story of his experiences during Operation Herrick IV, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2006.
Following his mother and father into the military, Trevor, from Northern Ireland, joined the Army on July 4th, 1994. After passing out of the Infantry Training Battalion Strensal, he was posted to the Royal Irish Regiment who was at the time based in Episkopi Garrison in Cyprus. He went on to be deployed to Northern Ireland, Canada, Oman, Brunei, Kenya, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Germany, Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘Thank you for letting me tell my story to your readers. Believe it or not it helps with recovery explaining what went on and how I am trying to deal with life after the military. I was 25035034 Sergeant Coult MC. I served with the Royal Irish Regiment for 19 years so I didn’t get the chance that most get to finish off my service as I would have liked. I completed 10 operational tours, 2 of which were in Iraq and 3 in Afghanistan. Along with my men we were involved in over 100 engagements with enemy forces and we lost some fantastic soldiers in the line of duty. Let me give you an account of two such engagements. These will give you an idea the types of trauma a soldier endures while on operation in a conflict zone’.
In November 2005, Trevor, then a Lance Corporal (L/Cpl) was on tour in Iraq. On November 6th, he had been up in Baghdad conducting a reconnaissance with his Officer Commanding, Major Morphew, when they came under attack on the notorious Route Irish.
‘We had escorted vehicles to Camp Victory and were on our return journey when a white Toyota began to reverse towards our convoy. We gave warning signs, using horns and then as a last resort we fired warning shots. This seemed to do no good and the vehicle sped up towards us. A few of the guys engaged the occupants and killed them. I was focussed on my arcs of fire from 12 O’clock through until 6 O’clock. I wanted to see what was going on but I was drawn to movement towards the un-cleared flats. 2 males carrying a machine gun began to engage the convoy from our flank. I took aim and fired a few bursts of 3-5 rounds. I was able to see one of them drop suddenly and the other disappeared, after what seemed to be an eternity. I asked our driver to move his wagon forward to cover the other guy’s extraction safely. The whole thing seemed to last for a long time, but in reality probably only 20 minutes’.
Trevor’s Citation gives a more profound account of his actions that day: ‘L/Cpl Coult has been employed as a Team Commander in the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment throughout his tour of Iraq. He was a member of the UK Protection Force based in Baghdad, providing security for and escorting the senior British Military Representative- Iraq and senior UK service personnel. At the time of his tour, Baghdad was a scene of very numerous and lethal insurgent attacks against coalition forces on a daily basis.
On the 6th November 2005 L/Cpl Coult was a member of an escort task travelling along route IRISH Baghdad International Airport to the Green Zone, assessed to be the most dangerous road in the world. L/Cpl Coult was top cover sentry in the rear vehicle, a role he was conducting for the first time. Approaching checkpoint 540 the lead snatch stopped due to a suspicious vehicle parked at the side of the road. With the other top cover sentries now engaged in trying to move the vehicle it quickly sped up and began to reverse towards the vehicles. With a clear and unambiguous threat towards life three warning shots were fired. Despite this activity L/Cpl Coult was not drawn in and continued to observe his arcs.
While all the attention was focused to the front, 3 gunmen opened up with extensive automatic fire aimed at the stationary vehicles, L/ Cpl Coult quickly realised the complex and dual nature of this lethal ambush. He scanned his arcs and quickly identified the gunmen. Amidst considerable incoming small arms fire, with tracer striking the ground to his front he calmly controlled the other top cover sentries and gave precise target information on his personal radio, returned fire and controlled the movement of his vehicle. L/Cpl Coult’s accurate and effective fire suppressed the gunmen and enabled the vehicles to extract from the killing zone. Thereby undoubtedly saving the lives of the other vehicle crew.
He then kept his vehicle in the killing zone while the other vehicles extracted and in which 1 vehicle had stalled. He ordered his vehicle to be driven along the stalled vehicle attracting considerable additional incoming fire. This selfless act saved the stalled vehicle from being immobilised and the crew from becoming casualties. Throughout this complex and well prepared insurgent ambush L/Cpl Coult returned proportional accurate and justified fire, remained totally focused and acted in a considered professional and courageous manner. L/Cpl Coult’s actions undoubtedly saved the lives of the logistic soldiers. On his first day of top cover in Baghdad, he showed outstanding judgement, bravery and restraint in returning fire against the enemy. His life saving actions, personal and tactical control, with total disregard for his own safety are the indictment of the highest qualities of a British JNCO in the face of the enemy and are richly deserving of official recognition’.
In 2006, Trevor, now a Corporal, deployed with his regiment to Afghanistan. He became involved in the heaviest fighting the British Army had experienced since the Korean War; Operation Herrick IV. In January 2006, the British government announced that, due to the worsening situation in the south of Afghanistan, a brigade sized formation numbering approximately 3,300, Task Force Helmand, would be deployed to Helmand Province.
Part of this brigade sized Task Force was 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. British forces originally tried to provide security to reconstruction, but instead became engaged in combat. Platoon houses were soon established in northern settlements, due to pressure from the provincial governor for an aggressive stance. However, these quickly became a focus for heavy fighting. One of these was in Sangin.
The district centre in Sangin, a run-down compound half a mile from the town centre, became the base for some 120 British troops who had been deployed to the area to help restore government authority. It also housed the local government offices, and an Afghan police force. The position was strengthened with fortifications consisting of foxholes dug round the perimeter and sandbags reinforcing the compound walls.
At first there was no contact with the Taliban, and the attitude of the inhabitants was passive, if not sympathetic to the presence of British troops, who were able to patrol the city safely. The situation changed abruptly on June 27th, after a failed raid by the Special Reconnaissance Regiment, during which two soldiers were killed. The attitude of the locals changed suddenly, and the base was attacked soon after with small arms. Taliban attacks increased to five or six a day, including fire from RPG-7 (Rocket Propelled Grenade).
With all roads cut, the district centre was effectively under siege, and wholly dependent on helicopter flights from Camp Bastion for resupply. At times Taliban fire prevented any flights getting in. Under fire Royal Engineers surrounded the whole compound and the helicopter landing pad with a double rampart of Hesco barriers. On July 1st, two signallers, Corporal Peter Thorpe and Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, and an Afghan interpreter, who were listening in to Taliban communications, were killed when a Chinese-made 107mm rocket hit the district centre. Each attack made by the Taliban was repulsed, as troops posted on the centre’s rooftop directed fire from artillery, mortars and airstrikes. The situation worsened when the Afghan policemen began defecting to the Taliban, giving them inside information about the layout of the base.
As part of Operation Mountain Thrust, on July 16th, with support from 700 Coalition forces, 200 British paratroopers were airlifted to take the town and lift the siege. Part of this operation was a handpicked platoon from the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. These men were at the top of their game. Trevor was among them.
‘We had carried out rehearsals until we were blue in the mouth. We each knew our job and position in the Chinook, what direction we would attack and what compounds and possible enemy stood in between our start line and our final objective. This could change in a heartbeat. All it took was contact with the enemy and a casualty to be thrown into the mix. Our Casualty extraction drills had been tested in the past but nothing compares reality as every situation is different. The choppers flew in low, weaving in and out, the door gunners on the 4 chinooks were now firing into enemy positions and the guys had begun to stand up, you could hear a pin drop as the guys went silent.
Everyone was running through their drills in their own head waiting for the ramp to go down. Then we had the 1 minute warning and we landed in the middle of a laser quest scenario. Red and green flashes of bullets whizzing everywhere. It was a buzz. My adrenalin had taken me to a place where I had changed into an aggressive soldier and the guys had all changed too. We had completed our objectives and been forced to go firm, the Taliban had been far too superior, and we settled for the report lines!’
In a cordon and search operation, the town was eventually sealed off and Taliban compounds were searched and cleared. Ten Taliban were confirmed killed during this operation, and the others were driven out. During the siege and relief operations eleven soldiers were killed in Sangin District over the subsequent period.
Trevor returned again to Helmand Province in 2008 taking part in Operation Herrick VIII. Returning to England, Trevor was awarded the Military Cross (MC) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on December 6th, 2006, for actions he carried out in Baghdad. He was also presented with the Presidential Seal by the President of the United States of America George W. Bush on March 17th, (St. Patrick’s Day) 2008, while at the White House.
‘I loved being awarded the Military Cross; I was the only one in my unit at the time with such an award bestowed upon them. It came, however, with heavy shoulders. Once word had gotten out that I was to be awarded the Military Cross, half my unit were delighted and the other half began to get the knives out. I started to be the centre of attention of the anti-tank platoon. The guys who never go to the front thought one of their guys deserved the medal; after all he had fired the most rounds that day. Though he couldn’t justify where each round had gone. At one stage I didn’t want to wear the medal anymore as so many people made me feel worthless. This all added to my decision to leave the unit I had loved’.
Coming to the end of his career Trevor had suffered psychologically. Throughout his years of soldiering he had been involved in numerous explosions, a friend died beside him from shrapnel embedding itself in his head, he had sat close to another IED which exploded and for some reason none of the shrapnel went his direction, he had an RPG explode beside him, and to top it all off he was called forward to a coroner hearing where the mother of his second in command that had been killed in action was now accusing Trevor of letting her son die. It is not surprising that all this had a traumatic effect on Trevor.
‘War affected all the guys I’d served with. In the end, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, much of this was because of the high-pressure environments I had served in. Many people think PTSD is because of battle. To be honest I enjoyed battle. What sent me over the edge was the soldiers who had never been in such an environment yet knew all the answers. Mainly Captains and Majors who get control of departments through promotion and treat others with disrespect expecting them to jump and do things their way. Even if it is the wrong way. Mine was an EXRoyal Military Policeman who had never fired a weapon but expected his rules to be adhered to, with no qualifications and experience. He sent me over the edge!’
Trevor fell deeper and deeper into the dark.
‘I had nothing to look forward to. I drove my car into a wall. I had nowhere to turn to. Then Veterans in Action got in touch and asked me to be a Patron. It gave me a way forward. A team of men and women who understand my thought process and mental injury where available to help me through it all. I owe a lot to Veterans in Action for bringing me into their family’.
A form of therapy Trevor adapted was writing.
‘I spent many nights not sleeping and having nightmares about friends that had been killed and wounded. I needed to write it all down as a way of dealing with these issues. After 19 years and 216 days I was medically discharged as a result of injuries, both physical and mental. I didn’t qualify for a war pension as my injuries happened after 2005, and I also didn’t qualify for a full pension as I was retired 2 years short of my 22-year mark. I wrote ‘First Into Sangin’ to get closure from a lot of trauma that was etched in my head. And in writing this article it has helped me deal and come to terms with the aftermath of battle. Even the toughest of us break. To all veterans out there who are feeling stressed or angry, there is help’.
First Into Sangin has been described by Bear Grylls as: ‘Courageous and Committed, this book tells it just like it was a journey into hell but fighting alongside the best’. At the end of his career Trevor had risen to the rank of Colour Sergeant. Trevor was discharged from the British Army in February 2015. He is currently working on a new book called ‘X-ploitation’ which uncovers the truth behind captured insurgents and Special Forces Objectives, this book is due for release early 2016.
Members of Veterans In Action receiving a donation and The Baton. The Baton is an organisation that raises awareness for veterans with PTSD. During the summer Veterans in Action walked around Britain to highlight veterans with PTSD.
Veterans in Action are a UK based charity that helps veterans who have suffered the effects of war or who have found the transition to civilian life difficult. You can learn more about this charity at: www.v-i-a.co.uk.