Point man in Afghanistan: a soldier’s view

An edited extract from Point Man by Mark Townsend: It was dusk and shadows were spilling across the courtyard of the British forward operating base in Sangin when I first met Kenny Meighan. He shuffled over meekly, olive eyes blinking in the fading light. He looked like a child soldier, yet his stories were those of an old warhorse. At first Kenny was reticent but gradually he warmed up, speaking matter-of-factly about the time he should have been a goner.

“I was pinned down on the domed roof of a compound getting smashed by the enemy. They had a bead on us. I couldn’t move a muscle. I was trapped there for ages just waiting to be hit, RPGs, small-arms fire coming right up at me.” He made an exploding noise with the back of his throat and gestured with his hands to replicate rubble tumbling upon his body.

Even among the young soldiers, there was something particularly boyish about Kenny. Open-faced and glossy-eyed with a button nose, at times he had the look of a choirboy. Other things set him apart. He had the widest smile of all the troops. And he talked the quickest. Conversations would start and pick up in excitement until thoughts toppled out while his tongue tried to keep up.

He was a small, almost fragile figure compared to some of the other soldiers. It was hard to believe the weight he could carry unless you saw it for yourself.

After a supper of boil-in-the-bag beans I had wandered around the base asking guys who they thought had a few stories to tell. A few names were touted, but one in particular kept cropping up. “Kenny,” they said. “Talk to young Kenny.” Kenny was point man, they said.
Point man Kenny on tour in Afghanistan.

Taking point means you are the lead soldier of a patrol, the figure who guides the unit through enemy terrain. The point man walks ahead, scanning for danger. It is the most exposed position in a warzone. Taking point guarantees you will be first to wander into an ambush, first to tread upon a hidden bomb, first to be framed in the sights of an opposing sniper. Those who take point accept a vastly reduced chance of surviving. Men can “take point”, “walk point”, “do point”, “be point”, but it all amounts to the same thing: high risk.

Out here, Kenny had felt his senses sharpen until his instincts were tripwire taut, honed to notice the tiniest inconsistency. He could hear the crunch of loose rock across the valley, decipher scratches in tree bark and determine the anxiety of a stranger from the depth of their footprint. Kenny compared himself to a great white shark, a creature capable of sniffing blood in water up to 5km away. Sometimes, Kenny said, it was as if the land talked to him. “It’s weird. Your senses become so highly tuned that you get all these subconscious instincts that start to read what’s going on around you.”

Kenny had convinced himself he had secured the most coveted position on the team. Before leaving, he had promised his father he would be the best infantryman he could possibly be, a man future Meighans would be proud to call their own.

Kenny’s father couldn’t have been prouder of his son, but inwardly John Meighan was deeply anxious. He had begged his son not to join the army. The price was too high.

“You’ll see things you wished you never saw. Carry them around too long and you’ll end up praying for a lobotomy,” the 43-year-old told his son in his dense Glaswegian brogue. John had seen the world, known bravery and sacrifice, inspired unflinching loyalty among men. But he could not escape the drumbeat of his past. The things he had seen were destroying him.
Point man John with Kenny on his knee.

For the past 12 years, Kenny’s father would lie in bed and wait for the memories – the torso of his friend Big Jim Houston twitching on a South Armagh road after being gunned down by the Provisional IRA. Houston had a chin like Bruce Forsyth [a long-chinned British TV personality] and hours before his death John had stroked it teasingly, just like he always did. Now in the night, Big Jim’s long face lay staring back, pale and wide-eyed on the Irish tarmac.

For 14 years and 47 days, Corporal John Meighan served his country with distinction. But he had seen what most could never imagine. He left the military because he couldn’t risk seeing another corpse. The images of big-chinned Jim and mutilated Iraqis grew more real over time; they began visiting him in the morning, when he woke, in the afternoon and on the way to bed, gradually eclipsing everyday reality. John tried to obtain psychiatric help – counselling, medication, anything – to shoo away the dead, but no one wanted to know.

In broad daylight, out shopping, he became lost in his visions. The waft of drains transported him outside a sewage works in the pissing rain. The smell of meat from a butcher’s would make him freeze, incapacitated by the stench of death. During this period he stopped eating bacon because it smelt like burning flesh. The simplest things felt beyond him. His taut nerves failed him during the most mundane tasks. John overcompensated, planning trips to collect the morning milk with military precision.

Even then mysterious figures would appear from behind, forcing him to cross the road until the mother and child or the dog walker passed. Navigating the city grew increasingly terrifying.

On 21 August 1996 he reached breaking point. That night was worse than any other. Big Jim, his brain like a grey cauliflower hanging from the side of his head, asked why? Why did you send me to the checkpoint that day?

He went downstairs and hit the vodka. He apologised to Jim, to his sons, to his wife. Beside the bathroom cabinet he calculated how many paracetamol tablets he might need. Thirty was medically sufficient to kill. He took 60. His wife Beverley found him two hours later, weeping in a foetal position on the lounge floor. She drove him to Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The following day John was referred to a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder. John suspected he was the first British soldier to have caught such a thing. He’d never heard of it. [Continue reading…]

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