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The worst scars are the ones that you can’t see
5:10pm Wednesday 12th September 2012 in News
Last month we reported how former soldier John McClay and two friends marched 15 miles to raise funds for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help, a charity for service and ex-service personnel. Mr McClay was inspired to help after the charity supported his struggle to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, which he developed after serving in the Balkans. Here he speaks to JAMES CONNELL about the horrors of a war that will haunt him forever. Some people may find parts of this interview distressing
FORMER soldier John McClay has witnessed countless horrors but the beautiful face of the murdered child in the red coat burned its way into his brain like a brand.
No amount of drink or pills could wash her out and for years she remained, emblazoned there, beyond his help, buried under the bodies of her slaughtered family in the smouldering ruins of a burned-out house in a village on the edge of Kosovo’s capital city, Pristina. Wherever he turned, even years later and back on British soil, there she was with her dark hair, her red coat and her open throat.
Mr McClay, aged 43, of Larkspur Drive, Evesham, who served with the Irish Guards, found the memory gained an ominous power following the birth of his daughter, now 10 years old.
He said of the murdered girl, an ethnic Albanian: “She was only six or seven years old.
Her family had been killed and her throat had been cut. She had long black hair and a little red coat on. After I had come back home my ex-wife bought my daughter a red coat. I wouldn’t allow her to wear that red coat.”
Mr McClay, the son of a paratrooper, joined the Irish Guards in his 20s. He was stationed in Northern Ireland in 1997, keeping the peace between Catholics and Protestants during the notorious marching season.
He and his friends held the line with shields and batons while they were pelted with petrol bombs, bottles and bricks. They lived on a knife edge, fearing snipers or car bombs, marked out by the uniform and the accent as an outsider – and a target.
But his journey into the heart of darkness was only just beginning. He was called out with the Guards to Kosovo in early 1999, joining the King’s Royal Hussars in Macedonia where he heard the bombing raids which were supposed to clear the way for the infantry’s advance.
The Battle Group’s advance into Kosovo began in June 1999, after the Serbs had signed an agreement to withdraw, and guardsman McClay witnessed the full horror of genocide.
He said: “We went into the chamber of horrors, the Serbian police station in Pristina. They had photograph albums of dead kids, photographs of women being raped. People were holding up heads, children’s heads, like they were holding up a fish.”
They advanced in the shadow of Arkan’s Tigers, the murder squads led by Zeljko Raznatoviæ, to find houses looted and burned. Inside were families of ethnic Albanians murdered by Serbs and sometimes Serbs murdered by Albanian guerrillas.
He said: “The Serbs were retreating and burning houses as they went. They were stealing cars and they were raping women and they were doing it in front of us.
“To begin with our orders were not to do anything. If we had opened fire on the Serbs we would have been done for war crimes.
“We were fishing bodies out of the river at Pristina. Serbs had killed them and just dumped them. It was no job for the infantry. There were bodies all over the place, in every house.
“Some guys were already starting to get nightmares.
You couldn’t get rid of the smell of death.
“This was humanity at its worst – ethnic cleansing. It is beyond comprehension that people can do this to other human beings. As a soldier you expect to take a life or to pay the ultimate sacrifice yourself. That’s soldiering. If you’re not prepared to do that, you shouldn’t have joined up.
But we had to pick up after the aftermath of it all. That’s not what soldiers do.”
He served nine years with the Irish Guards and six years with the Royal Military Police.
In total he has completed 10 tours of duty.
He hurt his back when a military vehicle was damaged by a mine in Bosnia in 2003 but the psychological scars run deepest. “You could have physical scars but no-one can see your mental scars. The first thing many soldiers want to do when they get home is get wasted. You want to try and forget. I have done it myself. ”
Mr McClay was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder by his GP in November last year. He was referred to Dr David Muss, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder unit at BMI the Edgbaston Hospital, after support was provided by the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help. There he learned the ‘rewind technique’ to place some of the horrors in his long-term memory where they are less able to torment him.
He packed away his war medals and his photographs.
PTSD robbed him of his ability to sleep and his appetite. He lost weight. His marriage broke down. He suffered mood swings, mental breakdowns, sweats, nightmares and contemplated suicide, a path some of his friends had already chosen.
Guardsman McClay knows at least 15 soldiers who are dead, either killed in action or from taking their own lives.
He said: “Since I have had my treatment I feel that I need to put my ghosts to bed and a lot of my ghosts have gone.
“They are still in my memory but they’re not tormenting me anymore. I can see a child with a red coat and it doesn’t affect me. I don’t have the guilt.”
FUND-RAISERS HELP CHARITY TO HELP OTHERS
THE Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) Forces Help is the UK’s oldest Armed Forces charity, providing help and assistance to anyone who is currently serving or has ever served.
Each year they support more than 50,000 people.
John McClay, Eddie Fray and Adrian Nash completed a 15-mile march carrying a 14kg pack from the SSAFA office in Worcester to Evesham on August 11, raising more than £1,000.
To make a donation, send a cheque to John McClay, SSAFA Forces Help, The TA Centre, New Dancox House, Pheasant Street, Worcester, WR1 2EE.