Scottish Daily Mail
I still wonder why I made it back when so many
Twenty years on, Stenhousemuir chairman Iain McMenemy harbours harrowing memories of his tour of duty in war-torn Basra
TWENTY years since the invasion of Iraq, Lance Corporal Iain McMenemy still harbours pangs of guilt. A Territorial Army reserve, his tour of duty in the killing fields of Basra lasted just three months.
For many of those sent to the Middle East on a mission to depose Saddam Hussein, a split second of gunfire was all it took to end their life.
And, as news bulletins marked the anniversary of the invasion this last week, the chairman of League Two Stenhousemuir asked himself once more a question he has been contemplating for the last two decades. Why was he one of the lucky ones?
‘Every Remembrance Day, I think of the experience,’ McMenemy tells Sportsmail. ‘And I suppose I still have a bit of a guilt thing going on. I ask if I was right to go. I wonder why I made it back while so many good men didn’t.’
On March 20, 2003, Britain joined the United States in launching a ground invasion designed to end the rule of Saddam and destroy alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the oil-rich country.
While many of those despatched there amid a backdrop of protest returned home safely with no physical ailments, the mental toll followed in the post.
For McMenemy, the dam burst hours after he was reunited with his wife and family.
‘I remember taking the dog for a walk the next morning,’ he says. ‘During the walk, I just burst into tears. I had no idea why. Maybe it was all so overwhelming. I have no idea. All I remember were the tears rolling down my face.
‘One minute, I was in the middle of a war zone. Next minute, I was suddenly home in Scotland, walking the dog a couple of days later, with nothing in between.’
Now a battle-hardened veteran of the football boardroom, he chuckles over his reputation for taking no prisoners.
An outspoken advocate of lower-league interests, the one thing missing from his dealings with the SPFL and SFA is a bayonet. When a man has endured the bombs and bullets of Basra, he loses no sleep over the bickering which inevitably surrounds television deals or league reconstruction.
Memories of a life-changing Saturday morning remain clear.
Wife Pearl was taking a driving lesson as bacon sizzled under the grill, MTV blasting out dance classics in the background. An army reserve, McMeneny harboured notions of leaving the Territorial Army and spending more spare time at home. The arrival of the morning post barely prompted a second’s thought.
‘Usually, big brown envelopes had “On Her Majesty’s Service” at the top. This one didn’t,’ he recalls.
‘I carried on making my breakfast and, as I was eating, I tipped the papers out and there it was at the top: ‘Notice of Compulsory Call-out, Lance Corporal McMenemy.’
‘My main worry was how I was going to tell my family. It didn’t even say if I was heading to Iraq or wherever. Either way, I had 13 days to get myself ready and prepared.
‘Pearl came in and starting fretting about her reverse parking not going so well during her driving lesson. And I’m thinking: “Wait till you hear what I’m about to tell you…”.
McMenemy made a will on the Monday morning and left for Kuwait on February 28, 2003.
Posted to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Tank Battle Group, part of the 7th Armoured Brigade of Desert Rats, he flew into Kuwait on March 10. He says: ‘That was when it started to feel absolutely real. The chartered plane landed and all the lights were switched off.
‘Not just dimmed in the cabin, like a holiday flight. All of them.
‘It taxied to the outskirts of an airport in Kuwait and there was a massive circle of soldiers, facing outwards, offering cover to our plane as we disembarked.’
On March 20, the order came to prepare for a border crossing into Iraq. While the American forces focused on the capital Baghdad, the British Army would concentrate on taking control of Basra, a city of 1.4milllion they had first occupied in 1914
‘Before we went, we were given one final phone call home, but warned that we couldn’t tell people the invasion was coming
the next day,’ recalls McMenemy. ‘I phoned my wife and parents and warned them I wouldn’t be able to phone for a bit. I wasn’t allowed to tell them why.
‘I asked my dad to make sure my wife was okay. I knew where I was, I knew I was safe. The folks back home never had that comfort.
‘The first time they knew we were okay was when a photographer from the Daily Record embedded with the regiment told us he was doing a picture special for Mother’s Day from the frontline.’
In a Tweet marking this week’s anniversary, the Stenhousemuir chief bemoaned the lack of adequate equipment that was allocated to the troops.
‘Lions led by donkeys’ is the quote which sums up the folly of the Great War and, as troops filed into enemy territory on a false premise, it felt equally apt in Iraq.
The Ministry of Defence blamed the lack of desert combat fatigues on a failure to keep enough in stock. In his Tweet, McMenemy posts an image of himself wearing his TA greens.
‘All the vehicles out there were painted desert combat camouflage colour,’ he remembers.
‘And here we are climbing out of vehicles in this green uniform with a target on our backs. The first combat kit I actually received came from my wife.
‘When we finally got letters out to the outside world, I said: “They haven’t even given us proper kit. If you can get something in a military surplus store, send it”.
‘She sent me a parcel which found me under a rock in Iraq, before the British Army managed to get proper kit to its own infantry.’
Despatched to Combat Zone A to provide gun cover for forces, the experience was harrowing and traumatic.
‘One of the guys I went out with had an incident where a rocketfired grenade went right across the front of his vehicle, missing the front of his face,’ says McMenemy.
‘He came to me that night in a hell of a state. He asked me to take a letter to his wife and make sure she got it if anything happened to him.’
The withdrawal came almost as quickly as the call-up papers. Given 24 hours notice of the order to return home, McMenemy, who now runs his own PR business, still wonders if the end ever justified the means.
In a damning verdict, the Chilcot
Report found that Saddam posed no urgent threat to British interests, that flawed intelligence on WMD was presented with unwarranted certainty, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been exhausted and that the UK and US had presented a legal basis for the war to the UN Security Council that was ‘far from satisfactory.’
‘I did a bit on The One Show on the BBC when Chilcot came out,’ says McMenemy. ‘I was there next to Reg Keys, whose son was one of the red caps killed. Did I think it (the invasion) was worth it? Part of me thought it was, because we went out there wanting to help people who felt oppressed by Saddam’s regime. We thought we could make a difference.
‘But, with every year that passes, I watch on TV and see so much chaos across the region. The day we went into Basra, I saw the chaos. They were ransacking every government building they possibly could. There were people emerging with fridges on their backs and so on.
‘We were told not to get involved. But there was nothing in place at all to deal with the aftermath of invasion. That’s what caused this continuous turmoil. And you ask yourself: was it really worth it? I’m definitely conflicted on whether it was or not.’
In the years after Iraq, his work took him to Romania to deliver lectures on democracy and to Bosnia to supervise the first free municipal elections in the massacre city of Srebrenica. Nothing made quite the same impact as fighting for his life in the heat of battle.
‘I suppose I came back and felt I had to live life to the full every day,’ he reflects now. ‘And I think that stuff does drive me to want to do the work I do at Stenhousemuir.
‘I feel there is so much stuff going on in the world that we can’t help with in any way. But we can help the people around us in our own communities, via the football clubs at their very heart. That’s a fight I think we can win.’