Michael Clohessy returned from Iraq with a distinguished war record — and ended up in prison. Our jails are swollen with former soldiers. Why can’t they stay out of trouble?
When the sniper opened fire, Michael Clohessy reacted first and fastest. It was the summer of 2004, and the 26-year-old private from Walton in Liverpool was serving with the 1st Battalion the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment in Basra. In the clipped assessment of one officer, he was “a cracking soldier, super-fit, bags of potential, and very mature”.
Indeed, during the battalion’s deployment at Basra’s Old State Building, when the British Army were engaged regularly by insurgents, Clohessy had more than proved his worth.
So, when a sniper started taking pot shots at a joint British Army and Iraqi police patrol on a patch of wasteland, Clohessy knew what to do. He shouldered an injured Iraqi policeman and took him to safety behind a nearby wall, before pushing two of his colleagues, who had momentarily frozen as bullets thudded around them, out of harm’s way. He then moved into the open ground and returned fire on the enemy with his machine gun. “I don’t know whether I hit him or not, but I pretty much took down the building with him in it,” he remembers. Either way, the sniper was silenced.
Nine months later, Clohessy stood before a judge at Liverpool crown court, on trial for grievous bodily harm with intent and affray. He had just begun his second tour of Iraq when he was pulled home to appear in the dock. The court heard that Clohessy had committed a violent assault outside the Barlow Arms pub in Walton, in Liverpool, on December 31, 2003, at a New Year’s Eve party that had gone haywire. His victim, William Littlemore, suffered a fractured skull and permanently impaired vision as a result of the attack.
During the proceedings, the court also heard about Clohessy’s valour. He was, said his barrister, a hero who had “saved the lives of two young soldiers and also an Iraqi policeman” in a display of great courage. Nevertheless, the soldier was found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison. The judge took one year off his term on account of his service. He spent three years “rotting in a bastard cell” before being released in 2008.
Clohessy has since returned to the streets of Walton where he grew up. When we meet, he is unemployed, psychiatrically unstable and bitter. Physically, he does not betray symptoms of breakdown — he is fit and tanned, with close-cropped hair, large ears and a flashy smile. But he drinks heavily. During our interview, he downs vodka with a friend before noon. His mother, who now sees him rarely, thinks he is also using cocaine.
When Clohessy speaks, he does so in rapid-fire bursts, before losing concentration. The tour of Basra with the Cheshire regiment was, he says, the only time in his life when he felt a true sense of purpose. But when he closes his eyes he can still picture dead Iraqis. He can still smell the cordite from expended rounds. He remembers being particularly shaken when he was assigned to collect the body of Gordon Gentle, a 19-year-old Royal Highland Fusilier, whose Snatch Land Rover was hit by a roadside bomb in Basra. An official inquest would later say that Gentle’s death was avoidable — the army had failed to install an electronic countermeasure against IEDs called element B onto his vehicle, which might have saved his life — and his mother, Rose Gentle, is now one of Britain’s most vocal anti-war activists. Clohessy remembers kicking her son’s boot as he lay in the hospital, and battling with the reality of what he was witnessing. “Jock was alive this morning,” he says. “Now he’s dead. I thought, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’”
Clohessy tells me he is prone to fits of guilt and depression that started in prison, when he was locked up with nothing to do but “go over and over in my head about the war”, and which continue to this day. Four years ago, after a series of violent incidents and flashbacks, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by a doctor who visited him in prison. Sometimes his rage becomes so intense that he shuts himself in his house and refuses to see anyone for days. Meanwhile, he struggles to maintain relationships, including his relationship with the mother of his six-year-old son. This is unsurprising: Clohessy sleeps with a sword under his pillow.
We send too many ex-servicemen to prison. How many, nobody is sure. A recent study by the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) estimated that there may be as many as 8,500 ex-servicemen in prison out of a total prison population of 92,000. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the organisation, believes that around 8% of Britons in jail are from the forces. The vast majority of these offenders are from the army, and a large majority of the ex-army are from the infantry. But other groups have taken issue with Napo’s findings. The Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Defence conducted their own survey, which they published in January, concluding that only 3% of the prison population were former members of the military — around 2,500 veterans in total.
Who to believe? Fletcher brought attention to the issue after hearing anecdotal evidence about the problem. He conducted his own inquiries via email with probation officers. On the basis of his calculations (supported by the fact that America’s ex-service prison population is around 9%), Fletcher believes the government has underplayed the numbers.
Certainly, the issue was striking enough for the Howard League for Penal Reform to begin an inquiry. “We began on the basis of the Napo figure, which has now been cast into doubt,” says Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League. “But
I suspect the truth is that the figure is somewhere between 3% and 8%. And that still makes servicemen by far the largest occupational group in prison. That is well worth investigating.”
What the Howard League have found, so far, is arresting. There is a widespread belief that post-traumatic stress disorder, occasioned by Britain’s engagement in two brutal wars, is behind the large numbers of veterans who offend. The truth is muddier. PTSD normally takes several years after the traumatic event to set in.
Simon Wesseley, a professor of psychological medicine and principal investigator at the King’s Centre for Military Health Research, found that in 2006, only 2% of armed-service personnel suffered from PTSD (Combat Stress thinks the figure is 4-6%). Alcohol abuse was the main problem among soldiers, followed by depression.
Tim Riley, of the Braveheart Programme — a charity that analyses post-service stress as well as helping ex-servicemen to adjust to civilian life — believes that the “statistics surrounding PTSD are very misleading”. But he will admit that many different types of stress are lumped together when talking about soldiers leaving the army, including such mundane things as buying one’s first house, and that “we need to get some real facts right and look at the thing holistically”.
“The truth is, and always has been with the armed forces, that we recruit from poverty,” says Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid. “It is a fact that many of these guys return to poverty when they leave. Guys join often with horrific backgrounds. The armed forces do amazing things, because they take someone from that background and they make something of them. But the problems often start when they go back to their old context.”
Consider Michael Clohessy’s context. Walton is one of the most deprived areas in the most deprived city in England. Walk the terraced streets where the soldier grew up, the oldest of five brothers, and you get a sense of the deep poverty that afflicts the neighbourhood. Metal casing covers the windows of abandoned houses. Crime, particularly violent crime, is rife. This is a bastion of the white working and non-working class. The percentage of employment-age adults on benefits in the constituency was, at the last count, 28.9% — the highest in the country.
When Clohessy was a kid, he loved sport — “I was always interested in training, and in football, and all that” — but found it difficult to concentrate in class. He thought he might be able to do a physical job, and the army appealed. His grandfather and two of his uncles had been in the services, and they encouraged him to join up. “They said it might be the life for me,” remembers Clohessy. “And it was.”
Clohessy joined the King’s Regiment at 16, and immediately excelled. He was “Best PT” — best at physical training — in both phase 1 and phase 2 of his 36-week training course. When he joined the battalion, aged 17, he was made a PTI, a physical training instructor, despite being “only a baby”. He loved his job, and over the first years of his army career he felt, for the first time, that he was doing something at which he excelled. But, when Clohessy was 20, he left the army, to go home and help his mother.
“She was having a bad time with my dad, it had got very domestic, a bit violent,” says Clohessy. “She needed help with the babies [his four younger brothers]. Plus, I’d met a girl, and I thought maybe I didn’t want to be in the army, I wanted to be with her.”
During his four-year spell away from military life, Clohessy worked as an instructor at a local gym. He liked his job, but hated the world he had come back to. “Once I’d come out, I realised I’d made an absolute bad mistake,” he says.
“I couldn’t handle it on civvy street.”
The family also experienced tragedy in this period. In 1999, Michael’s father, Lance, was working as a stonemason when there was an accident. Five tonnes of marble slipped from his wagon and crushed a co-worker, named Joe Glover, to death. Joe had already lost his brother, Ian, at the Hillsborough tragedy 10 years previously, and the accident happened at 10am on Joe’s first day at work since the disaster. The guilt associated with the incident would not leave Lance alone. “He went round the bend,” remembers Michael. “He lost the plot and hit the ale. That was it with him. He ended up moving away. Things got bad between him and me mum.”
So, Clohessy knew about guilt and trauma and bereavement long before he went to war. Dr Ian Palmer, a professor of military psychiatry, argues that it is a soldier’s past that needs analysing when considering any case of post-traumatic stress. A difficult childhood or early exposure to trauma makes them more vulnerable. “Recruits,” he says, “bring all their life experiences, strengths, personality traits and coping mechanisms into service with them.”
Clohessy was not, naturally, thinking along these lines when he rejoined the army in 2002 as a 24-year-old private in the Cheshire regiment. He signed up because “I wanted my old life back, and I got my old life back. It was the best decision ever.”
However, in 2003, having completed most of his pre-Iraq training on Salisbury Plain, he returned home on leave for Christmas. On New Year’s Eve he went to the pub with his brother, Joseph. They became engaged in an argument, and then a fight, in which, says Michael, “I protected my brother.
“He was my own flesh and blood. What was I going to do — let him get his head stamped on? I lost control. I destroyed the guy. At the end of the day, I reacted to a threat in a way that the army had taught me to react. I was looking out for my own… That’s the way the army trains you.”
It took more than a year for Clohessy to stand trial. He left for Iraq with the case and the threat of imprisonment hanging over him. It did not, as his colleagues have testified, inhibit his performance. A villain in Walton became a hero in Basra.
According to Antonio Ching, “War is a crazy place.” But civvy street, he discovered, could be even crazier. Ching is now a stocky, amiable 25-year-old from Barnsley, who is training to be a household-energy assessor. Amazingly, given his age, he has served three tours of Iraq, during which he won two commendations for bravery. When he decided to leave the army, he was “shitting” himself about civvy street. “I were very mature in some ways, the way the army makes you, but very immature about other things.” Indeed, just before he was due to leave the army, Ching was arrested for possession of ecstasy, and spent six months in Colchester military prison before being discharged.
Ching was 16 when he joined the army. In his early teens, despite being academically strong and good at sport, he had become involved in gang culture in Huddersfield. His mother and stepfather decided to move the family away to Barnsley after their son had a shotgun put to his head. But he fell in with a similar crowd in his new town. His parents decided enough was enough, and told him to visit the army recruitment centre by Barnsley station. He joined the Light Infantry.
“Obviously I was reluctant at first,” he said. “But as soon as I started, I loved it. I enjoyed everything about the army — the camaraderie, the training, everything.”
Ching was just 18 when his regiment was sent to Iraq in 2003. He was the second youngest soldier in the invasion force. “I think I were lucky,” he says. “I was a young kid and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was alongside men, and I wasn’t the same colour skin [Ching is half-Filipino], so I felt I had to fight twice, three times as hard. Plus, I was the new lad. I got sent into the buildings first. I was quite lucky not to be dead, really.”
On Ching’s second tour of Iraq, in Basra, he was twice commended by his battalion for bravery. In trademark army fashion, he does not boast. He was, he says, just “doing what I had to do, really”. In the first instance, he pulled several of his mates who had been hit by roadside bombs to safety. In the second, his platoon had been engaged in a firefight by insurgents from a number of angles. As other sections of the platoon pulled back, he thought, “Bugger this, let’s go” and pushed through to an advanced position while returning fire. “I went and the rest followed,” he says. “It were simple.”
After one more tour of Iraq, Ching decided enough was enough. He had always promised himself that he would not start a family while in the army, because he had seen the strain long tours had put on his friends. But Ching had no idea what he would do when he left. He says he was worried about “not having enough money to survive on civvy street”. That was when he started dealing drugs to other soldiers while on leave. He was caught in possession of ecstasy by a military policeman in Germany, tried, and sent to prison. Ching says it might have been the best thing to have happened to him.
“If I hadn’t gone to Colchester, I’d have been a totally different person,” he says. “It made me grow up so much. It was just time to think.”
“There’s a good chance that if I hadn’t joined the army, I’d have been in that [drugs] market anyway,” he continues. “In fact, if I hadn’t gone into the army, and I’d been left to my own devices, I’d definitely have gone to prison before I did. That time in Colchester really made me think about what I wanted to achieve in my life.”
Ching is now retraining for a new career, is in a stable relationship, and wears the bright smile of someone who has come through a trial by fire.
Danny McEneany, however, is still dancing in the flames. He is 37, from Wallasey, Merseyside, with a bald head and a tattooed torso and an easy manner that can harden in an instant. He was sent to prison in 2006 for possession of an illegal firearm. His offence was the direct result of powerful, trauma-related delusions, triggered by his experiences in Iraq. He remembers a feeling of total powerlessness as his base in Al-Amarah was rocketed by insurgents, and all he could do was sit in his body armour and helmet and wait.
“We were just sitting around, waiting to get fucking murdered,” he remembers. “That’s what done me in. It was not being able to do nothing. The first rocket I saw was when I was coming out of the shower. I saw it flying at me, and when I see a canada goose now that’s what I think of. I remember when a rocket took the doors off. You heard the ground shaking, and you were waiting for it to hit.”
The problems began when Sergeant McEneany returned. On base in Germany, he became convinced that he was under threat of attack from insurgents. When he thought someone had infiltrated his garden at night, he went out and destroyed the patio furniture. He became paranoid and abusive towards his wife, who tried to get him help before leaving him. He kept a pistol that he had “found while unloading gear” in the house. He remained constantly on guard. Once, when he became severely depressed, he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger — only to duck his head at the last moment. When he moved into the sergeant’s mess, he took the pistol with him.
“Eventually,” says McEneany, “when I had got into some fights, my sergeant major said ‘You’ve changed’ and ordered me to see the doctor, who referred me to a psychiatric nurse.”
McEneany never got the psychiatric help he needed because, before long, his gun was found and he was arrested. Just before his court martial, he spent time at a hospital, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, but his diagnosis does not appear to have affected his sentence. The judge gave McEneany five years for possession of a weapon before sending him to prison. He then spent another 20 months in jail before being released.
“I remember my first night, there was a guy banging on the wall next door asking me for cigarettes,” he remembers. “He wouldn’t shut up, all night. When I looked in his cell in the morning, this guy was just lying on the floor of his cell, covered in shit and piss. He was obviously mental. I thought to myself then, ‘If they’ve done that to him, what hope have I got of getting any help in here?’”
McEneany’s instincts were correct. He received almost no medical help while he was incarcerated.
Since leaving custody, McEneany has contacted an unorthodox psychotherapy group called Talking2Minds, run by an ex-SAS officer named Bob Paxman. It has done the soldier from Wallasey the power of good. By talking through trauma in his life that happened before his service in the army, as well as his experiences in Iraq, McEneany has made a positive shift. “For a long time, I’ve felt a huge weight, a pain, on my chest,” he says. “Now, that’s gone. It’s amazing.”
We want our heroes spotless. Unfortunately, they don’t come like that. They come like Michael Clohessy, a lad from a bad part of town. Clohessy says that, before we spoke, he had never fully discussed — not even with his family — the pain he is now going through. He has tried to explain it to doctors, but they “look at me as if I’ve got three heads”. I ask him to describe the pain to me.
“I can’t sleep,” he says. “I feel guilty for the shootings that I done out there. I argue with myself all the time. Flashbacks started in prison, but now they get worse and worse. I’ll go over contacts [engagements with the enemy] in my head, left, right and centre. I can remember every contact that I ever had, clear as anything. I can remember my feelings when I first shot someone dead.
“I feel embarrassed. I try to tell me own mum, and she doesn’t know what to do. I’m a grown man. I was meant to be a lean, mean killing machine, as they say, and I’m crying out for help. Deep down I’m the shadow of the man I used to be. I’m breaking inside.”
Where Clohessy’s story gets complicated is this: the war in Iraq had nothing to do with the incident that sent him to prison. He did not commit an offence because he had suffered from trauma — at least, not because of the trauma of war. The trouble with analysing why people offend is that no life story ever submits to easy diagnosis. Would Clohessy have spent time in prison if he had never joined the army? Has his service made him more predisposed to committing crimes in the future? We are lost in a sea of hypotheticals.
In any event, Clohessy is now a man with few options. It would clearly be a bad idea to put him in an office environment. Meanwhile, the skills that were useful in the army are no use to him now. Machine-gunners are not in demand on civvy street, not even in Walton. When I ask him how he earns money, he says he lives on benefits. Others in the area tell me he is “up to no good”. Certainly, Clohessy has not been able to keep his nose clean. He says he remains “very aggressive”.
We send too many ex-servicemen to prison. The reasons why we do so are manifold and complex, and to address them will require attention to detail. Certainly, the problem of ex-servicemen in prison goes well past the remit of the MoD.
“The army only takes people who come through the gate,” says Tim Riley, from the Braveheart Programme. “Those people are a reflection of society as a whole, and what the army does is to train people — to change men. It has to. We need people to think independently, to be different. One of the great psychological problems that these guys have [when they leave] is that they look at their old mates with disdain. Because they have different values now, and it further compounds their anger and frustration.”
What we need to ask is this: do we still want these tainted soldiers, warts and all? Do veterans deserve more than the average citizen, even if their past is chequered? They may have made bad decisions in their life, but they also made the decision to fight in a dusty, vicious conflict, waged on a specious premise, for paltry money, without question.
Michael Clohessy says he served his country, and that has to be worth something. He fought the war, and now the war fights him.