Johnson Beharry & Gen Sir Mike Jackson
In The Face of Danger
Johnson Beharry left the small Caribbean island of Grenada with no greater ambition than leaving behind poverty and strife at home. He joined the British Army and became an historic figure. Kurt Barling looks at a modern tale of heroism.
Johnson Beharry VC, is a modest man. Most genuine heroes tend to be. Only just 26 he has joined the pantheon of military heroes who have shown exemplary courage and selflessness under fire. In 2005 he became the first living recipient of the Victoria Cross since 1969.
By his own account he grew up in a family tormented by an alcoholic and abusive father. His grandmother was his guiding light and urged him to find a way to avoid his father’s tortured path. After finding himself slowly drinking too much and smoking soft drugs he decided it was time to leave Grenada behind.
Arriving in London in 1999 it wasn't long before an Army recruitment advert caught his attention. The recruiting officer wasn't that impressed when he first turned up, all dreadlocks and cannabis leaf earrings.
He was sent on his way with a challenge to clean up and come back in six months. He returned much sooner and joined up. After six months training to turn him from a civilian to a soldier he saw active service with the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in Kosovo and then the place he describes as the worst place he's ever been, Northern Ireland.
Beharry reckons he was keen to get to Iraq. He remembers being keen to get to a place where there was danger. Not for danger's sake but so that he would be kept on his toes in a dangerous place. He wasn't disappointed, within fifteen minutes of being deployed to active duty in Iraq the compound he was assigned to came under rocket fire. Such is the life of the British soldier in Iraq.
From the comfort of our living rooms it is sometimes hard to appreciate just how ferocious and unforgiving an environment these young men and women are operating in.
The British Armed Services have worked very hard over the past few years to recognise the contribution of Commonwealth soldiers to British endeavour in the military field. There is now a travelling recruitment exhibition run by the Ministry of Defence called We Were There Too which celebrates that long contribution.
I'm sure Beharry will be very prominent in that display surrounded by Commonwealth soldiers from the last 100 years of military engagement. Although curiously when I filmed an interview with him at the National Army Museum the MODs more diversity aware approach seems not to have reached there yet. It's a shame because it adds to the rich heritage of military endeavour.
Beharry navigated my queries of Army racism with a very philosophical response. None of his colleagues in battle had a chance to hate each other, mutual respect meant survival.
Over the course of two engagements on 1 May and 11 June 2004 he demonstrated what this really meant. On both occasions despite repeatedly facing the real possibility of death he acted in a way designed primarily to preserve the lives of his colleagues. Under intense fire on both occasions he was able not just to save the lives of his commanding officer and colleagues but avoid greater casualties amongst his fellow soldiers by disabling and isolating his ammunition laded Warrior vehicle that was on fire.
What comes through time and time again in his own recollection of what he did in the first engagement (he has no memory of the second) is that he was prepared to die to save others. Heroes are made of stuff that others feel sure they themselves are not.
During the second engagement Johnson Beharry suffered very serious head injuries. So bad were they that he was left in a coma and his doctors were unsure of whether he could survive.
Private Johnson Beharry VC
He describes how he is now in constant pain. It's not surprising given his skull was shattered like an egg from the impact of a rocket propelled grenade exploding inches from his face. He still continued to function even after this.
The mark of the man though is that he is not proud for himself when he wears his Victoria Cross, but happy at the thought that the medal signifies that the colleagues he saved are fit and well because of what he did.
The VC has often been a burden even for the bravest men. It carries with it a weight of expectation. Every serving soldier including the most senior Generals in the armed service have to salute Johnson Beharry VC now. His autobiography, Barefoot Soldier, he says is an explanation to people that his extraordinary feats were not those of a superhuman but an ordinary man doing his job extraordinarily well.
He also hopes that other young people will see in his example a means to transform their own lives. The message is simple: The unexpected can happen if you strive for greater things.
Click on the video link in the right hand column to watch Kurt's extended interview with Johnson Beharry.
last updated: 15/05/2008 at 16:21