The Leb: Some didn't come home. None came home the same
A former Irish Army officer reflects on how, 15 years on, he still has recurring dreams of war in Lebanon
‘In the unlikely event of a loss of air pressure within the cabin, an oxygen mask will automatically be lowered in front of you.” Early October, 1995. The cabin crew are just finishing the usual routine about midair explosions and death at 37,000 ft.
The Aer Lingus Airbus has already started rolling. Two-hundred-and-twenty men on the aircraft are heading for the Leb. There is silence as fathers, brothers, sons, lovers are lost in their thoughts of loved ones sleeping below.
I say a silent prayer, even though I don’t really believe in God, for my parents. I think of my girlfriend.
It is a six-hour night flight to Beirut. I wander around the gloom of the aircraft. I meet the padre, coming out of the toilet. “First time?” he asks.
I meet some of my own guys from the battalion mobile reserve. We are a mix of cavalry and artillery, troopers and gunners, who will provide the emergency response for the entire Irish area of operations. When the sh*t hits the fan, we are “operational”.
When I told my dad this interesting fact he let out a low whistle: “Couldn’t they get some other f**kin’ eejit to do that job?” But I was ready for anything.
My first impressions of Lebanon: the smell of aviation fuel; a wall of shimmering superheat; a crowd of Irish soldiers, deeply tanned, their uniforms sun-bleached. They are rotating home after a seven-month tour of duty.
As our battalion begin to file off the aircraft, the outgoing group burst into a deafening roar. “I’ll be ridin’ yer wife this time tomorrow night ye sad bastard ye.” “Happy f**kin’ Christmas.” “Only seven months to go – but whose f**kin’ countin’?” Whistling. Cheering. Clapping. Stamping.
All along the coast road we see men walking hand in hand. The troops find this endlessly amusing. Everyone we see is smoking. Boys selling fish from wooden crates. Smoking. Soldiers everywhere. Smoking. Some with black berets. Some with red berets. Some on motorbikes.
No building seems complete. Bullet holes and crumbling plasterwork on every facade. There is no order. No regular or predictable urban feature.
The days blur into a continuous loop of day patrols and patrols in darkness. Daytime temperatures in October rise to over 30 degrees, made hotter by the constant heat and vibration from the massive diesel engines in the Sisus. And hotter again wearing helmet, flak jacket, weapons and ammunition.
Halloween, 1995. The radio, slower than the speed of sound, slower than the speed of incoming rounds, announces, “Gate 12 has opened fire.”
“We f**kin’ know that,” says Psycho.
Then the Israeli firebases open up. There is the insistent thump, thump, thump of heavy machine guns – or “point fives” as we call them. Overlaying that is a curious thudding noise. Like a large sledgehammer beating the earth. “F**kin’ mortars,” observes Psycho.