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.
I wonder what my mum and dad are doing now. Probably asleep at home in Ballygall Avenue. I could be wandering home from Copperface Jack’s just now. Not looking around the APC at a group of individuals who are obviously half mad.
The vehicle shakes and shudders as the artillery rounds impact around us. “Milk?” asks BS Begley. “Eh, yeah, no sugar though.” The radios are alive with traffic. So much sh*t is being fired at us no one can keep track of who is firing what at whom. The Motorola radio on my webbing squawks into life.
“Get yourselves ready now – there are casualties likely in Rshaf, Ayta Zutt, Bayt Yahun and Haddathah. Are you good to go? Over.” I reply in the affirmative. “Wait out,” is the reply. Then just the hissing of the radio.
Everyone in the Sisu is watching me. I’m in charge now. I can either get it right now, or f**k it up for everyone around me. No pressure.
Darach is born on December 10th, 2000. Our millennium baby. Our firstborn. I have fallen in love. And in that coming of age, I remember another newborn baby, thrust into my arms in Al Yatun four years previously. As a young soldier I could not have known what fear that woman felt but as a father, on this night, four years later, she becomes fully human.
At Easter 1996 I had had an introduction to anarchy. To chaos. I felt myself familiar with death. Or so I thought. In that one house, in Jumayjimah, the dead family lying, in various poses, around the evening meal. The corpses immaculate.Untouched.
Corporal Kennedy whistling throughout: “They didn’t even get to eat their f**king dinner.” So that was my introduction to death among the lemon groves and olive trees around Tyre and Sidon.
When I eventually got home that Easter my father advised me not to talk about it. “Forget about it,” was his shouted advice. He was a hard man. He knew what he was talking about, I thought. So I did. I buried it deep.
But it resurrects itself. It sneaks up on me and taps me on the shoulder from time to time.
In March 2003 I hear my mother has been sent by ambulance to the Mater hospital suffering from “joint pain”. When I get there Bláithín is no longer herself. Her mouth is a curious O shape. A shape that I recognise to be a precursor to death.
In the nights leading up to Bláithín’s death I lie awake in bed.
Because this is death in slow motion, not like in the Lebanon. I roll over very gently in the witching hours and put my hand on my wife’s swollen tummy. And I feel the little feathery movements of my daughter in there. Little Liadain, in her waterworld. New life.
A week after my mother’s death, I get a call to go to the Coombe. Liadain is dead too. She’d stopped kicking and swimming. Perfectly still. They induce my wife that evening. It is a completely silent labour. No cries. No sound at all. Just me and Liadain’s mum and the medics.
In the dark, in the delivery room, we take flash photographs of our little Liadain. The nurses give us a small cardboard box with some towels. “When you are finished saying goodbye, you can bring her to the nurses’ station and we’ll look after her.” I arrange the towels and walk through the busy labour ward to the nurses’ station. Past women and girls clutching their tummies. Past the anxious dads pacing the hall. Holding the box that held our hopes and dreams.
Two days later we drive little Liadain to the Angels’ Plot in Glasnevin cemetery. The tiny white coffin is balanced on her mum’s knees in the car. We drive in silence. Stop at the red lights. Go on green.
We place the little coffin, so very gently, into the wet soil. And the world keeps going around. It doesn’t stop for even a moment. It is impossible to stand up and turn away. And walk away. Leaving our precious little daughter in the ground like that.
And I think of all the other little bundles I had seen as a young man in Lebanon. And I think of the Lebanese men and women I had seen at the edge of bombed-out ruins, their shoulders stooped in grief and disbelief. And I think of how I have finally joined them as brothers and sisters in all of our weeping and sorrow and loss.
Fifteen years later my dreams of Lebanon are recurring. Fifteen years later, when I wake at 4am, I listen. As the house sighs and as my four children sleep, I think of Rshaf, Bayt Yahun, Shaqrah, Jumayjimah and Majdal Silm. In my mind’s eye I work the battalion patrol plan and report my position on the Motorola. I think of the young man that I was then. I think of my parents, now both long dead. I think of my little girl. And I wonder what part of my heart was left in Lebanon, what part of my soul surrendered there.
Forty thousand Irish troops served in Lebanon. Forty-seven died there. Not everyone comes home. And nobody comes home the same.
This is an edited extract from Blood, Sweat and Tears by Tom Clonan, published by Liberties Press