James Heappey, Conservative MP for Wells and minister for the armed forces, recalls his tours of Afghanistan
Minister for the armed forces, James Heappey, reflects on his time in Afghanistan and delivers a message to veterans ahead of Remembrance Sunday.
What memories endure from your time in the armed forces?
I remember my second tour to Afghanistan very vividly, the acts of remembrance we did every time someone died, which was at least once a week, every week. We had a bugle major who blew the bugle beautifully; it echoed around the Upper Helmand Valley. Every time I hear Last Post, I’m transported back to Sangin. That’s with me forever.
I went up to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire a couple of weeks ago for the 20th anniversary of the start of operations in Afghanistan. We’d done the act of remembrance, and in my eye-line [on the headstones], as they were blowing Last Post, I could see the shape of rifles – my regiment – I could see rifles, rifles, rifles, rifles, rifles, and they were the names of the people who died on my tour. All of a sudden, there I was, standing in front of it all, and I literally burst into tears.
How has this year been for you, and how do you look back at your time in Afghanistan?
It’s been tough. [Operation] Pitting [the evacuation of Afghanistan] was deeply conflicting. Like many veterans, I didn’t want to feel that all of my efforts had come to nought, and I reconciled that. People should reflect proudly on what they did during their six months and not think that the trajectory that Afghanistan is now on is somehow connected to their own experience.
How was it to hear fellow MP veterans expressing anger about the “abandonment” of Afghanistan?
Politics is a grown-up thing, and it was good for Tom [Tugendhat], it was good for many other veterans – Dan Jarvis and others – to have the opportunity to speak about this and give voice to our concerns. The disagreements we were having would have been the same disagreements veterans had all over the country... There was no good outcome.
What is your message to veterans ahead of Remembrance Day?
I know Afghanistan veterans and families will be looking at photos of those who didn’t come home, and they will be looking on the TV screens and thinking, ‘What a waste of time, what a waste of effort, what a waste of life.’ They mustn’t feel like that. And I know that that’s so much easier said than done.
Not one of us patrolling during our six months was thinking about the strategic outcome in Afghanistan 15 years later. We were trying to make a difference right there and then. The measure of success that we set ourselves was around whether the schools opened, people had successfully managed to vote in elections, more stalls were open in the market, or electricity was restored into a district. And we were proud of those achievements when we left. That brought time and an experience for people in those communities that can never be taken away from them, whatever comes of their lives since.
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