For a boy like Gary Roberts, the Army was meant to be a life raft. Expelled from school in Sheffield, he found an escape by visiting a recruiting office shortly before his 18th birthday.
By 1997 he was serving in the light infantry. He completed tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, then in 2003 was deployed in Iraq as chaos began to reign following the American and British forces’ controversial invasion.
Afterwards he entered the shadowy world of private military contracting – but in 2015, while in the middle of a posting in Africa protecting oil tankers from pirates, an episode from his past came back to haunt him.
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In Basra he had killed someone for the first time, shooting dead an AK47-toting Iraqi insurgent with two bullets to the chest. The incident was picked up by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT), an organisation that was shut down without any charges being brought, costing taxpayers £35m – but for some time Gary faced a murder charge.
Consequently, Gary’s new book, Seven Point Six Two: The True Story Of Soldiers For Hire In Iraq, represents what he believes is a first. “I think I’m the first person to write a memoir about the IHAT and the Iraq war inquiries,” he says.
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He writes in detail about the shooting that clouded his military career, describing it as a ‘pre-emptive kill’ that happened when members of his platoon were required to follow a pickup truck carrying a threatening-looking group of armed men. The Royal Military Police deemed the shooting to be lawful and it was cleared at brigade level.
Today, Gary points out the Iraq conflict was not a ‘conventional war’. “There were no lines – there was no Iraqi Army there, they were rebels, insurgents, guerrillas. We fought unconventionally.”
Becoming a private military contractor offered better pay – Gary earned more than an Army colonel and was able to invest in property in Sheffield. He worked for a British firm contracted by the US Defence Department, undertaking hired-out tasks such as moving weapons, ammunition and vehicles around Iraq on convoys.
Some would call his kind mercenaries, a pejorative label, but Gary is ambivalent about the word. “In every fighting battalion or regiment it was happening,” he says. “One or two guys would go, people would see what they were doing and would want some of that. From 2004 to about 2008 guys were filtering out of infantry battalions and marine units to go and do that kind of work.”
The reputation of private military companies suffered following the Nisour Square massacre in 2007, when at least 14 Iraqi civilians were killed in Baghdad. Four guards were convicted in a US court for their part in the bloodshed.
“People think of the bad stuff,” says Gary. “They think of the times it went wrong, but it’s never reported when private security contractors and defence contractors enable engineers to bring sewage and water to a whole area of Baghdad, for example. It’s a gigantic country and there was so much to do – everything from destroying old ordnance to power plants to water facilities.”
Gary, 41, lives in the Rivelin Valley and is no longer a private military contractor, having quit to spend more time with the two children he has with his former partner.
“I’m drawing a line under that part of my life,” he says.
Seven Point Six Two: The True Story Of Soldiers For Hire In Iraq, published by Steel City Press, is out now.