A real life by a real hero
The Falklands war in 1982 resulted in 649 Argentines and 255 Britons killed; thousands were injured. Among the 777 British service men wounded was Captain Robert Alisdair Davidson Lawrence MC, who lost 43% of his brain, and the use of his left arm after being shot in the battle of Tumbledown.
It was two days before his 22nd birthday. He lay in the snow for six hours before being airlifted. He was the last wounded to be operated on… and he figured it was because nobody expected him to survive. But boy! Not only he survived, but his recovery challenged all expectations and his determination took him to founding Global Adventure Plus, a project to rehabilitate British ex-servicemen through expeditions to foreign countries. His own adventures have taken him to the Arctic, India and Africa (escorting Princes William and Harry).
Before that, he was a Patron for Ticket for Troops and a Mentor for Heropreneurs. Robert also oversaw over £100,000 of fundraising for Combat Stress as a Patron in 2009. He co-wrote with his father ‘When the Fighting Is Over: A Personal Story of the Battle for Tumbledown Mountain and Its Aftermath’, an account of his experiences during and after the war, later adapted by the BCC for a television drama, Tumbledown, starring Colin Firth as Robert.
His wife of 25 years, Marion, describes him as an honourable, strong character, funny and extremely kind. She deeply admires how he has always kept his strength, and remembered what he fought for. He very rarely complains despite being in a lot of pain. “He is definitely not defined by his injury or sees himself as a victim,” says Marion with conviction, “he just gets on with things. He tends to physically overwork himself and then, of course, suffers the consequences.”
Captain Robert Lawrence MC is, without a doubt, charismatic and engaging, a big character. He makes friends wherever he goes. As his wife says with pride,
“He doesn’t live in half shades, he does everything to the full.”
In this interview, Captain Lawrence MC shares with us his disappointment on the British Government, his almost forty years fight to get veterans the care they deserve, and his profound respect for the soldiers all over the world that risks their lives to safeguard others.
I-M: Did you attend any of the events organised for the 35th anniversary of the war last year?
R.L: My wife and I attended a fundraising ball on behalf of Veterans in Action. This is a charity that I am a founding Patron of. We also attended Armistice and Remembrance events.
As President of The Scots Guards Tumbledown Veterans and Families Association my family and I were, as always, proud and honoured to gather with the Association in Blackpool for the anniversary where, with the support of the Lord Lieutenant and Mayor, we paraded through the town and held a service at the War Memorial.
I-M: More Falklands veterans have taken their own lives than the 255 who died during the war. You have been very outspoken about how you feel the Government fails to properly care for the wellbeing of ex-servicemen, which seems to be left very much in the hands of Charities. Can you see any steps in the right direction?
R.L: I am not impressed by the lack of effort by the British Government to take care of their ex-service men. This is their job, not the job of charities. Charities do, in general, an amazing job but there is the question of what some people in charities are paid, sometimes vast sums of money that could be used for much more worthy purposes.
They say things have changed a lot, but they haven’t changed that much. The ex-service men of the Vietnam war were hated by the people of the US, so the Government knew that they had to look after them. Therefore, they created special institutions and hospitals for Vietnam veterans. In the UK however, the Government knows people love their soldiers so they think they can leave the people to take care of them. This is wrong. The care of veterans is the responsibility of the Government that sent them to war in the first place.
I-M: At some point there was an injunction against your book, but it did little to stifle its success. Do you think your book has been critical in changing the public opinion about how Britain treats its servicemen and its veterans of war?
R.L: Although my efforts with the book and film were a very long time ago and as such are early observations about the lack of government care for veterans, I would still like to think that they added their weight, no matter how small, to the excellent work that we now see through the efforts of, for instance, HRH Prince Harry with the Invictus Games.
However, ultimately this kind of excellent and very well meaning charitable work should be the responsibility of and undertaken by the politicians, as I said before, who rightly or wrongly submit our armed forces into conflict but are not prepared to except the long term consequences.
I-M: What about yourself? We can see the physical scars, but what about psychological and emotional scars? How does your work and your family help you deal with all these difficult issues?
R.L: The Tumbledown Veterans Association included the families. As soldiers we tend to be keen to do our job and have mixed, but often good opinions of what we do. It is not so much the going to war as the returning home that presents us with the issues and sadly, it has long been the families who have born the brunt of the damage. In the years since the war I, of course, have lived through personal anguish and tried to share the struggle of a good number of my soldiers, some of whom are no longer with us. In my case, I can confidently say that my wife Marion saved my life.
I-M: You have been very open about the reporting of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and how you feel the “economic rationalisation” of the MoD has compromised the British army at a time when servicemen have never been under greater stress: closure of military hospitals, failing in the MoD duty of care… how do you think this affects our troops?
R.L: The doctors, nurses, and other medical staff are truly amazing. It is the Government who failed to realise that returning service men not only have physical injuries but also psychological wounds that stop them adapt- ing to normal life. That’s why after years
of fighting these demons, ex-service men end up committing suicide or becoming homeless. These injuries can’t be dealt with in a civilian hospital. Soldiers need to be in a military hospital, where they feel at home, and surrounded by people who understand them, who are their family. The NHS cannot deal with the special needs of ex-service men.
The most difficult thing is to find out who to talk to. There seems to be a Veteran Minister but I don’t know who he is, do you? And the Minister of Defence says that caring after veterans is not the Ministry’s business, that its business is to run an army.
Thank God organisations like Help for Heroes started… but they could only help people after 9/11. So if your war or conflict took place before then, you don’t get any financial support.
They have set up reach out centers which they bought from the Government… so the money went back to them. Now they have fourteen of these buildings but you can’t go to if you have left the army. Does that make any sense?
I-M: What about your work with Global Adventure Plus? How has this project helped veterans of war and how is it moving forward?
R.L: Global Adventure Plus (GAP) helps Britain’s ex-servicemen get back on their feet after serving their country in the forces. Through the challenges of adventure, team-work and camaraderie, GAP re-invigorates and re-motivates soldiers who have lost their way since leaving the job they knew and loved. The book that was published about this adventure, explores the background to GAP and is also a record of our inaugural adventure in the Himalayas.
I-M: What is your message for our current servicemen and women?
R.L: I loved being a soldier. I love the armed forces, they become your family. Our oldest son is actually hoping to join the army. We are very proud of him. So my message is one of hope, but we must make the Government take up their responsibility.
Our servicemen and women have to be looked after when they come back. Maybe, there should be a points system for the people that have been at the forefront of defending the country: policemen, nurses, paramedics, firemen, soldiers… If a person has put their life at risk for the rest of us, they should have some advantage and be looked after particularly well, don’t you think?
I-M: How do you think new media channels, such as social media can help raise awareness and encourage improvements?
R.L: Social media has allowed for communications between a number of Falklands veterans from both sides of the conflict. As a prime example this is a letter I received from my opposite Argentine number:
I’m the one who in 1982 served as the 4th platoon leader / Nacar company / 5th Batallion, during the battle in the West end of Tumbledown.
In 1982, I was a Lieutenant, the second officer rank in the yooknavy, and I had 40 soldiers and NCOs at my position.
Like most of you, I am a professional soldier, and after the war I continued my career until last year, when I retired from the Argentine Navy, after 38 years of service with the rank of Captain.
Going back to the Battle of Tumbledown, I must say that I was surprised how the fight started, so close that we can not open fire on you at greater distances.
This led us to you and us, to a melee infantry fighting that lasted between 2310 hours on 13 June until 0815 hours of June 14, when you took my foxhole which was the last one to fall.
It was a battle in which both of us were fighting for our lives, but also for our honour as soldiers.
I never gave more importance if the reasons of the war were right or wrong.
That belongs to a level, which was not my responsibility as a Lieutenant, to be analyzed. But rightly or wrongly, we both fight in just doing what we have to do like soldiers.
In this battle, 17 of my soldiers were KIA, and only 6 finished the battle without any wound. I think these numbers speak louder than words, to describe what that was like.
I am proud to have command that 40 soldiers on that night. But I am also proud to have fought against you. On that night you showed professionalism, discipline, courage and chivalry.
After the battle, my men and I received the treatment of men by all of you, despite the bloody combat and emotions that we both had for our fallen and wounded comrades.
That sets the tone for who you are. True soldiers. Each did his duty, and both have put into play the same, our lives and our honour. So I feel you are true brothers in arms, that circumstances led us to be faced. In the years that have passed from the war, I received more recognition and satisfaction by the British military than by my own comrades and citizens.
I value that above all things. When my son, Lieutenant Carlos Horacio
Vázquez told me to write this letter, it meant for me a great joy to be able to reach you with these words that many years ago I wanted to tell you.
Gentlemen, receive in my name as Head of the 4th Platoon, my respect for you, my recognition of your value as soldiers, and especially my tribute to your fallen, for whom every year
I order a Mass as for my soldiers, on this anniversary.
You have my utmost respect, and it will be until the last of my days.
God Keep You, and all our comrades killed in combat.
Captain Carlos Daniel Vazquez Argentina’s Marine Corp”
Ultimately, one has to wonder how our young men and women can take part in these events and return to see life as normal.