Letter to Dale

It has become a habit, something of a tradition, for me to publish a post on Armistice Day, on the 11th of November, about someone mentioned on Greenford’s war memorial or whose grave is in the area and whose life was affected significantly by war.

Until now I have focused on those associated with the First and Second World Wars but I remembered that it has been ten years since you gave your life in Afghanistan and I felt that this was the moment to tell people about you.

I remember coming across your grave, noticing the shape of a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone, one of eighty-two at Greenford Park Cemetery. Its corners have indentations that show it to be more recent but it has the same spare dignified appearance that, from a distance, marked you out as a soldier. You’re the extra one, a member of the Scots Guards, who died on the 1st of August 2010.

Since then I’ve tried to find you again, wandering amongst the graves of others in that part of the cemetery in an effort to leave flowers that, in the end, went to other soldiers. Apart from one occasion when you were pointed out to me I have not found you, which is strange because I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years finding graves. I’m almost good at it. It occurred to me that this was a sign that you didn’t want the attention and I’ve had doubts about pursuing this. Unlike the others I’ve discovered and researched there hasn’t been that decent period of time that separates the living from the dead. You continue to exist in the memories and hearts of your family and friends, and they guard their Guardsman with care.

What made me persist is a concern that at our traditional time of remembrance we focus almost exclusively on two major conflicts. Newsreaders talk about the commemoration at the Cenotaph as being about “the dead of two world wars”. At times it is as though the many other operations and conflicts in which our service personnel were killed have been forgotten. Yet every day they are at risk somewhere in the world and there are veterans and headstones to prove it. It amazes me that those who should seem of most relevance to us and our daily security go unmentioned while we pore over the names of those who were killed seventy-five or more years ago.

A Belgian refugee, forced from their homeland in terror at what had befallen their countrymen in 1914, might feel profound gratitude towards those whose names are on memorials that appeared in the 1920s. Someone who survived the air raids that destroyed their home or killed their relatives during the Blitz might see a later row of names and think of the part they played in bringing that dangerous time to an end. But for me and the rest of a generation familiar with the fear of terrorism there are rarely names from our parish or town on those local memorials to be seen and remembered.

There are reasons for this. Fewer personnel are involved, and they are volunteers recruited from a wider population rather than local conscripts. The circumstances that brought you to Greenford Park Cemetery may also be the ones why you would not be seen on a local war memorial, had it mentioned by name those of later conflicts. Today’s grateful civilians are left with headstones, out of sight in local cemeteries. It’s no surprise that most do not know you are there.

I grew up in a part of London targeted by terrorists. An early memory is of being rushed onto a bus in Oxford Street by my panicked mother after a bomb scare. There were a few narrow escapes after that. School friends were injured and there were others whose brothers killed because they were soldiers. I waited, along with neighbours who had more direct experience of terrorism, as the Iranian Embassy Siege played out two streets away. It was only much later that I understood why so many women began screaming as they heard explosions bounce off the buildings around us. I heard the Hyde Park bombing in 1982 and realised immediately what had happened. By the time I watched people jump from the Twin Towers in New York I had moved to Greenford. I thought of friends I hadn’t heard from in a while and I wondered if any of those falling were known to me. So your name, your actions and the manner of your passing mean a lot to me. I feel gratitude every day.

I would usually have begun to learn about you through the information on that pale headstone, and that would lead to a search of the relevant census, of military records, medal card indexes, baptismal registers, an accumulation of dates and locations to map your life from birth to death. But you were a twenty-first century soldier, alive in the age of the internet rather than being archived by it, which limits what I can learn about you, through data protection, as well as telling me things about you that I would never have known about soldiers of earlier times.

The news of a British military death is now contained and delivered carefully by the Ministry of Defence. Lessons have been learned over the decades since operations in the Falklands and Northen Ireland about the stresses on military families and the lengths some news agencies will go to in their search for information on a casualty. They now ensure that relatives don’t get the bad news from a local reporter before someone official contacts them, that they are protected in the time between hearing that there has been a fatality on an operation and learning that they have been bereaved.

“It is with sadness that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Lance Sergeant Dale Alanzo McCallum of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards was killed in Afghanistan on Sunday 1 August 2010.”

In the days between your death and its official announcement on the 3rd of August 2010 by the MoD a photograph was selected, a summary of what happened to you and its context was written and a description of your career, your character and your impact on the lives of those who had worked with you by your colleagues was brought together, along with some words about you from your family. This is how your loss was presented to the world and it is still the main source of information about you. Several newspaper articles published at the time, from the UK to Jamaica, were based on it.

Because of it I know (and this is rare for me) what you looked like. The closest I come to that most of the time is a description of appearance, eye and hair colour, height, distinguishing marks. A record might tell me how much a recruit weighed on enlistment but won’t include a photograph of him. And I know that you were someone I might have looked at twice had I passed you in the street because of your confidence and stature. Today we create and share vast numbers of images, whereas a century ago it would have taken money and the opportunity to do so. Despite that, many of those few, precious images are gone, discarded once those they meant everything to themselves died, their identities forgotten. In your case there may be hundreds of images, taken throughout your life, physical and digital, that are treasured and may one day be preserved online, in a new form of memorial.

You were born in Hanover, in the north western part of Jamaica. During a debate in the House of Commons in 2019 Paul Sweeney reminded his fellow MPs of the debt owed to approximately six thousand foreign and Commonwealth personnel serving in the UK’s armed forces. “Commonwealth citizens have long made significant contributions to the defence of the United Kingdom, including during the first and second world wars. They continue to play an important role in the UK armed forces, serving in operations worldwide.” A failure to achieve the necessary levels of recruitment within the UK led to the Ministry of Defence announcing an intention to increase numbers of Commonwealth personnel. It is only in recent years that the importance of that contribution has been acknowledged, photographs, records and personal histories emerging as awareness is raised. I’ve wondered if you had already made your choice of career when you came to the UK at the age of sixteen.

You enlisted when you were eighteen, joining the Irish Guards, and over the next twelve years your career reflected the operations that the UK’s armed forces were tasked with in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It also showed a rapid recognition of your abilities as a team leader, a promotion to Lance Corporal about three years after enlistment, then to Lance Sergeant about four years on. You were an acting Platoon Sergeant at the time of your death, a month before you were to become a Sergeant officially.

The Irish Guards were the first UK forces to enter Pristina as part of NATO’s KFOR in 1999, protecting the people of Kosovo from Serbian aggression. Images of their Warriors being draped with flowers by grateful Kosovans are the kind that reassure the British public that these interventions are effective and essential. Their presence undoubtedly saved lives and they helped to rebuild and reopen a school while they were there.

In 2003 you went on Operation Telic in Iraq, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time there was a genuine fear that biological and chemical weapons might be used on coalition forces. News reports showed people responding to one missile alert after another, getting into protective kit or running to shelters. It must have been as worrying for families waiting for news at home as it was for those on the ground. By that time I had some understanding of what it was like to wait for news because a young relative was out there too.

As far as I can tell you were in Iraq a total of three times. Eventually, having worked with the Scots Guards for several years, you changed officially from buttons in fours to buttons in threes.

And then came Operation Herrick, in Afghanistan, that troublesome and troubled country. Veterans of British involvement there lie in other cemeteries in the London Borough of Ealing, but they died a hundred years ago. There is even the grave of an East India Company man, an officer who had been captured during the First Anglo Afghan war in the 1840s and suffered so badly that he was cared for in a private asylum. Soldiers fought and died in Afghanistan as Britain strove to protect India from possible invasion by Russia, that “Great Game” of diplomacy and espionage. If I’m honest I knew very little about it other than assuming it was the place where Afghan coats came from.

Sometime in the 1980s I watched a shopkeeper in Portobello Road open a large hessian bale in one of the emporia that sold alternative clothing. What caught my eye was the word “KABUL” stencilled on the side. I had heard a BBC report about it, describing the way that the city was being torn apart by rival warlords. It was hard for me to believe that there was enough stability for anyone to produce clothing there, let alone export it. Everything I had read or watched about Afghanistan suggested that it was a dreadful place, especially for women, with an infrastructure so poor that its only successful industry was the one producing opium. The Taliban seemed an improvement on existing arrangements until the events of the 11th of September 2001 showed they had made it the perfect place to plan the murder of almost three thousand people in the USA.

The aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, led by the United States in 2001 with the aim of ending the operations of Al Qaeda and the rule of those who enabled their activities, was not what many had hoped for. Nine years later you were in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province, where there have been hundreds of British military fatalities as a result of the Taliban’s continued activity. You were there to make the area secure for local people, for the average Afghan who, just like most of us, wants to live a quiet life. I doubt if many of those outside the military understand how challenging that is because, on the face of it, it would seem easy to be able to tell the good guys from the bad. In Afghanistan, however, nothing is straightforward or clear. You could never be certain if the Afghan police officers you were there to support, who you joked and shared food with, might return a day later enraged for some reason at your presence and turn their weapons on you. Whether inspired by genuine feelings of patriotism or the prospect of giving their families the protection of the Taliban, they were impossible to detect unless betrayed by others.

There was the constant threat of attack while on patrol, and the fear of being stranded without support, but everywhere you were at risk from intense assaults. It was on one such occasion, at around 13:20 on Sunday 1st August 2010, that you were shot, as you ran to assist your men at a checkpoint.

When I think of Afghanistan I always feel some despair. Even as an outsider I can see that the country’s potential, its varied culture, history and stunning landscape, has been obsured by the eccentricity, violence and cruelty of a few, and they have come to characterise it. Despite that I believe ardently that your efforts, and those of all the others who lost their lives there in this century, have not been in vain. There has been change for the better, the fact that girls are being educated and that women have taken part in elections is more than I might have hoped for as I stood in that shop in Portobello Road, but the cost has been so high. I hope that at least some of those whose lives have been improved through those sacrifices remember you. I know that your colleagues across the UK’s armed services continue to seek out and prevent further terrorist action every day.

There has been much debate this year about memorials, their relevance and value. What would you have made of it all? When your headstone was new the badge of the Scots Guards would have been a little difficult to make out. It can take strong sunlight to show up the details and those who don’t recognise that emblem might mistake it for a flower, or the sun. That seems appropriate, because what I have come away with is that for those around you it must, at times, have been like trying to look at the sun. What some remember most about you is that you excelled, others your warmth and kindness. There seems to have been a brilliance and style about you, a sense of purpose and ambition, that makes your loss an even greater tragedy. I cannot imagine what it must have been like and continues to be like for your family to know that you are gone, but I am as grateful to them as I am to you, because they made you who you were.

I hope that others, with sharper eyes, will seek you out to pay their respects, and know that we are in a safer world because of you.

The Scots Guards Charity

Text © Albertina McNeill 2020 with the exception of quotations. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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