Tell me about the circumstances behind your pieces Bill?
Harry’s suicide happened when I was in the army, during the mid-1990s. We’d been in the same platoon during our previous posting in Berlin, and had gotten quite friendly – I remember going out on the town on the last night of our tour there and a group of us, including Harry, staggering back home along the wide Berlin avenue’s signing Flower of Scotland at the top of our voices.
When the Regiment moved to Northern Ireland we ended up in different platoons, though we would still have a chat whenever our paths crossed. Halfway through our tour there something happened to Harry that sent him off the rails. He signed a couple of pistols out of the armoury and ran amok for a few hours, taking pot-shots at buildings, but without any apparent desire to harm others.
We were all confined to Barracks, but the final scenes played out on the parade square, which all the accommodation blocks looked onto. Harry, followed at a respectful distance by the camp guard (who had orders to shoot him if he presented an imminent threat to anyone) ended up on the helipad on the parade square.
In full view of his fellow soldiers he had a last shouted conversation with the base 2IC before he put a pistol to the side of his head and pulled the trigger. He was dead before he hit the ground.
We never did find out the reason behind Harry’s rampage and suicide, what factors drove him amok. There were rumours about a broken relationship with his girlfriend, but nothing was ever substantiated. It seems clear though that some form of stress drove him over the edge.
Watching the incident was both shocking and unreal. I’d liked Harry; we’d been friends, but it was perhaps the unreality of the situation that was the greater emotion. What had happened was so bizarre, so unexpected – Harry was generally quite a mild-mannered character and had seemed happy in a quiet and reserved way.
Because the whole episode had been so public (it was in the national press the next day) there was almost a collective response to it. The CO gathered the Regiment the next day and I remember him saying that we should remember the Harry of better times; “not the monster we saw last night”. I wonder now at that remark, because it downplays the episode in a way. If it was the work of a ‘monster’ then we don’t have to examine it in any detail.
However, if we think of that episode as the act of a man who was suffering, perhaps in response to stress or emotional distress, then it can be seen as preventable. It is also something that could happen to anybody.
When I was younger I perhaps saw suicide as a sign of mental weakness or instability. However, as I have experienced more in my life, I’ve come to appreciate how fragile our minds are, how sometimes we can lose control of our emotions, our confidence and self-worth. Again, in my youth I always believed in the myth of the true man as a lone wolf, that true masculinity meant not needing anybody else.
However, I now see that that idea is a fallacy, a vision propagated by an idealised macho culture that is toxic to true masculinity. All of us need the company and companionship of others. We are a social species and isolation is the worst thing you can do to a social animal.
Harry obviously felt a great deal of emotion, whether anger, sadness or despair before he took his own life. If he had been able to share that burden through talking then perhaps his death could have been averted.