Haunted by the soldier who once feared I was about to kill him, I had to track down - and beg forgiveness

Falklands: A Royal Marine of 40 Commando searches an Argentine prisoner at Port Howard on West Falkland, following the surrender of the Argentinian armed forces in the Falklands war

Falklands: A Royal Marine of 40 Commando searches an Argentine prisoner at Port Howard on West Falkland, following the surrender of the Argentinian armed forces in the Falklands war

Returning from the Falklands in 1982, I was in a mess. Not physically, because I had gone through that war in the South Atlantic with barely a scratch. But the experience had deeply affected me in ways I didn’t understand.

It was great to be home in one piece and among my loved ones, but I was struck by how normal everything looked. People were just getting on with their lives. They had no idea what we had seen and been through, and I thought most of them were probably not that interested, either.

The war and my part in it became like a dirty secret for me. But deep down I felt a mixture of guilt and anger. Why had my mates had to die? Depressed and introspective, like hundreds of other veterans, I started drinking heavily and getting into fights. I went on some epic binges and brawls.

I was on the skids. The line between becoming an alcoholic or ending up in jail and going on to make something of my life was a very, very fine one.

But make something of myself I did. I got married to Alison, an Army nurse, and we started a business running nursing homes for the elderly. It was a shrewd move. The population was ageing and there was a growing market.

I was still haunted by ghosts of the Falklands. I remembered my mates who had died and a young Argentinian who had tried to surrender, but been shot anyway. But I kept my feelings bottled up. I felt I was the only one going through this hell, unaware that thousands of veterans were also experiencing what came to be defined as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

My coping mechanism was to focus totally on the business. I thought I could shut down my emotions by keeping myself busy. We opened our first care home in 1992 and I never looked back. Alison wasn’t so keen. She wanted to stay small, but I had huge ambitions and was always looking for opportunities to expand.

She increasingly took a back seat and I saw less and less of her and our two kids. Finally, after 12 years of marriage, we parted company and I threw myself even more into work.

Between 2003 and 2011, I opened another 19 care homes; the business was soon turning over £3 million a year. I was also enjoying the trappings of wealth. I flew my own  helicopter. I travelled the globe, trekking through mountains, sky-diving and scuba-diving. I also met Maggie, my new partner.

In short, I had sorted myself out. Or so I thought.

Reunited: Tony Banks, right, met with Omar Tabarez at his home near Buenos Aires, where he gave him his trumpet back

Reunited: Tony Banks, right, met with Omar Tabarez at his home near Buenos Aires, where he gave him his trumpet back

I was asked to take part in the Channel 4 reality TV series The Secret Millionaire, in which self-made millionaires such as myself go anonymously into tough communities and try to make a difference with their money.

My destination was the run-down inner-city area of Anfield in Liverpool. Among its mean streets of boarded-up terrace houses with a menace about them more like Beirut than the Britain I knew, I came across compassionate, warm, caring and committed people I could help.

Among those was a former soldier named Lee Sanger, who was doing voluntary work. I helped him tidy up an elderly lady’s garden and we got talking. He had been in Iraq and was still haunted by crippling flashbacks.

It was in his company that, with no warning, I broke down in tears, crying like a baby in front of the cameras. I had reached a watershed. I had seen mates burned and blown to pieces in the Falklands and never shed a tear.

But now I could not stop, overwhelmed by pent-up feelings about the futility and stupidity of war and wasted lives.

'Overwhelmed by pent up feelings, I cried like a baby'

At the end of the programme, I revealed my identity and gave Lee £30,000 for the charity of his choice — Combat Stress, the organisation that helps traumatised war veterans such as him and, as I now realised, me.

Only nutcases can fail to be affected by war, and my earlier history of anger, insularity, relationship difficulties and alcohol abuse had been classic. I remembered getting p***ed and fighting people in pubs, or sitting at home depressed, not wanting to see anybody, drinking on my own until 4am. I had been in distress and had not known it.
I was shocked to learn that 300 British Falklands veterans have committed suicide since returning from the South Atlantic — more than the 255 guys we lost there.

These were anguished souls. A former 2 Para sergeant who, like me, fought at Goose Green, handcuffed himself to the steering wheel of his car, doused himself with petrol and set himself on fire. Another ex-para threw himself out of a light aircraft without a parachute.

It is estimated that around one in ten of the 30,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who served in the Falklands conflict has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. In my own small way, I was one of them. I had just been a young laddie, and ever since had tried to bury my feelings.

I still had one souvenir from my war, a silver regimental trumpet I had snatched from an Argentinian prisoner as he was getting on the boat to go home in defeat. His name was on it — Omar Rene Tabarez.

Journey: A grainy picture taken during a break in the fighting on the Falklands with Tony Banks wearing a woollen hat standing in the centre

Journey: A grainy picture taken during a break in the fighting on the Falklands with Tony Banks wearing a woollen hat standing in the centre

What had happened to him? Was he still alive? How did he feel about the Falklands and me? I decided to find him and give him back his trumpet.

I could not imagine that a 2 Para veteran would be the most popular visitor to Argentina, but at least it might be a way to conclude a crucial chapter in my life, and move on.

An investigator tracked down Omar for me. He was now a history teacher living with his wife and children in a little town near Buenos Aires. I had no idea how he would react to my getting in touch. He might just slam the door in my face, or even have me arrested for stealing the trumpet.

As I drove to his home in the summer of 2010, I was apprehensive. The Falklands issue was still very much on the agenda. There were ‘Malvinas’ bumper-stickers, window posters, flags, graffiti everywhere. To people there, the Malvinas are as Argentinian as the tango, Eva Perón and Maradona. Reclaiming the islands is enshrined as a constitutional goal, and schoolchildren are taught of the supposed injustice of British rule.

However, I encountered no personal ill-feeling or enmity — and Omar was no exception. He was really glad to meet up and to get his trumpet back after nearly 30 years. From its case, he took out the prized possession and sounded out bugle calls that had not been played on it since the Falklands.

I was choking back the tears. ‘This act shows you’re a man of deep honour,’ he told me.

For the first time, I found out about my former enemy. He was from a poor, working-class home and as a boy joined a band run by his parish priest. That was how, aged 15, he came to enlist in the musical branch of the army.

When he and his mates were told they were off to reclaim the Malvinas in 1982, he felt a surge of national pride. But they never thought it would come to a war. The British Government would be forced to the negotiating table, they believed. They had not reckoned on Maggie Thatcher’s resolution.

'You're a man of deep honour,' my former enemy said

On the island, the troops were bored, cold and poorly fed. They were lied to — told the British were on drugs and the Gurkhas were raping, castrating and shooting prisoners, as well as slitting the throats of an entire company.

They were led to believe that the Canberra, the main British troopship, had been sunk (which it hadn’t), but told nothing about their own warship, the Belgrano, sent to the bottom by a British submarine.

Omar was stationed at the airport in Port Stanley, which had come under sustained air attack from British planes. He had been scared. He had seen friends die. He played his trumpet over the dead as they were buried.

The effect was on his face, literally. His dark Latino skin had lost its pigmentation and was pale, the result of a condition called vitiligo, induced by the stress of his wartime experiences.

He suffered flashbacks, nightmares and depression. During a thunderstorm, he pushed his infant son under the bed, convinced they were being bombarded by artillery shells. He has also suffered from depression.

One especially disturbing dream still haunts him — ‘my zombie-like comrades are coming down the bleak hillsides of the Falklands towards me, pleading for help, walking on bloody stumps that once were legs’.

He told me: ‘The war did not stop in 1982,’ he told me. ‘It goes on for life.’ His experience chimed with my own.

But at least I had been on the winning side. The Argentinians, I learned, had been told that, if they surrendered, the British would massacre them, and they believed it. One man, injured by a mortar, was taken to a British hospital ship and begged not to be killed. To his relief, the doctor told him: ‘I am here to cure you, not to kill you.’

One of Omar’s most terrifying moments was when he was on a ship being ferried off the island. British soldiers had their guns trained on the captives when suddenly the sides went down. He was certain ‘we were all going to be shot and thrown over the side. In fact the British were simply throwing their rubbish into the sea’.

Inner peace: Returning to the Falklands was a cathartic experience for Tony Banks (centre) who went back with Jim Foster (left) and Wayne Rees (right)

Inner peace: Returning to the Falklands was a cathartic experience for Tony Banks (centre) who went back with Jim Foster (left) and Wayne Rees (right)

Omar introduced me to other veterans. It felt strange to be with guys I had once tried to kill and who had killed some of my mates. To any who challenged me over the islands, I said: ‘I have no animosity towards Argentina. I was sent to the Falklands to do a job. I am not here to change history. I just came here to return something that was not mine.’

We had a common bond of humanity and the unifying experience of the ordeal of war.

Gradually they opened up on a subject I knew nothing about — how badly the 14,000 Argentinians soldiers were treated by their own side, on the Falklands and back home.

Many of ‘los pibes Malvinas’ — the Malvinas boys — had been plucked from remote villages for their one year of national service. They were given a smattering of military training and then subjected to weeks of high-explosive terror.

The treatment of these conscripts by their officers was horrific. There are numerous stories of men staked out for hours in wet and freezing conditions as a punishment.

One ex-combatant, whose organisation is trying to bring 70 former officers to justice, told me: ‘We were cannon fodder in a war we could not win. We lived in terrible conditions. We did not have proper equipment or sufficient food supplies to survive the cold temperatures. Our own officers were our greatest enemies. They supplied themselves with whisky, then they disappeared when things got serious.’

Another former conscript remembered having to survive in flimsy tents in sub-zero temperatures. ‘Our officers refused to issue proper rations. We were starving and would steal food if we got the chance. But if you were caught, they would peg you to the ground and leave you crucified for hours in temperatures of minus-20, with rain and even shelling.

‘I was caught by a corporal stealing a tin of meat. He made me kneel down and pointed his gun at my head. I was begging him not to shoot. I cannot forgive our officers. They were our worst enemies, torturing us physically and psychologically.’

They even sexually abused the young conscripts, according to some reports.

All smiles: Tony Banks takes a break from exercises in the tropics with friends in D Company 2 Para

All smiles: Tony Banks takes a break from exercises in the tropics with friends in D Company 2 Para

Then, when the 14,000 troops got back to Argentina, they faced a different sort of abuse — they were simply written out of history as an embarrassing reminder of a failed gamble and a national indignity.

The Argentinian Army blamed the conscripts for the defeat. Young men who had risked their lives for their country were whisked away to barracks and told not to speak of the Malvinas. Many had to sign a declaration to remain silent.

In the years to come, they were shunned by society and employers, with many suffering active discrimination. And many slipped into mental health problems and alcohol and drug abuse. Thirty years on, half of the Argentinian veterans are still unemployed.

For years, penniless, unemployed veterans — who were also denied a state pension — were a regular sight on the Buenos Aires Metro, begging in order to raise money for wheelchairs or false limbs. Hundreds have committed suicide since the end of the war.

One threw himself from the top of the 210ft-high Monument to the National Flag. He was 38 years old and left behind six children.

‘We were ignored,’ I was told by a leader of the Federation of War Veterans. ‘We were nobodies. Nobody wanted to talk to us, give us healthcare or jobs. We came back from a campaign where our friends were killed to a country that viewed us as letting them down.’

After much campaigning, the veterans have won recognition for their plight, and now receive pensions and healthcare. But post-traumatic stress disorder is still a problem there, as it is in Britain.

It is dreadful to think that after all these years, men from both sides are still suffering and dying as a direct result of that short, sharp, brutish conflict in the South Atlantic.

So was the war worth it? Did my mates and I pay too high a price to keep possession of this little group of islands that lie just 300 miles from the shore of Argentina and 9,000 miles from ours? I felt the need to go back to the Falklands to find the answer.

Adapted from Storming The Falklands, by Tony Banks, published this week by Little, Brown at £20. © 2012 Tony Banks.  To order a copy for £16.99 (incl p&p) call 0843 382 0000.

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