Former army medic from Northumberland shares his story

Wayne Kavanagh was an army medic from Northumberland who served in Afghanistan. His story is a tale of humour,  friendship, boredom – and sudden outbreaks of violence. Chris Scott poses the questions

Wayne Kavanagh pictured in Afghanistan
Wayne Kavanag pictured in Afghanistan

I was based in Preston with 5 Med Reg. Travelled around a bit of the UK. Went to Wales and went to Holland a few times for various things. Served in Afghanistan for seven months and that’s pretty much what I’ve done.

How old were you when you first joined the army?

I was 18. I purposely waited until after I was 18 so I wasn’t training during my 18th birthday. But, yeah, I was 18 and went down to Winchester for my basic training and then went on to Aldershot for my medic training after that.

So what made you join the army?

There was no thought process before thinking ‘I want to join the army’. It was just something that presented itself and I found it quite interesting. I went into the careers office originally looking to join the engineers because I had been working with my dad, who is a builder, and then through talking with them about that and looking at the opportunities, I decided I’d give the medic thing a crack.

What did your parents think?

They were quite happy, quite supportive. There was no disagreement or anything like that. There was no pressure to do it but again no pressure not to. They just kind of let me get on with it really.

And why the medics?

I don’t know. I think it got glamorised into the think of like, you know, Saving Private Ryan, where you see the medic running around at the start and that. It kind of got sold to us that way so it seemed like quite a glamorous job in a way. It wasn’t but you know.

Army medical helicopters
Army medical helicopters
 

What was training like?

It’s just basically learning how to be a soldier. They break you down to build you back up into what they want really.

They’d just put you down like setting you deadlines you probably couldn’t do like coming in from doing some [physical training] and you’d have to get in, get showered, get out in 10 minutes and that’s everyone.

And you know you’re never going to do it but everyone runs around and then you come down and if you’re late there’s some kind of punishment; press ups, running around the camp, something like that.

[I got punished] but I think everyone did. You couldn’t get through it without [getting in trouble]. It’s one of those things where you hate it at the time, but when you look back you do realise you enjoyed it and miss it in a way because you do form quite tight bonds with the people. You’ve all got to pull together otherwise you’ll never get anywhere.

What did your medical training involve?

Quite a lot of it at the start was learning about the body. So like the anatomy, physiology side of it. Then you learn individual skills and team skills, pretty much how to function as a medic in a battlefield.

A lot of it is trauma based as that’s what you’d expect to find in a battlefield and then sort of primary health as well. So that’s just normal illnesses and stuff.

Stuff that you’d go to the doctors for generally. So you’d be responsible for that day to day care of people. It was a bit of a mix but mainly trauma.

I then spent time in a medic centre in Wales just continually learning.

That’s what it was like, just continually topping up your knowledge to make sure you were ready.

Basic training was about 12-14 weeks and my medical training was about six months.

After you complete this training what happens then?

You just get posted to a field unit. You all start in a medical regiment as a medic so I went up to Preston and joined 5 Med Reg.

It changed names loads but at the time it was 5 General Support Medical Regiment.

So you would just be there and work as a medical unit and then be deployed as a medical unit as I was when I got deployed to Afghanistan.

What were your emotions like when you found out you were being deployed?

It was kind of expected. When I got to the unit, they’d just deployed a month before and there was the opportunity to go out which I did pursue, but it didn’t happen.

I just thought it would be good to get that experience straight away and obviously get to know everyone over there as well.

It was one of those that you knew it was coming. It ran it cycles. Like it would be every year and a half to two years you’d expect something to come your regiment’s way with regards to deployment. There’s a lot of training before it.

All your medical skills are topped up as high as they could, there’s a lot of physical training as well so you’re pretty much peak fitness and peak medical knowledge as well before you went. So you felt confident in what you were doing.

Wayne Kavanagh and army colleagues
Wayne Kavanagh and army colleagues

How old were you when you first went out?

I was 21.

And no emotions of fear?

You wouldn’t be human if there wasn’t any fear at all. There’s always a bit of fear and you just try and push it out.

Like I was saying before about being a tight group, you get each other through it. You just have to push [fear] aside and focus on the job. I think the training is quite good for stuff like that. It will just kick in [in a dangerous situation] and you’ll just carry on and get on with it.

There was fear but never so much that it wouldn’t make us want to go or desperate to come home.

How boring was it over there?

It can be. It depends where you are. There will be days, weeks where very little happens but there’s always that threat there so while you may be bored you’ve still got to be quite vigilant at the same time.

You would find yourself not doing a lot during the day. You would maybe go out and do one or two patrols a day and then the time between that is not your own because you’ll have guard duties wherever you are.

Whether it be a small camp or an operating base you’ll always have little things to do; maintain your weapon, eat, rest, all those little things so you do get little things to do to keep you occupied but you still do find it boring in the context that you’re in a war zone and you’re sat around a lot of the time when you’re not on patrols and stuff.

Where were you in Afghanistan?

I got spread around quite a lot. As the medics we’re deployed as a regiment but we pretty much got dished out to all the different front-line units, like the infantry.

I started with the Grenadier Guards in Lashkar Gar (a city in southern Afghanistan) which is quite a nice place compared to some. It was nicknamed Lash Vegas so it wasn’t too bad! But again, we went out from there to more remote places.

After that, because you get a two week break halfway through the tour normally, but I got mine quite early and by the time I came back somebody had already replaced me [in my unit] so I was dotted about.

So any operation that was coming up, I’d get sent out as the medic for that. So I worked with quite a few.

I worked with the engineers, the Royal Welsh, the Yorkshire Regiment, the Lancashire Regiment and in the end I was training up the new people who were arriving and their medical skills as well. So I was spread around quite a bit.

Is travelling dangerous?

A lot of the travel is helicopter, predominantly getting out there would always be a helicopter.

You’d take off and land and that would be you. On occasions it would be road movements as well and that’s more worrying as the biggest worry in Afghanistan is the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), the buried explosives. The vehicles are designed to not be damaged by them. We went over one and it didn’t really do a whole lot to the vehicle.

It is always a panic moment. You hear the bang and you always panic because you never know was it your vehicle? Was it someone else? Is everyone all right? So any explosion really it always set you off and made you wary about what’s happening.

Wayne Kavanagh relaxing on a day off
Wayne Kavanagh relaxing on a day off

That must be difficult as a medic?

Any bang or any sort of incident, there would always be a scream for the medic straight away so I never really had the chance to think about what was happening or any danger to me. It was a case of just getting up, going and then dealing with it while you were there.

Any traumatic incidents?

There were quite a few [dramatic moments].

It would mainly catch you off guard when you had been asleep and there was an explosion and you’d just wake up and you’ve just got to throw all your gear on and just get there as quick as possible. I think the majority of medics I worked with did go through quite a lot, seen quite a lot and were dealing with quite a lot.

One that I’ll always remember, it wasn’t one of ours, it was a civilian and it seemed to be a total accident. That’s why it stands out a bit more.

We had an armoured vehicle which had a turret, large gun, on the front and there was a civilian driving past and we turned the turret to watch him and he sped off thinking we were going to shoot at him and then he drove over an explosive that shot him out about 20 feet the other way.

So we had to help him as it was pretty much our responsibility and we’d help any civilians anyway. By the time we got there, we got there quite quick, and he had both legs missing. He was all over the place. Just cuts, bits missing, the lot.

There’s a lot of times were you did see limbs missing, that was quite common.

Which, it’s strange because you never really see that in normal day to day life. You can probably go your whole life without seeing [someone missing a limb] and then it goes from extremely rare to extremely common while you’re out there.

[It probably wasn’t the worst injury I saw] The Afghan Army deal with their dead bodies and I saw quite a few bad ones there and there was a British one as well.

When I was coming back [to the UK], when I was flying home, I was just waiting to fly so I was covering in the ambulances.

So they’d come in on the helicopter, the ambulance would pick them up and then drive them straight to the hospital and there was one of ours there.

He had both legs missing and it seemed like he was going to make it because I was in the ambulance, in the back with him and he seemed quite stable but he died, I think it was the next day. He had multiple heart attacks and didn’t pull through.

I think that was the worst because I’d kind of wound down then and wasn’t really expecting to see anything really and that kind of caught us off guard at the end.

Former soldier, Wayne Kavanagh
Former soldier, Wayne Kavanagh

How do you deal with that?

I’d say you kind of block it out. I don’t know, the military has a weird way of dealing with death and injuries.

Humour seems to deal with a lot of situations but for stuff like [soldiers dying] you just block it out and think of other things. Just try and get on with it really and not let yourself think about it.

One of our medics he lost both his legs out on patrol. Obviously it was awful but it was one of those like I said where you deal with it with humour.

He survived and was fine, well as fine as you could be, but in the hospital all his mates were coming up to see him, giving him runners’ magazines and stuff like that to lighten the mood. So I think things like that get people through.

After your first tour did you want to go back?

It’s a difficult one, that. I never thought that I’d say I’d never go back, I would have went back if the opportunity presented itself because it was definitely an experience.

There’s loads of ways of describing what the experience could be, you could easily say it’s awful but you can say it’s enjoyable at the same time. It’s just different parts of the tour. One minute you’re loving it, then the next minute you hate it. It’s like one of those roller-coaster rides and it sort of makes you want to go back and experience it again.

I don’t think there is many that join the army that would join thinking well, I’m never going to go to war. I mean you accept that it’s kind of part of the job.

What was the best part?

I’d say the best part was, as I said I kept getting bounced around, I kept bumping into my friends. In the most remote places we’d just come across another patrol and one of my mates would be the medic there.

It was weird because it kept happening, I think it happened about four or five times which is quite rare.

Made us worry a bit as well because they were pretty much doing all the dodgy stuff! So when I saw them I was thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ It was good though, it was nice. It’s good to see your friends out there when you’re not expecting it.

Were there any dangerous missions you went on where you thought you might not come back?

Not really, no. I never really thought about it. There was the odd time when you’d be walking along on a patrol where I’d just think like ‘Am I really here?

It was a bit surreal. I would look down and see the camouflage on my legs, I’m walking along in a desert, it just takes you back for a moment and you think ‘Am I really here?’

But I enjoyed it. I never really thought I wasn’t going to make it back but there was plenty of times we were getting shot at and we were pinned down in irrigation ditches and couldn’t really move.

I don’t know, you always had confidence that whoever is in charge would be able to get you out and you always had support.

The air support was great as well. We’d always get a jet or a helicopter in to help you out.

There was one mission where we were working quite closely with the Afghan Army, we were just going to check out a compound that was making explosives.

Wayne Kavanagh, from Seahouses, Northumberland
Wayne Kavanagh, from Seahouses, Northumberland

We were lined up across the edge of a field by an irrigation ditch and we sent the Afghan Army in to have a look round and that all went fine. They didn’t really find anything. But when they were coming back we came under quite heavy fire.

There was a tree about 30 metres away and there was machine gun fire coming from that and that went on for quite a bit.

Another one, I think it was called the biggest gun fight of the operation so far which went on for about six hours.

There was a half built hotel across the road and we were in a police station with the Afghan Army and the Taliban managed to get up on to high levels of the hotel and they were firing down on us from there and as I said that went on for quite a while.

We ended up needing an Apache helicopter to come in and bail us out pretty much and then special forces came in and cleared the building.

Did you deal much with local Afghans?

Yeah, that was quite a big deal. It was the start of aiming more towards aiming more towards winning the hearts and minds of the locals rather than just taking the fight to the Taliban.

There was a big push of that to just get the locals onside and be as nice as you can to them. Whenever you’d see the kids as well, they’d run up to you and you’d give them a sweet or a pen or something like that, they’d love it. There was quite a lot of interaction.

Obviously, there’s a language barrier, they’d understand a little bit of what you could say, you would understand a bit of what they could say. But there was always the effort there to speak to them and engage.

You can never tell who the Taliban are, though. There’s no Taliban uniform. They are literally the locals, the farmers and they could greet you one day and then be shooting at you the next.

Then again they could also support you but when you move away, that area could be run by the Taliban who could beat them for simply interacting with us or they think they’re giving us information. So it’s a tense one for them as they’re not really sure who to put their allegiance to.

It was nice interacting with the locals. It definitely grounded you more, I’d say. Like you’re not there in a computer game just shooting at bad guys, you’re there helping and you see the people who you are trying to help. So it made it a lot easier to get through I think.

Did you meet any of the other nations?

It was mainly the Americans you would come across. They were all right. They’re enthusiastic, I’ll give them that.

We didn’t do too much with them. A lot of road clearances and getting rid of bombs. The enthusiasm is definitely there with the Americans, they’re enthusiastic about everything where as I’d say the British are a bit more reserved!

Why didn’t you go back?

When you come back there’s always a wait to go back. You can’t do back-to-back tours.

You had to wait a while and by then I’d decided I’d gotten everything out of the army that I wanted anyway and I decided to leave. Once I finished my Afghanistan tour I had done everything I had wanted to do. There was no plan when I went into the army where I would do five or six years or forge a career for myself and so I just thought if I stayed in I’d just be doing the same again. I was 23 when I came out in 2011.

The idea of university appealed to me when I came out but I didn’t really know how to go about it. I came out and just got a bar job to just keep me going. Then I applied to Durham and got myself in there so it fell into place nicely but there was no concrete plan.

Does the government help?

There’s not really been any support to be honest since I came out of the army.

No one has offered to help that I can think of. I know there is bits in place that you can access funding to help with courses. With the funding you get anyway through student finance there’s never a great need but funding is there for getting a new career you can. But once you leave the army that’s it really. There’s no one checking up and seeing if you are all right. You’re just forgotten about, really.

Wayne Kavanagh and colleagues
Wayne Kavanagh and colleagues

Extensive training going into the army, what’s it like coming out?

There was a great deal of support that I can think of. I think the longer you have done, they’ll give you more time off in your final year to let you go off and do courses and prepare you for work but I wouldn’t say there’s too much to prepare you for blending back into civilian life.

Obviously going from such an institutionalised place to the general public which is so varied, it is quite difficult to start with but you get more and more used to it as time goes on.

I think in the army you’re taught this is how you should be doing this or that and then you come out and see such a varied society. A lot of it I think personally stems out of people you see day to day who have no interest in doing anything; earning, providing or anything like that, that they’ll just coast by and live off just hand outs really.

I think about that and then about what the army, not just myself, go through and is that really what we’re fighting for? People with no ambition. I like to see people with ambition and the desire to succeed and do something which I think the army gives you the chance to do.

The army always gives you the chance to do more and be more where as you don’t really see that in general civilian life.

I would definitely like to see something like that introduced here. Especially with my medic qualifications for example, it’s an army qualification so it means absolutely nothing when I leave the army.

In terms of trauma especially we’re extremely competent. It’s along the lines of a paramedic, obviously not as skilled, because you’re more focused on one thing where a paramedic will have a variety of disciplines they can perform. So they’re obviously more skilled than you but you’re not too far off to be honest.

But there’s no recognition at all for your qualifications. I don’t know whether it’s a retention thing so people don’t think of I’ll come in get my qualifications and then leave straight away but even if there was a transference of skills, that would be a start. But definitely I think that would be a good idea because it allows you to leave the service and then progress on.

There are quite a few of my friends who have come out and gone on to be paramedics or be nurses so some of the skills taught in the army does go back into civilian life. But they had to start at the very bottom again when they came out. So realistically, they could have done that without the army training. It may have made the course slightly easier but there’s no real help there I suppose.

I’m still interested in the physiology side of things and even the psychological side of things but teaching has always appealed to me, to be a PE teacher is something I think I would enjoy.

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