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Thursday, July 24, 2014
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Maurillia Simpson - A brave soldier
A whistling sound was coming from the sky, so Maurillia Simpson instinctively looked up to see what it was. Two mortar rockets. She had just about enough time to bellow “incoming!” before she was buried under a wall that one of the rockets hit.
“I thought I was dead,” Simpson says, on a Skype call from England.
“Well, I didn’t know if I was alive or dead. And I started to sing His Eye Is On The Sparrow. You know that old gospel song? I was thinking of my surrogate mum. She used to sing me that song. It’s all I could remember to do. I was trying to say goodbye.”
It was 2007 and Simpson was coming to the end of her second tour of duty in Iraq with the British Army in Basra. She had been getting ready to shut down the base when she heard the whistling.
Buried under rubble, she could hear a voice calling to her “Simi,” the nickname the squaddies gave her, “we’re not going to leave you, we’re going to dig you out.”
It was a brush with death that became a frighteningly familiar pattern.
In three tours of Iraq, she witnessed the invasion in 2003, the withdrawal of British troops in 2009 and, in between, the ferocious militant insurgency and civil war which ripped through the country after Saddam had been deposed.
She came close to death on another occasion, on a night mission delivering supplies to the Blackwatch regiment, bedded down near enemy lines in a place called Amarah, several hours drive across the desert north of Basra. The convoy of 12 army trucks and Land Rovers she was leading unknowingly drove into a minefield.
“Blackwatch were undercover so you get to a certain distance and then they call you in on the radio,” she says.
“I saw a soldier come out, he must have been a Sergeant Major or a Staff Sergeant.
“He waved his hands, signalling us, so my commanding officer told me to verge off into the desert. After we’d gone a little way they came on the radio and told us to stop immediately and don’t move. He hadn’t been signalling for us to go that way, he was trying to tell us it was a literal minefield.”
Words cannot describe the feeling, she says, when her commanding officer then told her, “Private Simpson, put the tyres of the truck exactly where I tell you...just like you learned in training.”
The trucks behind her, weren’t in as deep and were able to reverse out. Simpson had to keep going forward, through the minefield.
“At that point I thought: why did I have that dream when I was seven years old!” she laughs.
Born in San Fernando, Simpson left school and home at 16, harbouring a dream she’d had since she was a little girl, “to join the British army and live where the Queen lives.”
While working a series of menial jobs and living with the family in Cascade who took her in as their own, “my surrogate parents” as she calls them, she took the T&T Defence Force exams and interviews, passed them, then waited interminably for the call to start training. It never came.
Her dreams of being a soldier were revived in 1999 when she was given a visa from the T&T government to move to England. She applied for the army three weeks into her stay after seeing an advert.
“Be The Best, it said. I couldn’t resist. There was six months of background checks then finally I was at training at Purbright in Surrey.”
She passed the tests with a score of 70 per cent and was assigned to the Royal Logistics Corps as a radio communications specialist and driver.
The camaraderie she felt later in her army career, bonding with her colleagues in combat zones, was in scant supply in the early days at Deepcut barracks.
Four trainees died at the base between 1995 and 2002. Officially their deaths were recorded as suicides, but the families have never accepted the army coroner’s version of events.
“The culture of the army was very hard,” Simpson says. “They say they’ve tried to put equal opportunities in place but there are times when you have to defend who you are and where you are from. It’s very stressful. When I joined I was the only black female in my regiment and I was older than the other NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers.) They couldn’t understand what I was doing there or why I wanted to be there.”
In Iraq things were different. Flown in on RAF air carriers, the privates each had their own tents to sleep in at first. “Just a tent and a mosquito net. There was no base at Basra in 2003, we were there to build it.”
A typical day involved a 12-hour shift working on the radio picking up messages from the infantry, recording and relaying their locations and whether they were engaged in combat with the enemy, giving her officers information to give the orders, “it’s like a chain reaction of events on the ground.
I was communicating with the air cover flying over scanning the area, giving instructions on taking evasive action, surrounded by maps, computer screens.
And all this with incoming fire and sirens going off left, right and centre.
You’re taking cover with your headset on, working under extreme conditions to save lives, never knowing what to expect, thousands of miles from home...”
She thinks that, ultimately, the occupation of Iraq, by British forces at least, left the Iraqi people better off than when they arrived. “By the time we left they had water, electricity, schools, bridges, jobs and humanitarian aid,” she says.
MEDICAL DISCHARGE AND TAKING TO THE STAGE
Simi talks in a hybrid of British accents, the Caribbean lilt almost gone. There’s some Mancunian in there and maybe a hint of Brummy (Birmingham). “You just pick up how other people say things,” she says.
One imagines that in the army, when your colleagues can’t understand your Trini dialect, you assimilate pretty quickly.
There were other Caribbeans in Iraq—Jamaicans, Vincentians and Grenadians—but she never met another Trini.
It’s a cruel irony that, having survived Saddam’s missiles and mines, Private Simpson’s career would eventually be ended by a civilian.
Posted to Germany in 2010 with the Engineers regiment she was preparing to be dispatched to Helmand province, Afghanistan by doing six months basic training.
Leaving the base on her bicycle one evening a motorist ran a red light, “buss a junction”, as she puts it, “and took me with him.”
She regained consciousness underneath the wheels of the car. Someone pulled her out and she was taken to casualty where they found she had ruptured the whole left side of her body. Particularly bad was her left femur which needed realignment surgery.
Eventually discharged on medical grounds in November 2013 she still cannot walk without the aid of a stick, several years after the accident.
She spent 2011 to 2013 in a personal rehabilitation unit and was based at Woolwich barracks at the time drummer Lee Rigby was hacked to death on a London street by Islamic extremists last May.
Just 41, her military career is over and though she has a basic army invalidity pension she hasn’t been awarded a war pension as she wasn’t technically at war when the accident happened. She received compensation but not the maximum amount. The army told her the accident was not their fault, though they accepted she had been on duty at the time.
She wasn’t offered a desk job for health and safety reasons, because she didn’t have the physical capability to run out of a building if attacked.
A case for loss of earnings against the driver is still to be concluded once her surgery and rehabilitation is complete.
Simpson doesn’t show signs of anger or frustration, though there must be a sense of fighting constant battles against life.
She’s now acting in a play, currently on tour in the UK.
It’s called The Two Worlds of Charlie F, written by the Welsh poet, Owen Sheers.
The cast is made up entirely of former soldiers. It’s a way of telling their story, she says.
“It’s about all wounded, injured and sick soldiers who were hurt while in service. It’s a play for all those who have used theatre to get their voices back.”
Produced by Alice Driver of the Help For Heroes movement, Simpson says Driver was inspired by a friend injured in Afghanistan who explained to her that for a soldier to be injured “you lose your sense of self worth, your dignity, your personality and what you always wanted to be.”
Having toured Canada, The Two Worlds of Charlie F is showing at regional theatres in England until June 14.
For further information about the play go to www.charlie-f.com/