A month ago Nigel Le Fanu was attacked on Mancunian Way. His callous mugger pulled a knife out and waved it aggressively, demanding the war veteran’s wallet and mobile phone. Reflecting on the attack, Le Fanu says: “As it is approaching Christmas, I just want to give a warning to all students – if the same thing should happen to you, don’t try and be a hero. Don’t try to be a big boy or a big girl.”
Arriving for our meeting, Nigel Le Fanu is dressed impeccably, complete in dark navy suit and old school tie. Sipping his coffee, he speaks slowly, but by no means minces his words. A wicked sense of humour belies the distress he regularly feels due to the way he is treated by others, particularly his fellow students; he has been the subject of derision by other students due to his disability, the result of a gunshot wound to the head whilst serving in Afghanistan.
This is obviously upsetting, but Le Fanu remains resilient: “They’re just ignorant. They stare and they laugh at me. I try to keep my feelings to myself and bite my tongue until I get home – but tell them I forgive them.” Whether it is getting sneered at whilst cycling past Owens Park, or students pointing and laughing around campus, this debasing behaviour is an unflattering depiction of our ‘enlightened’ times.
Currently in his first year of post-doctoral Astrophysics research into event horizons, black holes and neutrinos, Le Fanu is a unique character with a fascinating story. Speaking about his life and time in the armed forces, his words are beguiling, touching and at times harrowing, but they are certainly never tinged with self-pity.
Before coming to study at the University of Manchester, Le Fanu was in the armed forces for 24 years, as a Royal Marine. Joining in 1980, he made the rank of Major just a year later. The Marines’ have a fierce reputation. Le Fanu explains their nickname “Booties”, or “Bootnecks”, a moniker referring to the neck collars they traditionally made out of boot leather, in order to prevent sailors slitting their throats whilst they guarded officers aboard British ships.
On paper, the list of places in which Le Fanu served reads like a comprehensive history of British military intervention over the last thirty years. His illustrious CV includes time served in The Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan, yet he remains modest: “I can take the blood, bullets and bombs, but I don’t need any medals”.
On witnessing extremely active student groups debating and protesting the Israel-Palestine conflict around campus, Le Fanu reflects: “The conflict in Palestine has been going on since the year dot. I attended a talk on Palestine recently, and it struck me that more people should know about matters closer to home, like ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and the insurgency in Northern Ireland.”
Le Fanu described in graphic detail the horror that confronted him whilst serving in Bosnia: “Because of the nature of my capacity in the armed forces, I’ve seen horrible things. I saw pregnant women shot dead in the Siege of Sarajevo”.
Le Fanu took the decision to adopt a Bosnian orphan, with help from the British Consulate. Both of her parents had been Bosnian Muslims, murdered during the period of ethnic cleansing that marked the break up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She is now in her twenties and also lives in Manchester.
Being initially based in northern Iraq in 2001, deciding to move from one battleground to another, Le Fanu elected to be placed in Afghanistan, which is where he was wounded three years later.
“Six years ago I was tasked with taking command of ninety Royal Marines while posted in Afghanistan. We were stationed near the Kajaki Dam in Helmand Province. This was on my fifth tour of duty in the country. Each tour lasted six months. The Taliban had compounds approximately eight miles away from where we were stationed.
“We were given orders to take out the compound. This is what is known as a Tactical Advanced Battle. How long does it take you to walk eight miles? It took us two hours to reach the compound with all our weapons and ammo. We started to engage the enemy at 05:27. We were still taking incoming fire at 15:12, so I called in an air strike. A United States B1 bomber dropped 6,000 pounds of ordnance on the compound. Much to my consternation and perhaps even admiration they were still firing at us.
“An IED [Improvised Explosive Device] blew the arm and leg off a Marine in my command. He was only 22 years old. He was killed, then and there. But in a perverse way, [Le Fanu pauses] he was the lucky one. He died instantly.”
An all too common story, yet hearing these words from a fellow student, shocked me more than any news report could.
Le Fanu then makes a point of showing me the exact spot on the left side of his head, where he was shot during his sixth and final tour.
A widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the current war in Afghanistan is that those on the frontline are simply not being given the sufficient equipment needed: “We simply didn’t have the equipment we needed to do the job. There aren’t enough Snatchers (Purpose-built jeeps), and for 10,000 troops there are only eight Chinook helicopters, two of which are used for medical emergencies.”
I am shocked and appalled to discover that a typical Royal Marine earns the equivalent of £2.18 a day while on tour: “If you’re thinking about joining the armed forces,” Le Fanu intones, “approach me in the Union bar, I’m willing to give you advice.”
I feel humbled by the stories that Nigel Le Fanu chose to share with his fellow students, and find it difficult to stop thinking of his final words to me: “Those of us who were injured bear the legacy of the Blair/Brown ‘ideal’ in so much as they want something for nothing. This sentiment is shared by most people who work in the public sector.”
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