How killing an Iraqi insurgent came back to haunt Army veteran from Sheffield – ‘I never denied it, but it was lawful’
For a boy like Gary Roberts, the Army was meant to be a life raft.
Expelled from school in Sheffield, and having promised himself he would leave his home city by his late teens, Gary found an escape by visiting a recruiting office just months from his 18th birthday.
By 1997 he was serving in the light infantry. He completed tours in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone, then in 2003 was deployed in Iraq as chaos began to reign following the American and British forces' controversial invasion.
Afterwards he entered the shadowy world of private military contracting – but in 2015, while in the middle of a posting in Africa protecting oil tankers from pirates, an episode from his past came back to haunt him.
In Basra he had killed someone for the first time, shooting dead an AK47-toting Iraqi insurgent with two bullets to the chest. The incident was picked up by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, an organisation that was shut down without any charges being brought, costing taxpayers £35 million – but for some time Gary faced a murder charge.
Consequently, Gary's new book, Seven Point Six Two: The True Story Of Soldiers For Hire In Iraq, represents what he believes is a first.
"I think I'm the first person to write a memoir about the IHAT and the Iraq war inquiries," says Gary, who claims the allegations team was politically-motivated – a way of making soldiers pay for the strongly-opposed military intervention.
"It was definitely political, and to be honest it was also money-making. The investigation side of IHAT was outsourced to various companies and they made a killing."
Gary grew up in Broomhill and High Green, attending Notre Dame high school in Ranmoor, where the headmaster asked him to leave in his final year over one misdemeanor too many.
He had long been fascinated with the Army, and was drawn to the force's office in Castle Market even as a 10-year-old, quizzically asking the troops there if he could sign up 'even if you're a Catholic'.
His grandfather had fought in World War One, and Gary was a proud soldier - even hitting upon a way to get his weapons cleaning kit to gleam by washing it in an industrial machine procured by his mother from the Northern General Hospital where she worked.
"A lot of people do say the Army gives you discipline but I don't think it does," he says. "The Army gives you self-discipline, and that's the difference between a professional Army and a conscript Army – discipline is only something you can receive if you want it, if you don't it's just pointless. I was quite a rambunctious teenager so it probably calmed me a little bit as well."
Gary writes in detail about the shooting that clouded his military career, describing it as a 'pre-emptive kill' that happened when members of his platoon were required to follow a pickup truck carrying a threatening-looking group of armed men.
Four individuals, he remembers, refused to get down from the vehicle.
"They're all armed," he writes. "I focus on one man who's sitting down with his rifle in an upright position, the butt on the floor and one hand on the barrel. I tighten my grip on my rifle. Suddenly, in a fluid motion, he stands... his rifle is aimed at one of the soldiers in my call sign. I bring my rifle up, aim. His index finger moves to the trigger. I shoot once, twice, in quick succession. Single shots, double-tap, an automatic decision. Time slows. The Iraqi falls... tries to sit up, then falls back down."
He recalls administering first aid straight away, and telling his captain that he fired the fatal shots, but adds: "To me there was no moral dilemma. Why? Because he was a clear and succinct threat."
The Royal Military Police deemed the shooting to be lawful and it was cleared at brigade level.
Today Gary points out the Iraq conflict was not a 'conventional war'. "There were no lines – there was no Iraqi Army there, they were rebels, insurgents, guerrillas. We fought unconventionally."
The military chiefs behind the invasion, he says, had not anticipated the insurgency was 'going to kick off in the way it did'.
"We'd been very successful in Afghanistan up until 2003," he says. "And then previous to that, all we'd had was Kosovo in 1999 which was a fast, free-flowing, mobile war that didn't last very long at all. I think there were times when people bought into that point of view that war, nowadays, is technology-based, quick and easy and that's how they planned it."
Becoming a private military contractor offered better pay - Gary earned more than an Army colonel and was able to invest in property in Sheffield - as well as regular visits home. He worked for a British firm contracted by the US Defence Department, undertaking hired-out tasks such as moving weapons, ammunition and vehicles around Iraq on convoys.
Some would call his kind mercenaries, a pejorative label, but Gary is ambivalent about the word.
"In every fighting battalion or regiment it was happening," he says. "One or two guys would go, people would see what they were doing and would want some of that. From 2004 to about 2008 guys were filtering out of infantry battalions and marine units to go and do that kind of work."
The reputation of private military companies suffered following the Nisour Square massacre in 2007, when employees from Blackwater – since renamed as Academi – killed at least 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad. Four guards were convicted in a US court for their part in the bloodshed.
"People think of the bad stuff," says Gary. "They think of the times it went wrong, but it's never reported when private security contractors and defence contractors enable engineers to bring sewage and water to a whole area of Baghdad, for example. It's a gigantic country and there was so much to do - everything from destroying old ordnance to power plants to water facilities."
He was finally interviewed, for four hours, by the IHAT investigators in January 2017, giving 'no comment' answers throughout. Gary says witnesses had 'collaborated' on statements.
"If this was a normal murder case - a killing on the street in the UK - the CPS would have thrown it out in two minutes," he says.
"There is no law that's been enacted that puts soldiers and potential crimes in a different sphere. They have to be looked at differently because it is a war zone, but normal domestic murder charges are not the way to go for that because contextually it's totally different. I never denied that I killed that person, I'm just saying it was lawful and I think that's totally different. It was a killing, I never denied it – but it was lawful."
IHAT, set up by the Labour Government in 2010 to look into allegations of abuse and torture made by hundreds of Iraqi civilians, was wound up in 2017 but this didn't end matters definitively for Gary.
"All that happened was the case was referred to the Service Prosecution Authority," he says. "I wouldn't say it keeps me awake but it's always going to be in the back of your mind. Look at Soldier F and Bloody Sunday, this can come back at any time."
Gary, aged 41, lives in the Rivelin Valley and is no longer a private military contractor, having quit to spend more time with the two children he has with his former partner. “I'm drawing a line under that part of my life,” he says.
He has a different job these days but, unlike some of his comrades, doesn't struggle with his wartime experiences. The book’s two glossaries contain a host of hair-raising terms – such as small arms fire, explosively formed penetrator and rocket-propelled grenade – that reflect Gary’s day-to-day reality in Iraq.
"I'm very lucky,” he says. “I don't know if it's because I'm thick or something, but basically I've learned to process it. I'm quite good at that."
Seven Point Six Two: The True Story Of Soldiers For Hire In Iraq is out now, published by Steel City Press and priced £12.99 in paperback.