Steven McLaughlin joined the Army after his brother was killed just as he was about to leave the forces. He tells AASMA DAY about his emotional journey and how he has finally achieved his dream of learning how to parachute.
It was almost a compulsion mingled with feelings of guilt which forced Steven McLaughlin to join the Army at the age of 30.
His brother Damian McLaughlin had been in the Royal Green Jackets, now known as the Rifles, for six years and was killed in a road traffic accident just as he was about to leave.
Steven, 43, who lives in Warton, near Preston, admits he lived vicariously through his brother’s career after being unable to join up himself because of poor eyesight and when Damian had talked about leaving the Army the year before, Steven had persuaded him to stay on.
Steven explains: “I tried to join the Army several times as a youngster but I couldn’t be a soldier because of my bad eyes.
“However, my brother Damian was able to join and I thought he was really lucky.
“He was serving in places like the Balkans, Kosovo and Serbia and at the time, I was a retail manager and was a bit envious of him.
“Damian had served for six years and had seen a tremendous amount of action. He had done three tours so he felt that he wanted to finish and return to civilian life.
“But I could not understand why he wanted to leave the Army as to me, it seemed like a fantastic boyzone adventure.
“I had leant on Damian very heavily to stay in the Army when he had been talking about leaving the year before and I think he felt the burden and responsibility and felt he had to stay in.
“Damian was 25 when he died in 2001 in a road traffic accident just as he was about to leave.”
Steven had laser eye surgery at the age of 22 and joined the Royal Marines.
However, when he had his medical for joining the Army, he neglected to mention his laser eye surgery.
After he had been in the Royal Marines for a month, he had his second medical and when the laser eye surgery was discovered, he was medically discharged. When Damian died, Steven had just turned 30 and around the same time, the Ministry of Defence changed the rules around laser eye surgery and if people had had it and their sight was stable, they were allowed to join.
Steven says that he felt compelled to join the Army more than ever after Damian’s death.
He explains: “I felt terribly guilty after Damian died as even though I had persuaded him to stay on in the Army, I had been really looking forward to spending a lot of time with him when he came home.
“When Damian joined the Army he was a boy, but during his service, he matured a lot and had become a man.
“He had everything to live for and I think he would have achieved a great deal within Civvie Street.
“I was looking forward to doing things together with Damian and when he died, I felt all that had been stolen from me.
“Before Damian’s death, I had accepted that it was not meant to be for me to join the Army.
“But after he died, it brought all those feelings back in a flash and I felt I had to join.
“I felt like it was now or never.
“I sensed that the door to the military was closing and that if I wanted to do it, I had to do it then.
“Damian’s death also ignited a sense of fatalism.
“I had a bit of a death wish and in the immediate aftermath of his death, I was almost suicidal in the risks I took and my involvement in extreme sports.
“When Damian died, I felt like the only thing I could do was join the same regiment he had been in.
“I needed to put myself in the line of fire.”
When Stephen joined the elite Royal Green Jackets, at the age of 30, he was their oldest ever recruit.
He says: “At that time, 26 was the maximum age to join the Infantry.
“But they let me join at the age of 30 because of my brother. Stephen spent three years in the Army and served on operational tours in Iraq and Northern Ireland.
He describes his time in the Army as: “A short, bloody, sentimental journey.”
When he was actually joined the Army, Steven realised the reality was very different from his fantasies. He says: “I found out myself that when you are actually doing the job and in the frontline, it is very different.
“It is very real, very dangerous and you are actually involved and are part of the problem and part of the solution. A few weeks earlier, you were siting at home watching it on the news.
“Then suddenly, you are on the ground and involved and it is no longer something abstract, but is a real problem.
“You are the enemy soldier who they want to kill.”
Stephen had hoped to parachute during his army career and was actually down to begin a parachute jumps course.
However, a badly broken arm while playing football scuppered his plans and he lost the opportunity.
Steve says: “When I broke my arm, I couldn’t go on the course and as I only served in the Army for three years, I ended up missing my chance.”
After leaving the Army, Steven wrote his critically acclaimed memoir Squaddie in which he wrote movingly of his experiences as an infantry soldier in one of Britain’s toughest regiments.
Since then, he has been a prominent “voice from the ranks” and has featured as a military commentator on numerous international news channels, including Sky News and the BBC World Service.
Steven has also served as a volunteer for The Prince’s Trust charity helping to lead and mentor young adults through its challenging 12-week team programme.
He has also undergone conflict resolution leadership training and has participated in peace talks with individuals who have been involved in violent armed struggles with former IRA, UVF and PLO members.
Steven is an accomplished sportsman and is a qualified Master Scuba Diver and an experienced martial artist.
He has been awarded an associate diploma in acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA).
Steven is a former doorman from some of Blackpool’s busiest clubs. He holds a black belt in shotokan karate.
As well as writing Squaddie, Steven is the published author of Clubland UK: On The Door in the Rave Era, which covers his time working on the Blackpool nightclub doors in the 1990s.
Steven believes his days working as a doorman taught him the skills he needed as a soldier.
He explains: “Working as a doorman helped me in the Army as I learned how to be diplomatic and not lose your temper and how to remain cool, calm and objective at all times.
“When you are working on the doors of clubs, you learn not to take offence even when you are subjected to some real abuse.
“This helped me out a lot in the Army as I learned that you can’t win every battle.
“Often you are outnumbered or outgunned.”
Steven had a rocky start to life before his successes.
He left school at the age of 15 with barely a qualification to his name and worked in a series of dead end jobs.
He once attempted suicide by slashing his wrists and he also has half a missing finger and a heavily scarred palm from a patrol which went badly wrong in Northern Ireland.
Before becoming a soldier and author, Steven was a retail manager and worked in Preston’s St George’s Shopping centre for Holland and Barrett.
At the back of his mind, Steven knew he wanted to fulfil his dream of parachuting, but his writing career kept him busy.
However, he decided to celebrate his 43rd birthday by performing two parachute jumps from 3,500ft in a skydiving plane over the Cumbria coast.
Steven says: “I’ve always wanted to learn how to parachute but I never seemed to find time as my writing career kept getting in the way.
“So I decided to take drastic action for my 43rd birthday and sought out a course before it was too late.”
Steven spent two weekends learning the basics at ground school before being let loose on the skies and completing two solo parachute jumps.
He explains: “The classroom stuff was pretty intense and I spent a lot of time in a harness learning emergency drills and how to land and roll safely –easier said than done I can assure you.
“But the instructors were fantastic and as I jumped out of the plane I felt completely icy-calm as they’d done such a great training me and instilling the safety drills.
“I’m glad I finally got to do it all these years later and I’d recommend it to anyone else who’s up for a bit of adventure.
“It’s an incredible feeling to see the world thousands of feet beneath you as you fly a chute and the sense of clarity and purpose you get is awe inspiring.”