A Soldiers farewell to Ulster by Col Bob Stewart

I thought this was interesting. I hope I have got it on the right forum and that it hasn't been posted before.

Really sorry, I just can't seem to get this link on. Here is a cut and paste job.

Soldier's Farewell To Ulster

Guardian Unlimited Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Royal Welch Fusiliers, when they leave South Armagh, will be the last infantry battalion deployed to Northern Ireland on a six month emergency tour. This, more than anything else, shows me that Ulster may be getting back to normal - whatever that is. It is great news. Peace was what the huge numbers of British officers and soldiers who served there and risked their lives were sent to accomplish. Mission achieved - maybe.

Until the recent past, the only decoration a full generation of soldiers boasted above the left-breast pocket of their dress uniforms was the General Service Medal (Northern Ireland). Until the early 1990s it was really only in Ulster that we carried out real operational service and truly risked our lives.

I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1969 just as the Troubles started. Just a few months later I was deployed to Northern Ireland on my first operational tour. I was 20 years old - inexperienced and more than a little frightened. I found it very difficult to believe that I was leading 30-plus armed soldiers on the streets of my own country. I felt that very strongly indeed.

Our orders were unsettling too, forbidding us from opening fire except in very dire circumstances. Having our hands tied behind our backs while fighting a ruthless enemy with scant regard for anyone's life quickly became a feature of British soldiering in Northern Ireland. As soldiers we were always to resent such restricting orders and felt strongly that we lost friends as a consequence of political rather than military logic.

I will never forget the six comrades I lost when I commanded A Company of 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment on December 6 1982 at Ballykelly. In total, 17 people - civilians and soldiers - died in agony that night. The young men who died were soldiers by choice I know, but their deaths achieved nothing for the terrorists. I remember how, in despair on the bomb site that night, I cursed the disgusting, inhuman people who did it. Although the men and women who placed that bomb were later caught and served a short prison sentence, I feel they never received their just deserts.

The Ballykelly bomb and other equally appalling events have deeply scarred, both mentally and physically, so many of my friends and comrades. It is not just dead soldiers who have given much for Ulster. Combat stress is alive and well even today.

Yet like so many of my generation I learnt my trade in Northern Ireland. It was the most real battle experience we were all likely to have. It was in Londonderry that I came under fire for the first time. It was there that I experienced the stultifying inaction that fear induces. It was there I witnessed the gallantry of so many of the soldiers I commanded. It was there that I learnt what a privilege it was to command such men.

Many others have already stated how operationally important long experience in Northern Ireland has been and I entirely endorse that. Perhaps we can thank operations there for making our fighting men and women the best soldiers in the world. Personally I became the officer I was because of repeated visits to Northern Ireland. But yet I know such experience has been at great cost.

· Colonel Bob Stewart was the UN commander of British troops during the Bosnian war
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