Hero Simon Battles On
By Samantha Rea
In the first half of a two-part interview for Sorted, Simon Weston talks about losing friends, forgiving enemies and battling on.
Q: You’ve received an OBE, a CBE and an honorary doctorate – to name just a few of your awards and honours! Which ones mean the most to you?
As a soldier, I saw my fair share of aggression and roughness and I was a part of some of it as well, but what left a mark on my heart more than anything was kindness, decency and humanity. Moments of heroism, moments of courage – moments of sheer terror, and people doing it anyway. That’s what stays with me more than anything else. That’s why the awards mean so much to me, because it’s a recognition of my efforts. It’s really kind that somebody nominated me and I always feel thrilled.
All the awards are immensely emotive, and each one is special in its own way – particularly the ones voted for by the general public.
The Freedom of the City of Liverpool was special because Liverpool took me to their hearts. I was supposed to get the f award on 11 September 2001, but as I was putting my tie on, in my mother-in-law’s back bedroom in the Wirral, I was looking at the TV and I saw the aeroplane flying into the Twin Towers. I knew I wouldn’t be getting the award that day – instead, it took place in the New Year and it was wonderful. My mother-in-law had her leg in a cast and people see these things as disastrous, but all her family are mickey takers and it was funny!
I got the Freedom of the City in Nelson, New Zealand – and I’m from a little village called Nelson in the south of Wales. They took me to a rugby match and put on a spectacular ceremony. I’d been living in a tent for four months, so I didn’t even have a tie, let alone a suit. But I was in my mid-20s and although I may have looked odd, all puckered and burnt, I was having a ball!
The university awards are huge. I had one in Portsmouth where my speech got a standing ovation – they’d never seen that before. When I look at the medals I’ve got, the ones that mean the most to me, but which I emotionally dislike the most, are where I served in different combat zones and people died. They mean the most to me because they remind me of my friends. But they’re also like teardrops on my chest, because they were achieved by someone else’s suffering. And by my suffering as well, but losing friends is one of the hardest things. You love your family, but your friends choose to be your friends – and that’s a choice about compassion, kindness, laughter, humanity, comradeship and loyalty, and a bond that hopefully nothing can shake. That’s what the medals mean to me. They make me feel proud, but they make me feel sad at the same time.
I’m always shocked when I’m awarded something because I don’t set out for an award. It’s not like running a marathon where you expect a medal to say you took part. I do the things I do because I genuinely want to make a difference.
Q: You’ve become friends with Carlos Cachon, the Argentine pilot who dropped the bomb that caused your injuries. How did that come about?
I was offered the chance to meet Carlos for the first TV documentary being made about me. I’d always wanted to meet him because I had terrible nightmares about this black jet, and this hooded spectre with demonic blazing red eyes. This would happen almost every night, at two or three o’clock in the morning. My wife would wake up and I’d be in a bath of sweat – it must have been terrifying for her.
I flew to Argentina, and when the day came to meet Carlos, I was so nervous. I stood waiting in this opulent apartment in Buenos Aries, and when Carlos came in the door, we had this very cold stand-off. He was looking at me and I was looking at him. I’m only 5ft 10 and he’s a little bit shorter, and I felt hugely powerful because I felt this surge of adrenaline go through me. I went through the whole gamut of emotions, but worst of all was wondering: ‘Is he a nice guy? Is he a horrible guy?’ But he took my game away from me – he came closer, caught me by my upper arms and kissed me on both cheeks.
Carlos and I spent time chatting and it was the most cathartic experience. I achieved so much mentally and got so much out of it, that when I had a chance to meet him again, I didn’t want to, because I was worried it would disrupt that. So I sat in the car and he came out and spoke to me.
When we met another time, he said: ‘Come with me, jump in the car, we’ll drive in my car.’ I thought, OK, another chance to get to know him better. So I jumped in the passenger seat, and he said: ‘I’m not too sure of my way around Buenos Aires completely, so go in the glove box and get out the map.’ I opened the glovebox and there was this great big 45 calibre pistol! I thought: ‘God, he’s come back for another go!’
When you look at the Afghan war, and the Iraqi war, they won’t get the chance to meet these people and befriend them. I was involved in the last conventional conflict that Britain was in, in that the other side wore uniform, they took a position and we took a position and we did what we did – although the tactics and weapons were different.
I’ve since met Carlos in London and at home in Wales. He’s turned out to be an incredibly decent human being and it would be lovely to meet him in Argentina again, without the glare of cameras. War makes strange bedfellows of people, because we’re both doing our country’s bidding. It’s not our individual desire to hurt the other – when you’re in war, you’re in war.
Q: How easy was it to forgive Carlos?
I never really had hard feelings towards him. I understand other people that do, but he’d joined the Argentine air force many years before, and he’d been training for years to do what he did. We had been in exactly the same situation.
Although Carlos was responsible for the bombing, there are people who carry a greater weight of culpability for what happened to us. We were forced to set sail late, because there was a problem with the Sir Galahad, the ship we were on. A 500lb bomb had hit her two days previously, and it was still lodged in the toilets, near where I was. They were removing that when we got on board. They dropped it into the San Carlos Water, then they were welding up the hole. That delayed us eight hours, which put us on a sunny morning that made it easy for Carlos and the rest of his flight to find us. Then, because we didn’t have any boats to get us off it, we were sitting ducks.
I know who carries responsibility for what happened to us, but I’ve never spent time looking for retribution. We live in a blame culture, but I’ve never looked for anybody to blame.
Q: How have you coped in lockdown?
There have been times during this lockdown that I’ve been in tears. Not because of me, but listening to other people’s stories. You think: ‘My God, I feel so sorry for you!’ I’ve also witnessed many acts of human kindness – it’s heart-warming.
I had a touch of Covid back in January. For nearly four days it was painful to move – every bit of me was aching and my cough was so painful. I sat in the chair, because I breathe better sitting up, and that’s where I stayed for four days. My wife ran around after me, thankfully, but it worked its way through the family. My mother had it too, and she’s 80 with underlying health problems. She had almost no oxygen getting to her, and she didn’t get rid of her cough for two months. But we didn’t know about Covid at the time, so we’re only just putting it together that we had it.
During lockdown I’ve been training in the garage. I’ve got gym equipment in there, and my wife, my daughter and myself have FaceTime coaching from a friend. He tells us what to do with weights and bands. We get sweaty, tired, and drink a lot of water – then thank him for the privilege of him telling us to beat ourselves up.
My wife cut my hair because it was depressing me something terrible. I’ve got no hair down the back of my head, but it’s down the sides and on the top, and it was blinking awful. It looked like rat tails and it was annoying me, blowing in what little bit of ears I’ve got left. My son’s a barber, so he was on FaceTime from Amsterdam, tutoring my wife, while my daughter held the phone so he could see what my wife was doing. My wife did a brilliant job and my son was rightfully thrilled with his tutoring. I understand why people feel bad about being unable to groom themselves in lockdown, but it’s like last night’s curry – this too will pass!
Q: You’re held up as an inspiration for your resilience and your courage – is it a lot of pressure to live up to that? Would you feel able to admit it if you weren’t feeling 100% buoyant?
Do I find that being in the public eye there’s a pressure that you can’t admit you’re human? No. I, like everybody else, am only human. If I’m feeling down or having a crappy day, I don’t have a problem telling people. Maybe they’ll say something funny and snap me out of it. Everybody goes through that. I’m sure the Queen gets up in the morning, and thinks, ‘Oh, what’s the point?’ but that just makes the Queen human.
We all have good days and bad days. On the whole, when you have a crappy day, you’ll get over it. And even if you’re having a bad week, you’ll probably have 51 really good weeks for the rest of the year.
It’s normal to not feel normal, and it’s important to remember that having a bad day doesn’t mean you’re having a mental health episode. There are days when you get up feeling good about yourself, then you drop a cup, stub your toe, and everything you do turns to crap. It could be that you’re not eating or sleeping properly, or you’ve fallen out with somebody. But don’t think you’re having a mental health episode – there are people who need intervention, and people who need chemical intervention, and that’s something different.
If people only realised it’s OK to feel crappy. I wish people wouldn’t beat themselves up over it and make themselves feel so awful about the way they feel. Sometimes you just need to stay in bed and have a duvet day, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Read the second part of Simon Weston’s interview in the November/December issue of Sorted magazine.