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A soldier’s story (2)

December 2018 | by Gavin Dickson

A convoy of Warrior infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs).
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Gavin Dickson continues sharing his life story (begun in November’s ET ):

When the Scots Guards returned to Iraq in 2007 for Telic 7, an insurgency was raging throughout the country. So we had to exchange our berets for helmets and full body armour. In fact, you didn’t travel unless you were in an armoured vehicle.

In 2005 we had moved around by driving in snatch wagons or cut-down Land Rovers, which were very exposed to the elements, especially the wind. Yet in 2007 we moved around in the Warrior, a 26-ton armoured fighting vehicle.

The full force of the insurgents was felt by their use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). We had seen several IED strikes. However, our tour was in winter, so it was still quite quiet. In most of the Arab world, but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the weather becomes colder, the fighting generally starts to decrease. As the temperature goes up again, though, so does the level of fighting.

Despite the relative quiet of both our tours of Iraq, we were surrounded by death, with the death of Guardsman Ray during pre-deployment training, two deaths caused by car accidents while on leave in the UK, and the operational death of Guardsman Stephen Ferguson, known as Fergie … Despite these events, though, I was not really thinking about what would have happened to me if I had died.

An aerial view at Richmondshire Lines, Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.
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From our German base we were posted back to Catterick Garrison, in the UK. This garrison is blessed with a large training area perfect for infantry training, with its hard terrain, steep hills, forested areas and large open grass areas.

Beyond it being ideal for training, it is very beautiful. From there, in our role as armoured infantry, we travelled to Canada, where we spent six months. For two months we did what we call ‘activations’: getting the vehicles ready for the battalion training. From that I then moved to being part of the safety staff. In this role I was part of a team that made sure everyone was shooting in the right direction and was safe. Then it was time for me and my company to be tested. This final training test in Canada assesses whether the battalion is fit for deployment on live operations or not…

Free coffee

It was during this time that I met a young lady called Alison and we began to date. Like many other lads, I brought Alison back to live with me — in Lanark, where I had a house. Having settled in to life together, we were looking for some social things to do in and around our town.

One day, in the library, Alison came across a little leaflet advertising an event with free Starbucks coffee. We didn’t have a Starbucks locally; it sounded good to us. What we hadn’t realised was that it was being organised by a church! Nevertheless, we went along. I drank the coffee and Alison looked at the displays.

Now you will have guessed that church and God didn’t exactly figure in my life. The odd instances that faith or the Bible crossed my mind were rare. As a child I sometimes attended the Christmas Eve service with my family, or just with my mother, but it was only for show and often we would leave early…

As a young soldier there were other occasions when I had some religious experience. When I was about 16 or 17 and in London, I would often go down to St Paul’s Cathedral just to sit there. It gave me a real sense of peace, but inside my heart I was a very angry young man. Very angry. The sort of things I had witnessed from my father as a child had hurt me emotionally quite a bit. I wasn’t speaking to him and wanted revenge.

Then, during my training to go to Iraq, I heard that a colleague of mine, David Craig, had died. A Warrior armoured vehicle had reversed over him, killing him. At first we had to carry on with the exercise because we were preparing to go on tour — apart from David’s crew and vehicle, which were separated while there was an investigation into what had happened.

Afterwards, though, we went to what we call a cookhouse or ‘scoff hall’ where we held a service for David. As the pipes and drums played the well-known hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, I remember being really touched by the sound of this and the words.

I had very little to do with God, faith and the Bible. When Alison picked up that little leaflet offering free coffee at a local church, it was surprising we both decided to go along. Even more unexpectedly, we continued to attend the church each Sunday. That was possible as I was based at Catterick while my battalion was preparing to go to Afghanistan, so I was allowed home to Lanark at the weekends. We liked the people we met there, including the pastor, Michael, and his wife, Esther.

Difficult questions

While I didn’t go along with everything they did, basically they were very genuine people who loved Jesus and who sought to tell and teach others about him. Each time we met, I would ask Michael difficult questions: ‘Why is there suffering in the world?’; ‘Who is Jesus? Why did he come into the world?’

All this led on to Michael teaching me from the Bible the simple basics of the gospel. Everyone has done wrong (I couldn’t argue with that when I thought about it), and that wrong, or sin, has cut us off from God. God is just and must punish wrongdoing. But God is also loving and loves us so much that he sent his son Jesus to die on the cross in order to take this punishment in our place.

Then, on that first Easter morning, Jesus rose victorious from the dead. He is alive and has gone to prepare a place in heaven for all those who have asked him for forgiveness, trusting him as their Saviour and Rescuer. This is what Easter is all about! Esther explained this very clearly one day, saying, ‘You are a sinner and you need to ask God to forgive you. Come to him, repent and be saved!’

I joined in with the refreshments after that church service, but straightaway had to leave to get back in time to the garrison at Catterick. It is a long drive, so I had plenty of time to think about what I had heard. Just around Penrith, I turned the radio off, though I continued driving. Not being what you might call an expert in prayer, I prayed as simply and as best as I could: ‘If this dude (meaning Jesus!) really did these things for me, then I need to know him’. Although I maybe didn’t know the right words to say, I was being genuine and God knew that.

Wonderfully and miraculously I knew at that moment I had become a Christian. I was truly sorry for my rotten sin. God sent his Holy Spirit to dwell within me, and my heart, the real me, was changed. This new relationship with God was so real. Now, of course, I know verses from the Bible that explain all this, but that night in my car in the north of England was when God saved me and became real to me.

©Ten of Those

To be concluded

This edited extract — used by kind permission — is from the recently published booklet commemorating those who served in the First World War, We will remember them, by Gavin Dickson and D. J. Carswell. ASR Gavin Dickson works for SASRA (The Soldiers’ & Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association). Copies of this booklet, including bulk copies for evangelistic use, can be ordered from 10 of Those (0330 2233423).