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A soldier’s story

January 2019 | by Gavin Dickson

Soldiers from the Royal Household Cavalry Regiment man a check point on a busy stretch of road in Helmand Province Afghanistan. This image was a winner in the Army’s Photographic Competition 2011.

The last article in a three-part series of Gavin Dickson’s testimony

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.

The following weekend I went with the battalion to Wales. But although outwardly in my uniform I looked the same, inwardly something radical had happened.

I knew God. I had this great hunger to read the Bible, I couldn’t put it down. Every day was an opportunity to discover more about Jesus. My friends were shocked, asking, ‘What has happened to Dicko [their nickname for me]?’

Of course, I realised quickly that how I had been living was not right. Alison had returned to Canada before I came to faith. (We had found the process of getting her a visa difficult, but anyway she realised she wanted to have a more carefree attitude to life rather than settling down with responsibilities.)

Now the pornography went. Ended too was my going out at night and having copious amounts to drink. Instead, in came my increasing desire to read, on my own, and wanting to read, of all things, the Bible!

My taste in music had also altered somewhat. It became more common for me to be listening to modern music with Christian lyrics. My friends probably thought that I had gone mad. They all, including my best friend, took the change they saw in me quite badly.

Things like pornography and drunkenness were not considered to be wrong by those around me. But I began to see things from God’s perspective. After all that He had done for me — He who is so pure and holy that He can’t even look at sin — still He loves me. So how could I carry on doing things that caused Him so much pain?  My world was turned not only upside down but right way up … and in front of a barrack full of lads.

However, it took me a while to stop drinking at the levels I was used to. I had become alcohol dependent, which, apart from anything else, was very bad for my health long term. My relationship with God also, naturally, took time to develop.

At school, having been only taught that we came about by evolution, I had never questioned how or why we are here on earth. But as I began to understand about God, and what He has done as the Creator, slowly my relationship with God as my Heavenly Father deepened.

Many soldiers have not had good experiences of earthly fathers. So it was an eye-opening and heart-warming experience to come to know God personally as the one true God and Father of humankind.

Another area of my life that dramatically changed was my language. Michael, the pastor, has always been very patient with me, especially over the matter of my foul mouth. When I first met him in church, I refused to stop swearing! I reasoned, ‘I am a soldier and that is what soldiers do!’

Michael never reacted badly to such comments but was always gracious and kind. Something happened, however, that day on the A66 when I prayed to God for the first time. Something ‘clicked’ and from then on I stopped swearing.

To this day I struggle to swear — something stops me, even if I want to. Even if I am in a bad place and feel I want to swear, it doesn’t come out but gets stuck. It is like a mental block, a block I believe God has put in place.

God has done something for me and to me. He has not only cleaned up my foul heart but also given me a clean mouth. Of course, not everything in my life was sorted out straight away. I had (and still have) a lot to learn with God’s help.

It was early January 2010 when we left a cold, snowy Catterick garrison for our tour to Afghanistan. My home church family was very supportive, trying to encourage me as a new Christian and as a soldier going to a battlefield. Before I left, they shared this Bible verse with me: ‘Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path’ (Psalm 119:105).

Later, I was walking down the path beside a snow-covered road. The light from the cars around was reflecting off the snow under my feet, creating little pools of light that reminded me of Psalm 119.

That moment really impacted me. It brought to mind those words of Scripture: that God was with me and would indeed guide my path as I set off for Afghanistan. I did not take this to be a promise that God was not going to let me die, but that God’s Word, the Bible, would continue to show me the right way to follow God wherever I might be.

As Right Flank of the Scots Guards (Armoured Infantry Company), we deployed three months ahead of the main battalion and joined Operation Herrick, the code name used for all British operations in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2014.

Our job was to patrol in the Warriors. These fighting vehicles were considered a genuine asset for pretty much the whole of the British operation in the rough terrain of Afghanistan.

All the way through the tour, I tried to be the lead person or in the lead vehicle because I knew, from God’s Word, where I was going if I died. Because of that day when I trusted Jesus Christ as my personal Saviour, I knew that I had been saved.

So, when my life on this earth ends, in whatever way, I am sure that I will go straight to be with God in heaven. However, most of my team, platoon and company didn’t know who Jesus is. I was ready to die but I knew that many others were unprepared.

The Ministry of Defence describes the company as having experienced considerable success during its involvement in Operation Herrick. Tragically however, there were fatalities and injuries sustained.

Fellow comrades found those times of loss extremely tough and a blow to morale. This is when and where all that vigorous training, which has been carefully planned and carried out, comes into its own.

A colleague of mine, called Lance Sergeant David Walker, was fatally wounded by insurgent fire in February 2010 while conducting a ground domination patrol. He was employed as a Section Commander within Right Flank, which had been playing a vital part in Operation Moshtarak since the beginning of the month.

David was responsible for commanding and leading a four-man fire team that was tasked with reassuring the local population as well as defeating the insurgents.

It was a big blow losing David; dealing with that was quite tough. Then I saw my friend Jack get injured when his Warrior struck a very large IED. Jack lost his spleen and suffered multiple injuries.

Usually I tried to be in the lead vehicle, so it should have been me at the front. But that day I was involved in a supply drop, so his vehicle jumped ahead of ours and was struck. As the driver of our Warrior, I had to be ready to move to provide engine revs for the chain gun to work.

I could not get out to assess the situation. It was very hard being stuck in my vehicle — so very hard. (Since then, though, Jack has recovered quite well from his injuries – he’s not too bad now.)

The day after Jack’s injuries happened, I wrote a letter to my home church, asking them to pray for us, which they did, as I felt very much broken inside. I had a lot of misplaced guilt seeing Jack injured in the place where I should have been.

Thankfully a lovely padre, Rev. Dr Simon Bloxham-Rose, whom I had bumped into a few days before at the brew area in the Lancaster Regiment’s Camp, came especially to chat with us and see how we were. He suddenly appeared, jumping off a helicopter.

Looking back, I believe it was God who had sent him at the right time. The padre brought great comfort to me through his ministry and care for us. In fact, every time I went into a new camp, I would meet a padre who sustained me in my faith.

Meanwhile, our company was given a different role and launched out on vehicle patrols. The rest of the battalion came out in the middle of our tour, so we slowly got absorbed back into the battalion as a brigade asset.

When the Scots Guards came out, we moved to a new location. Having done the job they were made for, the Warriors were packed up for the remainder of the tour. Our workload changed and involved taking command of small compounds and holding our ground, and not doing much vehicle patrolling. The rest of the tour for us was a low-key affair and relatively uneventful.

However, in July 2010 we heard of the death of Lance Corporal Stephen Monkhouse, who was known and loved by all. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Monkey’, he was a very tall guy with an ever-present smile.

He and Yorkshireman Corporal Matthew Stenton were killed when members of the Royal Dragoon Guards and First Battalion Scots Guards were providing security for the building of Route Trident in Basharan, north of Lashkar Gah.

Matthew was commanding a Viking armoured vehicle, which was part of a cordon to facilitate the removal of IEDs, and Monkey was the gunner of a Coyote vehicle when insurgents shot and wounded a member of ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force).

Matthew manoeuvred his vehicle in order to lay down fire support and facilitate the evacuation of the casualty. Tragically, as the evacuation was being carried out, Matthew and Monkey were both killed by small-arms fire.

As Lieutenant Colonel Lincoln Jopp, Commanding Officer of First Battalion Scots Guards, said: ‘Monkey died coming to the aid of a guardsman who had been shot. He did what every soldier hopes he will have the courage to do if the need arises: he laid down his life for his friend. We salute him and we honour our fallen’.

Monkey was awarded, posthumously, the Military Cross. His death affected quite a few people, including myself and Lance Corporal Michael Little. He took me aside to talk inside the Warrior about the loss of Monkey.

The battalion had been hit and had suffered several casualties, including three or four triple amputees, after hitting IEDs. It was a proper fighting situation; proper warfare. Bad things were happening all around.

It was a very difficult time for me, but through it all I kept praying, talking to God. In my head I would think about the words of ‘Blessed be Your Name’, a Christian song I liked very much and which summed up my feelings amid my circumstances. The song reminds us that in times of suffering we can still choose to praise God, who gives — and takes away — all things.

As you can imagine, after all that I had witnessed — the injuries of others, the fatalities, plus the sheer hard work of the tour — it was no wonder that it took me a little while to settle back home.

But at Catterick there was a chef called Kennedy who was well known for his happy temperament and big smile. He even won an award, a Commander’s commendation, for being ‘happy Kennedy’!

Each week, with Kennedy and another soldier called Gareth, I would go to the home of Mark Reynolds, an army Scripture Reader.

There, a group of us — several soldiers from across the garrison and some civilians — would study the Bible, pray and sing some hymns. Mark and his wife were always welcoming and their home was so warm and friendly. The fellowship and Bible study were very important, and remained so for my time in the army.

Quite quickly after Afghanistan I was posted up to Edinburgh as part of the regimental support team, which aimed to recruit for the Scots Guards. There I met another army Scripture Reader, David Murray, whose friendship and mentorship remain very important to me today.

Having an open home and inviting soldiers to study the Bible there is an important part of SASRA (the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association).

Wherever I went in this new posting I would try to meet up with Christians for prayer or to read the Bible. It was very much a training ground for what I do now, working full-time for SASRA with the British Army.

I am now married to Pauline, whom I met before leaving the army. With our two sons, Malachi and Harvey, we are currently based in Germany.

Christianity is not about doing our best, or even our duty. Rather it is about us turning from our sinful ways and trusting Jesus to forgive us. He made this possible when He died in our place on the cross. Peace is offered by God, as Jesus takes our sin on Himself.

As the Bible says: ‘He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth…’ (Psalm 40:2–3). And: ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ (John 15:13).

Gavin Dickson

Army Scripture Reader with the British Forces in Germany

© Ten of Those. 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).