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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 10:44 GMT
Friendliness and fear on tour in Iraq
Alex Preece
Alex Preece hopes his Army experience will help him in business

Former soldier Alex Preece, now a 22-year-old civilian living in Bournemouth, wrote to the BBC News website in response to media portrayals of the British Army in Iraq.

He spent several months in Iraq himself and, although he is increasingly concerned about the situation, he feels the public does not get a true picture of the work the Army is doing there.

He recalls his experience here. If you have any other story ideas send them to the BBC using the form at the bottom of the page.


A soldier's story of Iraq

In early 2004 when Household Cavalry soldier Alex Preece was sent to Iraq he had already spent four eventful years in the Army, including several months on a tour of Bosnia.

But he was nervous nonetheless.

"I'd just turned 20 at the time and my brother Daniel, who is two years younger than me, was already out there.

"Even my dad, who was keen for me to join, didn't want me going. I'd been to funeral services for guys killed out there so I knew the dangers."

ALEX PREECE ON IRAQ
I'm very happy I've done it but I wouldn't like to go back out there

However, he felt well-prepared after two months of training in Wales - learning about urban combat, some basic Arabic and Iraqi customs.

And the progress being made in reconstruction in Iraq was apparent during his few months in the country.

"For the first couple of months I was driving the squadron leader so I went everywhere around the British-controlled part of southern Iraq, meeting sheikhs and other important people.

"I saw where British taxpayers' money was going - on new fire stations, water plants, processing plants - things they needed. I could see the improvements while I was there."

'We're together'

When Mr Preece joined 3 Troop near al Zubayr his job became very varied - patrolling the area, supplying a quick reaction force when things went wrong and escorting food trucks.

Iraqi youngsters
Alex met countless Iraqi children - "sweet but cheeky"
"It meant I was on the streets meeting ordinary Iraqi people, the 'hearts and minds' work."

He got to know the Iraqi people quite well and, more importantly, got to know how they saw the troops.

Contrary to common conceptions of what relations between soldiers and civilians must be like, Mr Preece talks about the friendliness he encountered.

"My father is Iranian and some of the Iraqis would look at me and rub their two index fingers, which means 'we're together'.

"Then I would say 'Irani' and a crowd would gather round the car and they would touch my hair, fascinated. It was nice I had something in common with these people."

And he wasn't alone in receiving a friendly reception, he said.

"They actually really like the British and it's just a handful of idiots making trouble. You are never going to get the whole country in support.

"The people are more angry about us leaving them in 1992. Nearly every person I met had lost someone to Saddam's regime and you could see the fear in their eyes about that time."

However, not all was rosy, he stresses.

'Feel the tension'

"I'm very happy I've done it but I wouldn't like to go back out there.

"My scariest moment was when we were driving in some backstreets in Basra and got gridlocked in traffic.

"I couldn't even open my door because the cars were so close. People were chucking stuff at the wagon and you could feel the tension.

"I was thinking: 'This is not good, we need to get out.' Thankfully we did.

"Another time one of my mates was hit by shrapnel from a roadside bomb, but luckily it mangled his rifle or it would have taken his neck off."

LIFE OF A SOLDIER
2000: Army foundation college, Harrogate
2001: Training at Bovington
2002: Feb: Join Household Cavalry
May: Sent to Bosnia
Oct: Fire strikes
Dec: Para training
2003: May: Changing of the Standard, Whitehall
Nov: Biathlon skiing, Norway
2004: April-Oct: Iraq
Mr Preece still gets upset about negative stories in the press, particularly those alleging abuse by British soldiers.

"People are too quick to forget the good work the Army has done there," he says.

"It's upsetting when people say Iraqis are being abused. No-one should be abused, but we get abused every day.

"When I see the bad headlines I get depressed and the press need to be careful because they are risking lives.

'Hate the Americans'

"My brother says it's got worse recently and I really feel for him.

"He missed by three minutes the bomb that killed two British soldiers last week.

"The Iraqis I met liked the British but they do hate the Americans."

ON FIREFIGHTING
It wasn't very professional, wearing an Army helmet, Gore-tex trousers and in a green goddess doing 40mph. People were taking pictures
Mr Preece enjoyed his military life immensely and is very grateful for the start in life the Army gave him, saying it has made him more confident and more aware of other people's cultures.

"When my friends talk about how they'd like to visit somewhere, I say 'I've jumped hedges there, I've been bitten by fleas there.' Then I realise I've been everywhere in the UK and plenty of places abroad too."

However, while in Iraq he came to think the Army held no more challenges for him and he began to consider his future.

"While I was out there I was thinking: 'What do I want to do with my life?' I thought being an officer wouldn't be much more of a challenge than what I was doing in Iraq.

"I think I'd lost the 'zing' for it and looked outside the Army for my next challenge."

And he certainly plumped for something completely different.

ON BOSNIA
It was a shock to see the Muslims living in shacks while the Serbs drove big cars, and the thought of the mass graves was horrific
"I had always been interested in the internet, and internet shopping is getting bigger and bigger, so I thought of setting up a luxury version of Ann Summers.

"I left in September and six months later, my website is up and running and I'm taking orders. I knew I could survive outside the Army and I'm very happy that I've done what I've done.

"If I get to earn lots of money I'll put some of it back into the Prince's Trust or the Blues and Royals Association, helping other people in my position who decide to start a new career."


Your comments

It is good to have first hand knowledge from one of our troops. It must be hard for the families but they have a job to do out there. Not all British troops are bad ambassadors for our country
P Harris, Swansea

The reaction to events in Iraq was never about what the troops were or were not doing. It was always about why they were there. That has nothing to do with the military, but everything to do with their masters, the politicians. I'm glad Alex had a positive expeience and came back unharmed.
Graeme, East London

Well done BBC - a positive view on events in Iraq. A welcome departure from the norm.
Howard Ellison, London

Alex's experience was in southern Iraq as a British soldier. US forces are in the hot spots. I suspect their experiences, and reactions, may be different.I would like to hear from US veterans. Preferably one that wasn't stationed at Abu Ghraib.
Quentin Holt, Invercargill, New Zealand

As the wife of a soldier, it does make a refreshing change to read the view a soldier has of Iraq, rather than that of the media. My husband is due to do a second tour there. It would be nice to read a story on how those at home cope, how they deal with news reports, how they cope with a loved one in Iraq.
Charlie, Paderborn, Germany

I served in the Canadian Armed Forces and always get frustrated with both my journalist friends, NGO friends and other civilians impressions of soldiers. When in the army, the vast majority of men and women I met and worked with still stand out as some of the best people I have ever met in my life. They exhibited character traits that are very rare in the civilian world - honour, duty, loyalty. Journalists on the other hand, are mostly rogues and can't be trusted. So good one for printing an honest account.
Bob Macdonald, London

At Last! A story from someone that was actually there and not some inexperienced journalist reporting from an air-conditioned room in Baghdad. When people ask me, as a Gulf veteran, about Iraq, I tell them not to believe what the media churns out. I tell them to wait 5 years for veterans to publish the real stories. Well done BBC for being ahead of the game!
Jo, London

I worked in Baghdad in 2003/4 and witnessed first hand the good done by soldiers of all nations. I asked for and was given large amounts of military rations by US forces that UK soldiers took to a local orphanage where they also rebuilt the interior of the ageing facility - this was done aside of their military duties and at some risk to themselves: there are many such stories. I employed and worked with Iraqis (Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurd) and now count them amongst my friends. There is another story waiting to be told, believe me!!!!
Derek Bird, Milton Keynes UK

What seems to be missed so often now is why we went to war in the first place - over alleged weapons of mass destruction which never appeared. It pains me every time a Squaddie is killed out there because we should never have invaded in the first place. Thankfully Alex has come back alive.
Dave, London

Its nice to read something that shows what a good job the British Forces are doing out there. My brother has served 2 tours of Iraq with the Black Watch and it was often disappointing to hear what some people (and the media) thought of our troops. Thank you Alex for writing such a good piece. Good luck with your business and for the future.
Leanne, Scotland

What the British troops are doing by providing a few water tanks and schools is miniscule compared to the destruction of Iraq
Soundara Rajan, Sydney




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