Interview: Sergeant Ryan McCready – 2011 Most Outstanding Soldier

By Ashley Coates. Published: 15/07/2013

“Both times I was hit, the dust settled and nothing had changed, we were still in the same place, we were still fighting for our lives and the enemy was still fighting with us”.

Being relocated by your employer is a massive upheaval for anyone but it is certainly a shock to the system when your next position is in a small Afghan village in Southern Helmand. Two weeks into his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2008, then Corporal McCready stepped on an initiator for an improvised explosive device (IED) causing extensive damage but sparing them their lives.

On his moste recent deployment Sergeant McCready was injured during a day skirmishing with the Taliban. He was leading a platoon pursuing enemy fighters when an intense firefight erupted and Sergeant McCready was his with an enemy rocket propelled grenade.

Despite his hardship, Sergeant McCready continued to serve with intelligence and bravery, earning him the Most Outstanding Soldier award at the 2011 “Millies”. Presenting the award to Sergeant McCready, Prince William said: “You exemplify to an extraordinary degree the unique qualities that make the British soldier second to none – courage, steadfastness, professionalism, sense of humour and a deep humanity”.

On arriving for McCready’s interview at RMA Sandhurst, the academy’s protocol officer, Lieutenant Colonel Roy Parkinson, pointed out a stained-glass window of a Victorian soldier fighting in Afghanistan, a reminder that the British had been involved in major conflicts in Afghanistan three times before. The first Anglo-Afghan War started in 1839 and lasted until 1842, taking the lives of 4500 British and Indian soldiers. The second began in 1878, and a final conflict ended in 1919.

Many of the difficulties of fighting in the region remain the same; a linguistic and cultural gulf between both the combatants and the local people, the terrain, which is arid, mountainous, vast and mostly lawless and an enemy that is driven not by attachment to a particular nationality but by dogmatic ideology. Success in Helmand required the full range of skills demanded by modern warfare.

Alongside the complex combat operations, there was a huge emphasis on understanding and winning the loyalty of the local people. One of the reasons for McCready’s recognition at the Military Awards was his ability to foster goodwill amongst the Afghans, who, his superiors noted, held him in especially high regard.

Born and raised in County Londonderry, Ireland, Ryan McCready enlisted in the Army straight after his GCSEs. A hint of his future abilities came when he was awarded the accolade of “Best Recruit” out of the 130 men in his intake at the Catterack Infantry Training Centre.

He was too young to serve in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 but from 2005 he took part in Force Protection for vessels moving through the most dangerous parts of the region. He describes his time in Afghanistan as constructive but a huge learning curve that pushed him to the edge of his abilities.

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There are many reasons why people choose to join the armed forces, what drew you to the Army?

I was fairly young when I was first exposed to the Army because I had grown up in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. It was during the latter end of The Troubles so it was a normal thing to see soldiers patrolling the streets with weapons and camouflage and stopping cars at checkpoints and so on. The thought I had was, “I want to be there, I want to stand there with a weapon and do something positive and have impact wherever I go”.

Initially that was the attraction, the uniformity and the weapons systems, they could pretty much do anything, I don’t mean they could do anything that they wanted to, but there was always an expression that with the Army, there was nothing they couldn’t move.

Towards the end of my school time, when I was 16 and I had done a lot more research, decided to join the infantry. I thought if I am going to join the Army, I want to be at the tip of the spear and I want to be the first in the door, or out of the door if it’s an aircraft. It really was a strong drive and there was nothing else in contention with it.

We’re used to seeing images, some of them quite vivid, from conflicts in the Middle East, showing the effects of roadside bombs. The footage from helmet cameras shown on the news and in documentaries like Our War have given a huge audience a sense of what it can be like to be in the field.  What would you say was your most frightening moment in Afghanistan?

It’s hard to pinpoint the most frightening moments because we are trained to deal with the most frightening moments from day one when we join the Army but nonetheless you still get your moments. On my first deployment to Afghanistan, I stepped on a pressure-plate IED, which was connected to three anti-personnel mines.

However, I was lucky and I stepped on the initiator, with no high explosives underneath it, it was a daisy chain to my rear with around three to four metres circumference, so the guy behind me took the majority of the blast and I got thrown forward, and that was maybe 2-3 weeks into my deployment in Afghanistan.

It was a major wake-up call that things are real and there’s no second chances. Luckily, we both survived, he had minor shrapnel, I had minor concussion. More recently, in Afghanistan, I got hit by a grenade from a rocket propelled grenade from an under-slung grenade launcher, the blast was fairly close and most of the shrapnel hit me on the left-hand side of my body.

I sustained blast and shrapnel to my face, neck and arm. Both times I was hit, the dust settled and nothing had changed, we were still in the same place, we were still fighting for our lives and the enemy was still fighting with us.

How do you discipline yourself into not letting those events effect you, I realise part of it is training but it is one thing knowing that an IED explosion is possible and another to actually experience it and carry on. How do you deal with fear?

I think we must have fear, I think there is always an element of fear there which gives us good judgement, or at least moral judgement, when it comes to our risk versus reward in those environments.

I would probably put it down to the suppression of fear with our objectives and our mission. The way our training goes is that our mission comes first and we come a close second and if we push hard, be it against the enemy or the environment then we will push through and we will survive.

I would probably break it into two parts, one is the threat itself, which is always on your mind, secondly you’ve got the fear of that threat actually following through. So being on patrol every single day, three times a day. in high threat areas for IEDs which have been placed, or indeed being susceptible to small arms fire, that is a constant threat and a key factor that you have to consider.

So it is in the background.

We are comfortable working in chaos, so it becomes normal, you allow it to become normal so that you can operate in that environment, or situation. On the other hand sometimes the actual threat follows through and the impact of what has happened creates a new situation, then it is a different dynamic and the way we react, it’s done in drills so initially the drill happens without thinking, whether that be taking cover from enemy fire or attending a bloodied casualty. Once the drill is completed you can take a step back, take a moment to absorb the atmosphere and develop a workable plan.

A major focus of your operations was winning the trust of the local people in Zarghun Kalay, perhaps the most intellectually challenging part of your mission and one of the areas you were recognised for at the Millies. How did you go about 

That was one of the most difficult parts of our campaign. We just spoke about the kenetic side, was a key element but only a facet and was between us and the enemy. We were comfortable with the fighting. When I say comfortable I don’t mean it’s easy, I just mean fighting is our profession and is our normal business and we’re used to it and we’re good at it.

When it came to the complexity of the counter-insurgency aspect, we needed a switch in our brain which was able to flick in a fraction of a second from conventional fighting to counter-insurgency and focus on the people, from day one when we took over our area of responsibility, we focused on the population centre. I would break that down into three areas, one is the insurgent, which I’ve covered, the local people, and the government, but the primary focus was the local people.

The only way we could build up trust was to get exposure out with the locals, working with the Afghan police and the Afghan army and this took a lot of time and a lot of risk but it was worth the risk. We went down the route of doing things like stopping at a shop and taking off our sunglasses and our helmets and we would speak to people in their own language.

We learnt as much Pashtu as we could, just to break down that barrier of their perception of us as a robot with helmet, glasses and body armour. You could dehumanise us at a glance so we needed to breakdown those barriers. Our main effort was to understand the humane terrain and economic network and get in tune with everyday life.

How much of that is the intuition you have there on the ground and how much of that is training?

In the early stages of the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan it was pretty, not under-developed, but we just weren’t fully developed and practised in counter insurgency. We did not have intuition at the start of operations in Afghanistan, unfortunately we had forgotten a lot of our counter-insurgency mindset and skillset we had acquired from other operations such as Malaysia.

It has taken almost ten years for us to build up our intuition which has now transformed us from professionals to utter professionals. In the time building and acquiring our intuition we relied heavily on our training, allowing us to survive in a hostile area until we were able to fully understand the human terrain.the right stage of the campaign, but once we had security and we were conducting the transition, we had an environment where we could speak to the people without hindrance from the enemy.

There are packages that the army supply and as part of our training we do Pashtu courses, basic linguistic skills and also cultural awareness. We are very aware of Muslim societies, the Quran and we’re a really multi-cultural organisation. We don’t want to come across as arrogant, or indeed as the infidel that the Taliban would like to portray us as to the Afghan people.

Has your motivations for doing what you do changed at all as the conflict progressed?

I would say I have got wiser over the years and that is just an accumulation of specific knowledge in extreme circumstances. Knowledge is power so I have spent that last 12 years educating myself, and learning from experiences in deployment on operations. My fundamental motivations have not changed, I am still very much in the pursuit of being an utter professional in my field.

My outlook on global terror, my outlook on things like that hasn’t changed much, maybe I have a deeper understanding of the “why”. The “how”, is ever evolving with new technologies, social networking and as yet unknown methods.

I’m now in a better position to deal with terror and I am in a better position to make decisions because of the experiences I have had in the Middle East. Global terror through my eyes is slightly different than that of a civilian, as I have witnessed terror and raw extremism in its infancy prior to its journey closer to home.

What would you say makes the perfect soldier?

For what it’s worth, for me a good soldier would be someone who’s clearly professionally competent in what he does, he knows the job above him and he knows the job left and right of him. They’re integral to the team, but at the same time they can step up, they’ve got the ability to step up and they’ve got the mindset. I think with the soldiers we have here nowadays, there is a lot more brain power than there has been, because there has to be.

Yes your situation in Zarghun Kalay demanded that.

I would say, long gone are the days of the soldier with a rifle and “point-and-shoot”, long gone are those days. Nowadays our soldiers are multi-lingual, whether that be a few sentences or a few words, their conception of counter-insurgency is second-to-none. They know that one wrong shot in a village can have devastating consequences at a strategic level in Afghanistan. But a perfect soldier? I couldn’t pin it down to any single attribute.

Depends on the role to an extent. 

Broadly speaking, in the Army, our greatest challenge is people. Just because of the nature of the beast, that’s both subordinates and your superiors. It’s a difficult one, it’s one that I am still trying to get right to see what works.  The greatest challenge is convincing someone that they are doing the right thing and to keep doing it every single day. Nothing’s perfect, nothing is ever going to be smooth and straightforward. So the greatest challenge is doing the right thing every time.

Is there any advice you would give to someone joining the Army?

If I was to give any advice to someone joining the Army it is to have confidence in yourself, you can go through life and people can tell you what they think and most times it may be right but sometimes they are not always right and what you know is right.

Are you thinking of anything in particular?

Not anything in particular but in general, when people get set into a routine and routine becomes a habit and the habit becomes a tradition then it can be very difficult to break somebody’s mindset away from that tradition in the Army. I think this new generation coming through, we are different and we are thinkers and we are good at what we do.

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