I'd rather face enemy fire again than relive trial that branded me a war criminal, says Iraq hero Brian Wood

BRIAN WOOD didn’t hesi­tate to charge into a hail of bullets and grenades to save his Army comrades in the Iraqi desert — yet for doing so, he was branded a war criminal.

During a terrifying three hours, the bloody Battle of Danny Boy saw the 23-year-old Lance Corporal and his men overcome an enemy that had them outgunned and outnumbered.

Brian’s bravery in the infamous clash of 2004 earned him the Military Cross — but the glory quickly faded when the 2009 Al-Sweady Inquiry accused the soldiers of killing and abusing civilians.

Now he says he would rather race back into the hellish fight than relive a second of the hearing that tarred the hero as a villain.

Innocent Brian, now 40, said: “I’d rather return to the Battle of Danny Boy all day long.

“I understood how to be a soldier, I was trained to be a soldier, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the second battle that came on home soil.

“In Iraq I was with the bravest of men who worked as a team to achieve a mission. Then all of a sudden I’m on my own, not knowing what to do.

“I was trying to take it all on my own shoulders and it just got too much for me.”

A new one-off BBC2 drama, Danny Boy, sees Anthony Boyle play Brian in a harrowing retelling of this military hero’s story. It will air this month.

And after watching the finished product through tear-filled eyes, Brian is thrilled.

Not only did he approve of his story being adapted for TV, he visited the set, met the cast and provided advice based on his all-too-vivid memories.

Brian, from Bordon, Hants, said: “Initially I just felt disbelief, then complete shock that this was going to be a public inquiry.

“It hurt me, the ultimate pain was my integrity being brought into question. To have that questioned for three and a half hours in a dock, that was hard.

“I’m a man of honour and I believe in values. But they made us out to be animals, which was unforgiv­able and a disgrace.”

On May 14, 2004 he was a member of the Prince of Wales Regiment who went to save a patrol of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after they were ambushed by around 100 Iraqi insurgents.

In the battle that followed, near the British checkpoint called Danny Boy, not a single British troop died, but 28 enemy fighters were killed.

Brian’s outstanding bravery saw him receive one of Britain’s highest awards for gallantry from the Queen, who told him to “wear it with pride” as she pinned it to his chest.

He said: “I was truly humbled to win the Military Cross. Getting married and having my kids, those are the best thing that have happened to me, but close to that was going to Buckingham Palace with my wife and mum and dad to get that medal.”

But five years after the battle a team of human rights lawyers led by Phil Shiner, portrayed in the show by Toby Jones, claimed Brian was among a group of British soldiers who had carried out an atrocity.

Award-winning expert Shiner had brought the UK government to account for the shameful killing of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa by British troops in 2003.

Shiner, now 64, made the mistake of assuming similar abuse took place at Danny Boy.

Brian, promoted to Colour Sergeant by the time of the inquiry, said: “This was never another Baha Mousa. Shiner knew that, for sure, I still believe that. But he was never going to give up. He wanted blood.”

Shiner’s firm, Public Interest Lawyers, claimed Brian’s regiment captured 20 men that day before executing most of them — and mistreating those they allowed to live.

Central to the case were claims the men were actually farmers who, as is common in the Iraqi desert, carried guns.

Shiner’s team believed the fact the Prince of Wales Regiment collected the bodies — which they would normally have left on the battlefield — suggested they were trying to cover up the killings.

Although the bodies were gathered from the battlefield, Brian was told it was because milit­ary chiefs wanted to identify a war­lord they thought was among the dead.

It was a grim task — and one that has haunted him ever since.

He said: “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a British soldier.

“You can only imagine how dam­aged these bodies were. To look in the eye the person whose life you have just taken and load them on to a vehicle was horrendous.

“I still find my mind wandering off and recalling the scene. I would not wish that on my worst enemy.”

The inquiry pushed Brian, and the other men in his regiment, to breaking point.

At his interrogation in November 2013, Shiner asked Brian questions about life-or-death decisions he took in split seconds during the battle almost a decade earlier.

Brian was cross-examined on details of time and whether ditches were dug in a “U” or a “V” shape, all of which was almost impossible to determine in the thick of battle.

Those out of uniform had already been struggl­ing with adapting to civilian life.

Brian’s marriage became strained after he became jealous of the attachment his wife, Lucy, 43, had formed with their son, Bailey, born just before he went to Iraq.

They went on to have another son, Charlie, in 2009, just before he was summoned to the inquiry.

The lowest point came when Bailey confronted his dad after he heard people at his school call him a murderer.

Brian said: “That was really tough. You can take chunks out of me all day long, but when it comes into the home it’s so much harder.

“I had to sit down with my young children to explain what it was like to be a British soldier. Yes, I killed soldiers on a battlefield — that’s what happens in wars — but that’s not what people were saying.

“They were saying these were innocent bystanders. But they weren’t. They were enemy fighters.”

The inquiry — which had cost a staggering £31million of taxpayers’ cash — agreed with him when a testimony was uncovered confirming the men were insurgents, not innocent farmers.

Brian said: “There was a document found. It had been shredded due to a ‘human error’ then this original copy was found in the archives.”

A subsequent report from High Court judge Sir Thayne Forbes, stated: “The evidence clearly showed that the British soldiers responded to this deadly ambush with exemplary courage, resolution and professionalism.

“This inquiry has established beyond doubt that all the most serious allegations . . .  [are] wholly without foundation and entirely the product of deliberate lies, reckless spec­ula­tion and ingrained hostility.”

The soldiers were found to have been guilty of the lesser claims of mistreatment — though it amounted to putting the prisoners’ plastic handcuffs on too tightly and not giving them water.

Shiner was struck off and his career and integrity left in tatters. Incredibly, Brian bears no ill will towards any individual.

He says he was determined not to be bitter about the experience and never give up hope — a belief that has seen him develop his own sportswear range, Keep Attacking, inspired by his life mantra.

Brian, whose family have served in the military for over a century, feels fortunate to have been helped through his crisis by his wife, as well as his mother and his father, Gavin, who was also in the Army.

And far from being put off the military, his 17-year-old son, Bailey, has signed up.

But Brian also says he turned a huge corner when he finally went for counselling and hopes the TV drama might inspire men in a similar situation to do the same.

He also hopes the show will prevent the Iraq War fading from the public’s memory.

He said: “We have to re­mem­­ber, because people made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

“We should never forget it.”

  • Danny Boy is on BBC2 on May 12

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