Some people lead such extraordinary lives that it’s almost difficult to believe they’re not fictional characters… With his leading man good looks and a career that took him from fighting within the Special Forces to modelling for brands like Gillette and Harley Davidson to writing a bestseller, David Blakeley (34) is a case in point. Promoted Captain at 21 -the youngest in the British Army-, he went on to become second in command of the Pathfinders, a Para elite unit also known as the “Ghost Platoon”. Pathfinder, a Special Forces Mission Behind Enemy Lines -currently number 9 in the UK- tells the story of his most risky mission, shortly after the beginning of the Iraq war. Sent by his superiors on a recognition patrol wrongly deemed by Intelligence as “benign”, he and his eight men ended up deep behind enemy lines, having to fight 80 kilometres back to the frontline against over 2,000 militia and Republican Guards on their own, after being denied any support. Miraculously, through sheer luck and an enormous display of bravery, they did manage to make it safely back to the base, bringing back some precious information about enemy troops. Following ten years of service, which took him to Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, he left the Army in 2006, after being seriously injured during a mission. Here, he talks to Chic-Londres about his incredible experience.
How was it coming back to civilian life following so much military combat?I stayed in the Army for ten years, during which time the intensity of combat I had to face increased gradually. That helped me to prepare mentally to the level of pressure I had to face at the end and as a result I didn’t get post traumatic stress disorder, which helped my return to civilian life. But things have changed: the guys who join nowadays are being sent very quickly to Afghanistan- those ones will find it much more difficult to adapt when they return.
Don’t you sometimes get bored after all those adrenaline-packed adventures? Not at all, especially since the Pathfinders are all about being industrious and creative. I believe that the only true constraint that people must face to progress is themselves. So if you believe that, it gives you the drive to make things happen.
How does it feel to go from Special Forces to modelling and writing? This is quite a reconversion! I once read a very interesting interview with Coppola in which he said that while family and friends were the most important things in his life, what made him get up in the morning was the challenge of doing something new. I consider that the Army was only one chapter of my life, and while modelling is obviously not as challenging as fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq, it’s still an experience worth having. The guys in the unit were always teasing me by saying that I looked like I had stepped up of the pages of a catalogue and I’ve now ended up doing a lot of catalogue work, so I find it really amusing! In a huge Canadian Whisky commercial I did with award-winning director Tarsem Singh, I had to lead 200 knights and soldiers into battle, while riding a horse and carrying a real sword. Obviously, it wasn’t a real battle but it was still a challenge. I also really enjoy the fact that my life is not confined to one career and that while a lot of my friends remain in the Special Forces or secret services, I also have a whole new group of friends working in fashion, TV or films- it makes life more interesting. Even though it sounds like a cliché, I feel more complete as a person because my life is not just about the Army and going to war.
What did you learn in your ten years in the Army that helps you in your new life? I’ve learnt to keep a sense of humour in adverse situations, and to work within a team while preserving some individuality. But I must say that while I benefited enormously from the Army, it’s also a very dangerous career to have, especially now in Afghanistan. My best friend from Sandhurst was blown up in Iraq a few years ago, so the risks of dying are always there. Some of my friends have been to Afghanistan five times now and when I meet them, some have got this one thousand miles stare- they just look like they’re not quite right. I believe that while most people are capable of killing if put in a very dangerous situation, going to Afghanistan on tour five times in a row is just not a normal thing to go through as a human being.
What did it teach you about leadership? At Sandhurst, the whole course is about teaching you how to become a leader. In a book we read called The Mask of Command, John Keegan, a leading academic there, talks about this mask that leaders must wear when in command. And while he’s making some good points, I think that leadership should come from the guts and be more natural. As Field Marshall Slim once said, “leadership is simple, it’s just being you”.
So is leadership something that can’t be learnt? I think you can learn from example by observing good leaders. But I also think it should come from the heart, in the sense that you should be honest and not wear some kind of mask- because if that is the case, then you effectively become an actor. Dan Jarvis, a good friend who fought with me in Iraq, has become a politician and is the current shadow Arts minister. I believe in him not only as a person but also as a leader, because I know he’s honest and shows himself as he really is.
You were treated quite badly by the Army, first during the mission when you were abandoned behind enemy lines and then when you were almost dismissed after being severely injured: do you feel any resentment? I have felt very resentful at the time, but resentment, like jealousy, is a very self destructive feeling. Whatever happened is in the past and can’t be changed, so I’ve realised that there is no point being resentful.
Did it play a role in you leaving the Army? What definitely made me decide to leave was to have to pay for my own surgery to have my shoulder fixed after an injury sustained in action. Like in a bad relationship, I did lose belief and knew it was time to go. The fact that we had been left behind during the mission clearly didn’t help either. Of course, you expect to be put in dangerous situations when you do this kind of job and I don’t have a problem with that. But you’re also led to believe that no man is left behind and that that every effort will be made to get you out of there when you are in an extreme situation. In our case, they didn’t even process our request for air support- we were simply deemed expendable, which I think is outrageous. I gave ten years of my life to my country and even though I benefited enormously from it, I wasn’t prepared to do that anymore.
One person who was very supportive though was Prince Charles, whom you had met early on in your career and who sent you a letter and a bottle of whisky when you were injured… Both I and my family were touched by this letter and by Prince Charles’ kindness and personal touch, and we will always be fans of the British monarchy because of this. The Royal family are “in appointment for life”, whereas most senior military officers and politicians are only in post for a few years, so their career comes before their consideration for others.
The Pathfinders are a very secretive unit: what was the reaction of the Army officials when you broke the silence over this mission ?A few eyebrows were raised in the Ministry of Defence, let’s put it that way! Surprisingly though, they never disputed the factual accuracy of the enemy forces that we were up against, which was over 2,000 militia, Fedayeen and Republican guards nor did they dispute that fact that we were abandoned. But they said that I was breaking the Official Secrets Act, which is considered as treason. So in theory I could still be hung for that! However, it’s been nine years since the mission, so they eventually had to agree that there was no danger for current or future operations in disclosing what happened back then. I also believe it’s in the public interest for people to know the reality of war, and how dangerous and nasty it can be. I’ve been there, and I’ve seen how it is- like guys being sick everywhere before going in patrol in Afghanistan because their mates have been blown away the day before and they know that they’ll be shot at as soon as they get out. Going against the ministry of Defence was a big thing for me – it took me several years to have the moral courage to do it and it’s still very stressful. But I believe I did the right thing.
What was the scariest part of your mission and how did you deal with fear? There were two moments when I really got scared. The first was when I did the radio call for air support. We were in the dark, the guys in the team were around me with their weapons, and I was told there would be no support. I asked again for a rescue team and was told again that we were on our own. It was a horrendous feeling, like drinking acid. The next moment of fear came five minutes later, when we eventually decided that we had to fight 80 kilometres back to the frontline, knowing what we were about to go in, because we had had to fight all those troops already. Once you’re fighting, it’s OK because that’s what you’re trained to do and everyone around is doing it. But the toughest part is when you’re about to go in: the anxiety is just enormous.
Obviously, killing is part of the job: do you ever reflect on that or is this something you prefer to compartmentalize? The first time I witnessed someone being killed was in Kosovo in 1999 and I’ve seen a lot since then, but I don’t really dwell on it too much, which is the only way to survive and not go insane in this type of situation. The problem is that it might come back to you in the future, as post traumatic stress disorder can take years to develop. But if you speak about it in great details during debriefing and really open up, you might not be able to operate as a soldier anymore. What helped in all the gun battles I was in, is that we never knew how many people we had actually killed. I have no interest knowing this kind of numbers…
What has happened to the eight other men who took part in the mission and are you still in touch? We occasionally have a reunion and I see some of the guys around London too- some ex-Pathfinders work as bodyguards for Abramovich now, and I occasionally bump into them, which is funny. But we don’t email everyday as everyone is now getting on with their lives. They’ve all left the Army apart from the youngest one. Because once you’ve been through the kind of mission we’ve been through, you’ll never be able to compete with that again. It’s a bit like a footballer who plays in the World Cup final and wins- he’ll probably never win again, so it’s quite a good thing to stop on a high, having achieved something amazing.
What are your plans for the future? A number of agencies in London have been competing to represent me and I’ve now signed up with Independent Talent, which has all the big names in movies. They are in charge of selling the movie rights to the book and also represent me as a presenter for military programs. At the moment, I’m writing a second book which will be published next year. It’s called Maverick One and is about my time in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, where I worked with warlords just after 9/11. Obviously it will have to go through the ministry of Defence again, which I’m not looking forward to. But now I’m used to it, so I’ll be all right!
Photos : from one work uniform to the next- David Blakeley in his recognition gear inside a “pinkie”, the Army Land Rover (left), and in a Speedo ad (right); below: with Prince Charles as a yound captain and the letter his HRH sent him.