The Churches of


Fenny Bentley Parwich Thorpe Tissington

Remembrance Sunday 2005

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I’d like to tell you today about two soldiers.

The first is Private Johnston Beharry, of the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment.   In May last year, Private Beharry was in Iraq.   The place was called Al Amarah.   A three-day battle for the town had erupted, and British soldiers were pinned down by Shi’ite rebels from a paramilitary group led by the rebel Moqtada al Sadr.

Private Beharry was the lead driver of a patrol ambushed by the rebels. His Warrior armoured personnel carrier was hit by several explosions and set on fire, his Commanding Officer was knocked out and presumed dead — and a gunner in his vehicle was consumed by flames.   Private Beharry’s personnel carrier and four others were trapped.   He opened the hatch on the top of the vehicle, and could hardly see anything for thick smoke.   They had to escape.   So he turned his Warrior vehicle towards a barricade, which was blocking their way.   A rocket propelled grenade smashed into the vehicle. But he kept going, and battered his way through the barricade, allowing the other personnel carriers to escape too.   Still under fire, and in spite of being hit by a rifle bullet, he ploughed through the enemy forces, and managed to get the thirty soldiers in the five vehicles to safety.

Some weeks later, Private Beharry was caught in a second ambush.   Another rocket propelled grenade exploded right in front of his face, leaving him with near-fatal head wounds and a hole in his shoulder.   But still managed to reverse his Warrior personnel carrier 200 metres to safety – and saved not just his own life but that of all his crew.  

For his bravery, Private Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross earlier this year.   He is the first living soldier to have been awarded what soldiers call ‘the big one’ since 1969.   To be given the VC you are supposed to have had a ninety per cent chance of being killed.   His commanding officer said, “He has saved my life twice and possibly the lives of the whole platoon. I can never forget that.”

The second man I want to tell you about is called Ron Kovic. Ron Kovic was born sixty years ago in Wisconsin, USA.   Like many young men in America in the 1960s, he joined the army because he said he ‘wanted to be a hero’.   He had every intention of being the best marine that he could be, wanting to win as many medals as he could.   However, things turned out very differently.   Kovic was sent to fight in the war in Vietnam.   Life in the army in Vietnam was not at all what he expected.   One day he shot a fellow soldier dead by accident.   When he wanted to own up, his superiors would not allow it.   Then he and some other soldiers found that in a village they had destroyed they had killed women, children and old people – and nobody in that village had had any weapons.   So Kovic deliberately got himself injured, by stepping on a mine, so that he would be sent home.   But when he got home he found that there was no hero’s welcome for him.   He spent long periods in hospitals where the conditions were terrible, but never fully recovered from his injuries.   In fact his spinal cord had been shattered and Kovic would never walk again.  

He felt as if he had been thrown on the scrap heap.   He had seen how there was much about the war in Vietnam which was wrong; and the American government did not even seem to care about its soldiers who had risked their lives for their country.   So Kovic began to speak out against the war.   He travelled the country, speaking from his wheelchair to audiences of all sizes, helping to show people that the war in Vietnam was ‘a crime against humanity’, as he put it.

Kovic’s story of bravery which turned to deep anger against the war is shown in the film Born on the Fourth of July, in which he is played by the actor Tom Cruise.  

Today we mark Remembrance Sunday.   On this day we think especially about those who gave their lives for this country in the two world wars last century.   There are, as always, those of this village who have come here today to remember those of their own families who never came back.   We give thanks for their bravery and sacrifice.   But today I have wanted to show you that although war can bring out the best and the most heroic in people – such as Private Beharry –   we all know that they can also reveal the darker aspects of human nature and of society.   Wars can make people into heroes; but they can also bring out those aspects of human nature which are destructive, dishonest, fanatical; and they can take away all that makes our civilisation what it is.  

Both of these extremes of behaviour were also seen in the two World Wars.   So although we must quite rightly give thanks for those who gave their lives for our freedom, let us never glorify war.    And what is more, let us never assume that going to war is a normal and acceptable way to solve international problems.  

Christopher Harrison home page