The harrowing exploits of DOCTOR DARE; THE SAS SURGEON WHO WENT BEHIND ENEMY LINES; For the first time, Richard Villar tells of his ten-year secret mission as the medic who repaired the broken bodies of the SAS as they fought all over the world.
He enjoys family life with his wife and three children in a rambling house in the Essex countryside and his hobby, he tells you, is playing the guitar.
This man, you think, is hardly the sort to have been involved with the harrowing exploits of one of the world's toughest regiments but then it becomes obvious, it is a deliberate act.
Secrecy is still vital to this 44-year-old London surgeon who risked his life with the elite Special Air Service.
For more than a decade, from the late '70s to the late '80s, he was Doctor Dare to the crack military unit who boast the motto Who Dares Wins.
His job was not to kill. His mission was to save the lives of SAS men injured in secret operations all over the world.
Now Richard talks for the first time of his role in the regiment's daring secret missions from the Falklands Conflict to the steamy jungle wars of South America, leaving a bloody trail of broken and dead bodies. And although he quit ten years ago, the images continue to haunt him.
To understand the risks Richard put himself through, one only has to recall the Iranian Embassy siege of 1980. It wasn't just the highly-trained soldiers who stormed the building. Richard, code-named Starlight, was there, too.
"There was a shout, 'Go! Go! Go!' Instantly I heard the sharp reports of the stun grenades as the teams went in," Richard recalls. "Glass shattered, the earth shook, smoke billowed from the building in front.
"With luck, I thought, my medical skills would not be needed at all. My hopes were ill-founded. Sixty seconds later the call came through my ear piece. 'Starlight. You're wanted. Come forward now'.
"I jogged forwards, breathing laboriously in my respirator. The Kevlar body armour was heavy, particularly with the high-velocity protection plates worn back and front. My arm felt as though it had been wrenched out of its shoulder socket as I dragged the huge medical pack towards the charred remains of the building's back door.
"Inside was chaos. Two bodies lay near the foot of the stairs motionless. Then the shouting began. Loud forceful shouts with screaming in the background. 'Go! Get out! Go! Downstairs fast! Go!'
"I could see the stumbling shapes of several confused women being manhandled down the stairs. Finally, coughing and choking, they were pushed through the back door into the fresh air. I could see how frightened they were.
"Unannounced and with brutal aggression, the team had done its job. Within 60 seconds the task was complete, terrorists incapacitated, hostages secure. We had one casualty, not a major wound."
It was quite by chance that Richard was tending wounds in bullet-proof body armour and not in a white coat on a warm hospital ward.
He had wanted to be a surgeon from the moment his mother gave him a plastic stethoscope on his seventh birthday but even though his father was a naval officer, he had never thought about joining the armed forces.
As he trained at a London medical school, his ambition was to become an orthopaedic surgeon, specialising in hip and knee surgery. It was only because he was so strapped for cash, he joined a part-time Territorial Army unit to supplement his student grant, and then the SAS.
He thought he had been busy working a 120-hour week in a hospital but that was nothing compared to being the SAS doctor. The regiment could have operatives in a dozen countries at any one time and everyone wanted the "Doc" with them.
Within weeks, Richard had his first job abroad. Now, he jokes, if he had known how awful the jungle was, he wouldn't have gone.
"I was told to get to a frontier in the deepest jungle. The regiment has dreamt up many ways of infiltrating but abseiling from a helicopter is the easiest. You attach yourself with a figure of eight metal clip on to the rope and away you go.
"I quickly realised the one beast dominating the jungle was the leech. The little horrors could be found everywhere and they can be dangerous too.
"Mac, a new addition to the Squadron's ranks, found it impossible to urinate one morning. He was beginning to get anxious and distressed as his bladder enlarged. I was preparing to plunge a needle through his abdomen into the bladder when I thought to examine his penis.
"There was a very inflated leech blocking his urinary passage. I grasped it with my surgical forceps and Mac lived to pee another day."
Black humour was one way of coping with life in the SAS, explains Richard. It was a trick he learned quickly during his initial training - one of the toughest selection exams in the world. A 55km mountain trek carrying a rifle and a 45lb rucksack was just one of the tests, but it was essential for Richard to be able to cope with the demands of his new life.
"Whoever you are the idea of giving up goes through your mind permanently," he admits. "The whole course is a matter of ignoring the very sensible desire to withdraw. You need to develop a strong streak of bloody-mindedness to succeed.
"It was long, lonely and difficult but I made it and it was exhilarating. I also qualified as a doctor at my first attempt."
Richard knew his life would never be the same again. But in those early days of training, he hadn't realised that at times he would have to risk his own neck.
That reality hit home when the Falklands crisis blew up in 1982 and he was posted to a small island camp in the middle of the Atlantic, in charge of a team of medics.
Richard recalls, "I found myself lying in a canvas tent waiting to die. None of the other medics had been briefed and did not realise they might never see England again, so I decided not to tell them.
"We were scheduled to strike many miles from the frontline and the SAS would be stranded or even annihilated if events went wrong. Unless fate smiled down on us there was little chance we would be going home.
"The Argentinian forces were not a placid enemy. They were well-trained and well-equipped. Intelligence sources had warned the enemy we might attack and it was as if they were waiting for the SAS to arrive.
"That first night I wrote to a friend in the UK. My whole approach, my innermost feeling is best shown by this letter.
"I wrote, 'By the time you read this the Falklands Conflict will be over and I shall be dead. As I sit here now I realise the full horror of what I am about to do. This is no exercise, no war game but the real, very frightening thing. But the prospect of imminent death is something I find hard to accept'.
"The fighting force felt the same. However independent and aggressive a soldier may be he does sometimes need someone to confide in. As a doctor you are everyone's confidant. One soldier took me to one side to say he was plagued by recurring dreams of an aircraft crashing in flames and what could he do?
"It was impossible to help him as this was exactly what might happen to us and I found it best in these situations to own up to my own fears and weaknesses. No one expects a doctor to be gung-ho, running around with a dagger between his teeth.
"I told him I was terrified myself and he was the eleventh person that day to consult me with their fears."
Two weeks later, says Richard, it was apparent that Downing Street could not decide what to do with the team.
They were put on stand-by 30 times and then it was called off. He compared it to sitting on a US Death Row waiting for a last-minute reprieve.
With horrifying reports from the Task Force, the medical team was convinced the operation would be launched. It never was and the reasons not explained.
Richard returned home and found himself tending the burns victims from the landing and supply ships Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram which were hit by Argentine air attack - 53 were dead and 46 injured.
It was partly the Falklands Conflict which prompted Richard's decision to leave the army and partly the demands of over a decade of being in SAS trouble-spots.
"We would probably call it post traumatic stress disorder now but I was still suffering badly from the shock of being asked to kill myself so overtly for Queen and country," says Richard.
But then he had another reason for leading a quieter life and pursuing his career in orthopaedic surgery. While working at an army hospital in Aldershot, he met a Scottish paediatrician called Louise.
"Do you believe in love at first sight?" Richard asks. "Because that is what happened to me."
Louise's tight army uniform clinched his decision to live a less hazardous life, he jokes. Within months they married but before Richard could return to civilian life, he still had one more duty to perform with the SAS. It took him to Everest on one of his most hazardous assignments - Exercise Pilgrims Return. The SAS was on a training exercise set for a record ascent of the North Face of Everest and was camped at nearly 7,000 metres with less than 2,000 metres to go.
"It was at dawn that chaos happened. It had been a terrible night," Richard says darkly. "High winds had battered the sides of our tents, snow had whipped horizontally at colossal speeds. Suddenly a 400-metre length of serac, a huge overhanging ledge of ice, broke loose and fell to the bottom of the North Face. It set off a major avalanche.
"Within seconds the snow swept through the camp shifting it half a mile down the mountain scattering men and equipment.
"These were men with whom I had forged intense relationships, one of them was Tony. He was killed instantly, 48 hours before he had told me how desperately he wished to return alive to his family.
"Another lad called Brummie had strong evidence of a broken neck with pins and needles in his left hand, full paralysis could be only millimetres away.
"Peter, who had been swept away, was miraculously found and quickly the survivors removed the snow and ice blocks covering his head. The moment I saw him I knew I had problems.
"Suddenly my quiet, organised existence had turned into uncontrolled medical chaos. Brummie and two of the minor injured were able to walk down the mountain to base camp. But I knew Brummie ran a risk of paralysing himself. There was little I could do about it except quietly hope his well-recognised strength would see him through.
"My main worry was Peter. He was in a very bad way. That first night with Peter is etched on my brain.
"I lay beside him in the tent. He was a good friend. He had teased me mercilessly about my lack of climbing experience regaling me with stories of past accidents, near misses and torturous deaths. I noticed his colour. Instead of pink it was blue. This is called cyanosis and is a feature of insufficient oxygen reaching the body's tissues.
"When he did breathe, I could tell he was struggling for air. Then, without warning, he lapsed into unconsciousness, grunted loudly and stopped breathing altogether.
"I had about 90 seconds to correct the situation before he died. His tongue had flopped backwards blocking his airway.
"My hands were trembling as I forced open Peter's clenched mouth and pushed an airway tube down, then connected it to a hand-operated air pump.
"Peter could not breathe on his own. For several hours I lay beside him working the pump by hand. Three hours later he appeared to breathe by himself. By morning, having lain awake all night worrying, I was pleased to see him recovering."
But Richard had to get him to the Roadhead Camp and because Peter had improved, he tried to walk him down the mountain. The decision was a mistake.
"Only 300 metres downhill, I realised he would not make it. He buckled at the knees and his lips and fingers turned blue," Richard says. "I tried to carry him in a fireman's lift. On Everest it was impossible and he became worse.
"I pitched my tent so I could resuscitate him. By now he was vomiting and dehydration was setting in."
For the rest of the day and the following night in freezing conditions, Richard fought desperately to save the soldier using his makeshift medical kit. It was an ordeal he wouldn't like to repeat.
"I managed to melt a saline pack over my portable mountain cooker," Richard says. "Within minutes of it entering his body, Peter began to recover. But he was still perilously ill. All that night I again lay beside him, listening to his screaming and shouting.
"The next morning we strapped Peter to a caving ladder which we used to cross crevasses. I sedated him for the journey and we only dropped him once, fortunately he was asleep.
"At Roadhead Camp he was taken off my hands and I was confident he would survive. The SAS made a decision to abandon Everest. Exercise Pilgrims Return was over."
And life in the SAS was finally over for Richard, too. He returned home to Britain and promised Louise he would lead a quieter life as a surgeon in Cambridge. It didn't, he confesses, work out that way. He missed the adventure and had difficulty adapting to civilian life.
So, keeping his base in Cambridge, he offered his medical expertise to charities working in war zones. Alongside Louise, he worked all over the world before settling down in Essex to raise a family.
"It was a wonderful time," says Richard. "It took us from India to the Lebanon to Sarajevo to Sri Lanka. But that," he adds with a smile, "is another adventure."
Richard Villar's book, Knife Edge: Life As A Special Forces Surgeon, is published by Michael Joseph, pounds 16.99.
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 1998|
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