In the week that his conviction for possessing an illegal fiream was over-turned, SAS Sniper Danny Nightingale tells Sean Rayment what life was like inside a military prison.
Sergeant Danny Nightingale is used to fighting desperate battles.
For the past 11 years, the SAS soldier has spent much of his time hunting Britain’s enemies in some of the most hostile environments imaginable.
It was a job not without sacrifice. Two of his closest friends were killed in action in Iraq and many more suffered terrible injuries.
His wife, Sally, and young family also suffered and had to learn to live with the fear of knowing that each tearful goodbye before he departed on another mission could be his last.
But those feats of courage and determination paled into insignificance compared with the pain and humiliation he suffered when encouraged to plead guilty at a court martial to a crime of which he considers himself innocent.
“I said 'guilty’ through gritted teeth,” Sgt Nightingale told The Sunday Telegraph the day before his appeal against being convicted for possessing an illegal firearm. “Of all the things I have ever done while a member of the SAS saying 'I’m guilty’ with my family standing behind me was by far the hardest.
“It was a physically painful thing to do and it still hurts. I was determined to fight and win — but when you face being separated from your family for up to five years everything changes.”
In November 2012 Sgt Nightingale stood in the dock at the Army’s court martial centre in Bulford, Wiltshire, charged with the illegal possession of a Glock 9mm pistol. The weapon had been presented to Sgt Nightingale for “outstanding service” by members of the Iraqi Special Forces he had helped train while serving as a member of Task Force Black, the covert US and British unit operating in Baghdad in 2007.
The pistol was due to be deactivated and mounted in the regimental sergeants’ mess as a war trophy on his return from operation duty.
But a series of events conspired to prevent that from occurring and in 2011 Sgt Nightingale was arrested and charged.
On the first day of the court martial, Assistant Judge Advocate General Alistair McGrigor warned Sgt Nightingale that if he fought the case and lost he could expect a five-year jail sentence. The alternative, he was told, was to plead guilty and hope for a lighter sentence.
The “more lenient” sentence was 18 months detention inside the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester — Britain’s only military “prison”.
“The last words I remember the judge saying was, 'March the prisoner out.’ I was devastated and I felt betrayed.”
The family had a few minutes to say their goodbyes, but there were no final hugs for his two girls — Alys, two, and Mara, five, who had been kept away from events at the court.
“I walked into the detention centre and was told that I would be stripped of my rank. I was no longer Sgt Nightingale, I was Detainee Under Sentence Nightingale. The guards at the centre were very nice to me and said that they were embarrassed to have an SAS soldier locked up. But I was determined that I would be treated like anyone else.
“In the space of a few short hours my life had changed beyond recognition. I was led into my room and the door was locked behind me.
“I just stood staring at the wall wondering what had happened and how had it come to this. It didn’t seem real.
“Despite everything, my only concern was my family. My pay had been stopped, our savings had been used up paying legal fees and there was a very real prospect that we might lose our home.”
The SAS is possibly the world’s most famous fighting unit but the Nightingale family feel the regiment has failed to support them through the trauma of his arrest, trial and detention.
Once charged, Sgt Nightingale was suspended from duty and banned from entering his regimental base in Hereford unless accompanied by two military escorts. His colleagues, and their wives, were “ordered” not to have any contact with him or his family. A further indignity came when he was refused the right to wear his SAS uniform during the court martial.
Inside the military detention centre, Sgt Nightingale’s life was governed by a strict routine and numerous rules.
“All the guards were referred to as 'staff’, all officers as 'sir’. Each morning began with 'block jobs’ such as cleaning toilets, sweeping floors. Meal times were called 'diets’ and each meal was followed by a period of 'lock down’ while the guards ate their food or changed shift.”
Sgt Nightingale’s connection with the outside world was restricted to censored newspapers, phone calls amounting to 10 minutes a week, some television and letters.
“Without any doubt the most difficult thing for me was being away from my family and being locked up 12 hours a day. It was like being a caged animal. My room was 11 paces long, and I estimated that to walk a kilometre I would have to complete 167 laps of my room. I did that every morning. Sometimes I would walk up to 10km. I just had to keep busy.”
Three days after Sgt Nightingale was convicted, The Sunday Telegraph broke his story. The impact was immediate. Questions were asked in the House of Commons, Facebook campaigns began and ministers questioned whether justice had been served.
Back in the military detention centre, the staff decided to break the rules and allowed Sgt Nightingale to see the front page of The Sunday Telegraph.
“I was overwhelmed and pleased that people were taking notice. Almost immediately letters of support began to arrive. I received around 350 letters while I was in Colchester and I answered them all.
“The staff would allow me to stay up later than the other detainees and gave me extra paper so I could write letters and they would also bring me cups of coffee, which was also strictly against the rules.”
Three weeks after Sgt Nightingale was convicted he was back in court, where three appeal court judges, including the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, ruled that his detention should be reduced to a 12-month suspended sentence. Crucially, the court also allowed him to appeal against his conviction, even though he had initially pleaded guilty.
“It was the first time I had been in the justice system where I felt common sense had prevailed,” he said.
If Sgt Nightingale thought that his release might be greeted with some enthusiasm by senior members of his regiment, he was wrong. No one called to congratulate him or offer any support.
Although his pay was reinstated, he remained suspended from duty. It began to dawn on him that the chances of being able to return to the regiment he had served and loved were virtually non-existent.
Earlier this year he returned to the SAS’s headquarters to undergo a medical examination to assess brain damage he had suffered during a 200-mile jungle marathon to raise money for the families of dead soldiers.
Sgt Nightingale explained: “I was only allowed on to the base with an escort of two armed Ministry of Defence Policemen (MDP). I was only allowed in with a 'red pass’, which meant that I had to be accompanied all the time. Even contractors are given 'green passes’, which means they don’t have to be accompanied.
“The MDP were really embarrassed. They apologised and said, 'Sorry Danny we are only doing as we have been told.’ I was driven to the medical centre and as I walked up to the counter I said hello to one of the receptionists, who I recognised. One of the two policemen stepped in between us and said, 'Sorry Danny, but you can’t speak to anyone.’ ”
Last Wednesday, the Court of Appeal quashed Sgt Nightingale’s conviction and ordered a retrial. That decision is now in the hands of the service prosecuting authority.
In the best traditions of the SAS, Sgt Nightingale dared to win. “I’m almost there”, he said. “But I will not stop until I have cleared my name. I am still a serving member of A Squadron 22 SAS but I’m being treated as though I was a criminal.”