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Pen mightier than the M16

Expecting a hard as nails tough guy, Aidan Rasmussen is pleasantly surprised, not to mention relieved, to find ex-SAS soldier turned author, Chris Ryan is more than just a killing machine on two legs.

To say that I was a little apprehensive about meeting Chris Ryan is an understatement. He's not your average Geordie. They breed them tough up there in Newcastle, but I suspect they don't come any tougher than Ryan. A man among men, Ryan is an ex- SAS soldier who has served in Northern Ireland and the Middle East and trained the men who went after Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. His story is the stuff of 'boys own adventures', the most famous chapter being his escape from Iraq during the Gulf War.

In January 1991, less than a week after the war had started, along with seven other SAS, Ryan was dropped by helicopter 200 miles into Iraqi territory with orders to locate and destroy Saddam Hussein's mobile Scud missile launches. If Ryan's story is the stuff of 'boys own adventures' then this mission was a cock-up of 'Dads Army' proportions. Due to poor intelligence the patrol was dropped into an area that contained 3000 Iraqi troops; four SAS men were captured and three killed. Ryan was the only one to escape. To get to safety he trekked for seven days over 188 miles of desert in subzero temperatures with no food and little water; the longest escape in the history of the SAS. He got a medal for his efforts and penned his experiences in the aptly titled The One that got away.

Ryan's and his commander Andy McNab's heroics - he wrote Bravo Two Zero - have been tainted with controversy, though. Some believe they embellished their stories quite liberally. One of their most vocal critics is Michael Asher, a former Territorial SAS member and desert explorer who claims to have interviewed eyewitnesses in Iraq who refute Ryan and McNab. Due to discrepancies in their stories, he believes their accounts are flawed, not to mention, rife with overexaggeration. According to Asher the SAS patrol did not kill 250 Iraqi soldiers, march through the night with 200lbs of equipment on their backs (they marched with the equipment but only a few hundred yards) or experience any 'vicious' firefights.

This controversy was one of the many queries I put to Ryan when I interviewed him the other day.

In person Chris Ryan is not what you might expect. Sure, he's well built, a top heavy 5 9/10" with the chest and shoulders of an Olympic wrestler, out of proportion with his slim legs. Where I was expecting to be brought to my knees with a manly handshake, instead I was briefly offered a soft right hand. He's quietly spoken, affable and surprisingly devoid of any of the gung ho trappings you might associate with someone who has been in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. In fact Ryan seems a tad uncomfortable. His nervousness is palpable.

"I find the publicity machine and book signings absolutely terrifying," he says a suspicious look in his eyes.

"It's just so completely different. When I was in the regiment you went about your work and nobody knew who you were, all of a sudden you're pushed to the front and it's quite hard to get used to it," he says leaning forward out of his chair, his hands wedged between his legs.

You can't help but feel for Ryan. Here he is, this big tough man who has lost friends in the heat of battle, survived through an ordeal most can't even fathom (he still has nightmares about it), but breaks into a sweat whenever he's in the public eye. To counter this he's had to forgo some of his training and step into the limelight, something SAS soldiers are taught never to do. They even have a saying for it 'Always be the grey man' - blend into the background. Do so and you'll live longer. Which serves you well if you want to stay alive. But does you a great disservice if you want to sell books, or more to the point, if your publisher wants you to grease the wheels of the publicity machine.

"In the SAS you knew the risks you were taking. In my ten years 18 guys died and everybody was prepared to take that risk. But this, this is completely different to how I see life and live life. It can be frightening. It's just a fear that I haven't mastered yet," he says some of that old bravado coming to the fore.

"I still get sweaty and panicky. It's probably like a fear of snakes or spiders. I didn't have any fears until I came into this industry and doing the press side of things is probably my biggest fear. I sweat profusely and feel uncomfortable. You can't think as well, everything's happening too fast."

On the controversy surrounding his escape and the books that have been derived from the Bravo Two Zero disaster, Ryan is surprisingly calm.

"I wanted to sue the guy but it was pointed out to me that he had no money and he lives in Morocco as well and I'll be damned if I spend anything from STG10-50, 000 getting an apology. I've got better things to do with my money. You've got to take all this stuff on the chin and I stand by my book and so do my publishers. You can't lose the focus on somebody like that."

Although, he has been quoted as saying that he and Asher meet him face-to-face so they can sort the dispute out 'the way SAS men do'.

Despite being irrevocably scarred by his Gulf War experience, Ryan stayed in the SAS for another three years. A combination of factors led to Ryan's eventual departure:

"I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, if there is such a thing. I had a bad freefall accident and I was selecting and training guys for the SAS and the first guy I passed was the first guy that was killed in Bosnia and that had a huge affect on me, although I had gone to 18 funerals over the years, they seemed to be acceptable. But this young lad I had the power to fail..." He voice quivers a little and his eyes briefly lose focus.

"It hit me harder. I was at the point where I was asking questions. I was thinking is what we're doing right? I think when you start questioning things it's time to go. If you're not morally flexible anymore you've got to leave. Otherwise you'll get yourself killed or somebody else."

His conscience only stretches back so far, though. There is still an element of 'we were only following orders' to Ryan's speech. One of his first jobs was to train the Khmer Rouge, a job okayed by the British government because the group were supposedly fighting communism. With his security consultancy he's trained troops in South America and the Middle East that have changed sides. He might have a moral dilemma about being involved with those oppressive and violent regimes today, but whatever qualms he had at the time still did not prevent him from either following orders or doing business.

"You asked the question before about the Khmer Rouge and you think well 'crikey, who the hell sanctioned that one?' It's no good pondering over it. In East Timor we trained a lot of the guys that were causing trouble there as well. It's stupid."

Yes it is.

Aidan Rasmussen