Johnny knows quite well that he has just made a crucial decision to finish. He feels good about it. He is in no doubt. At least not until some platoon bosses look him up in the evening. Those who he and Tomas chose to include in the 712th mechanised trench company. Those who are soon to be trained together, be prepared for action together, perhaps travel abroad together. Perhaps not come home together.
“We must now continue with Nordic Battlegroup. You’re going to be the boss,” they say.
And so things change immediately.
“I then saw that there was going to be a future, that I was going to get on. Since that moment, I’ve never had any doubt. After all, it’s the deputy’s lot to be prepared to become boss. Tomas could have finished, become ill, anything. Now, the worst scenario was happening.”
Johnny Eriksson gets a sense of guilt from simple things such as seeing his deputy Peter Andersson leading the camping work when they are out in the field.
“I sometimes think that it ought to have been me who was doing that. But Tomas’ parents said to me at the burial, “Now make sure you finish what Tomas started.” That means I can’t really do anything other than continue. I can’t do more than my best.”
It was easy to continue, in spite of everything. Just a few days after Tomas’ death, Johnny sat there recruiting his future soldiers as planned.
“Tomas and I were different, but we thought the same way about many things. There was a clear thread that was easy to pick up on,” he says.
A few of the soldiers who had already said yes decided to opt out.
“I understand that it’s affected the soldiers when they see that you’re not even safe here at home. Many of them are young, still have all their grandparents in their lives and they may have come no closer to death than having had a pet die. Many have completely different experiences but for most 19-year-olds, death is a long way away,” says Johnny.
He himself has had more experience than anyone would wish to have — of unrest when he was in Bosnia in 1994, to one of his conscripts having taken his life last year; now the accident.
“Death is something I’ve had close experience of. I know the risks are there, but they don’t hold me back. I have a conscience which says that it isn’t normal for everyone to die when they’re old and in their sickbeds. I want all my soldiers in Nordic Battlegroup to think about what they’re doing and why.”
As an officer, Johnny thinks that it is part of his job to travel abroad, a chance to test his leadership in a cut-throat situation, test his own capacity for a long time.
His wife, who was around before the action in Bosnia, does not share the same conviction about her husband’s choice.
Most difficult for the children
“She said ‘Can you explain why you’re becoming involved in someone else’s war?’. But she understood when I explained that I was going out to help people who are in a tight spot while others are at war.”
It is not that easy with the children, of course, seven and ten years old.
“I’m honest when I talk to them. They ask ‘Could you die?’ and I then say that I could, but that I could do that at home as well. They also ask why I don’t want to be at home with them, and I say that I do, but that I’m going to help other children and adults.”
But when the seven year-old asks if dad would rather be with someone else, it naturally cuts my heart in two, so I have to explain again.
“Time is abstract for a seven year-old, and we don’t know how things are going to turn out, of course. But I’ve said that I’ll be at home to celebrate Christmas. Then I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll go, perhaps I won’t. She’s accepted it now.”
Older and younger
Johnny looks forward to his training, being able to train his platoon bosses, group managers and soldiers, all carefully selected, carefully compiled groups.
Some have just finished their military service and find their way better around the company’s armoured 9040C combat vehicles than they do in their own apartments.
Others are older and have more experience of life, have a mission and civil training to their name that may be of benefit to the company, but what Johnny does hope is that they have a common denominator: they are goal-orientated, committed and determined to do a really, really good job. But will it work?
Of course it will. For Johnny Eriksson, there is only one really important ingredient: practice.
“When something happens, everyone needs to know what to do and how to do it.”
“When I asked for a stretcher the night when Tomas died, things got moving and I ended up with five of them. This happens only if you’ve practised it many times.”
He clearly remembers the morning of 24 March.
The cold night air, the heat that spread throughout your body when the sun rose, the ambulance that left slowly bouncing over the field.
The crisis work. Taking care of the injured, of friends. The closeness. A long night, a long day and long days after that. Many people who did their very best.
Yet again, it was shown how important it is to have well functioning crisis handling at group level and in the regiment in general.
“The majority of the officers in my company in Nordic Battlegroup were there that night. We were involved in the crisis handling afterwards. It’s strengthened us. We now know that we have the capacity to manage it. By putting some distance between myself and the accident, I can also see that there’s a positive side to the experiences we had, but there was a terribly high price to pay.”
Text & Photo: Anja Edvardsson