Photo: Efren Lopez via US Air Force
The wife of SAS soldier Danny Nightingale talks about the impact her husband’s courtmartial has had on the family.Sally Nightingale is a woman who knows the meaning both of loyalty and sacrifice.
As the wife of an SAS soldier, she learned to live with the knowledge that a knock on the door could bring news of her husband’s death.
But she never complained and instead stood by her husband as he took part in secret operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, risking everything in the service of his government and country.
In six years of marriage, the couple has effectively spent three years apart.
Today, as the nation remembers its fallen heroes, she is wondering whether the worry, the pain and the sacrifice have been worth anything, as her husband languishes inside, a military prison, his career and future in tatters.
“I expected to be opening a bottle of Champagne and getting our lives back on track,” said Mrs Nightingale.
“Instead I had to tell my two daughters, Mara who is five and Alys, who’s just two and a half, that daddy wasn’t coming home.
“I can’t bear to tell them that he’s in prison and will not be home for a long time – I still can’t believe it myself.
“I feel as though I am in a horrible dream. Danny has been hung out to dry and the whole family is suffering. He is a hero who has been betrayed by the Army and the government.
“He is being treated as though he was a common criminal – it just doesn’t make sense.
“Danny’s Army pay has been stopped – I can’t pay the mortgage and we may lose our home – the whole family is being punished.”
What put Mrs Nightingale in this situation was a sequence of events which has seen her husband taken from a role at the heart of protecting his country to a military detention centre in Colchester.
Even in the SAS Sgt Nightingale was something special. As well as a trained sniper, he was a qualified medic who designed a new field dressing, which is now used by the SAS, the American Delta Force, and Britain’s Ambulance Service.
The device is now known as the “Nightingale Dressing” and has reputedly saved hundreds of lives.
In 2007, Sgt Nightingale was serving in Iraq as part of a secret British-US counter-terrorist unit known as Task Force Black.
The unit was composed of members of the SAS and Delta Force, its American equivalent, and their mission was to kill or capture members of al-Qaeda.
Baghdad was then at the nexus of a violent insurgency driven by terrorists who thought nothing of killing hundreds of innocent civilians every day.
Every evening Sgt Nightingale’s team, working alongside a group of Iraqi special forces known as “The Apostles”, would venture onto the streets to hunt down al-Qaeda terrorists. It was later described as the most intense period of war fighting in SAS history.
Towards the end of the tour Sgt Nightingale was presented with a 9mm Glock by the Iraqis as a gift.
He intended to have it decommissioned and hung on the SAS sergeants’ mess wall as a war trophy, alongside dozens of others amassed by the regiment in operations.
But days before he was due to be flown home, two members of his squadron, Sgt John Battersby and Cpl Lee Fitzsimmons, were killed when their helicopter crashed. The two men were burnt to death, and Sgt Nightingale escorted the bodies back home and helped arrange the funerals of his friends.
“As soon as Danny returned home he went straight to John’s wife offering her support and arranging the funerals.
“He was exhausted, all of his squadron were, but he would not talk about what happened on operations – he never did and I accepted that,” his wife said.
Meanwhile his operational equipment – and the pistol – was packed away in Iraq by members of the regiment and sent back to Hereford, where it remained locked away on the base in the secure “cage” which every SAS trooper uses.
Stung by the death of his two friends, Sgt Nightingale decided to raise thousands of pound for the regiment’s “Clock Tower Fund”, which supports the widows and orphans of dead SAS soldiers by choosing to take partin one of the most arduous races on earth – the Brazil Jungle Marathon where competitors race over 200 miles through the Amazon basin.
But ultimately the race would prove to be Sgt Nightingale’s undoing and set him on a journey which would end with his imprisonment.
On the first day of competition he collapsed. As medics fought to revive him, Sgt Nightingale’s body temperature rose to 111F and his body began to convulse in series of violent fits before he slipped into a three-day coma.
He was eventually flown back to Britain, virtually unable to speak and suffering from terrible memory loss.
“He was talking like a two-year-old and couldn’t even remember he had a daughter,” his wife continued.
“I don’t actually think he could remember anything at all. He was sent to Headley Court but only for rehabilitation, there were no brain functioning tests or anything.
“A few weeks later he was out and the SAS said take two weeks off and come back to work. In the end he was off for three months.”
But Danny was not the same person. He had suffered brain damage and would later learn that he had lost pockets of memory.
Crucially, one of them was the Glock pistol, locked away inside the cage within the headquarters, which had disappeared from his memory.
“Danny got himself fit again but was very good at hiding his memory problems,” Mrs Nightingale said.
“He would make lists so that he never forgot. He knew that if he ever admitted that he had a problem his future in the SAS would be in doubt. Danny lived for the regiment. He was totally loyal, totally committed.”
As far as the regiment were concerned, Sgt Nightingale was ready to serve, and in 2010 he joined the regiment’s counter-terrorist team. It meant being on constant alert and ready at any time to go on active duty.
“Danny needed to be close to the regiment’s headquarters so he moved into an Army house with one of his mates,” said Mrs Nightingale.
His equipment – including the pistol, locked inside a box – was taken from the “cage” and put in the Army quarters.
In May 2011, both men were sent on a six month tour to Afghanistan. A few weeks after they left, his colleague’s wife complained to the police that she was a victim of domestic violence and that her husband had ammunition in his house.
The complaint resulted in a raid on the house in which civilian police searched not just his colleague’s possessions, but Sgt Nightingale’s, and found the Glock pistol. It was in the box in which Sgt Nightingale had locked it in 2007.
Both men were sent back to Britain and Sgt Nightingale was questioned by West Mercia Police, who did not press charges.
Instead the police decided it was a matter for the military, and the case was passed to the Royal Military Police and both men who were charged with firearms offences.
Last Tuesday morning he appeared at a court martial, presided over by Judge Advocate Alistair McGrigor.
Sgt Nightingale knew that he could either fight the charge or plead guilty.
He was told by the judge advocate that if he fought the case and was found guilty he would get a minimum of five years in a civilian prison. If he pleaded guilty, however, the court would treat him leniently.
He and his family stepped outside the court to talk.
Courts martial broadly follow civilian sentencing guidelines, although they are not compelled to. A civilian judge would have followed guidelines which impose a five-year mandatory sentence for possession of a handgun.
Although some judges have imposed lower sentences, including one man jailed for a year for ordering a gun online which he did not actually receive, such cases are rare.
Judge Advocate McGrigor, however, could have imposed a far lower sentence, and Sgt Nightingale’s legal team believed he would.
“Danny’s priority was to get home to his family – five years in a civilian prison is not going to get him home to his family,” said Mrs Nightingale.
“The decision to plead guilty was about creating the minimum damage. It hurts us both with every bone in our body to be forced to go back into the court and say ‘I’m guilty’ but that’s what we had to do to try and limit the damage.
“At that stage I didn’t think he would go to prison, never. We spent the afternoon going over the case. We went into court on Wednesday morning, the prosecution put their case forward, which was quite positive.
“The prosecutor said he was an exemplary soldier but he has been found in possession of an illegal firearm and we need to deal with this appropriately.
“We had testimony from two expert witnesses who supported Danny’s case and said that it was completely possible that his brain injury meant that he never knew the gun existed.
“I believe that, because he never spoke about having a Glock. I never knew anything about it until he was sent home from Afghanistan.”
The court accepted that the Glock pistol had been given to Sgt Nightingale as a gift and the testimony from the expert witnesses who stated that he had suffered from severe memory loss.
But the judge refused to accept that Sgt Nightingale was not aware that he was in possession of an illegal firearm and sentenced him to 18 months in the Military Corrective Training Centre in Colchester, known to the military as “the glasshouse”.
He will be discharged from the Army once his sentenced is complete, and will have with a criminal conviction which will make it difficult to secure employment.
Stripped of the SAS career he loved, Sgt Nightingale must hope that the appeal his legal team will lodge against both conviction and sentence succeed.
But until then Mrs Nightingale is determined that she will fight for the return of her husband with dedication equal to his as her fought for his country: “All I want now is justice for my husband and a future for my family and I will not stop fighting until we get it.”
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.