Super-hard, Royal Marine Commando...
Super-hard, Royal Marine Commando......and animal loving vegan!
Tony Wardle meets a Royal Marine Commando and talks to him about warfare, compassion and spiritual enlightenment
Sidney Sharpe, it seems, is two people. He is the super-hard, Royal Marine Commando who is trained to kill with staggering efficiency. He is also the animal-loving vegan who is shocked by images of cruelty. And that, surely, is the template for a head-on, car crash of internal conflict?
I’m not sure what a member of the world’s toughest special forces is supposed to look like but I would not immediately have drawn a picture of Sid Sharpe. Very handsome, not particularly tall and with an extraordinarily warm and open face, he seems almost vulnerable, the kind of guy you immediately want to make friends with. My mum would have described him as a ‘thoroughly nice lad’ and encouraged me to ask him back for tea. She was usually right, my mum!
Born slap bang in the middle of London, in Soho in 1990, Sid is his own one-man United Nations – a quarter Irish, quarter Malaysian, quarter Native American and a quarter ‘sub-Saharan’. On top of this, he’s spent a considerable amount of time in Canada and the townships of South Africa and can speak the impossibly difficult Xhosa ‘click’ language.
His family comprises two sisters, a brother and divorced parents – and that event was truly important because it had a profound impact on him:
“As a kid, I went on a visit to a Buddhist temple and that triggered a search for spirituality in me, which has always remained but at times it has just been in the background. It was very hard to grow spiritually when you’re at the kind of bloody rough school I was, with bullying, constant playground punch-ups and kids wielding knives.
“My parents divorced when I was 13 and I developed really serious anger issues. My lovely mother encouraged me to revisit Buddhism as she thought it might help me control my outbursts of aggression. I did and I also went vegetarian despite all that was going on because I truly believed that all animals are equal”.
You can see the personal conflicts that mark him as an adult beginning to take root. When self-defence is the first lesson you need to learn at school for survival, it makes perfect sense that Sid wanted to be a boxer but that was squashed by his mum, so he took up martial arts instead. Hepatitis C brought that to a painful end and for months Sid literally wasted away to a skinny little thing with a question mark over his longevity.
“Suddenly, one morning I woke up and was hungry and I could face life again. Now I just wanted to be happy and had no great ambition but I knew I didn’t want to do a 9-5 job. I left school at 16 and took a series of physical sport courses but to progress, I needed to study sports science and being dyslexic, that proved difficult – too difficult. Then along came the men’s fitness mags and the message that real men eat meat. So, I started to build my muscles and went back to eating meat full time.”
‘Building muscles’ resulted in Mr Universe type exhibitions with lots of oiled flesh and striking bizarre poses to show off pecs or six packs or biceps. As a professional cynic, I can’t look at them without laughing but then I’ve no doubt if I tried it, people would certainly laugh at me but for different reasons. Anyway, Sid’s search was for perfection, to be the best at something, and body building was merely a means of achieving that. It wasn’t long before he was again agonising over what he should be eating and whether meat really was the answer to everything – a theme that was continually to recur until it reached crisis point.
Many of us can recall a single event that changed our lives and for Sid it was a party and meeting an old friend, who Sid describes as ‘very dark’. He was a Commando. It sparked an interest and when Sid looked up the Royal Marines on the Royal Navy website he saw two things that resonated with him – the claim that they were the thinking man’s soldiers and then the clincher – ‘Be the best’.
Being the best meant learning survival skills (“You can drop a Royal Marine in any terrain anywhere in the world and he will survive”), superb physical fitness, marksmanship and close combat training – armed and unarmed. But the clincher was the claim that wherever in the world humanitarian crises developed, the Marines would be there to help.
The bit about tracking down our enemies and confronting them took a bit of a back seat, it seems. Sid maintains he wasn’t seeking glory but was attracted by a secure job in which he could progress. Not sure I buy this as I don’t think Sidney Sharpe has ever sought anything that was secure – rather he has been driven by a need to understand himself and I suspect the physical challenge, like all the previous physical challenges he’s undertaken, was the real allure. To confront the torturous training of the special forces and survive would provide a mountain of self-esteem on which to perch while postponing the troubling search for who he really was and what he truly believed.
Having served in the Royal Air Force Police, I can tell you that the forces are not democratic – you do what you’re told to do. For someone who hates being told what to do, it seemed like a pretty poor fit for Sid, as it was for me.
“This was different because although it was tough, very tough, every officer or NCO who drilled us and shouted at us had proved themselves by passing the training course and were much better than me so that made it acceptable. Yes, it hurts when you fail and you’re called ‘a pile of shit’ but then you succeed and you’re praised – ‘you’re amazing, trooper’. That makes you feel good and helps you to keep going. Fifty men started in my training troop and only eight of us survived.”
Training lasts for nearly nine months and it culminates in the notorious 30-miler – a run across the rough terrain of Dartmoor in full fighting order and carrying 32 lbs of equipment. It has to be completed in eight hours and men have died trying to achieve it.
“I kept hearing a voice in my head saying ‘you’re not going to do it, Sid’ and then the reply, ‘oh yes I bloody am!’
The finishing line was a bridge and as we crossed it we were awarded our green berets and we cried, we all cried.
The passing out parade was the proudest day of my life. I had become one of them.”
Posted to 42 Commando in Plymouth, Trooper Sidney Sharpe was now a soldier proper and the work began. Yes, there were humanitarian missions, such as searching for human remains from the Malaysian Airlines MH 17 aircraft shot down over the Ukraine. But there were many more military missions and you can guarantee that wherever in the world there is armed conflict and our government perceives it has an interest, Royal Marine Commandos will be there.
“We were constantly being sent on reconnaissance jobs lasting from a few days to a couple of weeks and it could be anywhere. You may well see Marines in uniform at trouble spots but in a way, they are a distraction as the majority of the troop simply blend into the environment and are never seen. I saw a trooper I knew out of uniform at the London Marathon and was about to say hello when a flash of his eyes told me he was working and I should ignore him.”
Sid has seen action but for security reasons is very circumspect about when and where. But what he does say is chilling:
“Knowing someone wants to kill you is just fun – such an adrenalin rush that you can’t switch off. Your only concerns are for the guys around you and shooting the bad guys is like a video game. You go into battle with a ‘Marine head’ and act like a machine – like one entity. You’re not fighting for your Queen or country, you’re fighting for your mates and yes I did shoot at people but only when necessary to defend myself and my troop. Even as a Buddhist I justified it all at the time.”
It wasn’t one-way traffic and he took a bullet in the leg (again no details) and it was the long days of rehab afterwards that reignited Sid’s search for his true self. It was the event that brought the inner conflicts SMACK into head-on collision.
“I started reading lots of philosophy and meditating and stumbled across an Australian guy called James Aspey. He went silent for a whole year and when he eventually did speak he was hoarse and it was difficult.
He said, ‘The reason I took a vow of silence was to raise awareness for the voiceless victims of this planet – the animals’. That really affected me.
“I watched Gary Yourofsky videos about animal cruelty and the need for veganism and went on documentary overload. The result was that I decided I couldn’t be a soldier any longer and that was a huge development, both spiritually and morally”.
Essentially under contract to the navy, Sid had to request his discharge and did so in a long and heartfelt letter to his commanding officer, which he also recorded and placed on YouTube (https://youtu.be/YjeoxiDXewI). I find it very moving as he explains at length his growing spirituality, talking of his love for nature, life and animals and his move to veganism. He talks about his desire to exclude all forms of animal exploitation and cruelty, reminding us that his coveted green beret is made of wool and his boots of leather. He explains that the over-riding principle which he now wishes to guide his life is compassion and he therefore requests his discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection.
It was granted. Sidney Sharpe left the Royal Marines in April this year and as he sat with me, I felt genuinely very sorry for him – not because he wasn’t shooting and possibly killing people any longer but because the world he had worked so hard to enter was no longer what he wanted or needed.
“I realise that education is all and I hate the way children are conditioned to abuse and eat animals and I want to do something about that. But leaving the Marines felt almost like a bereavement and to be honest with you, I feel a bit lost at the moment”.
There’s an inherent bravery in Sid Sharpe and I feel sure he will find his way. I sincerely hope so.