EX-army man: “I had to prove myself, as a Jew, in the army”

LOOKING BACK: Jonathan Sandler with Lilly, a former service dog


JONATHAN Sandler won’t forget the summer of 1976. It was the hottest recorded in the UK — and he had just started his army recruit training with the Coldstream Guards.

Quite possibly one of the few Jews to serve within the Foot Guard regiments, he was just 17 when he signed up.

Now living in Manchester, the London-raised 60-year-old told the Jewish Telegraph: “We spent the first week in training fighting fires, in that heat.

“We had to be up at 5am for drill training, and then breakfast after, because it was just too hot later in the day to do drill.

“I remember the following year, when on duty outside Buckingham Palace, wearing our bearskin and tunics in 100-degree heat.”

Jonathan spent 16 years in the army and saw active service in Northern Ireland.

Raised in the Sloane Square area of London, his father, David, was from the East End, while his mother, Maurine, who was born in India to British-Irish-Burmese parents, converted from Catholicism to Judaism.

Jonathan originally wanted to be a youth worker at Maccabi, but decided to join the army after a family friend suggested it.

“That was on the Thursday and, two days later, I joined up,” he recalled.

“This was in the mid-1970s, which was an interesting time to be growing up Jewish in central London, as it was the start of the problems with Palestinian terrorism.

“To add to that we then had the IRA terrorist attacks in Sloane Square, Knightsbridge and at Harrods.”

He went to the Army Training Centre, at Pirbright, Surrey, and was soon stationed at the Windsor Barracks, although he had wanted to be posted to Chelsea Barracks, as that was a five-minute walk from his family home.

There was a proud military tradition on his mother’s side, while his maternal great-grandfather, Dr Arthur Wellesley Tomkins, along with three friends, was one of the founders of lawn tennis.

Jonathan settled into Coldstream Guards life, taking part in ceremonial duties, such as Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and being stationed at the Tower of London and St James’s Palace.

“There are two roles for the Guards — the ceremonial side and then the infantry, which is our bread and butter,” Jonathan explained.

He took those skills with him to Northern Ireland during The Troubles, where he served for five years.

“I was in the Ballymurphy area of Belfast in 1978, doing my first patrol,” Jonathan said.

“I looked up and there was a giant mural which read ‘Death To All Jews’. One of my colleagues turned to me and said, ‘you’re for it’.”

And antisemitism and racialism wasn’t limited to The Troubles, as he also experienced it in the army, too.

Yet he takes a prosaic view of the situation.

“There was an uneducated minority in the army, but the army today is completely different to the one then,” he said.

“It was one of those things that I had to tolerate.

“There wasn’t just antisemitism, there was also anti-Muslim and anti-Hindu sentiments.

“My take on it was that I had to prove myself to be better than others.”

While stationed in Germany, he and his colleagues visited the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

“It was surreal,” he recalled. “A number of my relatives were murdered in a concentration camp in Poland, so I believe I’m the only member of my family to walk out of one alive.”

Jonathan left the army in 1992 and, like many ex-forces, was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I would quite happily have driven into a brick wall, simply because I didn’t care,” he said.

“The Royal British Legion recommended I saw a psychiatrist, which I did.

“Now I am registered 40 per cent disabled — 25 per cent mentally and 15 per cent physically, which consists of spinal and hearing problems.

“My kids being born changed my life because it helped me cope.

“I still had some flashbacks and I wasn’t sure whether I was having anger issues and being snappy because of frustration or because of the PTSD. It was hard to differentiate.”

Father-of-two Jonathan, who was married to a vicar’s daughter for 23 years, is proud to be Jewish and proud that he served in the British armed forces.

He said: “Someone once said to me that I was the most un-Jewish person he’d ever met.

“I think he meant it in the nicest possible way because I don’t go on about religion and I wasn’t brought up in large Jewish community.

“I was born a Jew and will die a Jew, though, and whatever happened or happens between there and then is between Him and me.”

Two others who have helped him immensely with his PTSD are his dogs, Lilly, a springer spaniel, and Labrador Sam.

Lilly spent three years in Afghanistan with the British army as a sniffer dog, searching vehicles for bombs and drugs.

Lilly, who also suffers from PTSD, joined Jonathan’s family in 2012.

“Dogs should be better recognised for their active service,” Jonathan added.

“They put their lives on the line to protect us.

“Lilly and Sam are very sensitive, and they know if something is wrong. Dogs trust and love like no human and they are non-judgemental.

“I would trust them with my life.”

He helps the charity Hero Paws, which helps re-home ex-army working dogs.

A trained physiotherapist, Jonathan, who later had a career in health and safety, is also looking to play a more prominent and active role in his local branch of AJEX, which he represented at a Remembrance Day service in Manchester on Sunday.

He said: “AJEX’s average age membership is 85, so I am the next generation down.

“I am going to try and recruit as many Jewish ex-servicemen and women out of the woodwork.

“I am giving back because that is what AJEX needs and it is about showing people of my era what AJEX is and what it does.”


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