I understand why Sergeant MacDonald whacked me with the machine-gun, but I didn't appreciate it at the time. It was a short, sharp lesson: get it right or people will die

21st October 2005 at 01:00
My dad was an operating technician and my mam a chef in the RAF, stationed in Singapore. When I was five they left the force to return to Nelson, South Wales. It was not an overly-privileged upbringing, but it was no different from anyone else's. Whatever our parents had, they gave us.

From Llancaiach juniors I joined Graddfa secondary school in Ystrad Mynach, two miles from my village. I didn't have a good first day. Another boy grabbed me by the throat and lifted me off the floor; the teacher had to virtually batter him off me. I have no idea why he did it. That pretty much put me off school.

Two years in, Graddfa went comprehensive. That was it; I lost all interest.

Only the grammar classes mattered. Anyone who came from the secondary modern didn't count a lot. That was the way it felt to us, anyway.

Deciding to join the Army was an impulse thing. I just wanted to get away.

I didn't see life going anywhere in the Valleys. The idea of working in a coal mine or a factory was never going to suit me. At 16, I went to the careers office in Pontypridd and had to swear the oath in Cardiff before going to Deepcut selection centre, where everyone was great to us new recruits. After seven weeks of training, I felt this was the life for me. I had many good instructors, but one sticks out in my mind.

Sergeant Maxey MacDonald was a short, red-headed Scot in his late 20s, as square as he was tall. He had a great sense of humour, but was a tough character. He had a deep, gravelly voice, a strong accent and shouted words of command like Windsor Davies in It Ain't Half Hot Mum. He was a cracking bloke, so comfortable with the authority he had that he didn't need to over-emphasise it.

We were only 16, but we were expected to act like men, wearing uniforms and carrying rifles. Much as our instructors were teaching us to be soldiers - and that means taking life - they were teaching us to stay alive, too. I'll never forget one particular exercise, when Maxey hit me on the back of the head.

We were on machine-gun drill and I just couldn't do it right. Your ability with a machine-gun directly affects the safety of your fellow soldiers; if the gun fails, that risks the rest of the guys' lives. That's why it was so important I got it right. I understand completely why he whacked me with the machine-gun, but I didn't appreciate it at the time. He cut the back of my head and said: "You won't get it wrong again, will you?" And I never did. It was a short, sharp lesson: get it right or people will die. I was a machine-gunner for three years after that.

I remember one night in Norfolk at the end of training. We're talking 14 degrees below freezing, one of the coldest nights Britain's ever had. It was bitter. We had to attack a building and I had to crawl with this machine-gun and the ammunition for half a mile on my elbows and knees. When it ended, Maxey said: "Boys, that's it. You've finished your training.

You're now soldiers." Whisky and brandy were poured into huge urns of tea and coffee by the NCOs. This meant, "Well done, boys. You've made us so proud." Having our superiors drinking with us was a real bond. I will never forget my instructors; they were probably the first men in authority I really respected.

There's a difference between the respect and love of your parents and that of people who don't need to show you respect, and can hate you if they want. But I loved those guys in authority. They gave me all the support I needed and always helped if I had a problem.

Respect was the key lesson I learned from Maxey. I have respect for myself; respect for others follows. He built confidence. I responded to the respect he gave me. I will stand by anyone, and work hard for anyone.I haven't changed.

Falklands veteran Simon Weston was talking to Marged Richards The story so far 1961 Born Nelson, South Wales

1968 Attends Llancaiach junior school

1972 Graddfa secondary school

1978 Joins Welsh Guards

1982 Suffers 49 per cent burns when British troopship the Sir Galahad is attacked in the Falklands war; 51 soldiers and sailors die

1988 Co-founds Weston Spirit, national youth organisation tackling social exclusion

1989 Publishes autobiography, Walking Tall

1992 Awarded OBE

2003 Publishes second volume of autobiography, Simon Weston: Moving On

2004 Voted among top 30 Welsh heroes by Culturenet Cymru website

2005 Weston Spirit and telecoms firm O2 launch a peer mentoring programme in schools across the UK

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