War veterans finding peace on the battlefield at Waterloo: Heroes of Afghanistan and Iraq unearth cannonballs on ‘therapeutic’ dig

David Wilkes

The Daily Mail, July 2019

  • Cannonball and musket shots among finds at the Mont St Jean site, in Belgium
  • Discoveries of more personal nature proving remarkable for scarred heroes
  • Shaun Stocker, 28, lost both legs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan
  • And Iraq veteran Ben Mead, 39, was in helicopter shot down in Afghanistan

With their shovels and metal detectors they have been helping unearth major new discoveries about the Battle of Waterloo.

A cannonball and musket shots are among the finds made at an archaeological dig at the site of the 1815 conflict which involves veterans of far more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A cannonball discovered at Mont-Saint-Jean.

The relics paint a clearer picture of French emperor Napoleon’s last stand as he was surrounded by the allied forces of Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia. But it is discoveries of a more personal nature that are proving even more remarkable for these battle-scarred heroes. For by taking part in the dig, the veterans are finding peace in themselves again. Many have spent years struggling to cope with their traumatic experiences or overcoming terrible physical injuries. 

Joining the project in Belgium, which is run by the charity Waterloo Uncovered, has been transformative say the veterans – boosting their confidence, giving them focus and helping them learn new skills.

When the Mail visited the site of the dig at an allied field hospital used in the battle, double amputee Shaun Stocker, 28, was busy with his metal detector in a field of recently-harvested corn, wearing what he calls his ‘stubby legs’ instead of his usual prosthetics because they are easier to walk on in such terrain.

Veterans Moos Raaijmakers and Shaun Stocker metal detecting at Mont-Saint-Jean.

At the age of 19, and only six days before his tour of Afghanistan with the Royal Welsh ended, he stepped on an improvised explosive device while out with a metal detector searching for mines. As well as both his legs, he lost his left eye and most of the vision in his right.

“This is the environment I love to be in,” said Mr Stocker, who had around 40 operations on his injuries. 

“What we’re doing here with the detector is pretty much what I was doing there – except there I was looking for IEDs.” Referring to the bleeps made by the metal detector, he added: “I use my hearing a lot more than my eyesight, and I want to give as much as I can to the team.”

Another enthusiastic participant on the two-week dig is Ben Mead, 39. An Iraq veteran, he was in a helicopter shot down in Afghanistan in 2012 while serving with the Royal Signals. He said post-traumatic stress disorder left him feeling angry and like ‘another person’. “Being here smooths you out,’ he said. ‘There is something really magical about it all.”

Veteran Ben Mead.

Waterloo Uncovered began in 2015 and has invited veterans and serving forces personnel on annual digs ever since. Co-founder Mark Evans, a former captain in the Coldstream Guards, suffered from PTSD himself after a tour of Afghanistan.

One of the most exciting discoveries of the dig was made by Oliver Horncastle, 22, injured during training with the Coldstream Guards, and ex-Royal Marine Alastair Eager – a 12lb cannonball found with a metal detector.  Mr Eager has been so inspired he now plans to do a degree in archaeology. 

Jim Howdle, who served 22 years in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, summed up the appeal of the project: “It’s such a great environment to find some breathing space and to evaluate,” he said.

This article was originally published via the Daily Mail in July 2019. Read it online here.