Ex-soldier Etienne Le Roux has swapped guns for books, making a fresh start at Kingston University
Konstantinos LianosHe had been driving in a heavily-armoured vehicle through the desert in Afghanistan when his truck was blown up by a landmine. Lance Corporal Etienne Le Roux woke up metres away.
His helmet, rifle and most of his fellow soldiers were missing. His back was hurting but he had survived.
If it wasn’t for the roofless vehicle in which he and his comrades travelled in, and the fact they were not wearing seatbelts, Etienne and his fellow soldier squaddies would not have lived to tell the tale.
“I was happy to be alive,” he said. “I was overjoyed that I didn’t lose my legs. I am very grateful to be here today because it could have been completely different.”
This is just one of the experiences that the first year Kingston University student, studying at the school of surveying and planning, endured during his tour of Afghanistan.
A fresh start
“It’s a new beginning,” he said with a smile on his face. I feel relieved that I don’t have to put myself in such horrible situations again.”
“I also feel motivated knowing what I have achieved and now I’m doing a degree course. I can’t screw this up. My goal is to get a first, get a job and become a really good building surveyor.”
Etienne, 29, was born on June 7 1983 in Johannesburg, South Africa and he lived there with his family until they relocated to Cape Town when he was just six years old.
After finishing school he earned a diploma in computer science in South Africa and flitted between jobs in various places.
Eight years ago, he arrived in England with a two-year holiday visa. For more than a year he scraped out a living with low-paying jobs until he met a South African man who was serving in the British Army.
He suggested that Etienne join the service. Under the Commonwealth, he joined British Army as an engineer in 2005.
“The hardest time of my life”
Three years later he was sent to Afghanistan where he embarked on an unforgettable experience. He said: “It was never my choice.” His tour lasted for seven months.
“Those seven months were by far the hardest time of my life.
“I found it very hard living out in the desert and being surrounded by the Taliban at night.
“The accommodation, the living standards and the situations that I found myself in were all bad. It was really dangerous.”
No escape from war
Etienne was unable to escape the horror of war.
“I lost a few of my friends, others lost their legs and their arms. I saw what was going on and that whole traumatic experience will probably always stay with me.”
Etienne found himself in combat almost three times a week. It was months of “frontline fighting, shooting, explosions, injuries and death”.
“It was very stressful and I was scared, but it was part of the job.
“I don’t know how we do it, but we just do.”
Fortunately, he never found himself in close combat, although he had to answer enemy fire on many occasions. He will never know if he found a target.
Serving in Afghanistan carried greater risks and inflicted greater emotional scars than most of us are able to comprehend.
Although he was willing to share his experiences with The River, Etienne spent moments staring out of the window while talking to me. When remembering his traumatic experiences, tears welled in his eyes.
“I’ve been fairly open with most of what I’ve seen or what I’ve done,” he said. “But I guess there are certain places you don’t really want to go.”
After seven gruelling months in Afghanistan, the army took him to Spain for rock climbing and Austria for snowboarding as part of a mental rehabilitation process.
This time off allowed Etienne to temporarily put aside what he had seen before he returned to Afghanistan two years later for another six months.
His time in the army became “emotionally hard to cope with” and from then on he decided he did not want to continue. It was in August 2012 when he finally made the choice to leave the service for good.
The extended periods of time spent away from his family took a toll on Etienne. This helped him make up his mind, along with the army’s unpredictable and dangerous nature.
Never going back
He said he will never return, even though he holds the army with high regard and does not regret joining it.
“I have put that behind me. I’ve done my bit. I’m happy with what I have achieved and now it’s time for the next chapter of my life and this is what I am focusing on now.
“I came to a point in my life when I really wanted a bit more stability.”
After that, he tried to find work as a land surveyor in England, however Etienne found himself struggling due to the recession.
He started panicking, but it was three weeks later that he heard about the clearing process at Kingston University.
After checking the school of surveyor and planning, Etienne became very interested. Kingston University checked his qualifications, experience and his diploma in computer science that he had attained in South Africa and finally Etienne got the call he had been waiting for.
Three hours later he was told that he had been accepted.
Now Etienne has a new life. He loves his course, does a lot of work experience and has made new friends. He dreams of being a project manager in the next five years.
After years of cheating death, Etienne is grateful for a new beginning and looking forward to pushing himself to new limits and the next three years at Kingston University.
He admitted happily: “There is another life outside Afghanistan and the army. Kingston University is a big part of it now.”