Modest hero, Matt Croucher is Bulletproof
Richard McComb talks to Matt Croucher about Marine fire-fights and leaping on a grenade.
People tend to react in strange ways when they meet Matt Croucher.
Some stop and stare while others throw their arms around his considerable frame and plant a kiss. Strangers have been known to cry while strippers have extended some forthright invitations, which Croucher says he has declined.
The explanation for such odd behaviour lies in a dramatic decision he took, on the spur of the moment, under unimaginable pressure. A simple, selfless act transformed this young man’s life as well as people’s perception of him.
That same act also preserved the safety, and probably the lives, of others.
Croucher, otherwise known as Lance Corporal Matt Croucher, reconnaissance operator in 40 Commando Battle Group, was on a covert night mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, investigating a Taliban bomb factory, when he accidentally tripped a booby-trapped grenade. The Royal Marine could have run, dived for cover, or froze in terror.
Instead he chose to throw himself on the grenade and shield his colleagues from the deadly blast. Any reasonable person might assume the act would lead to either the Marine’s death or catastrophic injuries.
As it was, Croucher, from Solihull, was blown into the air by the explosion but survived virtually unscathed, as did the fellow members of his four-man team. He had deliberately fallen back on to the grenade and his daysack and helmet were wrecked.
His actions that night in February 2008 earned Croucher the George Cross, the highest gallantry award for those members of the military whose feats of bravery do not take place in the direct presence of the enemy.
The silver award, and its distinctive dark blue ribbon, is effectively on a par with the Victoria Cross, which is bestowed for gallantry when the enemy is present.
Since its inception in 1941, during the Blitz, 156 George Crosses have been awarded and there are only 20 living recipients.
It puts 25-year-old Matt Croucher, former boy cadet with 2030 (Elmdon and Yardley) Squadron Air Training Corps, in exalted company. It also explains why people react in such an unusual way to this 5ft 11, 14-stone man mountain.
Not that it is the sort of attention Croucher craves, or particularly enjoys. Talk of heroism makes him uncomfortable and it’s not a good idea to upset this legally sanctioned, awesomely efficient, killing machine.
“I’m just a normal person. I see it as doing my job,” says Croucher, recalling the moment he pinned the grenade to the ground. “You get people coming up to you and kissing you and all sorts. It makes me feel really uncomfortable in some ways because I am a normal person.
“Just because of what I did, and the medal I got because of it, I don’t think I should be treated any differently to anyone else who has been out there [in Iraq or Afghanistan].”
The reluctant hero is far happier using his medal to promote the work of Help for Heroes, the charity set up to help servicemen and woman wounded in the twin conflicts. But he is also well aware of the huge interest in his frontline exploits. Although acting as a human shield goes down as his most daring exploit, L/Cpl Croucher’s military service record reads like a Boy’s Own tale of derring-do. He has incorporated the real-life adventures into a gripping account of his experiences in one of the world’s elite fighting units, called Bulletproof.
Being among the first 200 soldiers into Iraq in 2003, Croucher has fought alongside US Navy Seals and has lost count of the number of times he has defied death.
An Iraqi armed with a rocket propelled grenade launcher fired at him from almost point blank range. The grenade skimmed off his helmet and he legged it to safety over a barbed wire fence.
On another occasion, he suffered a fractured skull when a roadside bomb was detonated in Iraq and a bullet ricocheted off his rifle during a gun battle in Afghanistan. He has been in ambushes and seen colleagues killed and seriously injured.
Croucher doesn’t like to think about his own mortality. “I don’t dwell on it. There are people in the forces without any gallantry awards that have probably escaped death more times than I have. A lot of similar things happen to other guys in the British forces,” he says.
“I suppose I have used up my nine lives ... I’ll just see what happens from now on. People do give me advice sometimes and say, ‘You should really calm down and think about what you’re doing.’”
He adds: “It is portrayed that I am this mad Marine but actually a lot of other lads have experienced the same thing.”
Having served four tours of duty, he now runs a risk management company, providing close protection, body guards and high-end security.
Based in Birmingham, Pinnacle Risk Management’s clients are global and include the Saudi Royal Family and the United Nations as well as A-list celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez and Robbie Williams.
He has packed an enormous amount into a relatively short career so far, but Matt Croucher was always a precocious talent.
He toyed with becoming a fighter pilot while he was a young air cadet in south Birmingham but adds: “The stuff I really enjoyed was getting in camouflage and sneaking around. The Royal Marines looked liked the toughest and the longest training – so I set my sights on that.”
He joined the Marines at 16 and when he successfully completed the unit’s notorious 32-week training and selection programme, aged 17, he was too young to be deployed overseas.
His first tour came in 2003, in Iraq, when he experienced his first kill. He recalls seeing the body of his victim, “peppered with bullets in a pool of crimson blood.”
Writing in Bulletproof, Croucher says: “He was a beast of a man, with jet-black hair and a Saddam-style bushy moustache. His eyes starred blankly back at me, dim with death... I had no emotion really. Remarkably, I had no regret either. To me this guy got what was coming to him. He was happy to kill me or any of the lads in my unit.”
It is an experience to which he has become accustomed. It’s kill or be killed. Croucher tells me: “You just move on. The majority of time when you kill people it is not a case of getting up to them and standing over them and saying, ‘Look what I’ve done.’
“In many ways you don’t want to see them. The target’s down. Move on to the next one. Get on with your job. Obviously, there is a sense of relief when you take people down because they are trying to kill you.”
He insists soldiers get used to dealing with the fear of battle – the fear of being shot, blown up, maimed or killed. He says: “If I went back to Afghanistan now and people started shooting at me it would take me a good few days to get back in the comfort zone.
“I would probably be quite irrational with the first few rounds coming down. It is just your body getting used to explosions and bullets flying over. You can then rationally think about how to do stuff.”
So will L/Cpl Croucher be returning to Afghanistan? At the moment, there are enough Marine reservists volunteering for action but you sense there is unfinished business. One of Britain’s most gallant servants concedes that he would like to see what progress has been made in Afghanistan.
He resists the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Terminator”-style rallying cry, but there seems little doubt that Matt Croucher will be back. Just make sure you’re on his side – and it’s probably best not to stand too close to him.
* Bulletproof: One Marine’s Ferocious Account of Close Combat Behind Enemy Lines, by Matt Croucher with Robert Jobson, is published by Century, priced £18.99.