Col. Andrew Milburn on Putin’s big mistake, addiction to crisis and grief
November 19, 2022. Series 7. Episode 52
Andrew Milburn is the British educated would-be lawyer who became a decorated US Marine Colonel. A 31year career spent in the midst of crisis in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Now, as the Founder and CEO of the Mozart Group – a response to Putin’s evil Wagner Group – he trains and rescues Ukrainian civilians. In this conversation, Andrew gives us an extraordinary insight into the psychology of those fighting on both sides and describes how Putin has misjudged the incredible resilience of the Ukrainian people.
Andrew is also no stranger to personal crisis. He suffered a terrible personal loss with the death of his daughter, Kaela in a road traffic accident. Andrew sets out in moving detail how, despite a life of successfully managing extreme crisis, he could not, for a period time, cope with his grief. A conversation that provides crisis lessons from geo-politics to the most personal of challenges. My thanks to Andrew.
Andrew’s Crisis Cures:
1st Crisis Cure – Writing – Alongside my book I also enjoy writing articles – it’s something I will always maintain.
2nd Crisis Cure – Reading has been my companion since childhood. Most of my favourite books are non-military with one exception –
Quartered Safe Out Here by George McDonald Fraser.
3rd Crisis Cure – Exercise – It’s a daily graft for me but essential for my mental health – it’s more about clearing my mind.
Support The Mozart Group – https://www.themozartgroup.com/donate/
Andrew’s book – When the Tempest Gathers – https://amzn.to/3hPaELv
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
00:00:04.15 Andy Coulson:
Hello, I’m Andy Coulson and welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast which aims to guide you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you. We’re joined today, I’m delighted to say, by Andy Milburn. A retired former US Marine Colonel who now leads the renowned Mozart Group in Ukraine. During his distinguished thirty-one year career, Andy has held operational command at every rank of the Marine Corps, including a multi-national, special forces unit tasked with defeating ISIS in Iraq.
00:00:38.12 Andrew Coulson:
His is a life lived largely, if not entirely, at the centre of crisis. Having retired in 2019 Andy has worked as a leadership consultant, an author, his brilliant memoir, When The Tempest Gathers, is a superb account of life on the frontline. But then Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine. In response Andy, and a number of other volunteers, formed the Mozart Group, a response to Putin’s dreaded Wagner Paramilitary Group.
00:01:08.21 Andy Coulson:
Andy and his colleagues now provide on the ground training, advice and assistance to both members of the Ukrainian military and also civilians determined to defend themselves, their towns and cities from the Russian invasion. Critically, they’re not mercenaries or war tourists and indeed, anyone found to be fighting is automatically removed from the group.
00:01:32.16 Andy Coulson:
As a result of this amazing work Andy can give us, I think, an invaluable front row perspective on the reality of what’s happening on the ground there. Andy’s also a man who’s had to manage and survive his own personal crises and who has put those experiences to work for the benefit of others, just as he’s generously agreed to do so here for us today. So Andy, welcome to Crisis What Crisis and thank you for joining us.
00:01:58.24 Andrew Milburn:
Thank you Andy, this is going to sound repetitive isn’t it! Great to be here and I relish that statement, ‘anyone found fighting’ I think I’m gonna use that from now on, ‘will be instantly expelled from the group’.
00:02:13.11 Andy Coulson:
Super, look Andy, I want to talk in depth about Ukraine, obviously, and we’ll do that properly, if you like, a little bit later on. But I do want to start, actually, by asking a question about the situation in Ukraine right now, today. It seems that we’ve moved into a new phase: drone warfare; drone bombs being dropped; kamikaze drones crashing into civilian buildings almost reminiscent of the blitz. What impact is that having on the ground in terms of the psychology of this war? Is it having that desired effect that I assume sits behind Putin’s decision to change the game, if you like, in that way? Is it having a deeper psychological effect than perhaps what’s gone before?
00:02:58.18 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, great question Andy. So before I answer it I will push back a little bit on your description of this being a different state. I would argue this is something that’s been going on in the background since the war began. Terrorising civilian population or attempts to intimidate civilian populations, it’s just another means of doing so with drones. But the war itself on the frontline, continues as it has done over the last few months. So not really a different stage in fighting itself, it’s really just another tool that Putin is using but the same methodology that he already has.
00:03:37.21 Andrew Milburn:
You can imagine the soldiers on the frontline know their families are in danger, it strengthens their resilience. It creates a level of hatred, and I don’t want to overstate this but it’s true hatred, there’s not much respect for the foe on either side. And among the civilians, I’m ambivalent actually about how Kyiv was before this happened. It was a city like London or any other Western European city determinedly so, even in the midst of war. Aside from sandbags and air raid sirens it could have been any city, life went on. There was no shortage of young men on the streets, Zelenskyy has not gone to general mobilisation and a good portion of male population, the vast majority of the male population is not involved in the war.
00:04:32.05 Andrew Milburn:
Putin changed that, almost overnight and initially yes, you get fifteen, twenty cruise missiles slamming into the centre of a city, and you have to hear one of these things land to really believe it. Obviously I’ve been under artillery fire but the cruise missiles are different, you know it’s a different paradigm. So you imagine the civilian level of shock, horror, fear but within twenty-four hours it had flipped the switch and there was a…
00:05:05.22 Andy Coulson:
Touched the resolve.
00:05:06.22 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly, exactly. And you just have to see the videos of crowds gathering in the subways. Some sing, the sense of community, sense of anger, sense of national identity. You know, Putin has created a nation. You look at Ukrainian history since independence, since they became a separate nation, it’s been one of polarisation, of division between different groups; pro-Russian, the east and the anti-Russian, the East and the West and yet now it is one nation and even more so now.
00:05:43.16 Andy Coulson:
So this is just the latest then, in your mind this is just the latest in a strategic mis-step by Putin.
00:05:49.04 Andrew Milburn:
00:05:51.20 Andy Coulson:
He’s mis-reading the history and he’s mis-reading its impact.
00:05:54.21 Andrew Milburn:
Absolutely and he’s not just mis-reading Ukrainian people, well he doesn’t have any understanding of collective human nature. And why would he? I mean, look at his background.
00:06:08.24 Andy Coulson:
Andy, we’ll talk more about Ukraine, let’s chat about you and your story because it’s a remarkable one. You’re a former US Marine Colonel but your dad was British, your mum was American. They met, I think, in New York during the Second World War.
00:06:25.19 Andrew Milburn:
That is correct yeah.
00:06:26.21 Andy Coulson:
Although you were born in Hong Kong, you went to school here in the UK, at St Paul’s in fact, round the corner from where we’re sat today. You also studied philosophy and then law at university, here in London.
00:06:39.11 Andrew Milburn:
Very traditional subjects for a marine.
00:06:41.06 Andy Coulson:
I was about to say, not the usual back story of a US marine.
00:06:44.19 Andrew Milburn:
00:06:45.06 Andy Coulson:
I mean, just give me the explanation as to how this happened.
00:06:50.24 Andrew Milburn:
Yes, certainly. So first of all, you know if there’s any Old Paulines listening, I’d be the first to say I’m the least distinguished pupil to have emerged from St Paul’s. I was pretty much just a grey man and if I ever popped above the horizon it was not for good things. But my parents gave me every opportunity to succeed. I’ll tell you philosophy and law actually were a terrific combination because first of all philosophy, needless to say, makes you think about the big questions in life. There’s no end of jokes that I encountered when I was doing philosophy because it was relatively easy to get into. I went to UCL which is a great university, I was not a great student. But I was genuinely fascinated by it and I still am intrigued.
00:07:52.04 Andy Coulson:
So mum and dad presumably, were assuming that law was top of…
00:07:56.18 Andrew Milburn:
…do law… yeah absolutely.
00:07:58.18 Andy Coulson:
So how did they feel when you announced, I think as a result of having met some Marines, who you enjoyed their company, you thought ‘hang on, this looks like quite an interesting way to spend your time’, as I understand it. What was the reaction?
00:08:13.11 Andrew Milburn:
I think devastated is probably the correct way to put it. Devastated is too strong, shocked, astonished, disappointed. I will say this, and I had tremendous parents, after their initial shock though, they always thought that I would go back to being a lawyer. They thought that because I told them that and I really thought that I would do just four years in the Marine Corps but you know, after a period of time, especially after I got a commission, they actually became quite enthusiastic about what I was doing. And I think they were both convinced, they’re both gone now, but they were both convinced in the end, as am I, that I’m a much better Marine than I would have been a lawyer.
00:08:58.18 Andy Coulson:
You’re being far too self-effacing by the way, we’ll see if we can knock that out of you as we go through the conversation.
00:09:07.14 Andrew Milburn:
No it’s not false modesty.
00:09:09.10 Andy Coulson:
You enlisted as a Private, as you mention there, you become an Officer, obviously identified as Officer material. By October 1992 you’re on your way to Somalia for what would be your first combat experience.
00:09:25.03 Andrew Milburn:
This was such a surreal situation. First of all carrying live ammunition and realising if you pointed a weapon at someone and pulled the trigger, you know, you kill someone, which seems like a very basic realisation but it was the first time. And then when we started being shot at, now I know of course, very clearly, the sound of being shot at but it’s not always intuitively apparent, especially in a city. You don’t know where the shots are coming from, you hear cracks, you don’t know where the shots are going, it’s very confusing.
00:09:57.05 Andy Coulson:
You’re fired on, you give order to return fire.
00:10:01.02 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, as the UN started pushing the relief ships into the port of Mogadishu they started coming under fire from an area overlooking the port and there was a big building there that used to be the parliament building. And so I got the order from my battalion to go through and clear this building. Now, in retrospect, this was an absurd order. I had sixty guys at any given time on the street, I had twenty, right, which is a reinforced squad and this building was enormous. You know, so if it was really defended we would have been annihilated. But nevertheless when you’re a Second Lieutenant you think, through ignorance you think you’re immortal and your guys are immortal and it’s very easy to buy into that.
00:10:45.08 Andrew Milburn:
So yeah, we went out on a patrol to clear this building. We started getting shot at, we couldn’t see where it was coming from but we knew it was quite close. We could see the bullets kicking up dirt. And of course you are primed as a Junior Officer, you’ve got to accomplish the mission, certainly we didn’t want to turn back. So we went up, we occupied the parliament building, great view over all of Mogadishu and everything was quiet.
00:11:13.17 Andrew Milburn:
But as we’re about to leave what was called a Technical came round the corner and it was packed with, it’s hard to tell numbers, probably about maybe fifteen or so guys hanging onto this thing. It had a 12.7 machine gun in the back, it was a like a 50 calibre… anyway heavy machine gun. And then on the ground there were about twenty or thirty other guys, all clearly armed. They were dressed like, as I described in my book, as though they’d emerged from a garage sale but they were clearly meant business.
00:11:51.09 Andrew Milburn:
I don’t think they knew we were there and they headed towards us, the parliament building. We had very strict rules of engagement, I gave the order in Somali, which I probably butchered, to put down their weapons and halt. They responded by running for cover. And then I remember this very clearly because I was looking at the guy manning the machine gun at the back of vehicle, and that was the biggest threat to us., and as the vehicle did a U-turn and the guy in the back swung the machine gun around.
00:12:23.07 Andrew Milburn:
As he swung it in an arc towards us, I know, almost instinctively, I opened fire. So I didn’t actually give the order to open fire, I didn’t have time to do that, I just opened fire and then Marines on either side saw what was happening and followed suit. I will say this, that it was a very, certainly for the Marines, very disciplined response. You know subsequently I’ve been in situations, I’d like to say in the Army rather than the Marines, where just out of fear, soldiers put down what we call a ‘death blossom of flying lead’ but this was a very focused engagement.
00:13:05.05 Andy Coulson:
What happens, in fact, is that that incident is investigated.
00:13:11.04 Andrew Milburn:
00:13:11.22 Andy Coulson:
00:13:12.23 Andrew Milburn:
Very swiftly and you know…
00:13:14.20 Andy Coulson:
There’s concern around it and an investigation begins immediately. So just to backtrack a bit, this is your first combat experience, this is the first time that you’ve been in a situation like this and now you’re under some form of enquiry or investigation over it. How did that feel at the time?
00:13:34.00 Andrew Milburn:
Well at the time it felt awful. I mean, one of the things about the military is that they develop in you this visceral desire to be accepted and be approved of, and you’re at a formative age when you go into the military, eighteen to twenty-two and these things really matter. So to have this feeling that you had done something wrong, you had made a rash decision, that had not only resulted in loss of life but had undermined the overall mission, is incredibly debilitating. And when I think back that was more stressful than the engagement itself.
00:14:17.12 Andrew Milburn:
You know we got back to the port, our weapons were taken, I was escorted to the airfield where the Marine Expedition Unit headquarters was and I was questioned. I wasn’t under arrest but clearly I wasn’t free to go. And so I was waiting there lost in my thoughts, I remember as the day went by and the sun started to set. And then all of a sudden the guy who had been questioning me, who was a very self-important Colonel came back and said, ‘Lieutenant you can go.’
00:14:53.09 Andrew Milburn:
No explanation but what I found what had happened it was a photographer, I believe he was with Associated Press, had been following the patrol unit, he had coordinated with us, we knew he was there, I’d forgotten about him in the heat of the moment. But credit to him he kept his head when all this was going on, he wasn’t in the building with us, he was actually down in the intersection where it all happened and he filmed then.
00:15:22.03 Andrew Milburn:
And by the way, I’ve seen this time and again since, that photographers in particular, have instincts that are very much like combat soldiers. You know, when everyone else is terrified they automatically raise their camera and film. And so he did, he was taking still photographs and he took a series of photographs that showed clearly what had happened. And I wish I still had them because you see, like one of those flicker books that we used to have as kids, I don’t know if you’re that old…
00:15:55.08 Andy Coulson:
00:15:55.15 Andrew Milburn:
…but you see the gun swing around towards us and then us open fire. So it’s very conclusive evidence of the threat and our response.
00:16:07.01 Andy Coulson:
So there’s the moment in your life, after your very first combat, where your integrity is being questioned. You’ve gone through a mini crisis, this is a very intense moment. The result of it is you being under investigation. You’re fortunately, very quickly, exonerated. There must have been thoughts in your mind, is this for me? Or was that the moment when you decided I can deal with all this, this is what I want my life to be. Because it presumably sparked the thought, well is this going to happen every time I’m asked to do my job?
00:16:43.02 Andrew Milburn:
It’s a really good question. The answer is no. I did go through that phase but I think to be honest, I wasn’t that mature as a Lieutenant but I was mature enough to realise that this was an institutionally healthy thing that I was being investigated about it.
00:17:01.19 Andy Coulson:
So you were actually reassured by it?
00:17:03.20 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, that I was being investigated by my own, for something that I had done in a foreign country against people who seemed…
00:17:16.00 Andy Coulson:
This is the lawyer in you?
00:17:17.24 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, and this population that couldn’t be more different than the population in the United States, or the people that I came here with, I think that is healthy. And I haven’t always seen that happen. And also, I derived comfort from the fact that the Marine Expeditionary Unit, we call them MEU, Commander was a guy named Colonel Greg Newbold, I’m going to come back to him, and he was furious that I was being investigated, he came back and he said, ‘Why didn’t you just ask him what had happened, that’s enough for me’. Which is great and I still have tremendous admiration for him but I’m not sure that it’s the right approach. I think investigating me was the right approach. And by the way, Greg Newbold subsequently became the only US General Officer to resign on a question of principle in the last thirty years, over the Iraq War and he’s a mentor to this day.
00:18:15.06 Andy Coulson:
2007, there, or thereabouts, you take over as a Battalion Commander in Iraq. You’re replacing a Commander who’s been killed in combat. Tell me about that. Here, you’re arriving into an environment where presumably morale is at its absolute lowest.
00:18:32.24 Andrew Milburn:
Max Galeai was the Commander of our sister battalion and why we were friends. And I actually went out to visit him a few days before he was killed because we do a site survey. And we sat down and talked about all the problems there, we rotated round the battlefield circulation, we used to call it, together. And he asked me, he said, ‘Andy, why don’t you change your plans, I’ve got this big meeting set up with local Sheiks, it’d be really good for you to meet them.’ I couldn’t because I had to get back to the States, we had a pre-deployment exercise, so I passed on that. By the time my plane landed in the States he was dead. One of his Company Commanders was dead, his Sergeant Major had lost his legs, some twenty Marines were injured and just as importantly, twenty local Sheiks had been killed in this suicide bombing.
00:19:33.20 Andy Coulson:
And this happened at a place that had you decided to stay, you may well have been with him.
00:19:38.03 Andrew Milburn:
Yes, that was unnerving in itself. As you go through life though, you start to accept these close calls. But at the time this was such a shock and it wasn’t just the shock of losing a Battalion Commander and key leaders and those Marines in an environment where no one expected that to happen. That impacted that Battalion very much. But also the fact that twenty local leaders, twenty Sheiks in an area… that’s every tribal leader except for two or three, were killed.
00:20:18.06 Andrew Milburn:
And that diminished trust on both sides, it diminished all the relationships that we had been trying to build up. And Kandahar insurgency it’s a constant, I know this sounds cliched, but it’s a constant struggle to get locals onside. And what we never realised is the local population have to be driven by pragmatism. We would like to say they’re idealists and they like us because we’re the good guys, no, they care about survival. It’s a different hierarchy. So this shook everyone up and we were no longer, in the eyes of the local population, the winners. We were no longer the people who could guarantee their survival or even help their survival.
00:21:02.17 Andy Coulson:
Fundamentally undermined the mission.
00:21:05.19 Andrew Milburn:
Absolutely it was nothing to do… Americans take it very personally but it’s nothing to do with friendships or anything like that, it was a fundamental feeling. Their tribes and that’s what we care about too, our tribes but we just don’t understand this. So anyway, we deployed the Battalion early to replace the Battalion out there, Max’s Battalion and morale was rock bottom in that Battalion. They had worked very hard in a very bad place. They had seen finance diminish, until that point they had suffered fewer casualties than any previous Battalion and then here they are, ten days before they go home, this catastrophic event happens and it’s as though it’s all for nothing.
00:21:54.04 Andy Coulson:
So Andy, you’re mourning the death of a friend, you’re replacing him, your Battalion is replacing him and his. The situation is considerably worse than you were expecting in terms of the job in hand. Just tell us, in practical terms, how do you manage that? When you’re carrying that on your own, you’re carrying the personal grief on your own shoulders, your worsened crisis that is your job to navigate, what’s the approach, the methodology that you take? Day to day what did you do?
00:22:30.21 Andrew Milburn:
Andy, I’m going to disappoint you hugely because it wasn’t methodology I found. Naturally what happened is my focus, you know, normal when you replace another Battalion you’ve got about two hundred things to think about. You know, turnover of weapons, vehicles, maintenance, all that disappeared for me. And it was okay, thing one: we’ve got to get the local population back on side, we’ve got to show people that we’re not intimidated and we’ve got to find out who killed Max.
00:23:07.03 Andy Coulson:
So how did you do that?
00:23:10.10 Andrew Milburn:
So the great thing about the military is, or any organisation, you have subordinate leaders who, if you’ve done a good job, will cover your flat spots. And I just had great Company Commanders. And so I had my second in command took over, he dealt totally with the staff. In a battalion you’ve got maybe thirty officers who are handling the administrative day to day stuff. You know, the communications, logistics, intelligence and then you’ve got Commanders. You’ve got four Company Commanders. Now as a Battalion Commander you’ve got to deal with both and it’s very important that you do. But for me, right away it was, you know 2IC, as the Brits say, XO, take the staff, handle everything to do with the turnover, which normally would be considered a total abdication of responsibility, ‘I don’t want to deal with that shit’.
00:24:09.16 Andy Coulson:
Right, so you passed off the, not the right phrase, but you passed off the admin so you could focus on the key here.
00:24:13.23 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly and I focused on the Company Commanders and I focused on the Marines, you know, and it was ‘hey guys, we’ve got to get back in the saddle, we’ve got to get out there, here’s what I need you to do.’
00:24:25.19 Andy Coulson:
Do you remember the speech, was there a speech?
00:24:26.19 Andrew Milburn:
I don’t remember it exactly, no, this was a long time ago. But the other thing, I could say, they knew Max was a close friend of mine, so they knew I wasn’t being callous. And I said ‘We’ve gotta, you can’t let emotion,’ this was the key lesson we all learned. Emotion is extremely destructive, actually in any crisis, right? It’s okay to be passionate and driven but emotion is the worst possible thing. Emotion drives people, not only to inefficiency, to ineffectiveness, but also sometimes to committing calamitous acts. And that was also a concern of mine, retribution.
00:25:09.23 Andrew Milburn:
So I and my Company Commanders were great but this gets to your point, what do you focus on in a crisis? I asked myself what are the things that only I can do? Alright, there are things that you have to delegate, but there are things only you can do. And only I can pass on my intent to all the Marines. We’ve got five Company Commanders, if I leave it to them, even if they’re trying to repeat what I have said or told them, there’s going to be some spin on it. But it was very important to me that the Marines understood there’s going to be no retribution, there’s going to be no sense of ‘us and them’ anger because we all lived together in Hawaii, so the Marines had all lost friends too.
00:25:54.13 Andy Coulson:
So strip out, pass off the non-essential, admin we’ll call it for now.
00:25:59.18 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly it’s what your body does in a crisis, what does your body do?
00:26:02.10 Andy Coulson:
Exactly, it focuses on survival.
00:26:03.12 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly, and organisationally.
00:26:05.19 Andy Coulson:
So you push that to one side, you remove the emotion from your own mind and through great clear communication from the minds of the people who are going to be doing the job.
00:26:16.05 Andrew Milburn:
And I’m an emotional guy. You can ask anyone who knows me, it trips me up all the time. But the weird thing is, again, when something like that happens, it’s not that I purposefully excise, is that the right term, emotion, it just seems to happen.
00:26:32.07 Andy Coulson:
So you’re appointed as Commander of the Combined Special Operations Joint task force, once deployed, because there’s a year of preparation, as I understand it for the job, there or thereabouts.
00:26:41.00 Andrew Milburn:
Well yeah, actually reduced to four months but that’s just part of the crisis.
00:26:47.06 Andy Coulson:
Goodness, okay, but once deployed, your job, as I understand it, would be to command all coalition special forces personnel from a whole range of different countries, six different countries, different services, SAS, SBS from our British perspective.
00:27:03.09 Andrew Milburn:
Not the SAS. They were in a separate task force, task force 4.1 – we worked with them but they didn’t work for me.
00:27:14.01 Andy Coulson:
But your primary job, as I understand it, in that role would be to claim back territory that had been seized by ISIS which I think we’re now sort of 2014, 2015, you know they were doing pretty successfully at that time.
00:27:26.11 Andrew Milburn:
Very much so. A third of Ian.
00:27:28.09 Andy Coulson:
You’re given, I thought, a year, you’re going to tell me now four months, to prepare. Given that it went from a year to four months, tell me about that.
00:27:38.18 Andrew Milburn:
00:27:39.09 Andy Coulson:
How did you approach that? It was the biggest task of your career to date, right?
00:27:44.15 Andrew Milburn:
Oh, absolutely, and in fact, nothing in my career had compared to this. So a lot of dynamics here. One is that this was going to be the first task force, Special Operations task force led by a Marine. So within my own organisation there was tremendous pressure and attention on, ‘We’ve got to show the other services…’ the Marine Corps had come late to special operations, ‘…we’ve got to show the other services we’re up to task’.
00:28:08.01 Andrew Milburn:
Of course, when you form a task force, an ad hoc task force, and you’re trying to get people from other organisations, you don’t necessarily get the people that they want to hold onto, right? And then you have the diversity of people coming in. I mean, eleven different countries and I had to incorporate into the headquarters all services, both Special Operations and conventional. And every organisation has its own culture, there are some very diverse cultures, even within the US military. So getting all those guys up to speed and it was during what we call the time of American Ramadan, you know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, so there’s a lot of time off. There was, as you point out, in country itself, crisis. The Islamic State was within thirty miles of Baghdad. A third of Iraq, more than a third of Syria, I mean, you know all this, I’m just setting the scene.
00:29:10.00 Andy Coulson:
Andy, towards the end of this preparation period, I hope I’ve got my timing right here, you’re plunged into a sudden and what can only be described as a devastating personal crisis. Your daughter, Kaela, is involved in an accident at home. She’s knocked off her bike, as I understand it, in a road accident and suffered catastrophic injuries. Where were you when you got the news?
00:29:37.21 Andrew Milburn:
I was in Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina and I got the call around midnight. And obviously the impact to me as her father was, it was nothing I’d experienced before because I was so helpless. You know, everything that had happed previously I felt as though that was my milieu, I had a pathway. But I remember talking to the surgeon on the phone and he was explaining what they were trying to do. And I was just feeling…
00:30:10.24 Andrew Milburn:
You know every father, every parent feels that more than anything else they want to shield their kids from some of the harsh realities of the world, or prepare them, not shield, prepare them. And here, I know this doesn’t sound logical now, but I felt as though I’d failed, you know, you second guess yourself, I should have, blah, blah, blah. I should have told her not to ride a bike, etc. etc. She was twenty-three years old., she was working in Denver, she was volunteering to help homeless people as a college graduate. It was a week where I felt as though I was learning from other people’s strengths, not my own. It was a very humbling experience.
00:30:56.01 Andy Coulson:
You are told, Andy, as I understand it, that Kaela had irreversible brain damage.
00:31:01.01 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, it was an awful week. Actually, by the time I reached Denver the surgeon called me and said, ‘Hey, she’s going to be okay, she’s moving her toes and she’s regaining consciousness’. And I arrived with Siobhan, who’s my other daughter, and we rushed to Kaela’s bedside. She was just conscious, you know, squeezed both our hands and that was really the last time we saw her conscious because as so often happens in these things, there was irreparable damage had been done that had not been discovered. So she went into a coma after a day or two and it was a week we spent there before we had to… I had to make the decision with Kaela’s mom to take her off life support.
00:31:50.21 Andrew Milburn:
During that week, and I told my daughter this too, I felt as though I was deriving strength from my daughter and from Kaela’s mother, not from my own, not from myself. I felt as though I was imploding. It was a very, it was obviously and an awful experience but it was also very self-revealing. I felt, frankly, weak. I felt as though I couldn’t… I remember after Kaela died, you know, we had to gather her things from the room and I told my own daughter and Nancy, who’s Kaela’s mom, I can’t go in there. So they had to do it. They didn’t want to do it any more than me but they did it.
00:32:39.05 Andrew Milburn:
And now I think back and I’m so ashamed of that, me, a Marine, who’s always learned, you do, even if it may result in your death, you do this. But it was something so insurmountable to me at the time that I just couldn’t… And no amount of reassurance from my daughter, you know, my daughter shouldn’t have to reassure me, but no amount of reassurance should make me feel better about that. I mean, it was very, very humbling I suppose.
00:33:06.16 Andy Coulson:
But that is grief and as you said earlier about crisis, grief hits people in so many different ways, different people in so many different ways. No training, and you’ve had more than most, and no experiences, you’ve had more than most, can prepare you for something so utterly appalling.
00:33:29.19 Andrew Milburn:
It’s very true. And then… one thing that was wonderful about this, and I’ve got to try and focus on the good things, but… I mean, there’s nothing good about losing a child but the reaction of some people who had also lost children. I got the kindest, not just kind but really constructively helpful emails and calls from people I didn’t even know.
00:33:55.08 Andrew Milburn:
And I remember the father of a friend of Kaela’s, actually, at Xavier University, his son had killed himself and he described it very well. He said, ‘I want to prepare you for two things: you’re going to feel as though you’re not acting logically sometimes and you’re going to get a lot of implicit criticism from people about how you should grieve, how you should not grieve, when it’s time to get back on the horse. Disregard all of that…’ he said, number one.
00:34:27.22 Andrew Milburn:
He said number two: ‘Be prepared for…’ he described it very well, he said, ‘…it’s like trying to tread water in open water and there are just waves crashing over you all the time, you’re in the middle of a storm and you can barely get a breath.’ And he said, ‘if you can just keep your head up those waves will gradually diminish, they’ll never go away but their ferocity will gradually diminish, there’ll be a longer interval between those waves but they will still continue.’ And he said, ‘Even years from now you’ll feel as though you have this, you’re in control now, but you’re really not. Just be prepared and accept the fact when you find yourself falling into the grief because it’ll pass, just cling on.’ That, to this day, I can almost remember word for word. And that advice has just kept me going.
00:35:25.04 Andrew Milburn:
And now I’m prepared for them and what I do, both my daughter and I, Siobhan and I reach out to each other and we’ll just chat. We’ll chat about, remind ourselves of all the things that Kaela enjoyed and loved and the times we had so we can focus not on that dreadful week but everything that led up to it. But when we talk about that week we talk about the fact that Siobhan and I just became… you know we share, of course we share a bond as father and daughter, but we now share a bond, the same way Marines do in crisis, we share a bond that no one shares with us.
00:36:03.16 Andrew Milburn:
And that means so much to me because I was away for much of Siobhan’s life as an Infantry Officer and so I felt as though I’d abdicated my responsibility as a father in a sense. We are now, and if Siobhan’s listening to this I hope she agrees, we are now probably closer than most fathers and daughters even though she lives in California, I live in Florida, we only see each other a few times a year, but that bond is very important obviously and it would probably not be as strong if this horrible thing hadn’t happened. Don’t get me wrongly.
00:36:39.10 Andy Coulson:
Kaela, as I understand it, understood what job you were embarking on, felt very strongly about it, I gather.
00:36:45.16 Andrew Milburn:
She did, yeah. There was a girl called Kayla Mueller who was humanitarian worker, was captured by the Islamic State, raped and then ultimately murdered. And I forget Kaela’s connection, whether she had known of her before. She didn’t know her personally, but Kaela was shocked by this story, it brought the Islamic State home to her, what an evil organisation it was. And she was very proud of… she said as much. She was a very reserved person in that sense, she was careful not to metre out too much praise to people, she wasn’t… she didn’t have an empty word, she couldn’t say something she didn’t mean, she just wasn’t capable of that but she told me, I remember, that she was very proud of me for doing that.
00:37:35.23 Andrew Milburn:
And so when all of this happened…. Here’s the other curious thing, every other crisis I’ve had in my life, I can remember things very, very clearly, just much more clearly than the boring parts of my life, or uneventful parts of my life. But after Kaela’s death I have amnesia for two to three months, or two months at least. Not total, I remember it’s like disconnected images, like snapshots, but I can’t remember the connective tissue between the sequence of events or anything like that.
00:38:10.00 Andrew Milburn:
So during that time we continued to put together the task force, we had a very important exercise. I remember I was commanding the task force. People tell me that they noticed no difference in my performance. I don’t think they say that to be nice. I think, I suppose we call it compartmentalisation, it wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened and maybe it was training instinct, I realised I couldn’t deal with grief and do these things.
00:38:37.20 Andy Coulson:
A very extreme demonstration of what you described earlier with the grief that you were obviously feeling about Max’s death, this is obviously your daughter.
00:38:49.05 Andrew Milburn:
00:38:50.08 Andy Coulson:
No one can imagine anything worse, I’m sure listening to this. But is it the same process? Is it that ability just to focus on the job?
00:38:59.04 Andrew Milburn:
No, because with Max, of course he was a friend. And I feel this about all the friends I’ve lost in the war which is the wars which have been too many. But in the end we all understand the risk, right? We all understand that it’s an occupational hazard of being in the military, is getting killed. We all understand that. I can rationalise that. You know Max was… I have friends who I would say, love is not too strong a word, who I’ve lost, immensely sad but life goes on, life has to go on.
00:39:35.14 Andrew Milburn:
I couldn’t take that attitude with Kaela. I just wasn’t sure whether I could deploy and do the things I needed to do, in the state of grief that I was in. But I remembered what Kaela had said so I made a decision to. Now, there’s a guy called General Votel who, he subsequently became Cen Com Commander, Central Command, at the time he commanded special operations command, tremendous leader, one of the best I’ve ever worked for. And during the final exercise I do remember this: he came out to visit the task force, it was a big deal in the news and everything, this task force going out, blah, blah, blah, to fight Islamic State. And he took me aside, sat down, like we are now, and he said, ‘Hey Andy, no one’s going to thing worse of you if you don’t go. I can find someone else, you’re not…’ and he was right. He said, ‘I’ve got probably a dozen officers I can bring in to replace you and the task force won’t miss a beat. They don’t need you, Andy Milburn, so if you decide not to go nothing’s going to happen to your career, of course.’
00:40:46.08 Andrew Milburn:
But I decided to go. One reason was Kaela, what she had said. The other is I wasn’t going to help matters by being back here. You know, I wasn’t married to Kaela’s mom, Nancy, she was deriving tremendous strength, she’s very religious, unfortunately I’m not. And so her church network, her own beliefs, were carrying her through in a way that I couldn’t hold onto any beliefs. What I did have was this sense of purpose. I realised that if I remained back in the States I would lose that sense of purpose, I would lose the last anchor I had, I don’t know, to sanity or whatever. And that scared me. So it wasn’t altruistic, it wasn’t brave, it was from sense of survival, I’ve got to focus on the things that I can control or know, or are comfortable with not controlling and it’s with a purpose and that’ll be the way I get through this.
00:41:42.14 Andy Coulson:
I think we should just stress here, because we’ve had this theme come up in previous conversations with people who have…
00:41:49.10 Andrew Milburn:
You’ve got to derive meaning.
00:41:49.22 Andy Coulson:
Is that you find your meaning and you find solace but also you find a means to survive in that purpose, in that work.
00:41:57.19 Andrew Milburn:
You have to.
00:41:58.12 Andy Coulson:
There’s another layer here, though, with you because the work is putting yourself right in the middle. This is dangerous stuff, right? You are being asked to…
00:42:08.23 Andrew Milburn:
But that helps, that helps. Putting your own life in danger helps your grief. I don’t know how or I can’t describe it but it makes you feel less removed, in a way, from the one you’ve lost. I don’t know if this makes sense. Two weeks in in Iraq I felt as though I was losing it. I didn’t know if other people were noticing but I felt as though I was losing it. I wasn’t sleeping, I was struggling mentally to deal with the day to day operations, things that normally came naturally to me.
00:42:47.02 Andrew Milburn:
And I remember I had a very difficult night and I told myself in the morning I’m going to tell my Commanding Officer, who’s a One Star General, that I quit, you know. I mean, this was anathema to anyone in the military, especially in the Marines, especially Special Operations, especially a Commander to walk out on his troops and go home. I mean, even saying this makes me feel… but that’s how desperate I felt with grief.
00:43:17.20 Andrew Milburn:
And so once I resolved to do that I remember I fell asleep, must have been about two or three in the morning. And two hours later I’m getting shaken awake and it’s like, ‘Hey sir, we’ve got a TIC’ which is an acronym for troops in contact, which means our guys are directly fighting the Islamic State which we weren’t supposed to do, right? And sure enough we had a platoon of Seals up north who had been cut off in an Islamic State offensive and they were defending their area and the Islamic State were throwing everything at them. And they’d already a couple of guys wounded and so it was a crisis, right? Literally we had to get the wounded out, we had to get a quick reaction force in, we had to bring in aircraft. I mean, all these moving parts.
00:44:06.03 Andrew Milburn:
And my mind cleared, you know, it was so strange. It was okay, I know what to do here. You know it was an awful situation I’m not minimising the danger to my guys but it was clarity. And we got them out of there, we linked up a QRF, a Marine Quick Reaction Force with them which is no easy task in bad light, you know when there’s a lot of shooting going on. And we brought in aircraft and the crisis diminished. The Islamic State was pushed back. And then in the immediate aftermath I remember walking out of the Tactical Operations Centre as it was dawn and just thinking I can’t go home. It’s not a question of only I can do this, it was a question of this is what I do and this is what I do well and I don’t have this purpose.
00:44:55.15 Andy Coulson:
It’s the management of professional crisis at its most visceral that’s pulling you out of your personal crisis.
00:45:02.08 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly I mean, if that hadn’t happened my life would have taken a very different turn. Everyone would have remembered me as the guy who quit and went home. And in the end even though everyone would have said, ‘hey I understand’, I still would have been the guy who quit and went home. And the first marine to lead a task force quit? You know I mean, that’s not a good thing.
00:45:26.01 Andy Coulson:
Andy, you left the Marines in eventually much later in 2019. Was that a tough decision at that point?
00:45:34.24 Andrew Milburn:
No, not at all actually, not at all. I would have thought it was. I was, at the time, the Deputy Commander of Special Operations Command Central. When I came back from Iraq in 2016, just to backtrack a second, that is when grief really hit me. You know, I’d been able to compartmentalise but the grief rolled in on me in huge waves to continue that analogy.
00:46:03.24 Andrew Milburn:
There’s two things that helped me, one is as usual, my work. The other was I started writing. I started writing to… The intent, I can’t even remember the intent, I can inject purpose. It’s not that I thought I would write a book or something that would be published. Maybe I wanted to explain to my kids, to be able to see why I was away so much. But I found I loved writing and not only that… well I didn’t always love writing, no, sometimes I used to hate it. I mean, it’s hard, it really is. And it’s frustrating but it demanded every ounce of my concentration and that’s what I loved about it.
00:46:43.04 Andy Coulson:
So Andy, you write your book, you’re working as a leadership consultant, among other roles. More time with the family, I assume? Your three other children. And then Putin invades Ukraine. You’ve told us that you went there much earlier in your career. Tell us about the decision to go back.
00:47:08.10 Andrew Milburn:
I’d been there several times actually, most recently 2019. After I retired and I went out there as an instructor, a teacher, working with the 73rd Maritime Brigade. But you know, this wasn’t about Ukraine for me, this was, as blasé as it may sound, it’s about principle, right? And it amazed me how others didn’t see it that way, that this was a question of global norms, right? You may say I was a hypocrite because I was in an invading army in Iraq, which I admit, you know, of course that was a dreadful policy decision but nevertheless there was a rational chain of thought we thought that led to that. I’m not supporting the war but we can all justify it to ourselves. But here there was none.
00:48:04.08 Andy Coulson:
But you were a professional, is what you’re saying.
00:48:06.03 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, here there was none. And so to me it was really, literally just like 1938 and the Munich crisis, except here we had come to war and if Putin won then the ramifications weren’t just about Ukraine, they were about, especially about Europe, they were about NATO they were about global norms, right. They were about so many things. And then on a personal level, yes it is true that obviously I had made friends there, but I didn’t want to be… it wasn’t that I wanted to be, ‘Oh I’ve got to be there, it’s the centre of everything’. Jeremy Bowen describes this very well in his book, too, right? It’s a love-hate relationship with these things.
00:48:52.21 Andy Coulson:
00:48:53.12 Andrew Milburn:
You, when you’re there you are often shit scared and then when you’re not there you’re miserable. And I’ve heard reporters say this time and time again and soldiers are the same way.
00:49:07.23 Andy Coulson:
Exactly right, this is exactly the question I wanted to ask you. Jeremy, who is a mutual friend of ours, as you mentioned…
00:49:16.01 Andrew Milburn:
I’m a fan of Jeremy’s, I don’t think he would call me a friend, I’m an acolyte.
00:49:21.15 Andy Coulson:
We all are, we all are! He described it as an addiction.
00:49:29.11 Andrew Milburn:
00:49:30.21 Andy Coulson:
Do you recognise that in yourself?
00:49:32.04 Andrew Milburn:
100% because every leader and every army’s the same, the British Army’s exactly the same, you know I guarantee you at Sandhurst they say you should always be at the point of friction, point of contact. And so you are brought up with that feeling as a leader. Now, as head of an organisation like the Mozart Group, and we’re not a combat organisation, I wonder whether that’s still true. I do it, I think, part of it may be this addiction, part of it is probably I don’t like the thought of other people taking risks who work for me when I’m sitting in Kyiv and drinking a beer. It makes me feel uncomfortable. So it’s not altruistic or brave it’s…
00:50:10.22 Andy Coulson:
Andy, tell us about the birth of the wonderfully named Mozart Group and a little bit about the problem, we touched on it there, in terms of extracting people who are under fire, but about the problem that you feel it is helping to solve.
00:50:26.17 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, so Ukraine’s a great example. You’ve got a nation that certainly represents the norms that UK and US espouse but not part of any alliance, we’ve been wrestling with this, non-alliant, I suppose we’d call it, facing a threat. What do countries do in that situation? Well they don’t have a lot of options. Normally they lean not he bigger countries for support. But if they can’t do that and they don’t have tremendous amount of resources how do they solve their problems? Getting civilians out of bad areas, a nation at war doesn’t have much excess capacity and Ukraine has very little indeed. How do they train their guys? What we call regeneration training, if they’re taking a huge number of casualties, they’ve lost a lot of their instructors in the opening days of the war, as the Ukrainians did because their country is under attack. They didn’t want to be stuck in a school, okay, it gets back to the same theme, you know training students when their families are in danger, so all these guys rush to the front.
00:51:33.01 Andrew Milburn:
So my point here is, what do countries like that, not just Ukraine, do? Well this guy, General Mick Ryan, Australian, I’d like to call him a friend too, a terrific guy, very, very bright, wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald and he told me he was using us as an example, or at least thinking about Mozart Group as an example. They reach out to crowd source organisations, so they’re not having to pay for them, that can fulfil those functions for them. Alright there’s a danger in doing that. You know there’s kind of shilling to the devil, am I using the wrong analogy here? But there is a danger if you bring in a group like the Mozart Group or even Blackwater you know, where that hasn’t paid a lot of attending to recruiting or doesn’t care and doesn’t have an ethos or a collective emotional intelligence, the danger is they now represent your policy and they start doing bad things, it all gets, you know, you look at the Wagner Group in Africa or Syria, things they’ve done…
00:52:33.22 Andy Coulson:
Turns into something else.
00:52:35.07 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, or what Blackwater did to US reputation in Iraq during the early days. So I think Mick’s point to me was, if you can describe the formula I think this can be tremendously useful. And I’ve been thinking about that; our formula is very simply this: we focus completely on recruiting and some of the leadership that Blackwater, I know one guy in particular told me that that was a mistake that they made early on. You know, they were looking at business development, expansion, blah, blah, blah. But recruiting, which is a core task that they knew about from their military background, they thought didn’t count so much in the civilian world. Well, it’s everything so I think that is our strength in the Mozart Group.
00:53:23.15 Andy Coulson:
So what are the values of a Mozart Group member?
00:53:26.08 Andrew Milburn:
Well it’s got to be wanting to join for the right reasons, not money. We’re helped by that in that we don’t have any money. Well we do, but we’re surviving on donor funds. So we don’t get guys coming out there to earn money. The right reasons, what are the right reasons? Well I can’t be a hypocrite and say you’ve just got to have sense of purpose alone, you can’t be wanting to come here to get your gun on. I do use that term, ‘don’t come here to get your gun on because you’re not fighting’ but all of us are adrenaline junkies, obviously, let’s be honest, all of us suffer from ADHD and feel…
00:54:01.21 Andy Coulson:
That’s a common…?
00:54:03.05 Andrew Milburn:
That’s a common theme when we talk amongst ourselves and we get along really well, we represent eleven different countries, I’ve never been with a group in any unit where everyone gets along. And again this gets back to recruiting because we share the same, even the same sense of humour. So we’re trying to find what is the common denominator and that is the common denominator. Yes, sense of purpose is important. It has to be a purpose that makes ethical sense to us. We wouldn’t do this, I don’t know, for any side. But the danger draws us too.
00:54:39.12 Andy Coulson:
I’m interested in your analysis, let’s categorise them in two ways. I’m interested in your analysis on the professional soldiers in Ukraine but first you are looking into the eyes of people who the day before, week before, were teachers, students, IT workers, you’re putting a gun in their hand and you’re teaching them how to defend themselves.
00:55:00.01 Andrew Milburn:
00:55:00.08 Andy Coulson:
What are you seeing in the eyes of those people, Andy, in that kind of theatre of crisis?
00:55:07.02 Andrew Milburn:
Tremendous, I mean, their morale, I’m going to use a military term, their collective morale is the highest I’ve ever seen. Now don’t get me wrong, some units now… The scale of casualties that the average unit is undergoing there would undermine most units regardless of army. And I think it was Lord Moran, who was Churchill’s doctor, wrote a book called The Anatomy of Courage, it’s a great book, in it he postulates, if that’s the right word, he suggests that the evidence that if a unit takes more than 30% casualties, no matter how well trained they are, so 30% of their strength killed or wounded, then they will no longer have the will to fight, or they’ll be undermined. With Ukrainian units in a week they’ll have taken 70% even 80% casualties and yet they’ll pull their guys back, the survivors, they will bolster them with a new intake and then send them back.
00:56:21.03 Andy Coulson:
What are you seeing in practical terms, the Ukrainians, about their method. How are they managing to keep the morale where it needs to be?
00:56:31.11 Andrew Milburn:
I don’t’ think it’s managed, Andy, I think it’s…
00:56:33.19 Andy Coulson:
Do you think it’s just born… and it’s also fuelled, you say, by Putin’s mis-steps.
00:56:39.18 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, it is a visceral, it’s cultural, it’s national, it’s tribal.
00:56:47.00 Andy Coulson:
It doesn’t require explanation.
00:56:49.01 Andrew Milburn:
No, it is a visceral hatred, outrage and pride all together.
00:56:55.07 Andy Coulson:
And it’s their country and their families.
00:56:57.03 Andrew Milburn:
Exactly, exactly. You know when you think about that, when your family is at risk your risk calculous for your own personal survival changes 100%. I remember telling, you know, I saw a shrink after Kaela’s death and I remember telling her, ‘Look any parent would trade places with a child who’s died.’ Any parent, of course you would, right? So in this case, you know, what I’m saying is they see it very clearly as either I fight or my family… you know. So it’s not even a decision for them.
00:57:34.16 Andrew Milburn:
What really impresses me is they fight with a happy heart, which sounds maybe indecent to some people, but they do. You know just the other day, we’re in a very bad place called Soledar in Donbas, and the place is just getting pummelled as all these places are by the Russians, air strikes, artillery. We’re on the outskirts of the town, we’re driving in, picking up civilians, bringing them back and all the time there’s a Ukrainian tank crew, a single tank, the Ukrainians don’t have a lot of tanks compared to the Russians. And these guys are sitting on the turret but they’re ‘moving from positions to position firing at Russian positions which are actually less than, they’re about a thousand metres away, they’re not far away, they’re in a lot of danger. They are clearly the most valuable target, not us, they are. So we try to keep them away from us. But every time they pass us they wave cheerily and yell ‘Hey guys, how are you?’ As though they’re just on a Sunday ride. But any second, I mean, if you’ve seen a tank blown up by an 80 GM it’s a horrific sight, you know any second they are likely to be incinerated and they are a target. And they know that, that’s why they’re moving, but they are cheerful.
00:58:48.00 Andy Coulson:
Tell me about the professional soldiers in the Ukraine, what’s your judgement of them?
00:58:52.07 Andrew Milburn:
They were very good but it’s hard to find them now, it really is. Units we trained, we trained number of battalions, thousands, thousands of soldiers, numbers are in the thousands, certainly. And I would say about 15%, 20% of them had prior military experience. Most of them were just civilians, citizen soldiers. They are more attentive than any other soldiers we’ve taught, to include British and US special operations guys. They are, they’re without complaint which is just extraordinary for soldiers of any nationality. That’s not quite fair, they will complain about some of their Officers but that’s the norm in any military but it’s not bitterness, it’s difficult to describe. They’ve and just casual stories, there’s no bravado.
00:59:51.01 Andrew Milburn:
We do a lot of medical training because their medics are not well trained at all and so we’ll take aside, all soldiers receive medical training. Essentially what we do, commanders tell us, ‘Hey I’ve got five days, that’s all you have, five days and they’ve got to be back at the front, here’s my Battalion.’ No actually it’ll be a month for a battalion but for a company, five days, alright? And so we’ve got a very carefully designed training course that of course we’re not making professional soldiers in five days, but I will tell you we’re exponentially increasing their chances of survival.
01:00:27.24 Andrew Milburn:
But some of these guys, when you talk to them, they’re coming off the front to get trained for the first time. Some of them never fired their weapon, most of them have never fired their weapon because they’ve just been sitting in the trenches getting pounded by artillery. So we’re teaching them how to fire their weapon. But the stories they have, you know, the medics in particular want to ask question after question because as they have guys who they’re trying to treat who die, they’re trying to learn their lessons, what did they do wrong, how could I have prevented this?
01:00:55.04 Andrew Milburn:
It’s very poignant actually, it’s not their fault that these guys have died but they take it on themselves as responsibility. And one medic told me, ‘you know I was just kind of given a medic bag, I started to learn, I went on YouTube to learn how to do things but I don’t feel competent and my biggest task is now when someone is killed he looks for their cell phone to unlock their cell phone so that they can get next of kin information, wives, girlfriends. It’s horrific because they don’t have all the administrative support.
01:01:27.20 Andy Coulson:
Because they have none of the normal infrastructure.
01:01:29.10 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, I mean, can you imagine, your friend’s been killed and you’re unlocking his phone to look for messages from his wife so that the Commanding Officer can call her and say that he’s been killed. I mean, all these stories are not told to shock us it’s the reality.
01:01:47.14 Andy Coulson:
Andy, this work is obviously on the side of the angels. How are you funding it? How is it funded, I should say?
01:01:51.03 Andrew Milburn:
All donor funded.
01:01:53.05 Andy Coulson:
So are you making appeals to the public to donate?
01:01:56.03 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, we are and there’s been tremendous generosity and support but we realised early on that it’s better to have a few deep pocketed donors than crowd sourcing, you know a $100 here and there because our burn rate, as we call it now, as we’ve become kind of a professional organisation, all the things we need to do, our burn rate’s about $170,000 a month, which is not chickenfeed. And that goes quickly, gas, you name it.
01:02:29.01 Andrew Milburn:
So I’m a crappy fundraiser but we’re gaining traction and of course as interest in the war diminishes it becomes harder to raise funds. So what we’re trying to do too is offer services. You know risk mitigation for companies coming into Ukraine. We’ve got guys who’ve done that for a living who are now working for us and we are the only ones with placement and access to the front line. Media coming in, although we haven’t charged for the media yet, I wonder if we should actually because we escort them there, by the way, we’ll be talking to the security guys who are paying up a lot.
01:03:04.07 Andy Coulson:
Well it’s a service.
01:03:06.00 Andrew Milburn:
insurance companies who want ships released from Mykolaiv harbour for instance. You know, all these things are things that now we’re starting to contract. And we have been approached by the government of another country, which I can’t mention right now, who want us to do the same as in Ukraine.
01:03:28.06 Andy Coulson:
So this is your life now. Is this what it’s going to be, do you think? Can you see a proper retirement at any point or are you going to… there you are, you’ve got another country who recognise what you do and want you there. There are always going to be…
01:03:42.14 Andrew Milburn:
It wasn’t our intention, it wasn’t my intention. But now the Mozart Group, I didn’t deliberately form it, it formed round me. And so now we’ve got these likeminded individuals and we’re all saying, as we talk among ourselves, this will be a mistake to give up, we thought this would be something for a few months but it’s become part of our lives, we’re addicted to it, that is true. Yeah, I think it will remain as long as the money comes in, and by that I just mean as long as we can sustain what we’re doing, yes this will be certainly my life and I can probably speak for those around me too.
01:04:19.20 Andy Coulson:
Well I hope that this conversation can contribute to it in some small way and that there’s someone listening to this who will… we’ll make sure that we’ll be pointing them in the right direction. Andy, this has been a remarkable conversation, yours is a remarkable story and thank you sincerely for sharing it with us today. We end every podcast with a question. What are your crisis cures, sir, three things that you’ve leaned on in those difficult moments, can’t be another person.
01:04:53.06 Andrew Milburn:
Well first of all writing, you know I explained why. In addition to the book I’ve written a lot of articles and really enjoyed doing it and continue to enjoy. I haven’t over the last few months but it’s something that I will always maintain. Reading, which has been a companion for me since I was a child.
01:05:18.01 Andy Coulson:
If I gave you one book what would it be?
01:05:19.08 Andrew Milburn:
One book, that’s really tough, really tough.
01:05:22.10 Andy Coulson:
Would you go military history, would you go history. Or would you go novel or…
01:05:26.17 Andrew Milburn:
No, actually my favourite books have not been military at all, with one exception, George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the Flashman series, he wrote a great book, a memoir of Burma, his time as an eighteen year old rifleman in the Burma Campaign, 14th Army, it’s called Caught It Safe Out Here, which of course is a quote from Gunga Din, Rudyard Kipling. Caught It Safe, a brilliant book. I mean, really not just because… Because soldiers make crappy writers normally but of course George MacDonald Fraser went on to do many other things but it’s a great book. But I tell you what books I’ve enjoyed most have been by reporters. Okay, we might as well mention Jeremy Bowen, he’s going to get a big head, but War Stories is a terrific book and we talked about this.
01:06:13.16 Andy Coulson:
As is his latest book on the Middle East.
01:06:15.22 Andrew Milburn:
Oh, I’ve got to read that, I’ll rush out of here and get it.
01:06:21.13 Andy Coulson:
We can say, newly minted, just published.
01:06:25.17 Andrew Milburn:
Yeah, he’s got a gift, because a lot of people can go through extraordinary events and just not make them interesting when they describe them.
01:06:36.12 Andy Coulson:
The third cure please.
01:06:38.08 Andrew Milburn:
Third cure is exercise. Look, I’m not ever going to be particularly at the top of any pyramid when it comes to athletic ability. And I’ve always felt like I had no place in the Special Operations community because you meet guys who are almost at national level athletes and I am struggling, you know, it’s a daily graft for me. But what I’ve realised is it’s become essential for my mental health.
01:07:10.19 Andrew Milburn:
So my point is when I exercise it’s actually more to clear my mind that to develop physical fitness. You know I’m approaching sixty years old, I don’t need to bench press a huge amount but I need to exercise. Even before coming here and you’re going to say this is why I’m late, but the first thing I do is I get out of bed, I drink coffee and then I go up to the rowing machine and it’s the last thing I want to do but a few minutes in I’m breathing heavily and the blood’s flowing and I feel better. And afterwards I feel great.
01:07:45.24 Andy Coulson:
Andy, it’s been a great conversation so thank you so much for coming in it’s been an absolute pleasure.
01:07:52.05 Andrew Milburn:
Well my pleasure.
01:07:53.19 Andy Coulson:
If you’ve enjoyed this episode please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit subscribe, wherever you download your podcast from, you’ll find loads more useful crisis conversations. And you can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook our handle is @crisiswhatcrisispodcast and thanks again for listening.
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