Mortally-wounded Army Captain David Hicks: A hero? No, just a very fine son

Captain David Hicks

Brave: Captain David Hicks, 26, was devoted to his troops

The minute you walk into the Hicks' family home you find yourself confronted by what can only be described as a military display.

On a mahogany table in the hallway, where you might ordinarily expect to see a telephone or a plant, there is a Union flag, elaborately folded. On it sits a regimental belt and a peaked cap with a scarlet band.

A framed commission certificate stands behind, while pride of place in the front goes to the medal, a Military Cross, the third-highest award for bravery.

It was rewarded, posthumously, to Captain David Hicks, the middle child of this household, one of the most senior British officers to be killed in Afghanistan. He was just 26.

'The Queen presented it to us,' says Lesley, David's mother, as she takes the medal out of its protective cover. 'I felt quite sorry for her, actually. I don't think she found it easy. It's not as if she could say, "congratulations", is it?'

Lesley, a nurse, likes having her son's 'Army things', as she calls them, in a pivotal position in the home  -  on immediate view to visitors, and to herself as she walks to the kitchen, or heads up the stairs.

'Often, I give his hat a pat as I pass,' she smiles. 'I daren't touch the flag. It came off his coffin. They fold it up  -  there is an exact way  -  and present it to you. If I unfolded it, I doubt I could ever get it right again myself.'

Her accountant husband Alun was less sure that he wanted such a graphic reminder of what they had lost.

'I did wonder if it was too morbid, too in your face,' Alun says. 'But we've had a lot of military people in and out and they've all said: "Oh no, you must."

'I have to say there is a comfort to be had there. People like to see his Military Cross, and I do, too. It reminds me that his life wasn't a waste.

'I often think that we were actually quite lucky that our son died while he was fighting. Imagine how terrible if we had lost him in a friendly fire incident, or in a road accident there. That happens, and I don't know how the families cope.'

To say Captain Hicks, of the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians, died fighting is something of an understatement. He died fighting with remarkable valour. Earlier this year, he was singled out by the Prime Minister himself for his ' extraordinary courage'.

An inquest this week heard how, mortally wounded after being hit by a Taliban rocket in Afghanistan last summer, he ordered the medics treating him to 'let me get back out there'.

Alan and Leslie Hicks

David's parents Alun and Lesley Hicks had many questions for the inquest

On August 11, as an acting company commander, he was in charge of 50 men in a patrol base north-east of Sangin when it came under attack by Taliban using rocket-propelled grenades.

When one exploded above the patrol base, Captain Hicks received multiple shrapnel wounds, and would normally have been a candidate for immediate evacuation by air.

Though five others with wounds were taken out by a helicopter, he declined and carried on in command of the outpost, tearing off his oxygen mask and even refusing a morphine injection on the grounds that it might cloud his judgment. He was still insisting on getting back to his men, when he lost consciousness.

He died later that day, and now lies in Brookwood Cemetery, near Woking, where he was buried with full military honours on August 30.

Could there be a more timely example of heroism, in this, Remembrance week?

But there was a lot that wasn't remotely laudable about the way Captain Hicks died, and his passing raises yet more uncomfortable questions about Britain's role in Afghanistan, and what is expected of our troops there.

David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner who presided over his inquest, was again exasperated to be confronted by the death of a young soldier in less than supported circumstances.

Mr Masters  -  and David's parents  -  heard of the pitiful conditions in which he was trying to do his job.

Inkerman, the Helmand Province operating base he and his men were holed up in when they came under attack, was described as offering 'limited protection'.

Sandbagged walls were so low that Taliban fighters could actually see into the base, there was no doctor on site  -  Captain Hicks had repeatedly requested one, but the medic only arrived the day after he died  -  and some soldiers slept under makeshift netting.

Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, Mr Masters said it was unacceptable that British troops should have to do their job in such conditions.

'Why should our forces be forced to make do?' he asked, visibly angry. 'I have difficulty sitting here and conducting these inquests, week in week out, while our forces are told to make do. I think it is completely unacceptable.'

Alun and Lesley are not the sort to want to apportion blame for their son's death  -  they stress that they do not want to do this interview to 'point the finger, or find scapegoats'  -  but they are quietly relieved that such matters are being aired. 

Helmand Province, Afghanistan

British Army officers in Helmand Province. A coroner at the inquest said troops in Afghanistan were forced to 'make do' with limited protection (file photo)

They went to David's inquest themselves with a long list of questions they wanted answered, such as why was there such a woeful lack of airpower in the region their son died (his father argues that helicopter support would have broken up the enemy positions before they posed such a threat), or whether a doctor on site could have saved him.

'Our son died because he was hit by a Taliban shell, no question. But there are issues here that need to be addressed, and I'm not sure they are being.

'As far as I'm aware there are no more helicopters available now than there were when David died.

'We're pretty sure now that even if there had been a doctor there, David would have died anyway  -  his injuries were severe  -  but that doesn't take away from the fact that he had been demanding one for a long time before he died.'

There are bigger questions, too. 'The most pressing one of all is what the hell are we actually doing out there, in a country 8,000 miles away?' says Alun. 'I consider myself an intelligent man, but I still don't know. My son didn't know either. He was frustrated by what he was being asked to do in Afghanistan.'

Did David feel that he was actually making a difference there?

'No, I don't think he did  -  that was the problem,' says Alun. 'It was the same in Iraq, and Bosnia before that.

'He'd come home from Iraq talking about how the police were supplied with all these up-to-date vehicles. Fine in theory, but when things went wrong with them, the local mechanics just didn't know how to fix them.'

So it was in Afghanistan. 'I think David felt they were just holding a line, not actually achieving anything.

'Of course he'd never say these things, certainly not publicly. He was incredibly loyal, and he'd never have questioned what he was asked to do for his country.'

His father can, though. He feels it is the duty of those left behind to do so, until they get some answers.

'No one has yet adequately explained to me why Afghanistan is the front line of British security, why it is important we are there. If we do need to be there, and we are going to ask our troops to do an impossible job, then we have to at least give them every practical support.

'And if it isn't the front line, then for goodness sake we have to draw up an exit strategy, and get them out of there, because you can't have a situation where soldiers are dying and people back home are still asking "why"?'

Lesley and Alun struggle with the tags that have been applied to their son in the year since he died. Do they regard David as a hero? They take a curiously long time to respond.

'It's hard to see your own son as a hero,' says Lesley. 'I know how uncomfortable David would be to be described as that. If he was here now he would say: "I only did my job, mum."'

Her husband concurs. 'Of course we are proud of him, like we are proud of all our sons, but we aren't the sort of people to shout about that. It's more about a quiet satisfaction, an appreciation that he conducted himself with dignity. What David did was, he served.'

He is as proud of the way his remaining two boys have picked themselves up, as he is of what David did. 'Both had to get straight back on with life. Gareth was in the middle of his medical training, and he went back up to Newcastle and passed his exams. Edward went straight into his A-levels, and got the results he needed. He is at Oxford now.

'Life goes on, and you can't allow it to defeat you.'

How ironic, then, that he claims his son is nothing like him.

When we talk about how David first decided on a military career, Alun says it was because he didn't want his own life to be anything like his father's.

'We're not what you would call a very exciting family,' he apologises. 'I am an accountant, my wife is a nurse, Gareth is a doctor and Edward an academic. I think that David wanted something more exciting from life.'

David had been a daredevil since childhood. 'Do you remember when we took them to that water park when David was about seven,' Lesley asks her husband. 'He was halfway up the biggest slide and we said: "Oh they'll never let him come down that. Someone will stop him at the top." But they didn't, and down he came.'

Alun chuckles. 'That was David.' Later, David was involved in the Army cadets, and read history at university. Then the lure of a career that combined travel, thrills and global affairs proved irresistible.

'He came home one day and told us that he had applied for the officer training programme at Sandhurst, and that was that. We thought: "Why not?",' says Alun.

'I always taught them, "Do what you want with your life  -  but do it to the best of your ability. Excel at it. Respect it."

He was, by all accounts, an excellent officer. His parents watched him transform from a gangly teenager into a commanding officer.

'It is hard to regard your little boy as an Army officer, leading all those men,' admits Lesley.

'To us he was just David, and we moaned away at him about coming home with so much washing that he broke the washing machine.

'What mattered most to him was his devotion to his men. He would never ask them to do anything he didn't do. He died because he put himself right there, in the frame.

'He was scrambling up on top of the observation platform to watch enemy positions when they got him. The shell came out of nowhere.

'But David needn't have been there. He was in charge that day, the commanding officer. He could have been out the back somewhere, head down, without doing his career one iota of harm. I am proud that he wasn't.'

They never talked, as a family, about the fact that David might not come home from one of his tours.

'Once his dad was at the barracks before he went off on a tour and was surprised to see all his belongings packed up in boxes,' remembers Lesley. 'David said, quite matter-of-factly: "If I am killed, they can get my stuff back to you easily." We never thought much about it at the time.'

'You can't,' says Alun. 'You would go mad.'

Still, they urged him to call as often as he could, so they could have some peace of mind. They last spoke to their son two days before he died. He called to wish them well on a long-planned holiday to France. Unusually, his father noticed a catch in David's voice.

'There was an edge to it. I knew things couldn't be good out there. We discovered after he died that that particular operation  -  when they were being stormed by the Taliban  -  went on for a whole week.

'The Military Cross wasn't just for how he conducted himself at the end, it was for what he did all that week.'

They explain that David was actually on the phone to his girlfriend Nicola, a solicitor, on the day he died.

'She heard the first shots  -  the start of the thing that killed him  -  then he said: "I've got to go." It was the last any of us heard from him. Nicola has felt the loss acutely.'

They had only arrived in France, when Gareth  -  who had been contacted by the MoD in their absence, called with the terrible news.

'We only got the briefest of information. There had been an attack and David had been killed. I remember-we were unpacking the car. I can't explain what it felt like. You go numb.

'You think: "This is not happening. It cannot be." We turned around and drove home again, through the night. It was the worst journey imaginable.'

It was three long weeks before they could bury David.

'The Army were superb, actually,' says Lesley. 'They came here and said: "Look, we can do everything for you from here, or we can do nothing."

'We decided to go with a military funeral. I think David would have wanted that. The only thing we didn't do was the volley of shots.'

Why not? 'We thought there had been enough of that,' she says.

His parents got David's possessions back not long after he died. Those Army boxes he had packed himself are still upstairs in his bedroom. The trappings of his military career may be on vivid display, but the more personal belongings still haven't been touched.

'We started to go through them, but we haven't been able to finish,' says Lesley. 'We will, one day, but not yet.'

They thought carefully about the words David would have wanted on his gravestone, and settled for: 'He was a fine soldier, a fine brother and son, and above all, a fine man.'

There is something deeply moving about the restraint contained therein.

'We don't need to call him a hero,' agrees his father. 'He was our son and he did what was required of him. No parents can ask for more.'

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