Military mothers in their own words: Our children, our heroes

As a military mother, you have to accept that something might happen to your child. But nothing can prepare you for the day it does, as eight women tell Sarah Oliver

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GILLY WIGGINS, 50, is the mother of Lance Corporal Simon Wiggins, 23, a sniper with the Coldstream Guards.

He was critically injured by an improvised explosive device in Helmand, Afghanistan, in March 2008, losing almost half his body blood. His right leg was amputated and he has had multiple operations to repair other damaged limbs and organs.

He divides his time between his regiment, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre (DMRC) Headley Court and the family home in Surrey.

After he was injured, my son’s fellow sniper Frank the Tank (Lance Corporal James Southall) saved his life with a tourniquet. Frank then picked him up and ran until Simon could bear the pain no more.

The main artery in his right leg was severed in four places, he had shrapnel embedded in his liver and bowel, the middle finger of his right hand had been amputated by the blast and his left hand was damaged. His lower right arm was badly wounded and he had nerve damage to his forehead.

He was spattered by bomb debris – from human faeces to weed killer – so infection was always going to be a major threat. At Camp Bastion’s field hospital he underwent an 11-hour operation and was given 54 bags of blood products. In the end they stopped worrying about his blood type and gave him everything they had. The medics came so close to running out they donated their own. Simon was a mess.

It’s surreal to be told news like that in your own home by men you have never met when you are still wearing your pyjamas. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. I was told to pack for a week and that we’d be taken to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham to see him when he got home the following day.

Simon

He was on life support, swollen from the flight. It was the last time I saw him with both legs.

I remember thinking he still looked like my perfect boy. It was only when the aero-medic who’d brought him home began to fill me in on the details that I realised he’d been blown to hell and back.

We had seconds with him before he was taken into surgery for amputation above his right knee. He was kept in a coma for 11 days. 

My husband David and I took it in turns to sit with him. I was looking for the courage to tell him about his leg when I found out his military physio had already done it. I think any mother would struggle to deliver such crushing news to her child.

He was devastated. Your heart breaks to see your child in such a horrendous state. You have to remember that he is a man and a soldier and he must find, from somewhere, the physical and mental strength to deal with what has happened. There’s a fine line between mothering him and babying him, and the hardest thing is knowing that in the dead of night he has to face his fears alone.

‘Your heart breaks to see your child in such a horrendous state’

It was a month from him waking up to the Coldstream Guards’ homecoming parade through Windsor. I told him to get himself up and out there in his uniform. He did. He was at the head of the parade in a wheelchair. Frank the Tank pushed him.

It has not been easy, but I cannot praise highly enough the people who have cared for him at Selly Oak and DMRC Headley Court in Surrey and the help we have had from the British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association and the Army itself.

He has been able to return to his regiment in an office job and he’s been selected for the Combined Services Disabled Ski Team, which could lead to a place at the Paralympics. He has a lovely group of friends, his girlfriend stood by him and he comes from a strong family. He’s doing well.

As for me? I’m now by default a psychologist and carer, a mum to an injured son while still being a mother to two other children, a wife and a working woman. And I worry about the future. Simon and his younger brother, Tom, look like twins.

As Simon ages he’s always going to have a mirror image of what he might have looked like if not for this. He has got to have more surgery on his stump and he can’t face that yet. He wants his life back.

British Limbless Ex Service Men’s Association, blesma.org


 


DENISE HARRIS, 46, is the mother of Corporal Lee Scott of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, one of the youngest tank commanders in the British Army.

He died aged 26 in an explosion during Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand in July. He was married with two children and based in Wiltshire.

In his memory Denise founded the new charity Afghan Heroes, created by eight women (the so-called Band of Mothers) who met at RAF Lyneham the day their children’s bodies were repatriated.

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I still remember taking Lee to the Army Careers office in Bristol. I didn’t want him to enlist but he was 19, already a man, and he knew his own mind. The Army became his second life. He was proud of what he did, proud of all he had achieved.

In the military, as in his childhood, everyone loved Lee. Even as a soldier he was the cheeky lad with the lovely smile who got away with everything.

He was deployed to Afghanistan on 2 June this year, and he died there on 10 July. I was at work when I received the call to say he’d been killed in an explosion. I was in my office and I just collapsed; I didn’t want to know, didn’t want to believe he was gone. I couldn’t stop crying, I wanted to be sick. I locked myself away. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t believe it was true.

In the months before Lee went to Afghanistan, we’d spent a lot of weekends at a holiday camp. One weekend there was a silly competition for the loudest table — we stood up on our chairs shouting our heads off. Another weekend I fleeced him at dominoes — a rare victory. That was the hardest part: knowing we’d never be able to have those wonderful times back.

Lee

I went to RAF Lyneham when they brought him home. It was unbearable. I have no real memory of his repatriation. That day is a blur. I was trying to be strong for my other children and they were trying to be brave for me, but they have been broken by this. We all have.

‘I have to try to make something good come out of this terrible tragedy’

The Ministry of Defence has a brilliant support strategy for next of kin — Lee was married with two children.

But for the extended family, parents of married soldiers and siblings, there was, as I discovered, nothing. That’s why I felt I had to do something. I wanted to help Lee’s comrades still in theatre, returning troops who have witnessed fellow soldiers being killed and wounded, and the families of the fallen.

Eight soldiers including Lee died during the worst 24 hours of fighting in the Afghan campaign. They were repatriated together to RAF Lyneham and it is there that the mothers who founded Afghan Heroes met for the first time.

Today we have an unshakable bond. We help each other, take strength from each other and have found a new purpose. Our sons came home together and we believe that wherever they are, they are still together, as we always will be too.

I know the pain of losing Lee will never stop but I have to try to make something good come out of this terrible tragedy. If I can help others while honouring the deaths of all of our wonderful sons, men who were always so full of life, then my work will be worth it. 

I try to find comfort in that, but sometimes I have to believe Lee is still out there and that one day he will come home.

Afghan Heroes, afghanheroes.org.uk


 


DEBI HAWKINS, 48, is the mother of Marine Joe Townsend, 21, of 40 Commando Royal Marines.

At 19 he trod on an anti-tank mine while on patrol in Helmand in February 2008. The blast ripped off a leg and destroyed the other, which was amputated. It also tore off his buttocks.

He has had more than 30 major operations and divides his time between his family home in Eastbourne and DMRC Headley Court.

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All I can remember about the day I first learned that Joe had been hurt was hoovering the house and packing a bag of things for the week I’d be in hospital with him. I was trying to keep control in the wake of the worst news of my life. In the end I went to Selly Oak Hospital and stayed for five and a half months. My child needed me. 

Joe thought he was invincible. ‘What are you worrying about?’ he’d ask. But I was both terrified and delighted when he passed out as a Marine and just terrified when he was sent to Afghanistan. 

It was Joe’s father who broke the news to me that he’d been hurt. I honestly didn’t know if my son would be alive or dead by the time his plane landed – it was that close.

When I saw him, his top half didn’t have a scratch, he just looked like my Joe, asleep, despite the ventilator. When I heard what had happened to the rest of him I must have looked like I was about to scream. A ward sister shook me and said she’d send me out if I couldn’t control myself. It was what I needed. I couldn’t fail Joe.

Joe

The first time I saw what was left of his legs, I was heartbroken. It was worse when he finally came round and asked: ‘Mum, have they told you what they’ve done to me?’ ‘Yes,’ I whispered.

He knew too by then but it didn’t stop his awareness fading in and out. He’d ask, ‘Mum, can you look for my boots?’ or ‘Can you scratch my feet?’ 

He was in excruciating pain but the doctors couldn’t give him more morphine so he’d need me to talk him to sleep. It was like having a newborn baby.

Joe was my priority but I felt guilty about neglecting my younger son, who was devastated by his brother’s injuries, and absenting myself from work and home.

When something like this happens there is a ripple effect throughout the entire family that mostly goes unseen.

Joe went to DMRC Headley Court on 17 June 2008. On 26 June he walked 15 steps on his stubbies, the training legs. I knew he’d do it because he said he would. 

When Joe comes home from the forces’ rehab centre, he manages nicely. I wouldn’t have come through this if he hadn’t been so strong. I don’t mourn the son I used to have because I still have him, but I look at his baby photos sometimes and mourn the loss of his legs and the life he would have had in the Marines. He used to be a whole person. Then he went to war and came back in half.


Debi has received support from The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association Forces Help, ssafa.org.uk


 


ELSIE MANNING, 65, is the mother of Staff Sergeant Sharron Elliott of the Intelligence Corps, the first female British soldier to die on operations in Iraq.

Aged 34, she was killed on a routine boat patrol on the Shatt-al-Arab waterway in Basra on Remembrance Sunday 2006.

A career soldier, she had achieved a number of ‘firsts’ for women in the Army and had volunteered for active service. She was planning to settle in Cyprus.

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First knew of Sharron’s intentions when she came home wearing a big grin and told me she’d enlisted. I have four sons, they’d all seen military service too, and I supported my daughter equally. Anyway, it was a done deal. Sharron was nothing if not determined. She was 18.

She became the first woman to qualify as an aircraft technician in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and finally got hung up on the Intelligence Corps.

I was working as deputy manager of a care home for the elderly when she was killed. I had helped the residents line up at a window to watch our local Remembrance Day parade, then I went home. I got a news text saying four soldiers had been killed in Basra and said to myself, ‘God, there are four more gone…’

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The knock on the door came at about 7pm. I thought it was the gas man, but I realised it wasn’t when I heard my husband say, ‘You’d better come in.’ When I saw a stranger standing there I knew what he had come for, yet Sharron had only been gone a week.

Sharron was repatriated to Brize Norton. It was the most awful day of my life. When her plane flew over us it had a light on in front. I pointed and said: ‘There she is, like a star shining over us.’

But even in my grief, I was already angry. I couldn’t understand why our government, which had sent these troops to Iraq, seemed so unaccountable for their loss. It doesn’t even send a representative to their repatriation ceremony.

I wrote to Tony Blair and asked why and he said it was not ‘policy’. How much policy do you need to do the decent thing?

You learn to live with the pain. This kind of grief never goes. I expected Sharron to buy a house in Cyprus, she was such a sun bunny. She had a boyfriend in the Air Force and was happy in her personal life. Now it’s all been taken from her.

Elsie has received support from Military Families Support Group, mfsg.org.uk

 


JEM WRIGHT, 58, is the mother of Corporal Mark Wright, a mortar fire control officer with the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment.

He died aged 27 rescuing fellow soldiers from a minefield in Helmand in September 2006 and was posthumously awarded the George Cross. He lived with his fiancée near Edinburgh.

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It took me and my husband Bobby nine years to have a child. After Mark there were no more, but he was such a wonderful boy we were quite happy just to have him. He was 19 when he joined the Paras, and his ambition was the SAS.

He did three tours of Northern Ireland and two of Iraq but he never spoke about what he’d seen and done. When he phoned home I’d ask what he was doing and he’d invariably reply, ‘Sitting on a hill, Mum.’

Before he went to Afghanistan I told him, only half in jest, to hide behind a tree if he got into danger. He rolled his eyes and said: ‘In the desert, Mum, I don’t think so…’

I managed to say goodbye on the day he left. I didn’t know it then but it was the last time I would see him alive. I was watching the six o’clock news, listening to details
of an incident at Sangin, central Helmand province, when the knock on the door came. The funny thing is that I already knew it was Mark.

As an Army mother you think something might happen to your child, but in your heart
you believe it won’t, because he is special.I told the two soldiers waiting there that if Mark was hurt they could come in and if he was dead they couldn’t because I didn’t want to know. They said they had to. I phoned Bobby and told him he had to come home. Then I remember sitting on the floor of the hall.

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I couldn’t move. I felt as if my own life had ended, my heart ripped out of my chest. There aren’t enough words to describe the pain of knowing you’re going to have to bury your only child.

I went to Brize Norton with Bobby to see Mark come home. It was truly terrible, a big plane sitting on the tarmac with all the hearses lined up and coffins coming off. Mark was carried out last. My legs would barely hold me up.

‘The work I do for the charity I have founded in my son’s name gives me a new purpose’

We brought him home to Edinburgh for his funeral and kept him with us in our house overnight. It was comforting to have him back under our roof.

His funeral was not a military event although his coffin was draped in the union flag. He was a soldier through and through but above all he loved his family, his girlfriend Gillian, his granny, his grandfather, his auntie, his cousin, who was like a big sister, and this was him coming back to us.

I miss him so badly. All I want is to see his smiley face. I still expect him to walk through the door any day and whenever the phone goes before 8am I think it’s him calling from the front line; he used to ring early to catch me before work.

Some things help. Our private meeting with the Queen to collect his George Cross was very special and the work we are doing for the post-traumatic stress disorder charity we have founded in his name gives us a new purpose. 

But there are some things I will never get over. I have never wanted to know the details of his injuries. I could not bear the idea that my son died in pain and with the knowledge that the end was coming. You see, he was alive when he came out of the minefield. Wounded, but alive. It’s just that it took three hours to get a helicopter to evacuate him. Apparently they were very busy that day. And we lost him on the flight to hospital.

The Mark Wright Project, themarkwrightproject.org.uk



 


CAROL BRACKPOOL, 54, is the mother of Private John Brackpool of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, attached to the 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards.

He was killed by enemy gunfire as he stood on sentry duty in a compound captured from the Taliban during Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand in July.

He was 27, single and lived in Crawley, West Sussex, with his mother, who is a founder member of the new charity Afghan Heroes.

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John was a reservist. He re-enlisted to do a tour of Iraq in 2006 and had such a good time I suspect he regretted coming out of the regular Army in his early 20s.

Given that, I wasn’t surprised when he said to me a few months ago, ‘Mum, I think I’ve got one more tour left in me.’ My reply, although I can barely believe it now, was, ‘Yes son, but make sure it’s your last.’

I never told him how scared I was about him going to Afghanistan. He was posted in May and I only heard from him when he wanted feeding up – he was a typical boy. ‘Mum, can you post me some noodles?; Mum, please send biscuits.’ I used to think, ‘Well at least I am too far away to have to do his laundry too.’

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Every time I heard of a fallen soldier I couldn’t breathe until I heard the words ‘next of kin have been informed’ and I’d know it wasn’t John.

My knock came at 10.30 one night. I was in bed, so I opened the window to see who it was. The soldiers asked if I was Carol Brackpool. I knew in that instant. I can’t describe the plummeting feeling of walking down to the door to let them in.

‘Seeing the fly-past of the aircraft carrying John’s coffin will be with me for ever’

The next few hours and days were strangely easy in comparison with those which came later. You are so busy making death official, the days just pass.

What did make me crumble was standing on the tarmac at RAF Lyneham and seeing John’s plane appear through the clouds. I had just one single thought: ‘My baby.’ The pain of the fly-past, seeing the aircraft carrying his coffin dipping its wings, will be with me for ever.

John had a full military funeral. He would have loved it. He was such a happy man who wanted everyone around him to be happy too; a lovable rogue as far as women were concerned, always on the hunt for Miss Right. He hadn’t found her yet, which is why he still lived with me. He used to tell me he’d live at home until he was 30. Recently he’d upgraded it to 50. 

He loved his life; as a reservist, he could duck in and out of military life to do operational tours but return to civvy street where he worked in airport security and avoid all the square bashing and boot cleaning which he hated.

I miss him more than I can say. I still talk to him – I moan to him that he’s
not around to cut my grass and do odd jobs. I still read all the messages he sent me on Facebook: ‘Love you Mum, miss you loads.’

I can’t express the pain of knowing I’ll never hear my child call me ‘Mum’ ever again. But it’s the smallest, stupidest things which are the hardest to bear. On Sunday nights we’d have a takeaway together, it was our little ritual. He always wanted pizza and I always wanted Chinese. We had the same argument every single time. And you don’t understand what it means to lose that until it’s gone.

Afghan Heroes, afghanheroes.org.uk


 


FIONA DISNEY, 53, is the mother of Lieutenant Guy Disney, 27, of the Light Dragoons.

He lost his lower right leg to a rocket-propelled grenade when his armoured reconnaissance vehicle was engaged by the Taliban during Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand in July.

He now divides his time between his family home in the West Country and DMRC Headley Court.

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Guy is my middle child, one of three boys who all grew up in the countryside. He was an active boy, always out climbing trees and playing with our dogs. After a few seasons of amateur steeplechasing he graduated from the Royal Agricultural College and applied to join the Army.

I was so proud – it was a wonderful moment when he passed out from Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Light Dragoons. Army life was something he relished.

Guy

Guy called me one Sunday morning from Afghanistan. His news was a shock. He simply said: ‘Mum, I have lost my leg but I am fine.’ He could have asked someone else to make the call on his behalf but he wanted to reassure us that he was all right.

Guy was looked after brilliantly at the medical centre at Camp Bastion, on the flight home and at Selly Oak Hospital. We saw him on the ward just after he had arrived, tired but in amazing spirits. My overriding emotion then and now is not of sorrow but of gratitude; I have my son and many mothers who have lost their child would willingly trade places.

There are many ‘what ifs’ which saved his life. What if the trooper had not been so quick with the tourniquet when he was injured on the battlefield; what if the medical team had not been so skilled…it goes on and on.

One young soldier was killed in the same attack that saw Guy have his leg amputated. His mother is often in my thoughts. I know she is as proud of her son’s courage as I am of mine.

Guy has managed many firsts in the past few weeks: driving a car, riding his old pony and helping raise awareness of Army charities. 

Our local community has rallied around and Guy has received help and support from often unexpected quarters. In return we have undertaken some fundraising for Help for Heroes and the Light Dragoons Charitable Trust.

Guy is helping to organise a charity ball at Cheltenham Racecourse on Saturday 13 February 2010 in support of the Army Benevolent Fund, the Light Dragoons Charitable Trust and the Mark Evison Foundation. For more information and tickets, call 01242 513014


 


SALLY VECK, 44, is the mother of Private Eleanor Dlugosz, a combat medic in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

She was just 19 when she was killed in Basra in April 2007 when a roadside bomb destroyed the Warrior armoured vehicle in which she was travelling.

She is one of four female military personnel to have died on operations in Iraq.

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When Eleanor told me she wanted to enlist, I warned her she would have to go to Iraq. She said, ‘Mum, I can’t wait.’ She had her whole life ahead of her and she wanted to pack in as much as she could.

She was not the kind of girl who could bear lying in bed, she was always busy with horses, dogs, school and music and the Young Farmers and all the rest. The Army was an extension of that busy young life.

I was proud to see her join up. I placed complete faith in the people who trained her, the people in charge of her. I saw her as part of a team, not as an individual. The entire time she was away in Iraq I would not let myself watch the news.

There was so much bad news I thought, ‘Why torture yourself any more than you need to?’ I decided that if ever I had to hear anything, I would. 

Eleanor

I was working nights as a hotel receptionist and I was in bed asleep at my parents’ home in Hampshire. It was teatime. Mum came and woke me. ‘People are here from the Army to see you about Eleanor,’ she said.

I put on my dressing gown and went downstairs. I didn’t even guess she had been hurt. I thought she had done something wonderful and they had come to tell me. When they told me what had happened I started screaming.

It is still very raw. I miss my daughter every day and it has not got easier with the passage of time. Eleanor used to say to me, ‘Mum, if I die in Iraq, you’ll be all right.’ But I am not. 

I don’t feel as if her life has been stolen. She was doing exactly what she wanted to do. But she was just 19 and now it is all at an end for her. As for the rest of her family, as my father, Eleanor’s grandfather says, we will live beneath a long shadow until the day we die too.


 

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