Page last updated at 23:39 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 00:39 UK

Emotions as UK honours Iraq force

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Bridie Spicer describes the loss of her son: "The pain in my stomach was unbearable"

Members of the Royal Family are due to attend a service later to mark the end of UK combat operations in Iraq and honour the 179 UK military and civilian personnel who died there.

Although senior armed forces officers and politicians are due to attend, the focus of the ceremony will be on the veterans and bereaved families making up the majority of the expected 2,500-strong congregation.

Some of those affected by the six-year conflict spoke to BBC News about how it affected them, and the importance of remembrance.

THE GRIEVING MOTHER

During the service at St Paul's Cathedral, Tracey Hazel is due to light a candle in memory of those who died during Operation Telic in Iraq.

Like most military mothers when they hear the knock at the door, Tracey Hazel instinctively knew it was bad news.

But having two sons in Iraq only doubled the agony.

Cpl Ben Leaning
Ben's brother Luke was in the same convoy when he was killed

"It was awful. They didn't need to tell me one had gone but I didn't know which son it was," she recalls.

"I didn't want it to be either of them and it took a long time before I let them tell me."

A week later Miss Hazel, 41, from Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, watched her 19-year-old son Luke accompany a coffin bearing his brother Ben as it was carried off an aircraft at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

Cpl Ben Leaning, 24, was killed in 2007 alongside another soldier - Trooper Kristen Turton, from Grimsby - after their Scimitar tank was blown up by a roadside bomb. Brother Luke had been in the same convoy.

"Army barmy" since he was a teenaged cadet, Ben had signed up after leaving school at 16, and died whilst on his second tour of Iraq with the Queen's Royal Lancers.

Keen to take the place of someone who had children, Ben had already volunteered to go straight to Afghanistan when his tour ended.

Losing her son was the "worst pain ever", for Miss Hazel, who nonetheless counts herself lucky to remember his smiling face every time she shuts her eyes.

"All I've got left of Ben is the memory," she says.

She recounted how life since his death has been "terrible". After losing her son she suffered a nervous breakdown which led to weeks spent recovering in hospital.

Pride at seeing Luke's Iraq medal parade was tempered by knowing Ben should have been there too, while a previous remembrance service at York Minster proved too much to deal with.

But Miss Hazel feels she is "turning the corner" and hopes the St Paul's event will help.

"The whole nation will realise that real people have lost their lives and they are not just numbers," she says.

Miss Hazel hopes her small act of lighting a candle provides some comfort to the other 178 grieving families but, as always, there will be only one person on her mind.

THE RAF NURSE

Flt Sgt Ann Carter knows the horrors of war better than most.

During three tours of Iraq, the 41-year-old repeatedly flew to the aid of stricken soldiers - some with gunshot wounds, others with multiple injuries from bomb blasts.

Awarded an MBE last year, Flt Sgt Carter now passes on her experience by writing guidance notes for the Princess Mary's RAF Nursing Service to use in conflict zones.

Generic image of RAF helicopter
For each person killed in a blast there's probably three or four who are injured and they deserve the recognition as well
Flt Sgt Ann Carter

But for much of the decade she interspersed working alongside civilian casualty nurses at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital with six-month spells spent near the front line in Iraq.

While the medical work was essentially the same, dealing with soldiers provoked different emotions.

"You don't treat the patients any differently, but because they are wearing the same uniform you can relate to them a lot more," she explains.

"It's like a massive extended family when you're out there, even if you've never seen them before.

"When there's only three of you in the back of a helicopter and you have four casualties, you just need to do the best you can within the limited time, space and equipment."

Fear, she says, rarely entered her mind. Often, such concentration on the job was required that only on return to base did the team realise their Puma or Merlin helicopter had come under fire.

On one occasion, her crew braved a fire fight to treat four casualties en route to a field hospital, only to be told it was too dangerous for them to return to collect a fifth. He later died from his gunshot wound.

"It was very hard. Sitting there, helicopter rotor running and wanting to get out to him, only to be told there's nothing you can do."

When she performs a reading at the service, she hopes it will help the nation recognise not just those who failed to return from Iraq, but also those wounded there.

"In a roadside bomb blast, for each person killed there's probably three or four who are injured and they deserve the recognition as well," she says.

"It will help give them some closure."

THE INJURED VETERAN

One veteran who will not be attending the service is Mark Dryden, from Berwick in Northumberland.

In 2005, as a 29-year-old Lance Corporal, he lost his lower right arm and suffered serious injuries to his left when the Land Rover he was driving was hit by two roadside bomb explosions.

"Since my injuries I've never attended a remembrance service, I've never worn my medals and I feel a bit embarrassed about myself," he says.

Mark Dryden: "The explosion went off and I knew then that I'd lost my arm"

His passenger Sgt John Jones was killed by the blasts, which struck as they progressed cautiously along an unusually quiet main road - sensing something was amiss.

"There's times I still blame myself for John's death. It would be heartbreaking [to attend the service]," he says.

Mr Dryden says his treatment by medics in the field, and later at Birmingham's Selly Oak Hospital, was "brilliant".

But after being forced to rely on round-the-clock care from his mother, during a seven-month wait for rehabilitation, he felt "abandoned" by the army.

"I don't believe they knew how to treat my mental injuries," he adds, admitting that post-traumatic stress disorder made him an awkward patient when he was eventually treated.

Initially he was ashamed to let people see his severed arm, wearing long sleeves to disguise his injuries, until his sister ripped a coat from him in a pub and told him: "You've nothing to be ashamed about".

Though critical of the army in the past, he recognises the help it gave him as he prepared for civilian life by embarking on football coaching courses.

He now trains youngsters at Berwick Rangers, studies psychology and sports science at Northumbria University and feels more confident about his future.

Despite still facing long road to full recovery, Mr Dryden is not bitter.

"If I could turn back the clock, I wouldn't change a thing," he says.

He adds he did not stand in the way of his son when he joined the army.

Mr Dryden has questioned the reasoning behind the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts but says such debate is irrelevant when it comes to events like the St Paul's service.

"People have fought and died for the country so people can have their freedom. Others should stop and remember," he says.



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