A nation pays attention when a soldier dies

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Photo credit: Thomas Edmondston-Low

When news of my brother’s death was broken to my family in late October 2012, I was startled by the warmth and outpouring of sympathy across the UK that my parents and I received, as well as by the respects paid to my brother and the Lance Corporal who died alongside him. Handwritten notes by the thousands came to us through our letterbox extending condolences to our family. We received flowers from strangers.

Then there was the show of solidarity that prompted us to break down as we considered the large numbers of people who travelled from across the UK to honour two men they did not know and had never met.

I’d seen images on TV showing the crowds who turned up to pay their respects to dead British soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq as they were repatriated. These pictures do not do justice to the scale of public attendance.

As we were driven to join the throngs of people gathered at Carterton where we would eventually meet DB — as he was known to many — and his colleague, men and women lined up outside their houses on the road leading to the town centre where the main crowd was congregated.

I remember one senior gentleman in particular supporting himself with two sticks, one in each hand, standing on a verge by the side of the road. He was dressed in his military regalia with an earth green beret and stood motionless with his head bowed as he noticed our car approaching from a distance till long after we passed him.

We received a similar reception as we arrived at DB’s funeral. Travelling through the ordinarily pedestrianised precinct in the centre of a Cathedral town, people stood aside, bowed their heads or saluted DB in his coffin. A friend and soldier colleague of DB who attended the service came to find me afterwards telling me that a veteran had stopped her in the street, giving her fifty pounds and asking her to give it to the family or a cause nominated for donations. It was a gift given anonymously and without requiring thanks. It was truly humbling.

As for many other families who know someone who has served or is serving in a military campaign, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety that builds as the date of deployment grows closer.

This unease made me increasingly sensitive to the politics and events around what was happening in Afghanistan, particularly throughout 2012.

The escalation of green on blue attacks that accounted for less than 1% of coalition deaths in 2008 grew in intensity to 15% by 2012, more than twice the percentage compared to the year before. Public support in the UK for British forces involvement that started faltering approximately five weeks into the conflict was reported as collapsing. DB and others I spoke to, at least on the face of it, seemed unperturbed by the insider danger or of serving in an unpopular war. They had a job to do.

As news and analysis about the fatalities and the correlated public response to British presence in Afghanistan was reported, I equated lack of support for the war with lack of support for our troops. I could not have been more wrong.

Recently I learned that the repatriation of soldiers killed overseas only became common practice in the UK from 1982. The marking of their return at Wootton Bassett was a modern tradition started in 2007 when local community members came to pay their respects by the road as repatriated soldiers in their hearses were diverted through their village due to a temporary change in route.

This simple gesture tapped into wider public sentiment and attendance grew, first organically then exponentially as the custom hit the spotlight both nationally and internationally. From September 2012, this custom moved to Carterton.

The establishment of the public repatriation has of course had growing pains and attracted its share of political cynicism. Some have argued that the custom has allowed the military to re-engage with the public after the negative response to the British role in Iraq and increase support for British presence in Afghanistan. Others have suggested that the military has allowed emotion and sentimentality to enter the public debate around the nation’s role in conflict; that the funeral cortege with its display of the Union Jack and the laying of flowers on hearses as they pause then pass, encourages voyeurism.

Despite these background and foreground discussions, people for the most part have attended repatriations in Wootton Bassett and Carterton or sent messages in absentia primarily to honour and pay respects to those who have died.

The centenary marking the start of World War I and the seventieth anniversary of the D Day Landings commemorating those who fought for us have been in recent thoughts. Our family knows it is unlikely that DB and others like him, deployed to Afghanistan, will be remembered in the public consciousness in the same manner.

The marking of DB’s repatriation showed us however that despite the public unease towards the war that he died in, there’s still respect for troops and that they serve. For our family, this simple, solemn act of community acknowledgement has provided tremendous comfort and support, both then and now. We thank you for it.

 

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