‘Af­ter Mark’s death, I went into the abyss’

As we re­mem­ber the fallen to­mor­row, Brenda Hale tells Rosa Sil­ver­man why we must never for­get those left be­hind

The Daily Telegraph - - News review features -

Brenda Hale’s hus­band was no bat­tle­field novice. Cap­tain Mark Hale had served with the Bri­tish Army in Kosovo, Bos­nia, the Falk­lands and Iraq, and com­pleted six tours of North­ern Ire­land. But in March 2009, when the fa­ther-of-two was de­ployed to Afghanistan, both he and his wife knew this time would be dif­fer­ent.

At first, things ticked along as usual. Brenda and her daugh­ters, Vic­to­ria and Alexan­dra, then 16 and seven, had grown used to Mark’s long ab­sences from the fam­ily home in North­ern Ire­land. Brenda had long known the highs and lows of life as an Army wife: the empty space on Mark’s side of the bed; the aching long­ing for the man she loved; the ec­static joy of their re­union each time he safely re­turned.

For more than four months af­ter ar­riv­ing in Hel­mand Prov­ince, Capt Hale emailed morn­ing and night, and phoned twice-weekly. But by Au­gust, the Afghan pres­i­den­tial elec­tions were loom­ing and the num­ber of Bri­tish ca­su­al­ties was mount­ing. July had seen 22 Bri­tish ser­vice per­son­nel killed, mak­ing it the worst month for this coun­try’s losses since op­er­a­tions be­gan in 2001.

On Au­gust 12, when Capt Hale – who, as Bat­tle Group Lo­gis­tics Of­fi­cer, was the­o­ret­i­cally desk-bound – called home, Brenda begged him to stay at Camp, given the dan­gers out­side. “He laughed and said: ‘Stay­ing in is bor­ing’,” she re­calls. Next morn­ing, she checked for his daily email, to find noth­ing.

We’re sit­ting at the kitchen table at her house in Hills­bor­ough, County Down, where, through tears, the 49-year-old re­counts the most pain­ful day of her life, with an emo­tion hardly blunted by the pass­ing of the years. Her story is a stark re­minder ahead of Re­mem­brance Sun­day of the un­sung heroes and hero­ines left be­hind by war: the fam­i­lies of those who give their lives for their coun­try; wives, chil­dren and par­ents who carry their suf­fer­ing for decades af­ter their hus­bands, fathers or sons fall.

“I dropped off my girls and came home,” says Brenda. “I checked my mes­sages and still noth­ing. I started to feel ill. Bile was ris­ing from my stom­ach to my throat. I sent Mark an email say­ing: ‘Sweetie, still no word from you. I’m re­ally wor­ried. I hope ev­ery­thing is OK. I love you.’ No sooner had I hit send when my front door was rapped and I started to shake. I knew who it was.”

A man and woman stood on the doorstep, and the man flashed his Army ID. “I closed the door be­cause I knew they were com­ing to tell me he was hurt,” she says. “And you’re shak­ing and in some sort of trance where you hope with all your heart this is a dream.”

Re­luc­tantly, she ad­mit­ted them to de­liver the words she had dreaded: “Capt Mark Hale this morn­ing died of his in­juries in Camp Bas­tion.” She later learned he had been caught in an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice blast while help­ing an in­jured sol­dier to safety dur­ing a pa­trol near San­gin. Af­ter 26 years in the Army and aged 42, he was the long­est-serv­ing Bri­tish sol­dier killed in Afghanistan.

Brenda reg­is­tered the news with a vi­o­lent phys­i­cal re­sponse. “I didn’t cry or scream, but my teeth started to chat­ter and didn’t stop chat­ter­ing for 18 months. I was in com­plete shock and ab­so­lute de­nial, with pain like you can­not imag­ine. I was go­ing to have to tell my chil­dren their daddy wasn’t com­ing home and be re­spon­si­ble for their pain and grief when I couldn’t even cope with my own.”

This was no less har­row­ing than she’d an­tic­i­pated. “Not my daddy!” screamed Vic­to­ria. “It should be me! Just bring Daddy back.”

Alexan­dra, too young to know about her fa­ther’s job, re­sponded with the heart­break­ing in­no­cence of an un­com­pre­hend­ing child. “How can I show him my new shoes?” she asked, be­wil­dered.

It was a shat­ter­ing cli­max to the re­la­tion­ship Brenda had started with the tall, dark and hand­some sol­dier from Dorset she’d met at a disco in Ban­gor, Co Down, at the age of 16. This be­ing North­ern Ire­land in 1985, when the Trou­bles were rag­ing, dat­ing a Bri­tish squad­die was fraught with peril, and Brenda’s par­ents were anx­ious. “[The IRA] bombed dis­cos and other places sol­diers went to, so it just wasn’t a safe place any par­ent would want their daugh­ter,” she says.

But such risks were of lit­tle con­cern to Brenda. “I just needed to be with Mark. We needed to be to­gether and to do what­ever it took.”

Two years of let­ter-writ­ing fol­lowed, as Mark was posted to Ber­lin. By 19, Brenda had turned down a uni­ver­sity place and mar­ried her sol­dier, and be­fore long the pair had bought their first home, in Poole. Then, the lone­li­ness set in.

“We were only mar­ried a few days and he went to the Falk­lands for three months,” she re­calls. “When we moved into our flat, he had an­other six-month tour of North­ern Ire­land and I was left on my own. But this was the life I needed to live to be with Mark. I mar­ried that sol­dier, and there was no way I was ever go­ing to ask him to leave the Army. By that stage, he had started to progress through the ranks and we both re­ally en­joyed Army life.”

Two decades later and newly be­reaved, her good­will was to ebb away. Mark’s will, it tran­spired, had been lost when his pre­vi­ous reg­i­ment had amal­ga­mated to be­come the Ri­fles, mean­ing his wife had to go through pro­bate to even­tu­ally re­ceive her due. Mean­while, the fam­ily was left with lit­tle money and strug­gling to cope.

“Mark’s wage stopped im­me­di­ately, and I had a mort­gage pay­ment due and needed food,” says Brenda. “Ev­ery­body thinks you’re go­ing to be looked af­ter, but the deaths in Afghanistan were go­ing up and the sys­tem was in­un­dated. There were holes in it, and I fell through ev­ery one. Mark did ev­ery­thing we ask of our sol­diers, be­liev­ing that if any­thing hap­pened I would be looked af­ter. I went spin­ning into the abyss with my daugh­ters, un­able to mourn or grieve be­cause my ini­tial con­cern be­came: ‘I have bills to pay’.”

She was ad­vised to ap­ply to var­i­ous char­i­ties for heat­ing oil, and was told an Ir­ish char­ity would fur­nish her daugh­ters with shoes.

“I thought, ‘Where’s the dig­nity? Where are the politi­cians who stand at the Ceno­taph wear­ing their pop­pies on Re­mem­brance Sun­day, lay­ing wreaths in front of the cam­eras?’ There was no one.”

The Mil­i­tary Covenant, which en­ti­tles for­mer mem­bers of the Armed Forces to some pri­or­ity med­i­cal treat­ment, plus as­sis­tance with hous­ing and school places for chil­dren, was of no use to her: it does not ex­tend to North­ern Ire­land,

‘I went spin­ning into the abyss, un­able to mourn or grieve’

where Sinn Féin, the sec­ond largest party in the North­ern Ire­land Assem­bly, has in­di­cated it would op­pose any pol­icy that pri­ori­tised mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

Spurred on by a de­sire to im­prove the lot of North­ern Ir­ish fam­i­lies such as hers, whose rel­a­tives die fight­ing for the Bri­tish Army, Brenda en­tered pol­i­tics, serv­ing as the DUP’S mem­ber of the Leg­isla­tive Assem­bly for La­gan Val­ley from 2011 un­til her de­feat in Assem­bly elec­tions in March this year. In this role, she be­came a per­sis­tent ad­vo­cate for the fair treat­ment of ser­vice fam­i­lies, tak­ing her con­cerns to Lon­don.

“West­min­ster is the only par­lia­ment with author­ity to ac­tively de­ploy our troops and so should look af­ter them no mat­ter where they’re based in the UK,” she says.

There has been some progress, she be­lieves. The Queen’s speech in June men­tioned “de­liv­er­ing on the Armed Forces Covenant across the United King­dom”. The DUP, upon whose votes the Gov­ern­ment now re­lies, say the last four words were in­cluded at their be­hest.

But more un­der­stand­ing – and fund­ing – is needed, says Brenda, whose mov­ing mem­oir I Mar­ried a Sol­dier was pub­lished this sum­mer. “My­self and my girls and all the sol­diers with life-chang­ing in­juries are col­lat­eral dam­age,” she says. “If we can’t af­ford to look af­ter them, then we can’t af­ford to go to war.”

Fight­ing: af­ter Cap­tain Mark Hale, left, was killed, Brenda, above, had to fight to get her fam­ily sup­port

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