This Remembrance Sunday, I will be going to Woodthorpe Park, near our home in Nottingham, to stand in front of the plaque that the local council put up there in memory of my husband, the father of my five daughters, Senior Aircraftman Gary Thompson, who was killed on 13 April 2008 when his vehicle was struck by an anti-tank mine in the Daman District of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
And I’ll do what I always do – lay a wreath and keep the two minutes’ silence on my own. Sometimes I notice other people out of the corner of my eye, but they seem to know to give me space to remember.
When we were first married and our girls were small, Gary and I would go up with them on Remembrance Sunday to the little cenotaph at nearby Mapperley Top and keep the silence. On the way home, he would take all five of them into the local shop and buy them chocolate.
Remembrance was always very important to Gary, both on the Sunday as a family, and on November 11 when, whether he was at work or on site at his small engineering company, he would always stop everything for two minutes. As a 17-year-old he had joined the forces, but he left after five years. He said that he wasn’t getting the sense of adventure he had craved, but he never quite got it out of his system. So when, in 2005, he became a reservist in the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment at RAF Cottesmore, I understood.
“Why did Dad go to Afghanistan?”, one of my daughters asked. “Mid-life crisis,” replied another. There may even be an element of truth in that. I used to joke with him, when he joined the reservists, that he was being Captain Mainwaring in a dads’ army because Gary was in his late 40s. When he died he was 51, and the oldest serviceman to die in Afghanistan. He’d hate to be described like that. You should have heard him when he turned 50. He wasn’t happy at all. I told him to think about himself as two 25-year-olds rolled into one.
Gary was so full of life and full of fun. He couldn’t have fitted more in to a day: he was captain of the local rugby club; he played football; he had his business; and as soon as he came into the house, he was ours. He always had a cuddle for me and his children when he walked in through the door.
Afghanistan was his first deployment. I think he knew it was coming, but it never crossed my mind that he might be sent out there. I thought reservists were for shortages on home ground, so I didn’t even ask if it was a possibility. When he told the girls, they said to him, “but you’ll be safe?” “Yes,” he replied, “I’ve got an office job.” I knew then from the look in his eyes it wasn’t true. He was going to be on the front-line.
One thing I have learnt since Gary’s death is that I can’t look back and want to change things. If I keep thinking, “why didn’t I tell him not to go?”, then I will drive myself crazy. And it was what he wanted to do. If you love someone, and I really loved Gary, you let them do what they want to do.
It was an RAF officer from his base and the chaplain who came to the house to tell me he had been killed. There was no warning phone call, which was probably for the best. All I can remember is them being so incredibly polite and friendly as my whole world started to collapse. Everything slowed down. I could hear the news, but not take in what was happening.
Our two youngest, Kelly and Jade, were 16 and 17 and still at home. Jordan, 19, and Amy, 21, were at university, and Laurie had her own home. The officer came with me to tell them the news. And to Gary’s mum and dad, even though by then it was three in the morning. I didn’t want to keep the news from them, and I wanted to be there, but I couldn’t say the words. He had to say them for me.
What followed was unimaginable grief. I can’t begin to describe the mental and physical anguish we all went through in the first few months. But, as Remembrance Day approaches and I reflect once more on the most heartbreaking time of my life, I also find myself thinking about those who helped us through the most difficult of circumstances.
We had a Visiting Officer who liaised between the RAF and us. At first I must admit I felt slightly resentful of this stranger coming into my home. It was such a fragile time and his presence felt very uncomfortable. I only wanted Gary. But the Visiting Officer was so patient. He answered our questions about exactly what had happened and what would happen next, no matter how many times each of us asked the same thing, in a clear strong voice. That may sound a bit odd, but for those first few weeks when the girls and I were struggling to store information, he provided us with clarity. I think I was in a bit of a trance. And he was with us every step of the way, right up to the inquest into Gary’s death.
One of my biggest fears, when I heard the news, was that, because I wasn’t a military wife, I wouldn’t get the support. Gary was a reservist and I had had no involvement with the RAF, except to moan when he’d come back with a big bag of washing from his reservists’ weekends. The RAF, though, has been amazing to us.
The biggest help to me in coping with Gary’s death has been the girls. I knew that I couldn’t go to pieces because they needed me to be strong for them. All the things their dad had dealt with for them, I now would deal with. And I wanted them to be able to talk to me without worrying about upsetting me, because I couldn’t be upset any more than I was.
It was what Gary would have wanted. I reassured them that having a good laugh about all the happy times with him was as good as having a good cry about him not being with us. I didn’t want them ever to be afraid to laugh.
And they have done so well. It was just three weeks after Gary died that Kelly had to sit her GCSEs and she did him proud by passing them all. And Jordan and Amy had to go back to university and get on with their studies, knowing that he wouldn’t be there to see them graduate. And for me, life has had to go on too. I kept his company going for three years because that is what I thought he would want me to do, though it was so hard without him, but finally the time came when it felt right to sell it. And it felt like saying goodbye all over again.
Since losing Gary, Remembrance Sunday has become a very emotional and important time to us all. I think about Gary every day, but this is when I think especially of all the others, of the sacrifices paid, the lives lost, the grandchildren they will never know. Gary has three now, aged 5, 3 and eight months – all who only know their lovely Grandad through the photographs we show and family stories we tell.
For the first few years we always all spent this day together, but I had a sense the girls were doing it for me, and that I was making it difficult for them. So now I have learned to leave each of them to do their own thing. If one of them wants to come with me this year on November 11, when I will lay a wreath at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, then they will. And the same on Remembrance Sunday if they want to join me in Woodthorpe Park.
During the two minutes’ silence, I will remember all the times I held his hand in front of Mapperley Top Cenotaph, with the girls around us, and I am just so incredibly proud of Gary, of the type of man he was, willing to make that sacrifice, pay the ultimate price. It is, for me, a bitter-sweet time. It doesn’t seem right to say that I feel happy. Gary has been taken away from us and in that moment our family changed for ever. But in those two minutes, his sacrifice and the sacrifice of so many others who have fallen is visible; we can honour their memory and nobody can forget what they have done for us all.
Jacqui Thompson was talking to Peter Stanford