I married a soldier

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Subhead: Brenda Hale poured her grief into helping other bereaved war widows and their families 

Michelle Newman

On August 13, 2009 Brenda Hale’s worst nightmare came true when she found out her husband Mark, a soldier in the British Army, had died. Here in her own words, former MLA Brenda describes what life as an army wife was like and why she ventured into politics to fight for the rights of others like her. 

I met Mark when I was 16 at a disco in my hometown of Bangor in Co Down. I was 19 when we got married and had no idea what I was getting into, I just knew that I loved him and that I had to be with him. I think my heart and my hormones won over my head. 

We had been together for two and a half years by then, but the actual time we’d spent together was five and a half months. We were both prolific writers, writing six or seven times a week, so I suppose our courtship was curtesy of Royal Mail. 

In the years that followed we had two girls, Victoria and Alexandra. When Mark was away working I kept busy. I would always have something to do at least once a week, I’d go visit a friend or family would come to visit me. I got part-time jobs that fitted in with the school hours to pass the time. 

The army or being married to a soldier, is a lot of time spent on your own but you learn to become self-sufficient and I became very close to the other army wives.  

Mark was a veteran of many tours, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq but when I heard the regiment were going to Afghanistan, which would have been Christmas 2007, I went into a state of emotional alert.I tried to tell myself this was the same as any other tour, but there was just something in the back of my head, niggling away. 

We were very lucky because while he was in Afghanistan Mark was able to email every day. His job was meant to be desk bound but that didn’t necessarily mean he stayed behind his desk. On the morning he was killed I got up to check my emails but there was no email, so I checked the news and there was nothing on there either. 

I had come to learn over the period of that tour that when there was nothing on the news and when there was no email, it meant there had been an incident. The Ministry of Defence would shut down all communications until the family had been informed through the proper channels. 

After dropping the girls to summer school it was about midday when I came home. There was still nothing from Mark so I sent him an email and said, “Sweetie, still no word from you. I hope you’re okay. Email me as soon as you get this. I love you so much.”I had literally just pushed send when there was a knock at the front door. I knew what that knock was and who was going to be there, because the army send notification officers to your door. 

Mark was the longest serving solder to be killed in Afghanistan, he had given 26 years of service, a professional, well-trained soldier. An IED [improvised explosive device]blast went off and Mark saved two of his men but was killed retrieving the third soldier. 

For me, I married a soldier, I knew what I was letting myself in for but my daughters didn’t.  

It’s instant and there isn’t a chance to say goodbye or prepare yourself for the death because he was just snatched away. It still hurts so much because we were such a tight family unit and we know that he loved us as much as we loved him.

Before the men deploy they have to do a will. Mark did his when he went to Iraq in 2006 but he hadn’t updated it because our circumstances hadn’t changed. 

The Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) came around the next day for me to sign his insurance form and they said, “As Mark didn’t do a will, this is going into probate,” and I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course Mark did a will,” but they were adamant that he didn’t. I had friends who were senior officers within the legal core in the army who found that the army had lost the wills of other soldiers who were currently deployed.How that affected me was that they stopped Mark’s wages and I was left with no money coming in. 

I then had to start fighting the army and money started dribbling through as I went through each army department. Friends lent me money as well and had to help me pay my mortgage. 

My youngest was at prep school at the time and an army charity called ABF The Soldier’s Charity, offered to pay Alexandra’s school fees for the last three years so that she could stay in the school where her friends and teachers were.

The girls needed to see me in control and while outwardly I may have been in control, inwardly I was spinning into the abyss. I was drowning and the only person who could save me was Mark and he wasn’t there.

It took 18 months for Mark’s insurance to be sorted out completely. I had been married for 22 years so I knew the system and I knew how to make the right phone calls. My local MP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson arranged a personal meeting with the Secretary for Defence, Bob Ainsworth.When I met him in London I told him, “This is what’s wrong, this is what happens and you need to fix this because our guys are still at war and the bereaved families are not being looked after.”

It’s incredibly insulting and that system needed to be challenged and changed, that’s what pushed me to become involved with politics. I was elected in May 2011 as a Member of the Legislative Assembly for Lagan Valley in Northern Ireland and I was re-elected again in May 2016 but I lost my seat in the snap election in March this year. In the same way that Mark walked into the bomb to rescue his soldiers, I used my parliamentary platform to access ministers, meetings and civil servants. 

I went to the White House and I spoke to [then] President Obama’s staff about it, anywhere I could to raise the issue that army families don’t want millions of pounds of compensation. Should the worst happen, they just want to be able to continue to live their lives at the same level, to pay their bills and to keep a roof over their heads.

My biggest achievement was in June 2017 when Theresa May opened parliament for this new term and mentioned that the Military Covenant – meaning soldiers and their families will be sustained and rewarded in the event of an accident - would be recgonised United Kingdom wide, because I had been fighting for that in Northern Ireland. It’s not the magic wand but it gives us something else to work with. 

Both Victoria and Alexandra are incredibly self-confident and Mark would be incredibly proud of them, as I am. They’re trying to forge their life and to live as honourably as their dad lived his and with integrity.

For me, this is the first time I’ve been able to stop and think, because I got elected so soon after Mark died. I’m going to take a little time to reflect and I suppose grieve Mark properly, because I didn’t get to do that immediately.

 

I Married a Soldier by Brenda Hale (Lion Hudson, €11 approx) which is out now  

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Nadine Reid