The mother of a Northern Ireland based Army officer killed in Afghanistan has given his comrades the ultimate gift in memory of her son.
Lieutenant Paul Mervis (27) died in one of the bloodiest tours of duty in Helmand Province.
Since his death, heartbroken Londoner Margaret Mervis has channelled her grief into helping the men with whom he stood on the front line — lending the Army her South African holiday home for rehabilitation purposes.
Some 15 soldiers from Ballykinler-based 2nd battalion The Rifles suffered life-changing injuries during a six-month deployment to Helmand Province last year.
Three came home as triple amputees while many lost one or two limbs. A total of 13 men never returned to Abercorn Barracks.
Now almost a year later, most of these seriously injured soldiers have been rebuilt, rehabilitated and thanks to Mrs Mervis, are making their first tentative moves back into the real world.
“One of his features was that he cared very deeply about his men and they were very enthusiastic about him,” Mrs Mervis said.
“I knew that he would be absolutely behind the project. We have a place in Cape Town and South Africa is such a wonderful place. The idea was to give them the opportunity to see that although their life has changed, it’s still possible to have a lot of fun.
“For many of the soldiers the South African excursion was the first time they have left the rehabilitation hospital for any significant length of time.
Rifleman Chris Howard (21), lost his right leg and three-and-half fingers after stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) on a stairwell while clearing a building in Sangin. He spent nine weeks in hospital and is still being treated in England.
“Life won’t be the same ever again but it was good to see what you can do. I am already booking another holiday on the back of it,” he said. “I couldn’t say how much this has helped me.”
Lieutenant James Ammore (25) suffered massive injuries after walking over an IED. He said: “For me it was great fun. For the riflemen, some of whom had lost legs, it was a chance to get away from the rehab and also to re-integrate into going out and having a good time.”
Rifleman Vikrant Gurung (25), lost his right leg below the knee in Helmand Province last August.
He said: “You have ups and downs but it’s fine. It’s good to know you can still do things.”
The Paul Mervis initiative has been hailed such a success it is expected to be rolled out for the whole of The Rifles’ battalion.
Said Mrs Mervis: “Their spirit and determination is just humbling and amazing.”