Belfast Telegraph

Queen leads service to honour Iraq and Afghanistan service efforts

The service and sacrifice of British military and civilians who worked to bring peace and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan has been honoured with a national memorial commemorating their efforts.

The Queen led the nation in praising the dedication and contribution of the hundreds of thousands of people who fought in the two Middle East nations or were involved in humanitarian work, but the presence of Tony Blair angered some of the bereaved.

The former prime minister was criticised by guests who said his ticket could have gone to a bereaved parent.

Tracey Hazel, from Northumberland, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007, said about the conflict: "It wasn't worthwhile. It achieves nothing, and it also ended my son's dad's life, which made me more angry."

Her son Corporal Ben Leaning, 24, of the Queen's Royal Lancers Battle Group, died alongside Trooper Kristen Turton when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.

Ms Hazel, 50, said about Mr Blair's presence at the ceremony: "I honestly think somebody else should have had his ticket, like one of the parents.''

At Horse Guards Parade in central London, the Queen was joined by 2,500 guests including senior royals, PM Theresa May and other senior politicians for a poignant military Drumhead ceremony.

In a foreword to the event's official programme, the monarch recognised the efforts of civilians and the military in UK operations in the Gulf region, Iraq and Afghanistan between 1990 and 2015.

She added: "It is with pride that we honour the contribution of all those members of the armed forces and civilians who served our country - at home and abroad - while endeavouring to bring peace and stability to Iraq and Afghanistan."

But the event has been tainted for some bereaved relatives angry at not receiving an invite or being made aware it was happening.

Mrs May had been urged by Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron on Wednesday in the Commons to apologise for what he described as a "careless oversight" that at the time could have meant the families of those killed missing the ceremony.

She told Parliament no-one from the "bereaved community" had been turned away, adding that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) would make every effort to ensure relatives who wanted to attend were able to do so.

Widow Wendy Rayner said the offer was "too little, too late".

The 45-year-old, from Bradford, whose husband Sergeant Peter Rayner was killed during a routine patrol in Afghanistan in 2010, said she would not be able to make the three-hour journey at such short notice.

She said: "I think it is cheeky to turn round and say 'Oh well, you can come now'. I'm sorry but it's too little, too late. They should have just apologised."

Victoria Bateman, from Colchester, attended having answered an email from the Army Widows' Association, but described the belated invitation to other bereaved families as "a bit of a slap in the face".

Mrs Bateman, whose husband Lance Corporal James Bateman was killed in Afghanistan in 2008, said: "People have children, responsibilities, jobs. Many can't just go with so little notice."

Also watching the Drumhead service was former prime ministers Sir John Major and David Cameron, along with other senior ministers.

Senior members of the Royal Family were also present, including the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

The Queen, joined by Philip, unveiled the Iraq and Afghanistan memorial created by sculptor Paul Day at a separate smaller ceremony at Victoria Embankment Gardens, watched by guests including Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon.

Mr Day said the Queen seemed ''very enthusiastic'' about the memorial when he pointed out its features - a double-sided round bronze sculpture flanked by two enormous stone monoliths.

One side of the bronze had a military scene while the other showed images of humanitarian work or everyday life.

But he said Philip questioned the words on the two stone blocks like Duty and Service, saying they could be made darker.

He said: ''The Duke commented on the fact that the lettering wasn't necessarily clearly visible enough, it could be darker. Well that's an aesthetic decision that we might re-address afterwards.''

The artist went on to say: ''I'm not sure, I quite like the subtlety of the lettering with just the natural light casting shadow.''

There was a lighter moment to the day when b efore leaving the site the Queen received a posy from the Lunn family - Sergeant Mark Lunn, 29, who was awarded the Military Cross for his actions during a fire-fight in Basra, his wife Corporal Michelle Lunn, 26, and their two-year-old son Alfie.

Despite the toddler squirming in his mother's arms and trying to grab the flowers held by the Queen, the monarch remained relaxed and smiling.

Mrs Lunn said later: ''They're so unpredictable children, we tried our best. He was fine up until a few minutes before the Queen arrived."

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