Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

As soldier after soldier dies we still ask: why?

It seems a long way from Afghanistan to Northern Ireland, but the funeral of the Gurkha officer Lieutenant Neal Turkington in Portadown this week brought home the brutality of that distant conflict which ,in this global village, is also on our doorstep.

Neal Turkington was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade launched by an Afghan. The assailant, a previously trusted colleague, was claimed to have been working for the Taliban.

Lieutenant Turkington was, by all accounts, an outstanding officer and a talented young man. A moving tribute was made at his funeral by Bishop David Chillingworth, the Ulsterman who is head of the Scottish Episcopal Church and a former rector of St Mark’s in Portadown.

He said the community was honouring Lieutenant Turkington with deep respect and gratitude and added “the depth of our sorrow is surpassed only by our pride in Neal”.

It was one of those occasions when a church leader spoke for everybody and, because of the immediacy of the modern media, we share in the grief of families bereaved by the conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

However, this was brought home to me even more directly a couple of weeks ago when I visited Wootton Bassett, that small Wiltshire town where the bodies of so many service men and women have been repatriated to the United Kingdom. In fact I was there only a couple of days after Lieutenant Turkington and his other former colleagues were honoured by large crowds.

The recent phenomenon of Wootton Bassett used to make major headlines but, although the repatriations are still faithfully reported, they rarely lead the bulletins.

However, it was deeply moving to witness the Wootton Bassett ceremony at first-hand on a day when another four dead men were honoured, including a young reservist who had been a tree surgeon and had been called up for service in Afghanistan.

The hearses were scheduled to pass through Wootton Bassett at 2.30pm but for several hours earlier hundreds of people had been arriving to pay their respects, including soldiers, marines and airmen who were to form guards of honour.

There were also many Service veterans, ranging from motor-bikers, like those I watched in Washington DC this year during Memorial Weekend, to ‘old soldiers’ who had served many years earlier. They included a former Irish Guardsman from Dublin who in 1944 enlisted with the Royal Warwickshire regiment at Newry, about three miles from my home in Bessbrook when I was a little boy.

The crowds in Wootton Bassett increased significantly for the funerals and there must have been well over a thousand people watching as the first of the hearses moved through the town, with the coffins draped in Union Jacks.

There was complete silence, apart from the tolling of a church bell, as the vehicles stopped at the War Memorial to allow the relatives to pay their respects.

Members of each family placed flowers on the hearse of their loved ones, while some of them waved farewell and touched the side of the vehicle in one last caress. After several minutes the cortege moved off slowly but the hundreds of people remained totally silent. The only sounds were those of a dove, the symbol of peace, and also the muffled sounds of a church clock.

After another short silence, the Royal British Legion standard-bearers dispersed, and the small market-town returned to normal, or to as much normality as possible in a period when more and more such sad processions pass through its main street.

I found it all tremendously moving, and also thought-provoking. Why are our young people out there in the first place? Do we have to invade Afghanistan to protect our national security in the United Kingdom, and is there no better way of doing so without such loss of life?

These are deeply political questions, which will undoubtedly be answered sooner or later, but there is no question whatever about the courage and professionalism of people like the late Neal Turkington and all the others who pass through Wootton Bassett, and onwards for burial or cremation at home in Portadown and elsewhere.

It is so important that they continue to be honoured by those of us who do not have to make or bear such a supreme sacrifice.

As Bishop Chillingworth underlined at Neal Turkington’s funeral, we and our political leaders should reflect very carefully indeed on the cost and sacrifice of the young men and women who serve so courageously and selflessly on our behalf.

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