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Why wearing a poppy matters to widows ahead of Remembrance Sunday

By Helen Carson and Laurence White

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday Brenda Hale whose soldier husband, Mark, was killed in Afghanistan, and Kate Carroll, whose husband Stephen was the first PSNI officer to be murdered, say why wearing a poppy in memory of the fallen matters to them.

Remembrance Sunday this weekend will see everyone from dignitaries to old soldiers - their numbers dwindling as each year passes - laying wreaths at Cenotaphs all over the UK as an act of respect to those who died in the two world wars and more recent conflicts from Northern Ireland and the Falklands, to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The wearing of a poppy is the small but hugely symbolic gesture many will make to show solidarity with the fallen and their families - to remember the horrific losses of war were not in vain.

But freedom does come at a cost, with some of those families who waved their loved ones off to war never seeing their husband, father, brother or son ever again.

We talk to two local widows about losing their husbands and what Remembrance Sunday means to them.

‘The money in the box makes a big difference to the military families left behind’

The wearing of a poppy is not without controversy in Northern Ireland, but for one war widow the simple act of someone handing over a handful of change for the small red flower is hugely important.

Brenda Hale, who lost her Army captain husband Mark in Afghanistan in 2009, says: "When I see a stranger walking down the street wearing a poppy it says to me that they understand the sacrifices made by the armed forces for democracy. They are saying that they know democracy is not free and that they know what it has cost. The pennies that go in the box from ordinary people make a difference to the military families left behind."

The DUP MLA for Lagan Valley, who has two daughters, Victoria (22) and Alexandra (14), says on Sunday her thoughts will not only be for the beloved husband, Mark, she lost and her children, who must go on now without their father, but with the families of all the young men who were killed in Afghanistan.

Mark, who was 42 when he was killed in Helmand Province on August 13, 2009, was part of a platoon securing the area in Sangin to facilitate a crucial meeting between Afghan tribal elders prior to the election in a bid to broker a peace deal in the war torn region.

As Mark and his team were securing the area an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploded, killing Mark and two younger members of the squadron.

Originally from Dorset, Mark was in Two Rifles based at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, near where Brenda grew up, and continues to live.

She says: "I met Mark when he was on his first tour of duty in Northern Ireland in 1985. The work they were doing the day he was killed was of great importance, coming before the Afgan election. There was nowhere safe for the elders to meet in Sangin, which is why securing it was essential to the talks.

"That year (2009) had been the bloodiest one in the Afghan war, so it was vital to get the new government up and running, and that meant getting the tribal elders to talk to each other. They needed a secure space to meet in, somewhere they wouldn't be attacked."

But as the operation was underway, the first of two devices was detonated, injuring three soldiers.

Brenda explains the same squadron had lost five men three weeks previously, on July 10: "The men went into battle shock as a result of the earlier incident. Mark was the most experienced soldier, in fact, he was the longest serving soldier ever to be killed in Afghanistan, with 26 years' Army service.

"Mark knew to create a safe pathway along which to transport the casualties to a helicopter when it arrived," explains Brenda. "He was a big man - six feet four and over 18 stones so he managed to get the first casualty to safety, and was trying to help another when one of the young soldiers starting shouting 'Who's going to help the boss (Mark)?' It was then the second device was detonated and the three of them were killed."

Brenda says one of the young soldiers killed had been at Thiepval Barracks with Mark.

Although Mark was flown to Camp Bastion after the incident he later died of his injuries.

"We were told by the Army what had happened to Mark and he was repatriated to Wootton Bassett," she says.

On the day he was killed he was assigned to assess his men for any sign of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) following the loss of five men the weeks before.

He was studying for a PhD with the Army in PTSD and part of his duties that day would have been risk management; to identify men who appeared vulnerable or may be at risk of developing PTSD, and to ensure they get the right support to enable them to continue their tour of duty.

"He was known as the 'mentor' to his men, he was captain of the rugby team and the younger soldiers would say to him 'If you are with us, we will be safe'" she says.

"Some of them would cry before they had to go out on patrol because in 2009, the Army was losing men every day.

"But the soldiers always went, they put on their boots and their body armour and they went out."

Now, six years on, Brenda is a tireless campaigner and advocate for soldiers and their families welfare.

She is uncompromising in her criticism of the Ministry of Defence: "The safety net in place by the MoD has holes in it and I fell through those. They lost Mark's will and 18 months after Mark died I had to manage a mortgage and bring up my two children on my own.

"For 22 years, I had been a wife, so I was not afraid to challenge the Army, whereas younger wives may have been intimidated, I wasn't - I just knew things had to change. The safety net was not fit for purpose.

"If we are sending our soldiers to the most dangerous place on earth and they don't come back, then the financial cost of support must be counted into the cost of war.

"The cost of after care is as important, if not more important, than the cost of bullets and tanks."

Brenda says 4% of armed personnel come from Northern Ireland, but claims there is no system in place here for look after those people.

She says: "There are potentially 250,000 veterans from the province who may need emotional and financial support. There is a huge number of people here in a place where there is still a threat."

On Sunday she admits she will have "mixed emotions".

"I said at Mark's funeral that losing him has created an 'unfillable void', he had such a huge personality," she says.

"I am incredibly proud of our armed forces and their families - the families who people never see.

"When I see someone wearing a poppy, it reminds us of the cost of democracy. It is not free. Someone wearing a poppy also shows the government of the day that they understand the armed forces did what they did for them.

"The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland share that pride and recognise what was done to protect our democracy and national security - and that it came at a price."

'All you can be is positive and move on in tiny steps'

For Kate Carroll this week has been a very emotional time. Her husband Stephen, the first PSNI officer to be murdered in Northern Ireland, would have been 55 years old on Wednesday.

"I was very down on that day," she says. "It is times like his birthday and Christmas which brings it all back."

Stephen was shot dead at Lismore Manor in Craigavon on March 9, 2009 when called out to a suspected burglary.

Two men - Brendan McConville (40) and John Paul Wootton (20) - were later jailed for life for the murder.

They lost subsequent appeals against the convictions. Kate, who is a grandmother of seven, four girls and three boys, says that sometimes they unwittingly rekindle her grief.

"One of the little girls recently was in my home and she went over to Steve's photograph, put her hands on it and asked 'why did he go away?' You just don't know how to answer that," Kate says. "It can break your heart. At Christmas some of the little ones will ask if their granddad sent the presents down from Heaven or from Santa. We tell them that he did. What else can you say?"

As well as Stephen's birthday, this is also a poignant period because it is a time for remembering the fallen in various conflicts. On Sunday she will attend - as she has done very year since Stephen's death - a memorial service for RUC and PSNI officers who were killed by terrorists.

"That is a very emotional service. Everyone there is there for the same reason, to honour those who died. I cannot see the sense behind wanting to kill people, especially for a piece of land. We are all going to go into six feet of that land at the end of our lives, so why fight over it."

She says that there are constant reminders of her life with Stephen. "I haven't moved on, but I have tried to be positive. Steve wouldn't want me to sit and dwell on him being killed.

"He was the type of guy who got on with things and tried to leave the past in the past. Living with someone like that for so long rubbed off on me and I want to make the future a better place for us to live in," she adds.

Kate admits that their only son Shane, who idolised Stephen, was deeply affected by his dad's death, becoming depressed and both of them had to endure ongoing publicity when those convicted of the killing lodged appeals while supporters claimed they were innocent.

This also resurrected the grief of Stephen's father and mother.

"I know those convicted were definitely involved but the person who actually pulled the trigger is still out there," says Kate.

"However I don't have to live with their consciences. I can sleep in my bed - even though at this time of the year I don't sleep very well.

"I try to get peace as much as I can within my own circle of family and friends and if I can make one person see sense then I have done a great job."

Kate, who is a former winner of the Belfast Telegraph's Woman of the Year Award, strongly supports the Poppy Day appeal and the wearing of the emblem.

"It helps us to remember those who have died for us and to give us our independence. I don't see how anyone can find it offensive," she says.

While it is obviously difficult for her to recall her life with Stephen, she also finds it strangely cathartic.

"He was cut down for no reason. He didn't do anyone any harm. The people who would do that have terrible mindsets.

"Only the weekend before his death we had been planning our future. He was due to leave the force in 18 months' time and had almost finished a degree in sports science.

"He wanted to help people who had suffered strokes or heart attacks get back to a good quality of life.

"But some people just saw his uniform and didn't see anything else about the person wearing it.

"I have learned to put Steve's death and all that went with it on the back burner, but it still sits there bubbling away.

"All you can do is be positive, move on in tiny steps and try to tell people the error of their ways.

"My cause, unlike theirs, is my family and my religion.

"I try not to harm anyone and try to help people as much as I can."

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