Belfast Telegraph

Gemma's anguish over suicide of hero husband Andy - If only he'd told of the toll war had taken on him

War hero Andy McFarland's distraught widow on her struggle to cope with the death of her soul mate

By Stephanie Bell

The widow of tragic war hero Lance Corporal Andy McFarland says she can't even begin to comprehend the loss of her first and only love.

The sudden death of the decorated Afghan war veteran on July 12 stunned his local community in Ballymena, and has left his family completely shattered.

His distraught widow Gemma revealed how the young soldier had been struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but no one knew the full extent of his suffering, which led to him taking his own life.

As she struggles to carry on for the sake of their two boys Scott (12) and Jay (7), Gemma says she can't accept that she won't see Andy again: "It won't sink in and I don't know how to get it into my head.

"I can't imagine that I am not going to see him again. I keep thinking he is going to ring me or text. I can't process it at all."

The community has rallied round the family and such was the outpouring of love and respect for the soldier that an online appeal to raise funds for a holiday in Disneyland for the children in his memory exceeded its target within days.

An overwhelmed Gemma also revealed that Andy had hoped to take the family to Disneyland, and she said the holiday will be a once in a lifetime treat for her boys, who are also struggling to come to terms with their dad's loss.

"I am just completely overwhelmed with all the donations and support. It means so much to us. In years to come, when the boys look back on it, they will be amazed by the kindness of people," she said

"It will be a bitter-sweet trip because Andy won't be there but we will make the most of it."

Andy (32, right), had completed two tours of Afghanistan with the Royal Irish Regiment. He received several commendations for saving the lives of his colleagues and also survived being shot.

Devastated colleagues described the young soldier who was buried with full military honours as "the epitome of the Irish warrior". It was revealed after his death, that when he was shot during an ambush in Afghanistan, Andy fought on. The bullet passed through the magazine of his gun and ended up in his pouch.

Before his death, he had been serving on the Guard of the Army Reserve Centre in Lowfield Camp, Ballymena.

First Minister Arlene Foster was among those who lent her support to the worthy cause, and used her Facebook page to urge others to join her.

"Fundraising will also raise important awareness of PTSD and suicide-prevention," she said. "I wish the McFarland family and Lance Corporal McFarland's friends well in their fundraising events during the coming months, including those who are doing the 4.5 peaks challenge at the end of September, when they will be climbing the four highest peaks in the UK and finish on Slemish."

Gemma (30), who has known Andy since she was 16 said she had no idea just how much of a toll the horrors of his war experience had taken on him.

She said: "It is just heartbreaking that we didn't know how bad he was or we could have done more to help him.

"He had been depressed for the last year and a half and his behaviour had changed and he had become very withdrawn.

"Now knowing about Post Traumatic Stress, looking back I can see the signs, but at the time I didn't realise how bad things were as he had kept things to himself.

"He had started going to church and that was a good help to him. He had been to the doctor and had been given follow-up appointments but he never went to them. His dad had taken him to the doctor but he didn't follow up on any treatment."

In the last few months before his death, Gemma and Andy had agreed on a temporary separation, in the hope that by having his own space it might help him to get better.

He moved into a house just around the corner from the family home but the couple was still very much looking to their future together.

It was one of his best friend's who found him in bed on July 12 and called Gemma.

She said: "It was just pure horror to go over there and I just can't get it into my head at all.

"We had taken a break and were trying to work things out and thought that if Andy had a bit of space he could get himself sorted out. It was only supposed to be a break for six months.

"It's just unbearable. I can't process it and I don't know where to go from here. Our family will never be the same again."

Gemma described Andy was a very loving and hands-on dad and said her boys were finding it very difficult to come to terms with his loss.

Her concern for them is obvious and she is currently arranging counselling to help them.

She says: "Andy was a great dad and was always taking the boys on wee adventures. Scott is due to start high school this year and his dad is not going to be there. He had a bit of a breakdown last night and he is in a bad way and I feel so helpless. He wanted to know who was going to play football with him now.

"Seeing wee Scott would break your heart, no kid should have to go through that.

"I'm doing my best, but I don't know how to help the boys, so I'm hoping to organise counselling for them."

Gemma has spent almost half of her life with Andy who she says was her first and only love.

Before he took ill with depression she says he was the life and soul of any party, someone who would have done anything for anyone.

Just two years ago, he was among a modern day 'Band of Brothers' from Ballymena - all former soldiers or reservists - who took on the demanding Five Peaks Challenge conquering some of the highest peaks in the UK to raise money for ABF The Soldiers' Charity.

He also worked with his local church, Green Pastures in Ballymena as part of the connect team helping give disadvantaged people in the community a better life by cutting pensioners lawn's, painting homes, etc.

He and his colleagues also twice entered a team in the Portrush Raft race to raise more money for charity.

Said Gemma: "Andy would have done anything for anybody. The old Andy was happy go lucky, and always out and about, and he would have went out of his way to help people. He was the life and soul."

In the days after his death, his friends and colleagues set up a Just Giving page in the hope of raising £3,000 to send Gemma and their children to Disneyland.

In less than 13 hours, the page had received numerous donations, with £1,490 of the £3,000 target raised, and to date, £3,402 had been raised.

Gemma says she has been overwhelmed by the support she and her children have received from family and friends in the past few weeks and by the donations to the appeal.

She says: "It is just lovely that everyone is trying to do something nice for the kids, and I can't believe the kindness and support, it just means so much. It will be a holiday of a lifetime for the kids. I was hoping to get to Legoland for a day and I never thought I would be able to take them to Disneyland.

"Andy had said he would like to take us all on a wee holiday and he had been hoping we would go to Disneyland.

"I feel so lucky to have such support. It is hard. It still feels unreal. I feel like I'm here but I'm not here. I don't know how I am getting up every day and getting dressed. I am trying to stay strong for the sake of the boys."

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this story call Lifeline on 0800 808 8000 or Samaritans on 116123.

Any extra money raised through the Justgiving appeal will be donated to Combat Stress in Andy's memory.

To make a donation to the Just Giving page, visit

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