Brenda Hale’s husband was no battlefield novice. Captain Mark Hale had served with the British Army in Kosovo, Bosnia, the Falklands and Iraq, and completed six tours of Northern Ireland. But in March 2009, when the father-of-two was deployed to Afghanistan, both he and his wife knew this time would be different.
At first, things ticked along as usual. Brenda and her daughters, Victoria and Alexandra, then 16 and seven, had grown used to Mark’s long absences from the family home in Northern Ireland. Brenda had long known the highs and lows of life as an Army wife: the empty space on Mark’s side of the bed; the aching longing for the man she loved; the ecstatic joy of reunion each time he safely returned.
For more than four months after arriving in Helmand Province, Capt Hale emailed morning and night, and phoned twice-weekly. But by August, the Afghan presidential elections were looming and the number of British casualties was mounting. July had seen 22 British service personnel killed, making it the worst month for this country’s losses since operations had begun in 2001.
On August 12, when Capt Hale – who, as Battle Group Logistics Officer, was theoretically desk-bound - called home, Brenda begged him to stay at Camp, given the dangers outside. “He laughed and said: ‘Staying in is boring,’” she recalls. Next morning, she checked for his daily email, to find nothing.
We’re sitting at the kitchen table at her house in Hillsborough, County Down, where, through tears, the 49-year-old recounts the most painful day of her life, with an emotion hardly blunted by the passing of the years. Her story is a stark reminder ahead of Remembrance Sunday of the unsung heroes and heroines left behind by war: the families of those who give their lives for their country; wives, children and parents who carry their suffering with them for decades after their husbands, fathers or sons fall.
“I dropped off my girls and came home,” says Brenda. “I checked my messages and still nothing. I started to feel ill. Bile was rising from my stomach to my throat. I sent Mark an email saying: ‘Sweetie, still no word from you. I’m really worried. I hope everything is ok. I love you.’ No sooner had I hit send when my front door was rapped and I started to shake. I knew who it was.”
A man and woman stood on the doorstep, and the man flashed his Army ID. “I closed the door because I knew they were coming to tell me he was hurt,” she says. “And you’re shaking and in some sort of trance where you hope with all your heart this is a dream.”
Reluctantly, she admitted them to deliver the words she had dreaded: “Capt Mark Hale this morning died of his injuries in Camp Bastion.” She later learned he had been caught in an improvised explosive device blast while helping an injured soldier to safety during a patrol near Sangin. After 26 years in the Army and aged 42, he was the longest-serving British soldier killed in Afghanistan.
Brenda registered the news with a violent physical response. “I didn’t cry or scream, but my teeth started to chatter and didn’t stop chattering for another 18 months. I was in complete shock and absolute denial, with pain like you cannot imagine. I was going to have to tell my children their daddy wasn’t coming home and be responsible for their pain and grief when I couldn’t even cope with my own.”
This was no less harrowing than she’d anticipated. “Not my daddy!” screamed Victoria. “It should be me! Just bring daddy back.”
Alexandra, too young to know about her father’s job, responded with the heartbreaking innocence of an uncomprehending child. “How can I show him my new shoes?” she asked, bewildered.
It was a shattering climax to the relationship Brenda had started with the tall, dark and handsome soldier from Dorset she’d met at a disco in Bangor, Co Down, at the age of 16. This being Northern Ireland in 1985, when the Troubles were raging, dating a British squaddie was fraught with peril, and Brenda’s parents were anxious. “[The IRA] bombed discos and other places soldiers went to, so it just wasn’t a safe place any parent would want their daughter,” she says.
But such risks were of little concern to Brenda. “I just needed to be with Mark. We needed to be together and to do whatever it took.”
Two years of letter-writing followed, as Mark was posted to Berlin. By 19, Brenda had turned down a university place and married her soldier, and before long the pair had bought their first home, in Poole. Then, the loneliness set in.
“We were only married a few days and he went to the Falklands for three months,” she recalls. “When we moved into our flat, he had another six-month tour of Northern Ireland and I was left on my own. But this was the life I needed to live to be with Mark. I married that soldier, and there was no way I was ever going to ask him to leave the Army. By that stage, he had started to progress through the ranks and we both really enjoyed the Army life.”
Two decades later and newly bereaved, her goodwill was to ebb away. Mark’s will, it transpired, had been lost when his previous regiment had amalgamated to become the Rifles, meaning his wife had to go through probate to eventually receive her due. Meanwhile, the family was left with little money and struggling to cope.
“Mark’s wage stopped immediately, and I had a mortgage payment due and needed food,” says Brenda. “Everybody thinks you’re going to be looked after, but the deaths in Afghanistan were going up and the system was inundated. There were holes in it, and I fell through every one. Mark did everything we ask of our soldiers, believing that if anything happened I would be looked after. I went spinning into the abyss with my daughters, unable to mourn or grieve because my initial concern became: ‘I have bills to pay.’”
She was advised to apply to various charities for heating oil, and was told an Irish charity would furnish her daughters with school shoes.
“I thought, ‘Where’s the dignity? Where are the politicians who stand at the Cenotaph wearing their poppies on Remembrance Sunday, laying wreaths in front of the cameras?’ There was no one.”
The Military Covenant, which entitles former members of the Armed Forces to some priority medical treatment, plus assistance with housing and school places for children, was of no use to her: it does not extend to Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin, the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has indicated it would oppose any policy that prioritised military veterans.
Spurred on by a desire to improve the lot of Northern Irish families such as hers, whose relatives die fighting for the British Army, Brenda entered politics, serving as the DUP’s Member of the Legislative Assembly for Lagan Valley from 2011 until her defeat in Assembly elections in March this year. In this role, she became a persistent advocate for the fair treatment of service families, taking her concerns all the way to London.
“Westminster is the only parliament with authority to actively deploy our troops and so should look after them no matter where they’re based in the UK,” she says.
There has been some progress, she believes. The Queen’s Speech in June mentioned “delivering on the Armed Forces Covenant across the United Kingdom”. The DUP, upon whose votes the Government now relies, say the last four words were included at their behest.
But more understanding – and funding – is needed, says Brenda, whose moving memoirI Married A Soldier was published this summer. “Myself and my girls and all the soldiers with life-changing injuries are collateral damage,” she says. “If we can’t afford to look after them, then we can’t afford to go to war.”
I Married a Soldier by Brenda Hale and Rachel Farmer is published by Lion (£9.99). To order your copy for £8.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk