Nov 29 2009
Father of the first British woman soldier killed in Afghanistan eases his unbearable grief with the animals she left behind
Des Feely’s world fell apart when his only child, Sarah, was killed in a roadside bomb blast last summer.
My heart sank. I knew we were causing something of a hold-up on our country lane and possibly even making a nuisance of ourselves. But I’d only just seen the police patrol car at the end of the line of traffic. I wasn’t sure there was a specific law banning a pedigree black labrador from riding a Dales Cross Cob horse across the Cumbrian countryside, but I reckoned there’d be something on the statute books outlawing this act of canine and equine eccentricity.
The policeman parked and approached me on foot. I looked at him rather sheepishly, bracing myself for a stiff telling off, or worse. ‘Could I have a word, sir?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you think,’ he went on, ‘that if you are going to let your dog ride your horse, he should be wearing a high visibility jacket?’ And then he gave me a big grin, turned and walked away.
You might be wondering, rather like that bemused policeman, why I was out walking my dog not just with my horse, but actually on it. The answer, I’m afraid, is somewhat prosaic.
After my daughter Sarah left home to join the Army, she left me in charge of both of her pets. Tyler, her black labrador puppy, was too young and scared to be left alone, so I used to tuck him inside my tatty waxed riding jacket and take him with me like a baby in a sling when I exercised her horse Monty.
Then, one day when I was picking out Monty’s hooves after a particularly muddy and stony ride, Tyler began making a nuisance of himself in the stable, threatening to knock Monty off balance. So I scooped him up and sat him on the horse’s back out of the way. The two of them were as delighted as each other and it was a natural step to try taking them for a short walk with Tyler using his big thick tail to keep his balance.
Over the following weeks they progressed to longer distances and greater speeds – even a gentle canter – eventually becoming a regular sight in the lanes and fields around our house in the village of Cotehill, near Carlisle. Often Tyler would carry a ball in his mouth, almost to show how easily he could handle the ride.
Tyler began by thinking he was doing a clever dog trick in riding Monty, but finally it must have dawned on him that it was all about friendship and trust, that it required teamwork.
Monty could have thrown Tyler whenever he wanted to, but Sarah had imbued them both with her sense of fairness and respect; she’d made a horse and a dog love and understand each other. As always, Sarah had managed to get the most out of every living creature – animal or human.
The day Sarah came home on leave, I simply tossed Monty’s lead rein over his neck and let him walk towards her with Tyler on his back. I had kept it a secret from my animal-mad child and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her laugh with such delight.
I treasure memories like that. I have to. For my beautiful daughter, Corporal Sarah Bryant, would become the first female British soldier to die in Afghanistan. She was killed alongside three SAS reservists when their Snatch Land Rover hit a massive roadside bomb planted by the Taliban near Lashkar Gah in Helmand.
She had just earned her sergeant’s stripes, was happily married to Carl, a fellow soldier, and I knew that one day she wanted to become a mother. She died on June 17 last year, aged just 26. Her death sent me fleeing into what I can only describe as an emotional air-raid shelter. It was too raw and painful for me to deal with. She was my only child, my world.
I sought comfort in the past, the childhood memories, the perfect summers and of course, the fun with Monty and Tyler. Now I have turned their story into a children’s book, dedicated to my daughter, to raise money for Forces charities.
We were not a military family – save for Maureen’s brother who is a commander in the Royal Navy.
Maureen and I took Sarah to the tri-Service recruiting office in Carlisle. She was just 18 but she already had her career mapped out – she was hugely excited because she knew she was on the cusp of a whole new life. Right at the very end, the officer who was doing her paperwork said: ‘I have to warn you, you might get killed.’ We all laughed nervously and ignored it. It could haunt me now, but I won’t let it.
She went to Baghdad on a second tour in 2004 and impressed both British and American top brass.
No matter how gruelling her work and conditions, she was relentlessly upbeat. When I asked her what she was up to, she’d invoke the old Second World War maxim and say: ‘Loose lips sink ships, Dad!’ The last email she ever sent me said: ‘Don’t worry, Dad, I have the best bodyguards a girl could have, I’ll be home in a month and I can’t wait to see you. Your little girl is now a sergeant. Wait ’til I show you my stripes!’
Sarah’s third operational tour, to Afghanistan, was to be her last. She was doing challenging and complex counter-terror work as a member of 15 (UK) Psychological Operations Group. She loved the physical and intellectual rigour, but she paid for it with her life.
She was given a funeral with full military honours. A volley of shots was fired over her coffin and a lone bugler played The Last Post at Holy Trinity and St Constantine church in Wetheral on July 7 last year. It was the same church in which I had walked her down the aisle to marry Carl. Her loss is excruciating and it returns to me every single time I hear of another fallen soldier because I know all about the murderous twists and turns of unfolding grief.
There have been times when I have wanted to simply leave the country. The sight of the Union Jack draped over my daughter’s coffin made me never, ever, want to see one again used in that way. But somehow you have to find the kind of unwavering strength of character Sarah showed in all she did and carry on.
Writing the story of Monty and Tyler helped me through, if only by giving some structure to my days. Odd though it seems, I have found myself roaring with laughter at some of the memories. It has given me a purpose and I have come to suspect this book is Sarah’s parting gift to me. UK DAILY MAIL
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