In the spring of 2010 I drove my son Alex to Paddington station and kissed him goodbye. He was catching a train to Taunton to re-join his unit. In a few days he would be flying out to Afghanistan on a six-month tour with the Royal Marines. I wondered if I’d ever see him again. Once I’d waved him off, and was sure he was out of sight, I gave way and wept.
Nine months before, Alex had just completed his second year at Nottingham University. Along with two others, he’d also just passed out as a Marine Reserve. A tremendous achievement and one that he and his friends were understandably proud of. So perhaps it wasn't surprising that when their Commanding Officer asked for volunteers to fight in Afghanistan, all three – Alex, Dale and Mikey - raised their hands.
Alex told us what he’d done a few weeks later, when all the paperwork had been completed. He would start training in September, and leave the following March to go on ‘tour’.
During that training period close relatives were invited to two Family Days to hear where our sons/ husbands/ brothers would be deployed, and what they could expect when they got there. Men in uniform stood up and spoke in an alien tongue, referring to FOBs, PBs, and the dreaded IEDs. What was I doing here? How had this happened? This was not a world I was accustomed to, and one to which I didn't want to belong. Everyone else there, or so it seemed, knew the lingo. Families of regular Marines were in a club; they knew what to expect. I knew nothing. I knew nobody. I didn't know the drill.
Then one day, shortly after Alex had left, I received a phone call. It was from Kate, Dale’s mum – and she was as aghast, and as adrift, as I was. We chatted briefly and agreed to keep in touch. And so began our email correspondence, sometimes highly emotional, sometimes just matter of fact. Yet, I’m sure I speak for both of us when I say that our ‘letters’ became a lifeline. Those long months would have been unbearable without each other’s understanding and support.
Apart from that first telephone conversation, we’ve never spoken to each other. Nor have we met. But the rapport we built up over that relatively short time is one surely neither of us will ever forget. So this is our record of how two mums thought and felt while their two sons were at war, and how we coped (or not) as we waited, and hoped for their safe return.
16/4/2010: from Kate
We have had some contact with Dale over the past few weeks since his deployment. He is okay, but exhausted.
Thank you to everyone who has sent him letters and items in the post. They are starting to come through now and he says it makes a huge difference. He asked me to pass on his thanks as he cannot email often and any conversations are short and restricted to family.
With grateful thanks for all your support.
16/4/2010: to Kate
Thank you very much for sending the photos from Dale. He's looking much better than I remember from the Family Day. That must be a relief for you. Like you, we've had a few emails from Alex and one or two phone calls - but nothing for the last five days or so. I guess one just has to remember the 'No news ... etc.' mantra. From what we have heard, he seems to be finding the experience interesting although, like Dale, exhausting. (Do they ever get a day off, do you know?) He's asked us to send out a Pashto phrasebook, so I assume he's meeting some of the locals - the friendly ones at least.
Obviously, I've also sent him out other stuff, though having to guess what he'd like. He told me they don't get much fruit, so I've been raiding Waitrose’s 'healthy eating' shelves and sending out packs of dried apricots, apples, nuts and raisins etc. as well as wet wipes, lip salve and the like. Yesterday, I read on the 40 Commando site that other people send out things to amuse their husbands/ sons etc. So I bought Alex a small game of 'Fives' made out of plastic Costa Rican frogs and a bouncy ball (for ages 3+). Don't know how that will go down!
If you've got any suggestions as to what else they might like, do let me know.
Hope you're well - or at least as well as can be expected in this horrible limbo.
All the best
16/4/2010: from Kate
Good to hear from you. We have had a couple of telephone calls but more on email from Dale. He sounded absolutely tired out but assured us that he is okay. He did say that they have not been able to get showers. He asked me to send him some flip-flops, which I have struggled to get at this time of the year in Jersey. I ended up paying £18 for a pair of Havaianas, which is just crazy for plastic flip-flops.
Dale has also asked me to send pens and balloons for the children and also little games and sweets. I have bought some small notebooks and some tattoo pens too which means the children can draw on themselves if they don't have paper (it does wash off). Dale wanted some headphones that cover his ears, so I ordered these on-line.
I've also been picking up second-hand paperback books and posting those over. He likes to read and they can be passed on when he has finished with them. We sent him a few male interest type magazines: Fitness / Cycling / Climbing etc., but I am reliably informed that when he said 'male interest' he probably meant Nuts etc. I've decided against that though for the time being!
They need lots of protein, so nuts, protein bars and beef jerky are all good. I have also raided the local cafe and coffee shops each time to buy so much as a coffee and have sent out individual sachets of ketchup, brown sauce, etc. He also has a tub of instant hot chocolate and a jar of coffee mate on the way. You can buy small packets of instant 'pasta' that are flavoured and which you put in a mug and just pour boiling water onto. Dale said it is all calories and that's what matters.
Dale being Dale is directing operations back home from afar. I have been dispatched to find him a place to live when he returns in October and apparently it must be in central Nottingham.... oh and could I get on with it and not leave it too late. And could we also sort out his finances and find the best savings account.
Oh and he is looking forward to roast dinners when he is on R & R in July. I already have an image of myself, stood in the kitchen, sweating on a hot summer day, roasting joints of meat and potatoes whilst he is sat in the garden with a cold beer. I suppose it is the home comforts they miss. I can't think of anything else, but if I do, I'll drop you a note.
No news is good news... but it is a horrible time. I find myself shedding tears of frustration and I am quite cross with him really.
We are thinking of Alex also, and take some perverse comfort in knowing they are out there together. Dale says he will be back around 1 July on R & R. Is that the same for Alex?
17/4/2010: to Kate
I'm so impressed by the range of goodies you've sent out to Dale. Lucky boy! I shall borrow a few of your ideas and send off beef jerky etc. - assuming parcels are still getting out there with all this Icelandic ash about. Do you know whether their parcels are sent out on commercial aircraft? If they are, I imagine a lot of them will be piling up in warehouses somewhere.
Sorry about the size of the photo. I don't know why it's so big. I'm not computer savvy enough to reduce in size, but I'll mention the problem to Alex and perhaps he'll be able to use a different method for any future pix.
Re leave, I think Alex is due to come back in June which is nice in some ways as it's closer; on the other hand that does leave him with a lot of time to do before finally coming back (dv). And I agree entirely about feeling cross with these boys; I don't think they realise how much they're putting their families through it. However at least with Dale all these demands re university etc. mean that he's not thinking of continuing with the Marines beyond October. I'm not so confident about Alex, although he hasn't said anything. And, like you, I'm glad they're out there together. Hopefully, apart from anything else, it means that Nottingham, and university, will remain their goal.
Hope you're enjoying - as far as possible - the lovely weather.
All the best
19/4/2010: from Kate
We had a couple of emails over the weekend with Dale asking us to send specific things, one of which was a buff (available from outdoor shops) which they can wear in lots of different ways and is useful for picking up moisture and wicking it away. He also wanted a green box-type mosquito net (we can't find one) so I have emailed and told him to choose it on-line and then I will order it. We did find out yesterday that Dale had used a solar shower with river water and part way through he realised it had human waste in it - foul.
The weather has been gorgeous and it is a shame to be back at work. Ian was sailing on Saturday and we were out on the bikes most of yesterday pottering around the lanes. At least if we cannot get off the island we are still in a beautiful place. Dale also said in one of his emails that he wanted to come to Jersey and go to France again this year. By the way, thank you for letting them use house last year. I know they all had a good time. I hope they looked after it.
It must be good not having the noise of the airport. I understand that this could now go on for many weeks so we need another plan as my parents were due over next week and of course I want to get back to the UK in July.
22/4/2010: to Kate
Until just now I hadn't heard from Alex for almost a week, and was wondering what was going on. But, in case you've been in the same situation, I 've just received a v. short message on Facebook saying everything's fine out there, but that they've been really busy. Phew!
By the way, where do you go when you want to check for news? I tend to look on the Ministry of Defence's website as there doesn't seem to be anything on the Marines’ website except for old pictures of Family Days etc. The MOD keeps pretty much up to date I find.
Re France, of course Dale would be very welcome at any time, although I don't quite see how they're going to fit a visit in this year, except possibly in the Christmas holidays. As you can imagine, I think they had a pretty wild time last summer; there's some very funny pictures of them and the patron of the local bar one particularly exuberant evening! Actually it was great because they hooked up with some of the local lads (I don't know how they managed to communicate!) and they all got along famously. So when my daughter and her girlfriends came out, news travelled fast and they also had a ready-made network of young to socialise with.
Oh, and yes, by the time I arrived the place was clean and tidy, so no problems on that score.
Talking of clean and tidy - poor Dale and his shower. Ugh! I hope he's managed to find a cleaner alternative to river water.
Well, better go and walk the dog.
All the best
27/4/2010: from Kate
Dale forwarded a list of items yesterday that he would like and also a few things that he didn't need as they can get them from Stores. Not sure what / if Alex has managed to email you anything or if this is of any use, but I guess it gives you some more ideas. Good job I didn't sent the Nuts after all….
Here’s a list of things I would like more of:
Oaty type bars
A hanging wash bag - I don’t need anything to go in it though, so just the wash bag please
USB movies and TV series
Music (again on USB as i don't have a CD drive)
A roll-on antiperspirant
Cycling, running, climbing magazines
Joy sent me some breakfast bars that were really nice, had oats and almonds in them
Beef jerky (plain)
Here is a list of things that I don’t need people to send me as I either have a lot of it, or I can get it from the stores. I don't want them wasting their money, but I don't want to appear ungrateful either:
Sauces – ketchup etc.
Books - I will have plenty to read when I get yours too
Also be aware that pot noodle pots, pasta pots and similar type of foil covered or plastic covered tops (anything tightly sealed) get here via an un-pressurised hold, so they burst. You can still send them but punch a hole in the top and put in a bag
Magazines such as Zoo, Nuts, Loaded or FHM
30/4/2010: to Kate
That's so useful; thank you. I was just about to put in a plastic-covered pot of fruit jelly but it's now in the fridge!
I had a long chat (phone and Skype) with Alex yesterday, which was lovely - although quite lengthy as it takes a fair bit of time for each person to type a reply to the other and then wait for a reply back. As always he sounded exhausted, but reasonably perky. He said Dale's doing fine, too. He also said that it's been quite quiet recently as they Afghans have been harvesting their crops (including poppy). I expect you've already heard that from Dale. Let's hope the harvest takes as long as possible to complete.
I think stuff is slowly getting through; he received a bit of kit he'd asked for yesterday. But lots of it still hasn't arrived. I think the answer may be to prepare smaller parcels, more frequently. Certainly the two small bags my sister-in-law sent out have arrived much quicker than most of my boxes.
Enjoy the Bank Holiday weekend. It sounds as if you could do with an extra day off!
All the best
30/4/2010: from Kate
Oh that must have been good to talk to Alex. Dale is exhausted too and cannot wait to get back. He is looking forward to starting uni again.
We're thinking of our boys all the time and hope it stays very quiet....
Have a lovely weekend.
4/5/2010: from Kate
Have you heard from Alex?
Dale said he would ring Nathan yesterday as it was his 21st birthday. He also said he would send a photograph of Alex through so I could send it to you. We've not heard anything.
I've just checked the MOD for news - Corporal Holmes, of 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment, attached to 40 Commando Royal Marines Battle Group, was killed in an explosion, in Sangin, Helmand province. The 21st Engineers (also supporting 40 Commando) have also lost someone in the last day. ‘No news….’
Would you let me know if you hear from Alex please?
4/5/2010: to Kate
Alex was certainly trying to get through to us, on Skype on Sunday (unfortunately we weren't on the computer at the time), but since then we haven't heard anything. However, I think that they're all out on patrol this week, aren't they, so maybe that makes it more difficult to communicate.
Also, at the Family Days, we were told that if there were a fatality, the news wires would go down until the families had been informed, so the deaths you mention could be why Dale hasn't been in touch. I will certainly let you know when we do hear something.
Try not to worry too much.
4/5/2010: to Kate
I've just checked on the MOD website and apparently the second soldier died in a traffic accident.
5/5/2010: from Kate
Thank you for your email. I wasn't at the Family Days. Dale doesn't tell us when he is on patrol as such, just when he is back. So I guess they do a one week on, one week off kind of thing. I just know he would have called his brother if he had been able to. Maybe the communications were taken down. That would make sense in this day and age. Sometimes too much information is not a good thing, but I am almost drawn to the news with no other interest now.
I am so cross with Dale, all these families that say how proud they are of their sons, and I am just plain mad with him.
His emails these days are something of a revelation; he is usually so guarded with his feelings, but we are aware of a different side to him now. He has confessed that he doesn't want to be a Marine long term and that at times he is bored by the lack of interesting / sensible conversation amongst them. He says he misses uni, his friends and even us. It would appear that all he can think about is coming home. He won't just be homesick, he's been a free spirit since he earned his own money and has travelled and enjoyed being away from us since he was 15. This is different, I think he is worried and he can't share that with the other lads. They are all talked up and made to believe they are invincible. I just wish I could go and pick him up.
Anyhow, roll on July and then October. I'll send you the photographs when I get them.
5/5/2010: to Kate
Will respond properly to your email, but just wanted to forward this to you -
“Hi, just to let you know that Dale and I are fine. The communications have been down for a few days because of what you have probably heard about in the news. No Marines injured though.
Hope France is good and I will phone soon but I am really tired right now and am going to bed.
Btw I got your parcel with multivitamins and other stuff so parcels are coming!
Alex x x x x”
5/5/2010: from Kate
Glad I stayed at work now....
To be continued...