Respect please!

I thought I’d start this blog post by sharing a little bit about my family life with you, I guess by way of setting the context! My parents are very different people – my dad served in the Navy, has been involved for the past 20 years with the Army Cadet Force and a lot of his values that he gained from involvement with the armed forces were instilled in us from an early age; my mum on the other hand is a very different sort, she is a pacifist, a peace maker and peace keeper who is very uncomfortable with a lot of what my dad believes in – luckily her values were instilled in us from an early age too. At times a somewhat difficult mix for them but without doubt a great grounding for us as kids – it meant that things were always questioned, we were supported to make our own minds up and never was one view considered to be right or wrong or better than the other, without a lot of thought and reflection.

Photo by stuff_and_nonsense

So what has this got to do with anything? Well I grew up with uniforms, rules and routines as part of my life. Not just my dad but my sister too, first as an army cadet, then as an instructor and then more recently as an army wife. To be honest I always took the piss out of my Dad a little and ‘the toy soldiers’ as I referred to the cadets. There was something that never sat 100% comfortably with me; I’ve never been that big on authority and hierarchy! Having said that I could see the benefit that being an army cadet had to some of the young people my Dad came across – the sense of responsibility, the sense of pride in their uniform, the sense of belonging to something bigger than their own family lives, the hope and belief, the self-worth, the possibilities for the future, the positive response to routines and discipline. All of this demonstrated by some of the most ‘troublesome’ kids, those that were on the edge/excluded from school – all of it supported by a group of volunteer adults who themselves are driven by a pride in their uniform, a sense of belonging and duty, an inherent desire to do their best for little or no reward or recognition.

So what am I blogging about here….well just lately my twitter stream has contained tweets that I am increasingly uncomfortable with; people complaining about the ‘adoration’ of soldiers being repatriated to the UK; others praising army personnel, whilst sitting it in context of not being a fan of the army; lots of little grumblings about the military presence in Afghanistan. Now, in the spirit of fairness and free speech, I get that people are fully entitled to share their thoughts – and I *genuinely* want them to do that; I guess I just felt the need to redress the balance and offer my own commentary/thoughts on the topic. I strongly suspect that most of the people who are offering such thoughts actually have very little knowledge of what life is like for those people who choose to serve in our armed forces, or for their families that have to live with their decision to do so, whether they would want them to or not.

Last year a good friend of mine was blown up in Afghanistan; a week after he was flown back to the UK I visited him in Selly Oak in the critical care unit. I have never seen, smelt or experienced anything like it. I am used to hospitals, I’ve spent a lot of the past couple years in them; prior to that I worked in special ed with profoundly disabled kids – few smells offend me and few sights shock me. I thought I was all sorted and psyched as I went to visit Stevie but nothing could prepare me for visiting that ward. It was full of young lads missing limbs, lots of them missing multiple limbs, some very sick people fighting for their lives, for their futures. Without doubt every person on that ward has had their lives changed forever, in an instant. Something that few of us ever have to contemplate. I’ve watched my mate piece his life back together, he considers himself one of the lucky ones. A couple of operations to rebuild his knee caps and legs, a scary period where they didn’t know if they’d need to amputate one of his legs, months in splints, getting used to life in a wheelchair…six months later after intensive support at Selly Oak and Headley Court, he is back on light duties, out of a wheelchair and walking with a stick, driving, newly engaged and planning his future. Lucky without doubt.

Cpl Chris Harrison

Not everyone is as lucky though. Last week Cpl Chris Harrison was buried in his home town of Watford. Chris was a Royal Marine junior officer, he was 26 years old, married to Becky and my sister’s next door neighbour. Becky was aware of the dangers of Chris’ job but nothing can prepare you for that knock on the door. In her tribute to him she says:

“Even though I knew and fully supported what Chris did as a Royal Marine and the dangers he was facing, I am still broken by his loss. Chris was my life, he was my motivator and my inspiration, my rock, the one person with whom I shared everything. It hurts me beyond words knowing that I will never have my beloved husband by my side ever again and we will never raise the family that we so desperately craved to complete our lives together. He will forever live in my heart.”

The day that Chris was buried Becky’s facebook update talked not just of her loss, but of the loss for the other families that day – Cpl Stephen Walker was being repatriated in Wootton Basset and two further fatalities occurred in Afghanistan.

So I guess I just wanted to remind anyone who has bothered to read this far, of the reality of life for those who choose to serve in our armed forces. I guess I’d just like them to think twice before so quickly dismissing their efforts and relegating their profession. In a world where we all seem to think that technology has the solution to so many of our problems it is easy to forget that some of the solutions that we are seeking have always been there – the formal and informal support networks, the sense of community, the collective responsibility – they might not be online or tweeting their own value and worth, but I for one am very grateful for the contribution that the men and women of our armed services make that allows each and every one of us to live the life we have.

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