“You had to sink or swim – but as the parent of two daughters, sinking wasn’t an option.”
So says Brenda Hale, with a look in her eye that tells me that in her own quiet, determined way, she is almost as tough as her late husband, Captain Mark Hale, who tragically lost his life in Afghanistan in 2009.
He was the 300th British serviceman to be killed in the war-torn country and had been married to Bangor-born Brenda – the pair met at a disco in the town when they were teenagers – for 22 years.
The 42-year-old soldier, who had been in the 2nd battalion the Rifles, left behind not just Brenda, but the couple’s daughters Tori, who was 16 at the time, and Alexandra, who was just eight and had no idea that her dad was even in the army.
It was down to a devastated Brenda to explain to her children that their beloved father had died from his wounds, incurred in a second explosion in which he was caught up after trying to help casualties hurt in a previous one, which was caused after a soldier triggered an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).
As a Trauma Risk and Management Officer, Captain Hale’s role was to spot signs of stress in his fellow soldiers after a major incident, or death.
“My last words to him were, ‘whatever you do, stay in’,” recalls Brenda.
I’ve met the DUP MLA – she was elected as an Assembly member for Lagan Valley in May 2011, on her daughter Tori’s 18th birthday – in Parliament Buildings at Stormont, to talk about her journey since her husband’s death, and her hopes and plans for 2014 and the future.
She’s smartly dressed in a grey skirt suit; her long fair hair is enviably shiny, she is well presented and well spoken, intelligent, focused, driven.
She is also, she confesses, still in love with her late husband, and it is clear that every battle she fights now is in his name.
“He said, ‘staying in’s really boring’, and I said, ‘no, staying in is safe,’ she says, continuing with her recollection.
“He always phoned me on a Wednesday and a Sunday, and I said, ‘can you phone me on Sunday?’ He said ‘OK’ and I said, ‘that’s great, love you,’ and put down the phone.”
Twenty-four hours later, she was told that he had been killed in an ambush in the notorious Sangin Valley in the Helmand province of Afghanistan.
“I met Mark at a disco in Bangor in 1985 when I was 16 and he was 17,” says Brenda, adding that both sets of parents had initially ‘warned them off’ meeting girls from the then Troubles-stricken Northern Ireland, and boys who were in the army.
“I kept him a secret for about four weeks,” admits Brenda, adding that one night the couple went into a phone box and she put Mark on to the phone to her parents so he could ask them if he could walk her home.
“Mum said, ‘your father will have a chat with you later’,” she smiles.
The pair never looked back, and went on to travel the globe, as Mark was posted in far flung countries. Brenda embraced it and found it exciting.
“You follow the flag, and as a young girl I got the chance to travel the world” was her way of looking at army life.
Over the course of their marriage, Mark was posted to some of the most dangerous places in the world, like Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, but when he was off duty, he was able to enjoy family time, reading bedtime stories to his daughters, going to their school plays, normal family life.
But Brenda said all that “changed dramatically after 9/11”, in that if Mark was at home, his time was spent getting ready to be deployed again.
“There was an increase in the days that daddy was away,” she says.
The summer of 2009 will never fade in her memory; August 13 was the date on which she lost Mark forever. It was a summer when Tori had been enjoying work experience at her local weekly paper, the Banbridge Chronicle, and Alexandra was attending summer scheme.
That morning, Brenda came downstairs as usual and checked Ceefax for an update on the news. There was nothing to report. But she did pick up on the fact that Mark had failed to email her, something he did every day.
“I knew straightaway something had happened, but I tried to put it to the back of my mind,” she recounts.
“I was trying to hide it from the girls; Tori was so excited about the Chronicle and Alex was excited at summer scheme, and I had a list I had shopping to do and we were in the middle of buying school uniforms and stuff. But all the time I was just thinking, ‘why hadn’t he emailed me, why hadn’t he emailed me.’
“I got back to the house and sorted the shopping and did the breakfast dishes, and the door rapped at about midday.”
The people standing on the door of the home in Hillsborough she had shared with Mark asked her if she was his wife.
Brenda responded by simply shutting the door and locking it, leaving them there, as she tried to come to terms with the inevitable news they were about to break to her, which would in turn break up her family, her life, her world.
“Somehow they managed to get me in the sitting room,” she says.
“They asked me again – are you Captain Mark Hale’s wife? They said he was killed today and I said, ‘no, I was talking to him yesterday’. And I said, ‘he was born in Salisbury, have you got the right person?’
“I didn’t cry, but my teeth just started to chatter, and they chattered for over a year.”
She prepared to break the devastating news to her daughters.
“You try to protect your children all your life,” she says, recalling how she got her friend to drive to where Tori was working.
“I said, ‘honey, get in the back seat’ – and she started to scream, she knew exactly why I had told her to get in the back of the car. And then everything just imploded.”
The now family-of-three pulled together to help each other cope with their grief and subsequently get through a “horrendous” Christmas.
But their battle was just beginning, because Brenda found herself in the position where she was starting to seriously struggle financially.
“I had no means of paying my mortgage, put fuel in my car,” she admits, describing how shocking it felt to suddenly go from being a married, paid-up member of society at “10 past nine in the morning to a single mother with no income.”
But after confiding in DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson about her difficulties, she resolved to stand up for what she and her children were owed.
And it was Christmas 2010 when the MP asked her if she would “ever consider standing for election” – she had been doing voluntary work for the party for a while by this stage.
“I said I would rather work behind the scenes,” she admits.
“He said the boundaries were changing and we had a chance of a fourth seat.”
After meeting some of the key figures in the party, Brenda reneged; she knew that if she didn’t, she would “always wonder what if”.
And more importantly, she wanted to do it for Mark.
“In the back of my mind I felt Mark was saying, ‘why are you even thinking about this?,” she says, adding that her late husband knew what a passion she had always had for being an active voter, no matter where in the world they were living.
And as a busy Assembly member now, she has found that politics has given her something of a new focus, “because when your brain goes quiet, that’s when the memories come back.”
I ask her how on earth she manages to juggle such a demanding role with the equally time-consuming one of raising two daughters, and she admits that it “does become a real issue of time management”.
She adds: “It’s an absolute challenge every day, and I rely on friends a lot. But the party are very supportive and sometimes I do have to leave because Alex has an orthodontist appointment or there’s a hospital appointment, and I have to go in and say, ‘listen, this is what I do.’