BOOK REVIEW: Army widow reveals triumph of human spirit

Brenda Hale
Brenda Hale

This poignant memoir by army widow Brenda Hale is brave, honest and incredibly moving in its depiction of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of terrible grief and loss.

Brenda met and fell in love with Bournemouth-born Mark Hale, an‘undentable’ soldier who completed tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hale rose to the rank of captain and lost his life in action in Helmand province in August 2009. After 26 years of duty he became the longest serving British soldier to die in the conflict.

Brenda Hale details how she met and fell in love with Mark as a teenager, putting aside plans to go to university to instead follow her heart and marry the love of her life before they settled together, blissfully, in England. The couple were rapturously in love and went on to settle in Dromara with their two daughters, Tori and Alix.

It’s clear Brenda and Mark were deeply passionate about each other and both shared a deep faith in God and in the importance of public service; Brenda is very proud of being a military wife and stands firmly in defence of the integrity of the British Armed Forces.

Her world was plunged into nightmare when Mark, then a captain of 2 Rifles on duty in Afghanistan, died trying to help save one of his men from an improvised explosive device.

Brenda and her daughters are left utterly grief-stricken and in financial dire straits when the MoD failed to process the requisite details for Brenda to receive her husband’s army pension. The book clearly outlines how the families of those called to serve their country to such a brave and bold degree are often failed by the MoD and the government where they should be receiving full support and financial reward.

Brenda’s personal crises inspire her to enter the world of politics where she sets out to fight for the rights of bereaved army wives like herself and is elected DUP MLA for Lagan Valley. Hale also goes to Westminster to meet with Sir Bob Ainsworth, then secretary of state for defence, to challenge the government over what she sees as its dereliction of duty in supporting the families of those who have paid the ultimate price for their country.

This is an immensely moving memoir, full of honest detail, compassion and spirit as Brenda moves through the darkness of terrible loss to find a way forwards with help from others. Her fervent religious faith helps her to stand firm and shoulder the burden of tragedy.

Mark and Brenda were clearly made for each other and the passages detailing Mark’s death and its aftermath are heartrendingly sad, such is the senseless poignancy of the loss of a man in his prime.

Following his death Mark’s regiment coined the term ‘undentable’ to describe how unfazed this brave soldier was by every situation he boldly faced into.

Reading this book it is clear that Brenda Hale is similarly undentable as she endures the loss of her beloved husband to raise her two daughters alone and take up the cause of army wives to fight for a better deal for military families across the UK and here in Northern Ireland.

This is a story that will hold significance for all army widows as it holds a mirror to the joys and sorrows of marrying a soldier and living with the consequences of deep loss and personal sacrifice in the name of Queen and country.

Brenda Hale’s ability to face great loss and overcome tragedy by using it as a source of inspiration to fight injustice on behalf of military families is bold and brilliant, a testament to what religious faith and integrity can achieve even in the darkest circumstances.

Ultimately this is a story about love and loss, faith and unfailing hope, grief and renewal.

This is about the personal cost of war and the need for better support for those shouldering the heavy burden.