DUP MLA Brenda Hale tells JOANNE SAVAGE how the pain of losing her husband, who died while on duty in Afghanistan, has galvanised her to fight for a better deal for service personnel and their families
He had already retrieved two of his men from the danger zone and had gone back for the third when the explosion occurred.
Brenda HaleI do not feel that we do enough for our ex-servicemen
He died shortly afterwards in Camp Bastion on August 13, 2009, leaving his wife of 22 years Brenda and his two daughters, Tori and Alex, to unimaginable grief.
The MoD issued a statement after his death describing the soldier as ‘undentable’ - a word they had coined especially to describe his lion-hearted bravery- observing that ‘it is entirely typical of this man that he died whilst helping to evacuate wounded soldiers’.
For Brenda Hale the loss of her husband after 22 years of marriage was to become a major catalyst in her decision to pursue a political career, a central objective of which has been her determination to fight for a better deal for the families of servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate price for their country and who are yet being failed by this very same state’s inability to provide adequate support for veterans and their families.
Brenda - who was elected as DUP MLA for Lagan Valley in 2011 - describes her ‘soul mate’ with such animation and emotion, recalling his magnanimity and devotion to army life.
“I met Mark at a disco in Bangor when I was 16 and he was 17. We were together ever since and to have him taken from me when I was 40 was very, very hard.
“Mark had so much integrity and honour that he was a giant among his peer group. He was fearless, just in possession of this very assured, quiet courage. Mark could walk into a room and not say a word, but he just filled it. He was physically very striking, incredibly fit, with these piercing green eyes. If people were in trouble they went to Mark because he was the kind of guy who would sort things out. He was unflappable.”
Bournemouth-born Mark had joined the army at age 16, serving here in Northern Ireland - where he would meet Brenda - as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His death left Hale without an income and a year-long battle with the MoD to secure a military widow’s pension brought her face-to-face with the dearth of support the government is providing for military families, and convinced her of the importance of becoming something of a spokesperson for military widows.
Already politicised in her youth - Brenda recalls delighting in being allowed to watch the news at nine years of age, marvelling at the formidable power of Margaret Thatcher and passionately debating politics with her father - the loss of her husband was the push she needed to stand for election, galvanised to fight for war widows after her own painful struggle.
“My husband made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and yet there was so little provision for me and my daughters that for over a year I had absolutely no money. My local politician - Jeffrey Donaldson - knocked on my door and with his help I ended up in Whitehall arguing for what I was entitled to.
“Servicemen and women who return from conflict and families who have lost loved ones who were serving in the army are not being given the support they need and deserve, in no small part because the armed forces covenant - a promise from the Government and other authorities to assist soldiers and their families in a variety of important ways does not extend to Northern Ireland as a devolved jurisdiction. This is despite the fact that we provide a significant portion of the armed forces.”
Hale has been to speak to David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith on the importance of amending legislation so that our ex servicemen and women can have access to better support in terms of helping them find employment after service or in dealing with the aftermath of serving - whether that is through counselling or psychiatric treatment for the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or help in returning to normal life after incurring life changing injuries on the front line.
“I do not feel that we do enough for our ex-servicemen and women and part of this is because we do not have many political representatives who have served themselves or who have close relatives who have served so that they intimately understand what their needs are. Think back to the 50s and 60s when after the Second World War so many politicians had completed national service and it meant that treatment of our armed forces on returning from conflict was much more of a national priority. There was an understanding of the military at the highest levels of government. Today it is very different – most of our politicians are cardboard cut-outs from Eton and other private schools and very few of them have served.”
The mum-of-two is clearly motivated by a real sense of civic duty and believes that her election as MLA saved her from the depths of despair in the aftermath of her husband’s harrowing death.
“I was a military wife for 22 years and I feel that I have a responsibility to speak out on behalf of military wives who are much younger and who have no platform to fight for what they need. Many of the women I have met are 18 or 19 and have very young children who are struggling to get by even though their husbands have honoured their country by dying while on duty.
“People in our society use the language of rights all the time. They feel they have a right to this or that, but what they forget is that with rights come responsibilities as citizens. We should honour the flag by giving something back.
“Mark would tell me that when he was in Afghanistan many of the teenage soldiers would cry before they went out on patrol they were so terrified and yet they never made excuses or said they were unwell but instead went out on patrol despite their upset.
“That is honouring your country and honouring your flag in a way that most people would never be brave or courageous enough to do.”
This keen sense of civic responsibility was instilled in Brenda at a young age. She grew up debating with her passionately left-wing father who had worked in the shipyards and over time she became committed to a conservative agenda. Her father’s ideals, she explains, helped her become a Tory with a conscience.
“Most of my father’s family were from Yorkshire and they were miners and were very high up in the miners’ union during the strikes in the 1980s. My father brought me closer to this whole left-wing perspective and as a politician I feel very ready and able to understand and accommodate different points of view to my own.
“My father was passionately opposed to many of my opinions but he believed that if you had a conviction about something and you had good reasons for that then your position should be respected. He taught me an enormous amount about having respect for those who hold a different viewpoint. He loved that I thought things through for myself and that I had that independence of mind because certainly, the last thing he wanted was a clone of himself.
“So it is possible to follow a different ideology and hold different opinions than others while still having a great, respectful relationship with them.
“I have always felt it is important to give something back to society and Mark is my ultimate inspiration. He served his country with total conviction that the British Army could make a difference in Afghanistan.
“It is a terrible grief to lose your husband in the way I did, but to know that he died so honourably, saving other men, is something I am so proud of.”
Hale explains that part of the difficulty of having the armed forces covenant extended to Northern Ireland is opposition from republicans who feel that if such legislation is altered then IRA combatants should be granted similar freedoms and support.
“We have a republican/ nationalist agenda in Northern Ireland that will not recognise the service of soldiers in the British Army as worthwhile.
“The republican position is that if we recognise the contribution of British soldiers then we must recognise that the IRA were soldiers and they should then be entitled to some of the same benefits. For me that can never be – a soldier is somebody who puts on his uniform and goes out to fight for his country. It’s not the same as someone who puts on a balaclava and goes out to place a bomb under a car. Servicemen and women risking their lives to protect democracy and the rule of law and deserve a much better deal than they currently have.”