Chris Dunsmore had everything he wanted - a good job, a fiancée, great family and friends. But the 29-year-old knew that when he was sent to Iraq in 2007 he might lose it all. And, as was typical for a man who tried his best in everything he did, he had a heart to heart with his father before he went.
Speaking ahead of a BBC 2 documentary being broadcast this week [20th] called ‘Iraq: Did My Son Die In Vain?’, in which he goes to Basra to try and make sense of what his son died for, Geoff Dunsmore, 58, recalls how the two made sure his son’s “affairs were in order.” Four months later Chris was dead.
Asked about the title of the film, he says “That’s not my question, that’s a question that other people have said to me many many times,” and adds: “Never once have I felt it was a waste of time or that Chris gave his life for nothing, never once have I felt angry, because Chris was following his destiny.”
It was “fate” that his son was “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Mr Dunsmore is one of hundreds of British parents to have suffered the death of a child in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Chris Dunsmore was one of 179 British soldiers killed in Iraq, after the victorious invasion in 2003 descended into a bitter war of attrition with Iraqi militia.
The RAF reservist died on July 19, 2007 in a rocket attack on an accommodation hut in Basra which killed two others and left 15 wounded. The senior aircraftsman, from Leicester, was just hours away from coming home for two weeks leave. Instead he became the first RAF reservist to be killed in combat since the Second World War.
The Independent on Sunday can reveal, for the first time, diary entries made by Chris. They include his fear, on flying out on 26th March 2007, that he might not be coming back alive. “I could not stop worrying about not seeing family again.” When he got to Basra everything was fine to start with, describing being out on patrol where children “hold their hands out to get a high five” and “The parents wave and the lads give the thumbs up.”
But soon the mood changed, with Islamic militia fighting for control of the city: “Three IDF [indirect fire] attacks today and it’s getting to be the norm now, but no-one killed, which is good.”
And in an entry from the 18th April, he wrote: “I am lucky to be alive! A 120mm rocket landed 15 to 20 metres away from me and only about eight metres from some of the flight. I absolutely shit myself, as did everyone else, but amazingly, no-one was hurt… It’s quite lucky, really. As we left to go on patrol, we had just driven out of the car park when a mortar and rocket hit just the other side of the gate where we were parked. We had just left. Got back to write this and there has just been another IDF which was close enough to hear the impact. What a day!!”
Three months later, Chris Dunsmore’s luck ran out.
Ten years on from the invasion of Iraq, and five years after the death of his son, Geoff Dunsmore, a retired headmaster from Devon, visited the very spot where his son died in Basra. It was “very poignant” but the hut has long since gone and “it was more like a rubbish tip… I found it hard to relate to a place where Chris had been killed because of the nature of how it was looking”
He left a small cross, on which he had written the names of his son and the other who died, pinned to a nearby wall.
Whilst supporting the decision to invade Iraq, he thinks more time should have been taken to plan what would happen after Saddam Hussein was defeated. In the confusion that followed “I think that’s where the real trouble started.”
The government “underestimated the complexity” of being in Iraq, expecting the armed forces “to be peace makers, not just peace keepers,” but a failure to plan properly for what to do after the invasion enabled the militia to get a foothold, he says.
Years on, Iraq remains in crisis, suffering from militia turf wars that are killing thousands every year, and basics such as electricity and water remain distant dreams for many Iraqis.
People in Basra feel “they’d been left in the lurch a little bit and I felt that too, in a way,” and Mr Dunsmore wants the government to do more to help rebuild Iraq.
“All they’ve known and all their parents have known as they’ve grown up is war and conflict and they want a different life.” Although “there is hope” the people of Iraq face a long road ahead, according to the retired headmaster.
“I think a lot of the problem is that they don’t know what to do because they’ve never had this freedom so it’s going to take time and it’s going to need help.”
And while the deaths of his son and others are “the most terrible thing” he takes comfort in believing “they’ve been part of the change, they’ve been the seed within the change in Iraq.”
He feels that his son’s presence is with him, citing things he “cannot explain” like a wall hanging crashing off the wall the evening he was told Chris had died. “I just jokingly turned to the captain and said ‘Well, that’s Chris coming home!’”
Mr Dunsmore is relentlessly optimistic - determined to live his life in tribute to his son - but cannot disguise his sadness as he recalls: “I found out after we lost him he’d actually put me down as his major inspiration for his life …it was on his Facebook, he put me down as his hero and his inspiration and I hadn’t been aware of that.”
One of the hardest things was feeling the loss of his son’s fiancée Donna: “She was left with her dreams in tatters, her future, all the things they had planned.”
As for himself: “I’ll never be over it, I grieve every day but I grieve in a way that it is positive. It’s positive pain, not negative pain, if that makes any sense.”
The only other alternative, he says, “is to dig a hole, climb in it and cover yourself up and that is not the way forward” and he concludes: “What Chris and his colleagues have done is bring another way of living to some Iraqi people. I am not saying the whole of Iraq will be a different place yet, but the seed has been sown. I am very proud that my son was a part of that.”