ARMY ON TRIAL: From Oldham to Basra: a journey that changed the life of a young man

DARREN LARKIN'S role in the invasion of Iraq briefly turned him into a hero in his home town of Oldham, Greater Manchester.

It was widely known that a vehicle in which the lance corporal was travelling came under fire from Iraqi troops soon after he arrived in Basra in March 2003, and when he returned from Iraq three months later he received a rousing welcome.

A party was thrown by friends and family on 20 May last year at his local pub, the Moss Inn, in Heyside, and the 29-year-old was pictured in the Oldham Chronicle with his girlfriend, Victoria.

But life in Iraq with 1st Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and on Special Operations in Bosnia also appeared to have changed Larkin - or Daz as he is still known - into a quieter, more insular individual. "He told me a number of things when he came back from the war, about how he had lost a few of his mates," said his father, Terrence. "He was ... changed, somehow."

Yesterday, Larkin was cleared of forcing prisoners to strip naked at an aid camp, Camp Bread Basket, in Basra, at a court martial hearing in Germany. Cpl Daniel Kenyon, 33, and L/Cpl Mark Cooley, 25, both from Newcastle upon Tyne, deny abusing and assaulting prisoners at the camp in May 2003. But Larkin still awaits sentencing for beating an Iraqi prisoner. He was pictured holding a metal pole while standing on the terrified man.

It was a different Larkin from the boy who grew up in the back-to-back terraces of Sharples Hall Street, on the fringe of the Pennines.

"Daz was great at school - not a swot, but not a yob either," said one contemporary. "He was just one of the lads and always had a smile on his face. There were no problems with him - he didn't offend anyone. If anything he would break up any bust ups that he got caught up in. He was more a peacemaker." Some recall the 10-year-old kicking a football in the street, though sport has never been his passion. Instead, he spent his spare time tinkering with bikes and then cars.

On the Friends Reunited website, Larkin recently told his old schoolfriends: "I'm in the Army, haven't been back from the Gulf long and I'm now sunning it up in exotic Kosovo."

The young soldier left the town 10 years ago and has lived the army life ever since, visiting his father and mother, Jean, twice a year and using up much of his home leave to visit former comrades - including his best friend - in Somerset.

L/Cpl Larkin was considered for a Mention in Dispatches after one incident in Basra during the early stages of the conflict. On another occasion he discovered an enemy mortar base line and opened fire, destroying the position. He and another soldier were put forward for a bravery award, but were not selected.

His father said: "This has been a very difficult time for Darren and the whole family. You have no idea how hard it was for us while he was out in Iraq during the war. And, of course, it was hard for him as well. He was putting his life on the line and putting himself in danger, the sort of danger most people don't understand."