A tale of two wars, and their youngest victims

In the week that the death toll in Afghanistan surpassed the 255 fatalities in the Falklands, Terri Judd tells the story of two teenagers whose sacrifice belied their youth
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The Independent Online

In woodland outside Hereford yesterday 18-year-old William Aldridge, the youngest British soldier to die in Afghanistan, was buried. It was a private ceremony surrounded by his friends, many – like him – still in their teens.

Mark Eyles-Thomas is now 45. Twenty eight years ago he was a 17-year-old paratrooper in the Falklands conflict when he lost three of his closest friends, including Private Ian Scrivens – the youngest soldier to die in that war.

This week the death toll in Afghanistan surpassed the 255 deaths suffered in the Falklands conflict. It is a reminder of the two generations who have suffered in conflict.

The Falkland conflict was a very different war to that now being fought in Afghanistan. It may have been brutal and bloody but it had a clear purpose – to oust the Argentinean invaders – and was over in just 10 weeks, unlike the eight and a half years the country has been embroiled in operations in Afghanistan.

But the treatment of the soldiers and their families certainly did not reflect the nation's gratitude. Mr Eyles-Thomas saw his three fellow 17-year-olds from The 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment – Privates Scrivens, Jason Burt and Neil Grose – die in front of him during the brutal battle of Mount Longdon in which 18 soldiers were killed on 11 June 1982. When the fighting finally died down he collapsed in his sleeping bag next to their body bags.

Yet the Army initially refused to bring the bodies home. Families were informed of the death by a member of the regiment, who had none of the training of today's casualty notification officers. Their son's medal simply turned up in the post.

"The families had to fight to get the Army to bring them home," said Mr Eyles-Thomas. "They were told they would stay where they fell. They didn't even offer to fly relatives out there.

"The heart-breaking thing is they never got the personal effects. Neil Grose only jumped in his reg (parachute regiment) socks. He was so superstitious, they meant everything to him but they disappeared. We got back and there were their empty beds, the mattresses folded over and their lockers wide open," said Mr Eyles-Thomas.

Eventually, the Army capitulated and the dead were brought home on a container ship months after the living. There was no dignified repatriation ceremony, no crowds waiting to pay their respects through Wootton Bassett.

"They were just offloaded by cranes on to the dock. I think the BBC got images. It was horrific."

Inadvertently some aspects of the homecoming were better. Troops today return through Cyprus for 24 hours decompression while Mr Eyles-Thomas and his comrades had a week on a ship to Africa to thrash out their angst.

But once the plane flew them back to RAF Brize Norton nothing more was done. Unlike today's servicemen and women they were not briefed on the dangers of combat stress, simply sent home to a supportive but uncomprehending world. There were no parades or medal ceremonies. As is still the case today, the first question in the local pub was "Did you kill anyone?"

The wounded were medically discharged unless they could put up a strong enough case to stay while those who were haunted by their memories kept quiet. "We were the lucky ones because we weren't physically injured. There was no appreciation for the guilt you would feel. No one talked about it. I didn't know why I got pissed up and went mental," explained the former paratrooper.

Mr Eyles-Thomas, who went on to write about his experience in Sod That For a Game of Soldiers, suffered years of flashbacks and nightmares. It is well known that more Falklands veterans have taken their lives since than died on the battlefields.

The day Rifleman Aldridge died was equally brutal. Hit by a roadside bomb while on patrol, he and his friends were trying to evacuate the wounded when they were struck by another series of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). By the end of the day five were dead and several more had lost limbs.

His mother Lucy Aldridge last spoke to her first born – the son she remembers for his enormous grin and generous nature – two days before he died on 10 July last year. He was exhausted but joked that he had grown an enviable beard.

"My last words to him were 'You know I love you, promise no heroics'. His response was 'yeah, yeah'," she said.

Since his death she has channelled her energy into raising money for the physically and mentally wounded. While much progress has been made since the Falklands, she believes far more needs to be done.

"I know some of them are really struggling. One of them has a huge amount of [survivor's] guilt. I think the number of suicides [in the military] is going to be much greater than the Falklands if the right type of assistance is not available because there are so many more men and women involved in this conflict," she said. While there has been improvements in helping immediate family, Mrs Aldridge insisted she had become painfully aware of how many others – siblings, grandparents, friends or girlfriends – were left to struggle with nowhere to turn.

"I feel for the families. I understand the devastation this causes. They are going to live with it for the next 40 or 50 years," added Mr Eyles-Thomas.

Despite the passing of nearly three decades, Mr Eyles-Thomas can still remember with perfect clarity burying his three closest friends on a freezing day in Aldershot along with 15 other paratroopers. Other families opted for private ceremonies.

"My dilemma was which coffin was I going to be involved in carrying. I didn't want to show favouritism. In the end I went for Jason Burt because I had been right next to the other two as they died. But I thought my obligation was to see Jas to his final resting place.

"Grose, Scrivs and Jas are all in one plot, which is great. The only problem is there is no space for another."