Killed in Afghanistan: a man bigger than life and brave as a lion

Gary O'Donnell took the long, lonely walk to defuse bombs many times. Yesterday he was rewarded for his final journey. Terri Judd reports
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The Independent Online

"Bigger than life. Brave as a lion," was the way Warrant Officer Gary O'Donnell was described yesterday. It was a truly fitting tribute to a man who often roared with laughter and sported an unkempt mane on operations in Afghanistan.

One of the country's most experienced and talented bomb disposal specialists, WO O'Donnell – Gaz to his friends – will be remembered by those who knew him as much for his unfailing sense of humour as his humbling courage.

Yesterday it was the latter that was honoured as he became the first soldier in living memory to be awarded the George Medal twice for military operations. This second time, however, the award was handed out posthumously.

On 10 September 2008, just nine weeks after the birth of his son Ben, the 40-year-old was attempting to tackle a roadside bomb near Musa Qala, Helmand, when it exploded, killing an extraordinary and remarkably charismatic man.

Yesterday Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, commander of the field army, announced that WO O'Donnell had been awarded a bar to the George Medal he had won for his work in Iraq for "repeated and sustained acts of immense bravery" in Afghanistan.

His widow, Toni, 40, the mother of the two youngest of his four children, said: "You cannot describe the feelings I have. I am so proud of him. He was a larger-than-life character. He just got on with it. He loved his job. He did what had to be done... He would be chuffed about this."

The extraordinary honour of a second George Medal was recommended in recognition of his remarkable actions in two separate incidents in May and July 2008. WO O'Donnell, who had disposed of more than 50 roadside bombs during his tour, had placed himself in immense personal danger in order to protect his comrades, the citation read.

"No one who met him ever forgot him," said Major Russell Lewis, who won the Military Cross for the courage he showed commanding a company of the 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, in Afghanistan. "I have seen many brave soldiers and he was one of the bravest I've ever seen. What he did was way beyond being above and beyond the call of duty."

It was WO O'Donnell's duty to make the long, lonely walk to defuse explosive devices. Having served twice in Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, he had spent half of the past three years in war zones, tacking hundreds of deadly devices and saving an incalculable number of soldiers' and civilians' lives.

"It was his passion and he took immense pride in making places safer for other people, the danger to his own life rarely seemed to affect him. If it did, he kept it to himself. He was a real character and a natural leader of men, his big smile often giving reassurance to the less experienced or more anxious," explained Lieutenant Colonel Dave Wilson MBE, Commander Joint Force Engineer Group, upon his death.

Born in Edinburgh and educated at St Thomas of Aquin's High School, WO O'Donnell joined the Army in 1992, immediately displaying a talent for the work on operations in Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland.

In May 2006, rockets were raining down on the main British base in Basra, Iraq, when a firing point was detected with a rocket still in place and the timer ticking. When WO O'Donnell arrived he opted to neutralise the device manually and chose to place himself directly in the firing line of the rocket so that he could disable it in the shortest possible time, reducing the danger to the 4,000 service personnel at the base. It was just one of several selfless acts that would see him being awarded the George Medal for "persistent courage" in saving so many lives at the risk of his own.

Having already served one tour in Afghanistan in 2007, he returned the following year to help tackle the surge in roadside bombs that was proving such a deadly enemy to the troops on the ground. As No 1 operator and commander of an improvised explosive device disposal (IEDD) team of the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Royal Logistic Corps, he and his fellow soldiers defused 120 roadside bombs and dealt with the aftermath of 80 in just a few months.

In May 2008, WO O'Donnell spent nine hours in 40C heat meticulously disposing of seven IEDs, which had been fitted with anti-tamper devices aimed at killing a bomb disposal expert, in the Upper Gereshk Valley.

Two months later he was called to another part of Helmand, where a convoy had been stopped by a roadside bomb, making it vulnerable to attack. The warrant officer stepped in to tackle 11 bombs, working solidly over a 24-hour period. One of the bombs had been set up with a command pull and the Taliban attempted to trigger it as he walked towards the IED but failed to set it off. Undeterred, he went on to defuse the device anyway.

While he was unfailingly professional and adamant that someone in his position could never be complacent, he talked with impish glee of the number of times luck had been on his side – such as the day he had jammed his finger into a clothes peg, a makeshift bomb trigger, just in time.

But in September last year, as he approached the end of his six-month tour, the luck which had kept him alive against the odds ran out. He was approaching a booby-trapped bomb to try to clear a path for fellow soldiers when it detonated and killed him.

For those who gathered in Leamington Spa three weeks later to watch his flag-draped coffin brought into St Peter Apostle RC Church to the sound of a piper, it was not just his bravery but his unquenchable zest for life which they recalled.

Across his back he had a tattoo of the soldier's unofficial motto "Living the Dream" – and appeared to be doing just that. He was famous for his guitar playing, singing and the fact that he always managed to fashion a paddling pool to cool off in the heat of remote operations. Along with his broad grin and rapid-fire jokes, the sound of his laughter was an almost permanent fixture of his presence.

Yesterday General Lamb said: "Gary O'Donnell – George Medal and Bar. Bigger than life. Brave as a lion. Look no further for your 21st century role models. These are our real heroes... They are truly the right stuff." But the most poignant tribute was from his widow, the mother of Aidan, eight, and Ben, now eight months. He also had two children from a previous marriage – Cayleigh, 16, and Dylan, 14. Explaining that he had returned home to see his new-born son just weeks before his death, Mrs O'Donnell said: "He was a brave man. A big man," adding: "I'll tell the children about him."

The second highest decoration

The George Medal is the second highest decoration for bravery away from the enemy and was instituted by King George VI in 1940 at the height of the Blitz. The medal is granted either to civilians or to military personnel in recognition of "acts of great bravery", for gallant conduct which is not in the face of the enemy, and is just below a George Cross, the equivalent of a Victoria Cross. The circular silver medal depicts the reigning monarch on one side and St George slaying the dragon on the reverse. The ribbon is red with five equally-spaced thin blue stripes. Warrant Officer Class 2 Gary O'Donnell is the first recipient of a second George Medal for military operations in living memory.