Sipping cold drinks outside the small shop at the Lashkar Gah army base a couple of weeks ago, I asked Gaz O'Donnell pointedly whether he was phenomenally brave or completely mad. He tipped his head back and roared with laughter, modestly admitting only to the latter.
Warrant Officer Class 2 Gary O'Donnell laughed a lot. Along with his broad grin and rapid-fire jokes, it was a permanent fixture of his presence. The 40-year-old Scot was the first of two servicemen to lose his life in Helmand last week, bringing the number of British dead in Afghanistan to 119. Two days after he was killed by a roadside bomb, Private Jason Lee Rawstron from the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment was shot in the head during a battle in the Upper Gereshk Valley.
A decorated hero, WO O'Donnell was a man with an easygoing manner towards anyone he met, a soldier who shrugged off compliments casually. The George Medal he had been awarded for his work as an improvised explosive device (IED) disposal expert in Iraq in 2006, as well as the outrageously dangerous tasks he carried out unflinchingly in Afghanistan, spoke volumes about his humbling courage.
"Death is for the weak. Do I look like a weak person?" he joked, flexing his biceps. Across his back, he had a tattoo of the soldier's unofficial motto, "Living the Dream", the very words his wife, Toni – as well as fellow members of the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps – chose to pay tribute to him.
Among his tattoos was a picture of a cannabis leaf. He joked it dated back to his previous life as a rock star. He was famous for his guitar playing, singing and the fact he always managed to fashion a paddling pool to cool off in the heat.
Amid a British army camp full of headquarters staff in neatly pressed uniforms, Gaz and his merry band of bomb disposal experts meandered about unshaven, their hair wildly unkempt, blatantly thumbing their noses at petty rules. Perhaps they had ignored pleas to smarten up or perhaps nobody had the nerve to challenge a group of men who had become so crucial to everyone's survival in Helmand.
In the past four months, the IED teams have defused 120 roadside bombs and dealt with the aftermath of 80 that had exploded.
Gaz was one of a select number, whose job it was to make the "lonely walk" to defuse the bombs, leaving others at a safe distance.
This was the second time I had bumped into him in Lashkar Gah. In just a year he was already back again in Afghanistan on a second tour. He had also served in Iraq, Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland.
For all his joviality, he was passionate, skilled and very serious about his work.
"You can't get complacent. You might as well sign your own death warrant. They are a very effective enemy," he said.
But he also spoke with impish glee of the number of times when luck had been on his side. Only recently he had jammed his finger into a clothes peg, a makeshift bomb trigger, just in time.
On 10 September 2008, his luck ran out. He died leading a team to defuse a bomb near Musa Qaleh, just nine weeks after his fourth child, Ben, was born. As well as his baby son, he leaves a widow, Toni, Aiden, eight, and two children from a previous marriage, Dylan, 16, and Kayleigh, 14.
"He was at the very top of his extremely dangerous and difficult trade. 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," said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Wilson, his commanding officer.
It is impossible to tell how many of us are walking around today with our limbs intact because of this hugely charismatic man. He joked that the Taliban must hate him for ruining all their hard work. If they did, they must have been the only ones.Reuse content