Heroes to the death: A VC is all that separates fallen soldiers

Cpl Bryan Budd was posthumously honoured last week. With much less fanfare, the MoD and media reported the death of Marine Richard Watson. Raymond Whitaker reports
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Two young men, one from Ripon in Yorkshire, one from Caterham in Surrey. Both died far from home, fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. And both are heroes.

The difference between the two is that the soldier from Ripon, Corporal Bryan Budd, of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, has been officially declared a hero. Last week it was announced that he had been posthumously awarded Britain's highest military honour for bravery, the Victoria Cross. In August he carried out a single-handed attack on a group of Taliban fighters who had pinned down his squad, wounding several of them, in a cornfield near the town of Sangin. It is the first posthumous VC since the Falklands war.

Royal Marine Richard Watson, 23, of 42 Commando, died on Tuesday near Now Zad, another town in northern Helmand province, where British troops were deployed earlier this year. He was hit while on a foot patrol which became involved in a firefight with the Taliban. Although evacuated by helicopter to Camp Bastion, the British base in Helmand, it was too late to save him.

Because of the way in which British military losses in Afghanistan or Iraq are announced, it was easy to miss the news of Marine Watson's death. Experience has taught the Ministry of Defence that it is better to disclose the loss of a soldier as quickly as possible, along with some details of the unit and location. It then shuts down all contact between troops in the same area and their homes, to prevent the name leaking out before the soldier's family can be formally notified.

For the relatives of those in combat zones, this means an agonising wait for a possible knock on the door. It is an ordeal that few among the general public would understand, or even be aware of, because all that is likely to appear in news bulletins or the press at this stage is a one-line announcement that a soldier has been killed. When the name emerges a day or two later, along with some details of the circumstances in which he or she died, it is often the first that many will have heard of it. The piecemeal way in which the news comes out means that it often gets less overall prominence than it might deserve.

So it was with Marine Watson and the tribute to him from his mother, Tania. From her home in Caterham, she said: "In or out of his uniform, Richard was and remains our hero - a loving son, dedicated brother and devoted boyfriend. He brought so much joy and happiness to our home, which now feels cold and empty without the warmth and love of my son. It is impossible to accept that such a wonderful human being is no longer here with us." In most reports, some of her words appeared alongside stories about the VC being awarded to Cpl Budd.

It is a matter of pure chance whether soldiers will ever find themselves in the situation that faced the 29-year-old Bryan Budd on 20 August, or how they will respond if they do. About two dozen soldiers were in a head-high cornfield when the corporal spotted about four Taliban fighters 50 yards away, and led his section on a flanking manoeuvre to try to cut them off. But they were spotted in their turn, and came under withering fire.

"One lad got a bullet in the shoulder, another was shot in the nose," another Para told The Sun. "Everyone was kneeling or lying down, trying to take cover. It was mayhem. That's when Bryan made his move.

"He got up and rushed straight through the field in the direction of the Taliban, just 20 metres away. Straight afterwards, the enemy's fire lessened, and allowed the rest of his section to withdraw to safety."

Lance Corporal Matt Carse, of the Royal Military Police, was in the same action. "Just the day before, I had been fighting next to Bryan Budd," he told The Independent on Sunday. Afterwards they had talked, and the military policeman learned that Cpl Budd was about to become a father again. The next time L/Cpl Carse saw his friend was when his section was sent in to recover his body.

"We were continually taking fire - the bullets were literally millimetres away from our faces," he said. "Rockets were landing in the canal next to us, causing huge splashes." When Cpl Budd's body was found, three dead insurgents were lying beside him.

On Friday the corporal's 23-year-old widow, Lorena Budd, a clerk in the Royal Artillery, received the VC on his behalf, and paid tribute to him, saying: "Bryan will always be remembered by me as a loving husband and father to our two beautiful daughters, Isabelle and Imogen." Imogen was born a month after his death.

Another 133 service personnel were honoured for bravery at the same time as Cpl Budd. They included a fellow member of his regiment, Corporal Mark Wright, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for trying to save comrades trapped in a minefield, and Private Michelle Norris, the first female recipient of the Military Cross. She gave first aid to her commander while under sniper fire in al-Amara, southern Iraq, in June.

It is not that Marine Richard Watson, the latest casualty, was any less brave: anyone who goes out on patrol in places like Iraq or Afghanistan needs steady nerves. It is just that there are fewer people to record his bravery. So what kind of person was he? Both his commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Matt Holmes, and a classmate, Paul Martynuik, remembered him as an ebullient character who probably - reading between the lines - took things a bit far at times.

Marine Watson loved to play the joker, said Lt-Col Holmes, but "nevertheless had a selfless and diligent work ethic... Richie radiated enthusiasm for his work and was inspirational, leading his young team from the front into hostile territory. He had already made his mark within his fighting company as a natural leader and candidate for promotion."

Mr Martynuik said his friend, a former cadet who joined the Marines 18 months ago, "liked to mess around a bit at school. But he was still in all the top sets, got good grades and did really well. You could see that he was just the type of person who would end up in the armed forces."

The last time they met was a few months ago in Croydon, when he was on leave. "He seemed really happy, and was enjoying it. It's just a real shock to see this happen to someone you were at school with."

In a society where no one below pensionable age remembers conscription, this is the effect of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan: a succession of private tragedies, felt by family and friends. The honoured few, like Bryan Budd, will be remembered by the nation as a whole, but the death of Richard Watson, the latest to fall, is more typical.

Corporal Bryan Budd

Last week the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military honour for bravery, was awarded posthumously to 29-year-old Cpl Budd, for single-handedly attacking a group of insurgents who had ambushed and wounded several members of his section in Helmand province, Afghanistan. A member of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, Cpl Budd was killed on 20 August near Sangin, scene of some of the most intense fighting against the Taliban during the summer. He is only the second recipient of the VC in 24 years, and the first to receive the honour posthumously since the Falklands war in 1982.

Royal Marine Richard Watson

The 23-year-old Royal Marine, a member of 42 Commando, was killed on Tuesday when his foot patrol became involved with a firefight with the Taliban near Now Zad, in northern Helmand province. He was evacuated by helicopter to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, but could not be saved. No other soldier was hurt in the clash. His mother Tania said he died "doing his duty, among his beloved comrades. In or out of his uniform, Richard was and remains our hero."

Additional reporting by Lauren Veevers and Leon Watson