A soldier's story: The short life and violent death of Sgt Chris Hickey, 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards

His death on Tuesday got only fleeting mentions. So Severin Carrell went in search of the man who was the 97th Briton to fall in Iraq, and found friends asking: how many more of our lads are going to die like this?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

He would see Gemma, his wife of two years. He would be nipping out for a pint with his mates at his old local. After closing time, he might even get to the nearby Chinese restaurant for his favourite meal of crispy duck, soy sauce and pancakes.

But all the things young men might have been and might have done were frozen in time last Tuesday night when Chris Hickey walked into trouble on a dusty street in Basra, southern Iraq.

Recently promoted to sergeant, he was on a routine patrol, leading his 30-strong platoon through the streets of the city. Hickey pressed on ahead of his men, reconnoitring a quiet street to ensure there was no ambush. A bomb exploded. His men rushed to give Sgt Hickey first aid.

Medical workers battled to save him in a military ambulance. A helicopter was scrambled to airlift him to the British military hospital in Shaiba. During the flight, Sgt Hickey died from his injuries. He was 30 years old.

The story made a few paragraphs in the national newspapers. Sergeant Christopher Hickey had become the 97th British soldier to die in Iraq. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence, issued a statement: "The death of a British soldier in Iraq deeply saddens me. All our thoughts and sympathies are with the family at this difficult time."

Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Henderson, Sgt Hickey's commanding officer, praised him as the "epitome of a professional soldier", adding that it was typical of him to have been leading from the front when he died.

His parents, Patrick and Pauline, were too upset to talk in detail about the death of their son. A family friend issued a brief statement on their behalf: "Christopher Hickey was a dedicated soldier. The Army was his life. He was incredibly proud to serve his country. We all loved and respected him. He will be greatly missed."

But who was Christopher Hickey? What had taken him from the streets of East Brierley, a picturesque village on the outskirts of Bradford, with a chestnut-lined green, to the violent uncertainty of the streets of Iraq? This is the story of Christopher Hickey, an unknown soldier to all but the people of his home town.

As rain dripped from the eaves of the East Brierley cricket club, Robert Spence sat on a bench last week and thought about his best friend. In front of him were the Pennines, covered in a dense, grey sheet of rain and low clouds. And beyond, the lights from cars as people hurried along the M62 motorway.

Hunched against the cold, his face tense and tired, Spence became more relaxed as he remembered old times and high jinks with his mate. As kids, they used to run races over their neighbours' back gardens, vaulting the hedges as parents shouted after them.

There was Hickey, the teenager, who used to try his best at picking up girls in the area. "He never got very far, but he tried," said Robert. "To be fair, he was a scrawny little kid."

There was the Hickey he used to make illegal cocktails with, by mixing Taboo with lemonade. And there was his dress sense. "He liked owt with a zip," said Robert, shaking his head ruefully. "Bad for zips, he were. If it had a zip on it, he would wear it, really bad jumpers with zips."

He remembered other landmarks in his young friend's life: the time he bought an ancient white BMW convertible, which he called his "pimp mobile", a joke at his own expense on account of his failures chatting up girls. That car, his friend said, was so ugly "it was offensive".

He had other eccentric - and endearing - habits. He loved yoghurt and rarely went anywhere without a pot in his pocket. He once provoked fury among stuffier members of the cricket club by strolling over the ground's pristine wicket one day, nonchalantly scoffing a yoghurt.

Remembering this made Robert grin. Speaking as if Hickey were still alive, he said: "He's mad on yoghurt. Loves yoghurt ... On several occasions, when we were out drinking, he would pull a yoghurt out and just drink it, and get the rest out with his fingers. Yoghurt's good for you, he would say."

Hickey "were the life and soul", Robert added . "He had a wacky sense of humour; he were just funny, and as we got older, his sense of humour just got worse. He knew everybody. It were weird. He was always going to some wedding or some do or some birthday when he was home. Everybody in the village knew him. If he didn't wash their cars, they just knew him."

Although an unremarkable pupil with little interest in school - he was disciplined on his first day at Whitcliffe Mount - Hickey showed as remarkable a talent for entrepreneurship as he did for having fun.

As a boy, he was always looking to make a few quid. He built up a thriving business washing his neighbours' cars on Saturday and Sunday mornings, walking the streets with a bucket in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He made up to £50 a week, which wasn't bad for a teenager 15 years ago. He also worked at an Italian restaurant, as a kitchen boy washing dishes, and odd-jobbed.

Immediately after leaving school, Hickey tried several jobs, including working as a mechanic. But he could not settle, and felt himself drifting. He had seen schoolmates sliding into crime and drug abuse. One day, he got up, got dressed, went to the local Army careers office and signed up. For 22 years. He was serious. Like generations of his young countrymen, Hickey joined the Army to find out about himself and find his own place in the world.

"He thought if he stayed around here he would've ended up getting into trouble," Robert said. "I never thought he would make it in the Army. I thought he would be back, but when he passed out, me and our mate Matthew went down for the passing-out parade, and he was one of the best new recruits. He won an award for being fittest recruit or something." All of Hickey's friends shared Robert's surprise and misgivings about Hickey's new career. It seemed entirely out of character, the disciplined, structured life of a Guards regiment was a long way from the anarchic, irreverent and wacky Hickey they had grown up with.

Sam Metcalfe, another of his closest friends, said: "He joined the Coldstream Guards, which was hilarious because I didn't think he would last a minute. We never thought he'd make it. But it turned him around, didn't it?" And now, looking back, it all fitted into place. Hickey badly wanted to make it work. When he applied to the Army, he was too skinny. The recruiting office told him he needed to put on weight, so he came home and ate like a horse.

"I remember he wanted to join when he was 16 but they told him he was too light, so he went away, put on half a stone and went back when he was 17," said Robert. "He just loved it. He thrived on it. He would come back and he was always the same Chris, but the stories he would tell; how much he had enjoyed it."

By all accounts, Hickey was destined for promotion. He had signed up for a full 22-year career, and was seen within the Coldstream Guards as potential officer material. He had talked to Kenneth Spence, Robert's dad, about transferring to Sandhurst officer training college to teach. Robert Spence remembers Hickey regularly being sent on training courses. "They were always pushing him to do something else," he said. "They'd marked him for better things."

Hickey's jump into adulthood and a new-found sense of responsibility was also evident from his marriage to Gemma two years ago. He had met her at a nightclub near Catterick training camp in North Yorkshire. Brought up near the base, she had been prepared to move wherever he went, embracing the upheavals and uncertainties of being an army wife. "She was his life," Robert said. "She had packed up everything to move with him. She would've gone wherever she wanted, and she was more than happy to go."

With Gemma in mind, since she had never been to the United States, the couple and Robert and his wife had planned their Christmas holiday in Florida. Robert expects the trip to be cancelled. Gemma was too grief-stricken to talk publicly about her husband's death last week.

There was only one topic his friends were unwilling to discuss last week: the politics of the Iraq war, due chiefly to his parents' strong wishes. Robert Spence's father, Kenneth, is adamant about that. "That's one thing we do know for certain: that there's no political side to this at all. He was a professional soldier. He went where he was told, and he did his job, and was good at his job. His family don't want to put any political slant on whether we should be there or shouldn't have been there."

But the political background to Hickey's death was never far from the conversation around the lager glasses in the snug at the New Inn, where Hickey should have been enjoying a pint this week.

Chris Hickey's death has given life to a growing anti-war sentiment among some people in the village, and increased resentment of Tony Blair's government. This is a naturally Conservative neighbourhood, says Joyce Geary, the popular landlady of the New Inn pub for the past 10 years. Hickey was a regular at the New Inn, the hub of his social life in the village.

Suddenly, with his death, Mrs Geary and other villagers have a face and person to put to the name and the number of war dead. "It just brought it home," she said. "How many more of our lads are going to die like this? They've done what they wanted to do, and it's time that they brought them home, all of them. Let them fight amongst themselves, but don't involve our lads any more."

Mrs Geary, trim and smartly dressed, with a ready smile, has contempt for the Prime Minister and is derisive about his relationship with the US President, George Bush. "He's like a lapdog isn't he? Wagging his tail, just following Bush around. Everything he says 'Yes' to, and he's sending our lads over there. If the Americans want to do it, let them get on with it."

Sam Metcalfe agreed. "I have never encountered a lot of death in my family. It's my first taste of grief. This is my first friend who's died. It's not like he had an illness. We were expecting him home. When you heard a soldier got killed, a month or two ago, you always feel it's going to be someone else, not one of your mates. It's shite, really. You know what I mean?

"I think it's a waste, because he's a hell of a good mate of mine. But at the end of the day, Chris was doing his job: 'I've been sent and I know what I have got to do.' Chris was a soldier through and through."

The word "waste" crops up often, the waste of a great friend. What his mates remember were his pranks and his pratfalls.

"People say once someone has been killed they grow wings and they're suddenly special, but he actually were," added Sam. "He was one of the best lads I've ever known. I never saw him fall out with anybody. He got done for drink driving, but he could make that funny. There wasn't a bad bone in his body."

In eight days, East Brierley will attend Hickey's funeral in a nearby church. It will be long remembered there. Not simply because this young joker and mischief-maker will be buried with full military honours, his coffin carried by an honour guard of the 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards.

It will be remembered because they will be burying a beloved friend. And they will never forget Chris Hickey, son, husband, joker, loyal friend and professional soldier, killed by an ambush in Iraq on 18 October, 2005, doing his duty.


Jason Ward 21 MAR 2003

Mark Stratford 21 MAR 2003

Ian Seymour 21 MAR 2003

Les Hehir 21 MAR 2003

Sholto Hedenskog 21 MAR 2003

Philip Stuart Guy 21 MAR 2003

Llywelyn Evans 21 MAR 2003

John Cecil 21 MAR 2003

Philip Green 22 MAR 2003

Antony King 22 MAR 2003

Marc Lawrence 22 MAR 2003

Philip West 22 MAR 2003

James Williams 22 MAR 2003

Andrew Wilson 22 MAR 2003

Kevin Barry Main 23 MAR 2003

David Rhys Williams 23 MAR 2003

Luke Allsopp 23 MAR 2003

Simon Cullingworth 23 MAR 2003

Steven Roberts 24 MAR 2003

Barry Stephen 24 MAR 2003

Stephen Allbutt 25 MAR 2003

David Clarke 25 MAR 2003

Matty Hull 28 MAR 2003

Steve Ballard 30 MAR 2003

Christopher Maddison 30 MAR 2003

Shaun Brierley 30 MAR 2003

Chris Muir 31 MAR 2003

Kelan Turrington 6 APR 2003

Ian Malone 6 APR 2003

Christopher Muzvuru 6 APR 2003

Karl Shearer 22 APR 2003

Alexander Tweedie 22 APR 2003

James McCue 30 APR 2003

Andrew Kelly 6 MAY 2003

Duncan Pritchard 8 MAY 2003

David Shepherd 19 MAY 2003

Leonard Harvey 22 MAY 2003

Simon Hamilton-Jewell 24 JUNE 2003

Russell Aston 24 JUNE 2003

Paul Long 24 JUNE 2003

Simon Miller 24 JUNE 2003

Benjamin Hyde 24 JUNE 2003

Thomas Keys 24 JUNE 2003

James Linton 18 JULY 2003

Jason Smith 13 AUG 2003

David Jones 14 AUG 2003

Matthew Titchener 23 AUG 2003

Colin Wall 23 AUG 2003

Dewi Pritchard 23 AUG 2003

Russell Beeston 27 AUG 2003

John Nightingale 23 SEP 2003

Ian Plank 31 OCT 2003

Ryan Thomas 6 NOV 2003

James Stenner 1 JAN 2004

Norman Patterson 1 JAN 2004

Andrew Craw 7 JAN 2004

Vincent Windsor 21 JAN 2004

Robert Thomson 31 JAN 2004

Richard Ivell 12 FEB 2004

Gordon Gentle 28 JUNE 2004

Kristian Gover 19 JULY 2004

Christopher Rayment 4 AUG 2004

Lee O'Callaghan, 9 AUG 2004

Marc Ferns 12 AUG 2004

Paul Thomas 17 AUG 2004

Stephen Jones 10 SEP 2004

Marc Taylor 28 SEP 2004

David Lawrence 28 SEP 2004

Kevin McHale 29 OCT 2004

Denise Michelle Rose 31 OCT 2004

Stuart Gray 4 NOV 2004

Paul Lowe 4 NOV 2004

Scott McArdle 4 NOV 2004

Pita Tukutukuwaqa 8 NOV 2004

Paul Connolly 26 DEC 2004

Patrick Marshall 30 JAN 2005

David Stead 30 JAN 2005

Andrew Smith 30 JAN 2005

Paul Pardoel 30 JAN 2005

Gary Nicholson 30 JAN 2005

Richard Brown 30 JAN 2005

Mark Gibson 30 JAN 2005

Robert O'Connor 30 JAN 2005

David Williams 30 JAN 2005

Steven Jones 30 JAN 2005

Mark Dobson 28 MAR 2005

Anthony John Wakefield 2 MAY 2005

Alan Brackenbury 29 MAY 2005

Paul William Didsbury 29 JUNE 2005

Richard Shearer 16 JULY 2005

Leon Spicer 16 JULY 2005

Phillip Hewett 16 JULY 2005

Donal Anthony Meade 5 SEP 2005

Stephen Rob-ert Manning 5 SEP 2005

Matthew Bacon 11 SEP 2005

Ken Masters 15 OCT 2005