Parents' tribute to 'brave' teenage soldier

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The parents of the first British soldier killed in Afghanistan this year appealed today for their "brave" son's memory to be honoured.

Private Robert Hayes, 19, of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, was killed by an improvised explosive device while on a foot patrol in the Nad-e-Ali area of Helmand Province on Sunday afternoon.

He had only been in the Army for just over a year, but his senior officers said he had already made a "real difference".

Pte Hayes, from Burwell, Cambridgeshire, was also a keen sportsman who played for Newmarket Rugby Club and won his weight category in his battalion's 2009 boxing championships.

He completed his Army training in March last year and joined 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment shortly afterwards, the Ministry of Defence said.

In October the young soldier deployed to one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan as part of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards Battle Group.

Pte Hayes's family said becoming a soldier was his one ambition from childhood.

Paying tribute, they said in a statement: "Trying to express the true measure of our sorrow - and our sense of loss - at this time, is impossible.

"We are still coming to terms with this devastating news. However, we are strengthened by the thought that he was with his comrades, doing the job he so dearly loved, when his life was taken...

"Although he had an enthusiastic and energetic personality, our son could just as easily behave with the manners of a gentle, reflective, caring person.

"As a grieving family, we would ask that our privacy be respected. We also ask that our brave son's memory be duly honoured."

Pte Hayes also leaves his girlfriend, Gemma.

Lieutenant Colonel James Woodham, commanding officer of 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, known as the Vikings, said he was "shocked and saddened to the core".

He said: "Robert's death leaves a huge hole in the Vikings' ranks. He will be remembered as a trusted member of the team, a young man whose energy for life was contagious, for his bravery and sense of humour.

"Robert was young man who made a real difference in his short time with the battalion - he has been taken from us and we are all the poorer for his passing."

Major Christopher Davies, Pte Hayes's company commander, said he had become known across the battalion as "an extremely capable soldier, brave comrade and talented boxer".

He said: "For over two months he was involved in heavy and relentless fighting against insurgents and always acted in a courageous, decisive and selfless manner.

"The considerate way in which he interacted with the local population was synonymous with someone who was genuinely decent and wanted betterment for those less fortunate than himself."

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said: "I was truly saddened to hear of the death of Private Hayes.

"A soldier who was regarded by all as full of energy and ability, both when he was soldiering and when boxing and playing rugby - he clearly excelled at both.

"His loss will be keenly felt by all, but none more so than his family. Our thoughts are with them and his close friends and colleagues."

A total of 246 British troops have died since the start of operations in Afghanistan in 2001, including 108 in 2009, which was the bloodiest year for UK forces since the 1982 Falklands War.