Terri Judd: Why I won't forget the man who protected me

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The Independent Online

When Gaz O'Donnell's photograph flashed up on the Ministry of Defence's list of fatalities, I had to re-read the obituary countless times before the horror of the words would sink in.

It is a cliché to describe someone as larger than life but I can think of few for whom the compliment was so apt. As a reporter twice embedded with the Army in Helmand, I worked with him in 2007 and 2008.

Gaz had an invincible air about him. Despite the extraordinarily dangerous nature of his work, he laughed off any suggestion that it could take his life, inspiring those around him with his humbling courage. Over a few cold drinks in Helmand, he suggested – quite rightly – that I would do well to embed with his improvised explosive device disposal team, as their work was taking them to every part of the treacherous region.

I joked that I would only do so if he allowed me to stand well back. But, in truth, I would have happily followed, never once questioning that he would triumph once more over the deadly devices.

My sadness is but a drop in the ocean of grief that must have been felt by the family and friends who packed the church for his funeral – some wearing Elvis costumes to the wake in a more than fitting tribute to his unfailing sense of humour. But Major Russell Lewis's words yesterday that "no one who met him ever forgot him" resonated with such truth. And, like so many others, I too wonder if I owe him my life.

But it is not for his bravery that I will remember Gaz, but for his charisma, one-liners, booming laugh, impishly rebellious streak and ability to make an outsider feel welcome.

Yesterday I looked at that photograph again. This time I smiled as I remembered the words of a friend: "He is holding a fag, wearing a non-regulation helmet and grinning. The picture's perfect."