'Every time another soldier dies, I cry for the woman who loved him': As six more coffins come home, a heart-wrenching interview with the widow of our oldest fallen hero
21:44 GMT, 21 March 2012
Every time she gazes out of her kitchen window onto the wide expanse of lawn beyond, the memories come flooding back for Jacqui Thompson.
She and her husband Gary raised five daughters in their comfortable family home, and it is in the garden that they spent some of their happiest times.
‘Every time I look out I can still see him in my mind’s eye, chasing the girls, making them laugh,’ she says.
Sacrifice: Gary with his wife Jacqui Thompson and five daughters
Those girls — Laurie, 26, Aimee, 24, Jordan, 23, Jade, 21, and 20-year-old Kelly — are all grown up now. But Jacqui’s recollections of their carefree childhood are all the more precious because four years ago Gary Thompson was killed in Afghanistan when his tank detonated a roadside bomb.
The successful businessman had volunteered for service as a reservist, and paid the ultimate price for his bravery, dying just seven weeks after arriving in the country. He was the 93rd British casualty there, and — aged 50 — our oldest to date.
Since then the death toll has risen to more than 400, including those six young British servicemen who lost their lives in one day earlier this month, which was the single biggest British loss of life in the Afghan campaign since 2006.
Their slaughter put the human cost of the conflict into sharp focus.
And no one knows more about the reality behind, and after, the tragic headlines than Jacqui, and Gary’s girls. They know only too well the emotional maelstrom those bereaved families will experience now, as well as the challenges to come.
Gary pictured in his uniform
‘I don’t cry much for me any more, but I could cry for every single one of those who died and their families because I have this horrible knowledge of what lies ahead,’ she says. ‘Those deaths aren’t just faces in the paper to me. It’s the thought of a life sacrificed and, with it, all the things that person will never experience.’
In Gary Thompson’s case those missed experiences include not walking two of his daughters down the aisle on their wedding days and never playing with — or even knowing — his grandchild Emily.
And there have been countless other milestones missed: driving tests passed, exam results, university graduations, 18th and 21st birthday parties. ‘None of us need to say “I wish he was here”. We all just know,’ Jacqui says. ‘But I feel it for them. Each time these landmarks happen their first instinct is to share it with him. And I feel so sad for Gary, too.
‘They were Daddy’s girls. He loved nothing more than sharing in their successes and helping them through difficult times. I feel sad he can’t see the wonderful young women they’ve all become.’
Gary signed up, Jacqui explains, out of a strong sense of wanting to give something back. ‘Gary told me he wanted to “do his bit”’, she says. ‘It’s a phrase that’s used a lot, but “bit” is such a small and insignificant word when you think what it actually means. It takes such an incredible person to step up to that plate.’
The phrase does, certainly, seem inadequate when you see what Gary left behind. Before he lost his life in Afghanistan in April 2008 he was a successful businessman and much-loved father, his history captured in the legions of family photos dotted around every surface of the family home in Nottingham.
‘People who didn’t know him ask me what he was like and I can never do him justice,’ Jacqui says.
‘I remember the first time someone asked it and I started saying things like “loyal” and “loving”. But that’s most people isn’t it It doesn’t really encapsulate who he was. The thing about Gary is that it’s not what he was but how he made you feel — for me it was like I was the most special woman alive.
‘Sometimes when I look back, I don’t know where I start and Gary ends.’ Jacqui was just 20 when they met at the sheet metal company in Nottingham where they both worked — Gary on the factory floor, Jacqui in the office. ‘There had been a lot of chatter among the office girls about this Gary Thompson and how gorgeous he was,’ she recalls. ‘Then one day I was making a cup of tea and in came this incredibly handsome guy.
Kelly came into my bedroom and said
“Mum, two of Dad’s RAF friends are at the door”. I knew instantly… The walk down the stairs was the longest of my life.
‘All he said was “good morning” but he had such an amazing aura I was immediately flustered. I went back into the office and said: “I think I’ve just met Gary Thompson.” ’At 29, Gary was a few years older, newly divorced, and the father of a two-year-old, Laurie, but love blossomed quickly, and within months Jacqui was pregnant, too. ‘We both just knew. Once we got together that was it,’ Jacqui says.
After Aimee was born, her three sisters followed in quick succession, with Laurie happily absorbed into the growing family. When Kelly, the youngest, was two, the Thompsons married — with all five girls as bridesmaids. The house was, Jacqui says fondly, chaotic but joyful.
‘There were always people here. It was full of kids, and noise. But that was what we wanted,’ she says. ‘We were in this gigantic, lovely family bubble. I thought we couldn’t be any more blessed.’
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Mourned: The six soldiers' coffins brought home this week
The idea that it might be anything more than a weekend hobby seemed inconceivable — Gary was in his late forties, after all. But in September 2007 the inconceivable happened: after a family holiday in the Dominican Republic, Gary returned to find deployment papers on the doormat. Afghanistan wasn’t mentioned, but after six months intensive training in the UK, there was only one place he would end up. ‘I was in shock,’ recalls Jacqui. ‘Gary was 50 by then and it hadn’t occurred to me for a minute this might happen.
‘The closest I’d got to his military life was washing his uniform. Looking back, I wonder if he had seen it coming but not said anything. He just kept telling me not to worry, that he would be safe, and if I’m honest I kept thinking it wasn’t going to happen. But as the date crept nearer I had to confront it. The hardest thing was telling the girls. Kelly was still just a teenager, and she took it very hard. I remember wondering what could be missing from Gary’s life that he felt a need to do this. That’s when he said he just wanted to do his bit.’
The family threw a farewell party before Jacqui drove her husband to RAF Wittering on February 22, 2008, where he boarded a night flight to Kandahar. Her last sighting of him came as he ran across the airfield, laden down with bags. ‘I was chuckling at him because he was so flustered,’ she says. ‘I had no sense at all that it would be the very last time I would set eyes on him.’
Gary was deployed with 3 Squadron, a ground unit whose primary mission was to protect the airfield, although in his phone calls home they talked little about his work. ‘There was an unspoken code:I wouldn’t ask and he wouldn’t say.
‘But he spoke a lot about his colleagues. He was full of admiration for them. He said they were so dedicated and brave, and mature beyond their years. He had forged strong bonds very quickly.’
But less than two months after he arrived, Gary’s patrol was caught by a roadside bomb.
He died alongside Senior Aircraftman Graham Livingston, 23.
We have so many incredible memories and I
am blessed that we had more than 20 years as a family. Some people
don’t get half that: there are boys losing their lives before they’ve
Back at home in Nottingham, Jacqui received the dreaded knock at the door shortly before midnight. ‘Kelly came into my bedroom and said “Mum, two of Dad’s RAF friends are at the door”. I knew instantly. I told her to go back into her bedroom. The walk down the stairs was the longest of my life. I opened the door and they said “Mrs Thompson” I wanted to say “no, you’ve got the wrong person”.’
Sitting on her sofa taking in the news, she remembers seeing three of her daughters on the stairs, sobbing. ‘I felt heartbroken for me, for them, for the rest of Gary’s family.’ The first few days, she recalls, were spent ‘like a zombie’. ‘You don’t cry. The pain is too much in some ways.’
When she did break down, it was at his funeral. ‘That day I cried for me, because I missed him so much.
‘At the same time I caught myself and thought “Jacqui, he never made you cry in all the years you’ve known him.” I thought “I’m not going to do this any more. I’m going to remember him with a smile”.’
She has stood by that vow ever since, although sometimes tears are unavoidable. Laurie and Aimee have both married since their father died — both walking down the aisle with a picture of him on their wedding bouquet — and Laurie gave birth to his first grandchild, Emily, who is now two.
‘With big events it’s always the same: you’re so happy on one level but underneath there is this huge sadness,’ says Jacqui. ‘But you have to battle it, not just for the girls but for Gary’s sake. He wouldn’t have wanted us to live a life in mourning. The girls meant the world to him and I see a piece of him in each and every one of them.’
All five daughters have coped, she said, by keeping the memory of their father alive. ‘They talk about their dad all the time. He’s still very much part of our lives. We have so many incredible memories and I am blessed that we had more than 20 years as a family. Some people don’t get half that: there are boys losing their lives before they’ve even begun.’
Like those six young servicemen for example — whose deaths have further fuelled calls for Britain to withdraw from Afghanistan. Jacqui admits: ‘It’s a double-edged sword. I can understand why people want our lads out and I want them to come home safely too — I don’t want any other family to go through what we have. At the same time I don’t want it all to have been for nothing.
‘I know Gary believed in what they were trying to do over there, and partly because of his girls. He was bowled over by their strength of character and he wanted young girls in Afghanistan to have the same opportunities they had. He believed passionately in the work they were doing.’
It’s one reason that Jacqui is ‘doing her bit’ too, fundraising for the RAF Benevolent Fund, a charity which she says helped her through the difficult few weeks after Gary’s death.
‘They sent a lovely caring letter saying they didn’t want to intrude, but offering emotional and financial support. They sent a cheque which I thought I didn’t need, but actually it was vital as it took months to get money released from Gary’s estate. I was very touched as we’re not a military family but they still gave me the most enormous support. I cannot sing their praises highly enough.’
On what would have been her husband’s 51st birthday in 2009 Jacqui completed a fundraising trek up Mount Kilimanjaro, placing family pictures at the summit.
‘I felt so proud, but there was this huge sadness as I was looking at his face and thinking “I’m never going to be able to share this properly with you”. That’s the thing, he’s not coming back. I miss so many things, but more than anything I miss us, our family.’
If you or your partner are serving, or have served in the RAF, and need help, call the helpline on 0800 169 2942 or visit www.rafbf.org.