I sat in my kitchen and watched a video of my son slowly dying as his men begged: Stay with us, Sir: Mother who lost son in Afghanistan gives a bitterly angry testimonyMark Evison died after he was shot in the shoulder by a Taliban bullet in 2009But his grieving mother Margaret has had to
cope with the
knowledge her son’s death might have been avoidedShe believes the Ministry of Defence has
failed to address shortcomings in communications and a helicopter
delay‘The inquest into Mark’s death was a whitewash,’ she says
00:43 GMT, 3 November 2012
Margaret Evison had always been an optimist. She did not allow herself to contemplate the worst when her beloved son Mark — one of the finest young officers of his generation — left to serve in Afghanistan.
She remembers their brief doorstep embrace: an ordinary farewell — the sort that assumes a safe return. She recalls, too, that she and Mark, a lieutenant in the Welsh Guards, had talked about the possibility of death, but only in a detached way.
Margaret, a consultant clinical psychologist who works with cancer patients, had drawn on her professional skills to prepare her son in case he had to cope with the loss of one of his soldiers. But she did not imagine she would soon be contending with her own inconsolable grief.
Loss: Since Mark Evison died on duty in Afghanistan, his mother Margaret has had to cope with the knowledge her son's death might have been avoided. Mother and son are pictured in Australia in 2009
‘Mark told me he was worried he might make a mistake and cause someone’s death,’ she remembers. ‘I explained how people who knew they were dying were able to adjust to it and accept it. But we did not discuss the possibility that he might die.
‘Like Mark, I never really believed anything bad would happen.’ Her voice trails off. She blinks away tears.
It was a late spring day in 2009 when Margaret’s hope was destroyed. She learned that her only son had been gravely wounded: shot in the shoulder by a Taliban bullet.
Mark, 26, was flown home and three days later his mother stood, mute with shock, at his bedside in Selly Oak Hospital, Birmingham, as doctors told her there was no flicker of life from his brain.
Margaret, 66, watched as his life support machine was switched off.
‘The spirit left Mark in less than a second. His face changed and his lips were tinged blue,’ she says.
Today, three-and-a-half years on, her boy is still never far from her thoughts. ‘I think about him a lot, but it is most marked at the beginning and the end of the day,’ she says.
‘There is that line in the Ode Of Remembrance “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them,” and it’s right. He is present all the time, really, but that’s when I think of him most.
Respected: Mark, a public schoolboy who attended Dulwich College then Charterhouse before graduating from Oxford Brookes University, was regarded by friends and the men in his platoon as a hero
‘You never really get over it: an adult son; a young man in his prime. And I think about the circumstances of his death. I’m sure he would have coped. He was a brave person, but as a mother you always worry. I do not even have the comfort of knowing he died quickly and painlessly. At the inquest they said he bled to death.
‘I think about whether it had to happen and what a pity it is. I just wish he was still here. It took me two years to realise he was not ever coming through the door again. I still don’t quite believe he won’t . . . ’
Her steady composure breaks; tears well again in her eyes.
Since Mark died Margaret has had to cope, not only with the burden of her own loss, but also with the knowledge her son’s death might have been avoided. She knows that the radios used by his platoon were faulty, sparse in number and out-dated; their signal weak and frequently interrupted.
She knows, too, that the helicopter that air-lifted him, grievously wounded, from the Taliban-besieged fort at Haji-Alem where he was stationed, was crucially delayed.
Though she masks her grief behind a bright facade — she is warm and welcoming when I visit the home in Dulwich, South-East London, where she raised Mark and his sister — her quiet anger simmers.
She believes the Ministry of Defence has
failed to address the shortcomings in communications and the helicopter
delay. She is convinced these omissions could cost other lives in
Tragic: Margaret, 66, watched as her son's life support machine was switched off after he was shot by a Taliban bullet in 2009
‘The inquest into Mark’s death was a whitewash,’ she says. ‘It felt like a heartless legal nightmare in the middle of another crushing nightmare. I don’t think anything was learned from it.
‘That made me angry. Every parent of a son or daughter who died in Afghanistan would like to know why they died; to think something positive came out of their loss.
‘The inquest could have provided an acknowledgment of the communication problems, but they said there was nothing wrong with the radios and no delay in the arrival of the helicopter. The inquest was a waste of everyone’s time and money.’
Margaret has had to find ways to channel her grief and anger, and she has done so, in part, through writing.
Her book, Death Of A Soldier: A Mother’s Story has just been published. Part elegy, part forensic analysis, it is a lyrical lament for the dashing blond son she lost and an examination of the circumstances of his death and its aftermath.
Mark, a public schoolboy who attended Dulwich College then Charterhouse before graduating from Oxford Brookes University, was regarded by friends and the men in his platoon as a hero.
He was nicknamed 007 and his commanding officer in 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards marked him out for distinction.
‘He is the best platoon commander in my company and also the most junior,’ he wrote in his last report before Lt Evison’s death. ‘His manner, intellect and tactical acumen, combined with his humility, bode well for a notable military future. He should be promoted to captain at the very earliest opportunity.’
Margaret is proud of her son’s courage and selflessness, but her memories are also a mother’s fond ones, of a ‘sweet-faced, naughty and endearing’ child who grew into a ‘slim, fit and robust’ young man, who cared about others. ‘Everyone loved him,’ she says simply.
And she saw his sensitive, creative side: a young man who visited art galleries with her, who was an accomplished cellist and who loved the peace of her quiet London garden, laid its turf and constructed its trellises for her.
Margaret raised her children single-handedly after divorcing when Mark was 11. She combined motherhood with part-time work at a large London teaching hospital.
Her bond with her son was a strong one, and she was delighted when his innate talents — physical fitness, self-discipline and love of adventure — found a natural outlet in the Army.
Talented: Mark was nicknamed 007 and his commanding officer in 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards marked him out for distinction
When he left for Afghanistan in April 2009, where he and his platoon were stationed in the fort perilously close to the Taliban’s biggest training ground, he took a diary and recorded in meticulously neat, pencilled script, his thoughts and fears.
‘As it stands I have a lack of radios, water, food and medical equipment,’ he recorded in the leather-bound journal that Margaret treasures. ‘This, with manpower, is what these missions lack. It is disgraceful to send a platoon into a very dangerous area with two weeks’ water and food and one team medics pack.
‘Injuries will be sustained which I will not be able to treat and deaths will occur which could have been stopped. We are walking on a tightrope and from what it seems here, are likely to fall unless drastic measures are taken.’
His words have an awful prescience.
Because Mark’s war was a modern one, Margaret has footage recorded on his soldiers’ helmet cameras of the moment her son was fatally wounded in a Taliban ambush. It was given to her by the military authorities as they prepared for the inquest. She steeled herself to watch it — and observed his heroism and that of his platoon.
She knows he had been sent to a hazardous area, bristling with Taliban activity, and had been ordered to send out patrols to deter insurgent activity. He and his platoon were there to protect the local population, but were inadequately equipped.
She knows, too, that Mark died securing the safety of his men: as he stood in a doorway of the Haji-Alem fort as bullets flew around them, he was shot. Yet even as the bullet severed a main artery in Mark’s right shoulder, he continued to give orders. He did so, too, as his men carried him back to their base, under fire.
Difficult: Because Mark's war was a modern one, Margaret has footage recorded on his soldiers' helmet cameras of the moment her son was fatally wounded in a Taliban ambush
She heard Mark’s voice telling his men: ‘I’m going down . . . I’m going down.’ She listened as his devoted Guardsmen willed him not to succumb; as they fought to keep him conscious. ‘Stay with us, sir . . . Stay . . .with us!’ she heard one shout.
‘I sat in the kitchen and watched it,’ she says quietly. ‘The footage somehow seemed more horrible than anything I had imagined.’ She knows the chaos and terror they endured. She watched supreme acts of selfless heroism as the Guardsmen lugged ‘the boss’, gravely injured, along a sewage ditch under enemy fire.
She knows some of the men did not have radios. They had to communicate through hand gestures or by shouting over a deafening barrage of gunfire.
It was important she shared this footage: she wanted people to understand the humanity, the valour, the sheer decency of our soldiers in Afghanistan, and the BBC showed it in its powerful series Our War.
Mark, she knows, remained conscious in the patrol base for an hour after he was shot. Brain death probably occurred 20 hours later at Bastion hospital.
Three days after, at Birmingham, the life support system was switched off: the legal date of his death is May 12, 2009.
But could her son’s promising young life have been spared Had the helicopter not been delayed, he could have got to hospital still conscious and breathing. Would he then have lived The question hangs over her, heart-breaking, unresolved.
Missed: Margaret said her son was a 'man of great courage, compassion, distinction and charm'
‘Medics talk about the “golden hour”, which is the ideal time to get an injured soldier into hospital,’ she says. ‘Mark was shot at 8.40. The helicopter arrived with him at Bastion hospital, Helmand, at 10.03. At the inquest, the coroner acknowledged a delay of 38 minutes.
'That may be acceptable in Nato terms, but it shouldn’t be. It made me angry that there was no exploration of why this delay happened.’
So what is Margaret left with She lives with her partner in a house full of memories. She takes solace in the peace of her garden; in the knowledge Mark’s short life was rich in love, adventure and achievement.
She has met other mothers who have lost sons. ‘That was a comfort to me, a marker of some strange normality’, she writes. ‘Another mother said to me that with the death of her son she had lost the self she knew. I understood that. The love of a child is a particular love.
‘Our children are connected to us endlessly by a metaphorical umbilical cord. When they die, part of ourselves die. Afterwards that protecting, giving, loving part of me tied up with Mark was gone forever.’
With his death, her life changed irrevocably. She remembers the beautiful May day — the garden ‘restless with bloom’ — when news of his grievous injury came.
She had arrived home after buying a newspaper to find a casually dressed man standing in her driveway. She did not suspect bad news. Even when he told her he was an Army Major, the penny did not drop.
‘I’ve got a son in the Army,’ she responded brightly. Then she was told: her Mark was very seriously injured. He would be flown back, a priority case, to England — and after that she remembers little.
Later, early morning nightmares haunted her. ‘They shattered my sleepy waking,’ she says. ‘I could see Mark being shot, sometimes with his blood soaked everywhere and sometimes losing blood slowly and painfully while the men around him were powerless, unable to do anything.
‘Sometimes in this re-living he was in pain to the end, bleeding and limp; sometimes he had lost consciousness earlier and was carried back in peace. It was difficult, impossible, to control the power of these imaginings, their regularity and the sense of my impotence in the face of them.
‘For me, my mourning and these fantasies were one: because of them I could not remember Mark as he was, as I had known him.’
The passing years may have dulled the vividness of those waking horrors, but the sorrow never abates. Margaret is charming: fine-boned, stylishly dressed and softly spoken, but is easily moved to silent tears and during our conversation her voice often cracks with emotion.
She shows me a book of photographs that Mark’s university friends compiled for her after his death. There are pictures of him in his ceremonial Guardsman’s uniform, guarding the Queen’s palace; snaps of him scaling a rock-face; fooling around with mates; walking his adored terrier Nutmeg.
He is heart-breakingly handsome, and one of his men said his face seemed ‘sculpted by an angel’.
The inscription on this book reads: ‘The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for me to see by.’ His friends chose this from the works of Felix Adler the American educator — it sums up how they felt about Mark.
How would Margaret choose to remember the precious boy she loved as only a mother can The words are there on his gravestone, she says: ‘A man of great courage, compassion, distinction and charm.’
And then comes the valediction: ‘Farewell great heart.’
Death Of A Soldier: A Mother’s Story by Margaret Evison (Biteback Publishing, 16.99). To order a copy at 14.99 (P&P free), tel: 0843 382 0000.