'The MoD lied about Mark . . we needed to hear the truth'
THERE'S no escaping the fact that Jem and Bobby Wright are proud parents. Pictures of their only son, Mark, fill their Dalkeith home. Posing with friends, relaxing with family, joking with colleagues, his handsome face is everywhere.
And it's that pride which is bringing tears to his father's eyes now, as he recounts the moment he and Mark's mother saw his coffin, draped in the Union Jack flag, brought out of the army aircraft in Colchester.
"He was the final one to be brought out, and I like to think they saved the best till last," smiles 61-year-old Bobby, through his tears. "And that he was."
It's been two years since paratrooper Corporal Mark Wright of the Parachute Regiment's 3rd Battalion was killed by a mine in Afghanistan's Helmand province, back in September 6, 2006. For his parents, it's been two years waiting to hear the truth about what happened to their son.
"Horrendous," is all nursery teacher Jem, 57, can say about last month's harrowing two-week inquest in Oxford. "I went but I wouldn't listen to anything that happened to Mark or any of the boys. I don't want to know how he died."
"I stayed in for the lot," admits Bobby."It was very hard – a nightmare. I had to stay in though – I wanted to know. I needed to know."
It was initially reported Mark, a mortar platoon soldier, had gone in to help six colleagues who were badly injured after straying into a minefield. It was said then that taking command of the incident, he ordered unnecessary personnel to safety and organised the casualty evacuation, calling for a helicopter. And that as he made his way to the Chinook, he triggered another land mine. But his father has since discovered events unfolded somewhat differently.
"You see, initially they (the MoD] told us that Mark had stood on a mine, but the lads (Mark's fellow comrades] told me that wasn't the case – the downdraft from the helicopter had blown it on to his chest," explains Bobby. "It eventually transpired that this was the case. They tried to make out it was Mark. The story kept changing. They were trying to cover their backs."
The men had requested a helicopter with a rescue winch to be sent as they feared the aircraft landing would trigger more explosions. But military chiefs had none available and sent a Chinook helicopter which created a fierce downdraft, causing a mine to detonate into Mark. Yet he continued, applying tourniquets to the injured as they waited for more than three hours for a US Black Hawk. He died in the helicopter, yet his final act was still to lean over to check the condition of an injured comrade. And as Bobby relays the grim details of the inquest, Jem has to walk out of the room, unable to take any detail.
"He didn't die because he stood on a mine," whispers Bobby. "He died because of that helicopter which caused the downdraft. He shouldn't have died at all. They were too scared to come in, go down a wire and pick them up. And they didn't even have the right helicopter to winch them up. They were left there for over three hours and Mark bled to death."
His voice breaks as he describes how his son continued shouting encouragement and masterminded a rescue as he lay dying, saving the lives of six servicemen. And he recalls how former combat medic Paul Hartley said that "to the day I die, I will always say he was the bravest man on the face of the planet", and the inquest coroner said the MoD should "hang their heads in shame".
Bobby continues: "One man in particular was asked the same question 17 times and refused to answer it. Yet he came out, introduced himself to us and admitted that if they did have the right winch helicopters Mark would have been saved. But he wouldn't say it to the coroner. I was so angry I wanted to get up and stay something. All I wanted was the truth."
Eventually Bobby got the information he wanted about his son's death. "Paul and Mark were leaning over an injured man, the helicopter came in and they knew they were in deep s**t. It was lifting boulders with its downdraft and it blew Mark over. He got up and a mine was lifted and blew up in his chest."
At this point, Bobby's voice trails off. "I'm sorry," he says, quietly, before continuing. "He got hit three times by three different mines."
At the end of the inquest, Coroner Andrew Walker blamed Mark's death on a lack of equipment, and said inadequate provision of resources for British troops in Afghanistan was "simply about money".
Bobby says: "I think the MoD should get their act together. They're behind desks talking a lot of c**p much of the time. If they do wrong, they should hold their hands up and admit it. We've nothing against the Army – it's that hierarchy. These men need their tools, their equipment. They need to be able to do their job properly – there's no reason for men like Mark to lose their lives because of that."
He continues: "If it hadn't of been a Russian mine, it would have been manslaughter. That's what it was – manslaughter. But the inquest did bring us a sense of closure. We know our son didn't step on a mine. We know they were lying."
At 13, Mark joined the cadets, inspired by his uncle Alex Reid going into the Army, and spent many weekends away. After leaving St Serf's at Wester Coates, Mark joined the Army when he was 19. During his eight years as a Para he completed a tour of Northern Ireland and two of Iraq before his final operation in Afghanistan.
Jem continues: "I always knew he wanted to do it. When he actually went to join up we said to him that he had to go and try it. It was his dream. But we told him if it wasn't for him, it was OK to come back. As a mum, I didn't want him to do it and that morning he left I cried for two days and I couldn't go to work. I reasoned 'yes it was dangerous – but it would never happen to you'."
Mark sheltered his parents from what he saw on duty, only admitting once that Iraq was a "walk in the park compared to Afghanistan".
"You never saw any worry in him," remembers Jem. "He used to phone a lot and every time he would say he's sitting on top of a hill and he was bored. He never told us the reality of it.
"In fact, we didn't find out until after he'd been killed that he'd been put forward for a Queen's Gallantry Medal. It was actually the lads who told us, and they said that if it hadn't of been for Mark, the 32 of them wouldn't have been there."
Mark had just one month to go before his tour was over and he was to return home. He also had just one month to go until his wedding to his childhood sweetheart, Gillian Urquhart. Then, came the news.
"I came home from work and Bobby mentioned it was on the news that someone had been killed in Afghanistan and others were hurt," says Jem. "I never usually watch the telly but I switched it on at 5.50pm and I saw it. I knew. I just knew. My gut feeling told me it was Mark. Then ten minutes later the door went and it was the soldiers. I knew then."
Jem's voice gives and she silently cries as she remembers. "I was numb. I just thought no, this isn't happening, not to us."
Bobby just stares at the ground, shaking his head. She then adds: "We still expect him to walk through the door. We still expect to see him again."
It took just one week for his body to be flown home and the couple took their son back to their home where he stayed until his funeral service at Mortonhall Crematorium. More than 600 people came to Mark's funeral which was devoid of "show and pomp".
"That just wasn't Mark," says Jem. "Some of his SAS and Marine friends came and carried his coffin in to the crematorium. And all his comrades were there. Then he was awarded the George Cross."
With his original awards now at the National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle for all to see, replicas are proudly displayed in the couple's living room. "I am proud," says Bobby. "Very proud."
WORKING TO HELP THE HEALING
TO ensure the memory of their son lives on, Jem and Bobby Wright are putting all their energies into the Mark Wright Centre, a dedicated post-conflict trauma recovery and rehabilitation treatment centre.
Working with and for the MoD, the centre, which will be based in the Lothians, will also provide holistic early intervention therapeutic support, treatment and services and offer service veterans retreat and respite breaks.
The Mark Wright Project is seeking to raise more than 4 million in order to purchase and equip the centre. To donate to the project visit www.themarkwrightproject.org .uk or send a cheque to The Mark Wright Project c/o Innes Sculthorp Chartered Accountants, 78 Easter Bankton, Murieston, Livingston, EH54 9BE.
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