‘He was my soulmate and I think about him every day’

THREE years after her husband was killed in Afghanistan, Christina Schmid has poured her grief into a memoir of Olaf “Oz” Schmid

Now I really am going to cry,” whispers Christina Schmid, smiling apologetically and fighting back tears – as she has done so many times in recent years. The widow of Olaf “Oz” Schmid, the bomb disposal expert killed in Afghanistan in 2009, has vowed never to weep in public.

It’s part of the pact she made with her 30-year-old, Truro-born husband before he left for his final, gruelling, five-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. He repeatedly told her that if he was killed, he wanted her to hold her head up with pride. “Show them all you’re proud of what we did. Don’t let me down or let insurgents get the satisfaction of seeing you in bits, too.”

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The 36-year-old has kept her promise, despite her devastating loss.

But tears spring to her eyes as we speak about the many living ghosts in her life since her “phenomenal warrior” was killed – “murdered”, she insists – while attempting to defuse a roadside Taleban bomb, near Sangin, on 31 October, his last day in the field.

“Of course, he’s always with me. Sometimes, it’s almost too much to bear. I believe he’s living on through me – we were so close. He told me, ‘I am so proud you made me the man I am.’ Well, he made me the woman I am. We were together for four years, then married for two but he was my soulmate and I think about him every day. He was everything to me, but there are other ghosts, too. I had two miscarriages, the second when Oz was halfway through his time in Afghanistan. I was four months pregnant.

“I’ve never told anyone this before but each year on what would have been their birthdays, I spend the day quietly thinking of the two children we lost. I wonder what they would have been like, what we would have done as a family to celebrate their special days, then I think how cruel it would have been for them to have to grow up without their wonderful father,” says Schmid, whose courage, dignity and eloquence, standing up for her dead husband’s memory with pride rather than letting it fade away, so moved the nation in 2009.

On TV news bulletins the pale, blonde widow blew a quiet kiss, mouthing the words, “Well done,” and clapped as the hearse carrying her husband’s coffin drove through Wootton Bassett, the Wiltshire town that became a focus for national mourning. At Oz’s full military funeral in Truro Cathedral, she pinned his medals proudly on her chest, stood up in front of the packed congregation and delivered a eulogy, urging politicians to “fight with his same spirit, dedication and integrity day in and day out for peace”.

Overnight Schmid had become an ambassador for the dead and injured and their families, giving a voice to the military men and women unable to speak out in their own interests. She’s gone on to make a Panorama programme for the BBC, asking whether the Army is failing its duty of care of the tiny, elite band of soldiers in bomb disposal. She’s never watched it. Clearly, Colonel Bob Seddon, the Army’s top bomb-disposal expert, did. He resigned the morning after the broadcast.

She’s interviewed David Cameron, skewering the Prime Minister with her sharp questions. Schmid has always refused to be drawn into the political debate about the conflict. Nonetheless, her campaigns for change have been successful, particularly regarding the Military

Covenant covering the Army’s duty of care, which became law under the new Armed Forces Bill back in

May 2011.

Now, she’s written a memoir, Always By My Side, subtitled, “Losing the love of my life, and the fight to honour his memory.”

That fight has seen her campaign tirelessly for British troops to be better equipped and less overworked. In her book, she tells how Oz – a staff sergeant in 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) regiment – often worked a relentless 11-hour day in 50-degree heat with a ration of only two litres of water.

After his death, it was stated that he was disarming his 65th bomb when he was killed. Schmid says she knows for a fact that he had defused several hundred improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and was suffering from cumulative tiredness and fatigue. He also had chronic, stress-related irritable bowel syndrome. Schmid walked out of the inquest into his death on the first day when it was implied that the blame for what happened lay with Oz, subtly discrediting him by saying he had been a little rushed that day and had spoken to his son Laird two days earlier, and Laird had said, “You need to come home now, Daddy.”

That is not why he died, says Schmid, who has also criticised the Ministry of Defence over everything from the paltry size of military pensions to the shoddy treatment of horrifically injured triple amputees coming back from the war.

Dressed in sunshine yellow – “for peace” – she went to Buckingham Palace to receive Oz’s George Cross, the highest honour for bravery, from the Queen and she’s received the Elizabeth Cross on his behalf from the Princess Royal. She has also become patron of

Tickets for Troops, the charity that offers members

of the armed forces free tickets to major events, such

as the Grand Prix, Premier League games and Test matches. Recently, she has started to do their public relations.

A former account manager with a pharmaceutical company (Schmid was made redundant by the American company on the day Oz’s body was repatriated), she’s done all this lest we forget that men like her husband gave their tomorrows for our todays. She tells me he wanted her to let people know about the shortages and the corner he had been backed into, “... me and other high-threats,” he said. “None of us mind doing our job, but we shouldn’t be doing other people’s jobs too. Promise me you’ll let people know.”

Then he told her: “You’ve always been gobby. Use it. Promise me.”

She laughs, “I never stop talking. Sorry!” Nonetheless, she has also maintained a calm, composed exterior in public, despite spiralling privately into a vortex of grief – “a black hole” – alongside Oz’s German-born mother, Barbara (his Swedish father, Hans, died in 2006), and her own parents, who cherished their son-in-law. Grief has a way of ambushing her when she least expects it. “Sometimes, I feel I’ve shed every tear I have in my body, that I’ve no more left in me, then I’ll have a huge crying jag. That’s why I never wear eye make-up, only false eyelashes superglued on. Waterproof mascara? Don’t make me laugh, it’s certainly not tearproof.”

We continue talking about the family that she and Oz never had. “I am still grieving for the babies we lost,” she says. “I got over the physical pain quite quickly, but the emotional pain is always there. When I had the second miscarriage, I wrote a letter to Oz, then chucked it away. I waited to tell him when he called. I remember how sad he was. He was probably much sadder than he admitted to – he had been writing letters home addressed to ‘Bump,’ our unborn child”.

Oz consoled her by saying they already had so much – he was a devoted, loving father to her son, Laird, eight, from a relationship which was over before her son was born and before she and Oz got together. She and Oz first met in Cornwall as teenagers when, she recalls, she wasn’t that impressed, although he was only 13 at the time. But when she shows me photographs of her “boys,” her golden-haired son – known as “Lairdster” – and her husband, she says: “Don’t they look incredibly alike? It’s amazing to me.”

What will Schmid do if Laird wants to join the armed forces when he grows up? “It wouldn’t surprise me – he’s a mini-Oz, he walks like him, he talks like him and he’s very sporty. He’s been around fit, young soldiers all his life,” she replies. “You know, I wouldn’t stop him. I just want him to be happy.”

Schmid will never lay all of her ghosts to rest, although she hopes and prays she’s put some of her sorrow to rest with her memoir. “I wanted to write it for Laird but also I wanted Oz’s story to be recorded. It had to be told. I also hope it will help other women and families who have to cope with similar bereavement. For me, it’s been part of the healing process, even if the wound will always be there.”

Life goes on, of course, and the morning we met, Schmid’s mother, Gill, who is in her seventies, had been flown home from Spain, where she recently suffered a heart attack. Already blind in one eye after a series of massive strokes, she will be undergoing major heart surgery in hospital in Winchester soon. Desperately worried about her mum, Reading-born Schmid has been flying back and forth to support her parents – her father John ran a catering company before retiring to commission, deliver and maintain yachts – who decided to move abroad after the inquest into

Oz’s death.

“That’s enough. I will not stay in this country we’ve worked so hard in and for and pay taxes and see such wrongdoing,” her dad said. After our interview, Schmid e-mails to say she’s sure her mum – Oz called her “hoofin’,” his version of “awesome” – will be fine once her pacemaker has been fitted.

When we meet in the boardroom at Schmid’s publisher’s London offices, it’s the eve of the repatriation of the six British servicemen killed by an IED in Lashkar Gah on 6 March, taking the death toll since Britain entered the war in Afghanistan ten years ago from 398 to more than 400. Their deaths are a powerful reminder that this terrible conflict has become an IED war, that bomb disposal experts like Olaf Schmid, who risk their lives daily to make their comrades safe, have never been in greater demand.

“It is very sad, very, very sad,” sighs Schmid, adding that her heart goes out to the parents, wives, girlfriends, children, siblings of the dead young men. “To me, the fact that they were killed by an incredibly powerful IED that destroyed their Warrior armoured vehicle is a reminder of how strong those insurgents are, even though the coalition government is looking to withdraw eventually. It’s such a cat-and-mouse game. It’s massively sad to see soldiers, who know how to protect themselves, be so unlucky – an awful word to use – but it can lead to absolute carnage.”

What of the future? When they married, Oz told her it was for life. If he died, she was not to marry again. She has been dating recently. “I’m a very girly girl,” she laughs. “I like the company of men so, yes, I have dated, but not for sex. I just like macho guys around me,” she says.

“If I do meet someone one day, I’ll have a church blessing, but I won’t remarry. Like Oz, I believe you marry only once,” she says, gazing down at the sparkling diamond ring she wears on the third finger of her left hand. She has just had it refashioned from her wedding ring and her Art Deco engagement ring.

“It’s one of those imponderables,” she admits. “When, as a widow, do you take off your ring? Of course I can’t, so two are now one – in every sense.”

In Always By My Side, Schmid has reprinted many of Oz’s tender, jokey, sexy love letters from the frontline – “blueys” in forces parlance – always written in capital letters, often addressed to “My gorgeous wife, my sexy partner, my best mate.”

“And he was my gorgeous husband, my sexy partner and my best mate,” she says. “I am linked to him for ever in a thousand ways.”

• Always By My Side, by Christina Schmid, is published by Century, priced £12.99