Soldier and decorated bomb disposal expert
Born: 21 July 1968 in Edinburgh.
Died: 10 September, 2008, in Musa Qala, Afghanistan, aged 40.
THE temperament possessed by Warrant Officer Gary O'Donnell, GM – an unruffled calm presented with unfailing good humour – determined the stages of his life from youth to manhood and the eventual professional calling that so required these character traits: bomb disposal. WO O'Donnell's technical expertise in weapons intelligence and disposing improvised explosive devices was in demand wherever the British Army had a front line.
Gary had a happy upbringing in Edinburgh where he attended St Peter's Primary School and St Thomas' Secondary. It was at the latter that he found music (first through the clarinet which, with typical sunny generosity, he undertook to demonstrate in primary schools) and then later, the guitar. Gary and the guitar were from then on inseparable; when he died in Afghanistan, his best guitar was in his quarters.
As a youth, he searched around for a career without urgency and with his unworried good humour. For a time, he followed the path of many youngsters, joining a band as lead singer and developed a pleasing and powerful voice. In any family or social gathering, Gary would take the floor and sing with great, unembarrassed gusto that won over all present. He was musically relentless, filling every car journey not with recorded music but with full-throated family sing-songs. No child ever asked "are there yet?" Gary was a born performer and that showmanship extended to the way he looked and dressed.
It was no surprise to his family that he joined the Edinburgh Oxgangs ATC as a cadet when he was 15. As much as the company, he enjoyed wearing the uniform. He had been small as a child, always the angelic blond little boy in the school line-up. Being small didn't suit him, he thought, and as a young man he therefore built his body to a notable level of strength and fitness. He maintained that fitness in a fully professional way when he later joined the army, but never let that dedication get in the way of family commitments. If he had to be in the gym to sharpen his fitness, the session would take place before his children were awake.
Gary began his military career in 1992 in the British Army of the Rhine. He entered the Royal Logistics Corps as a sergeant and was quickly identified as a technician with significant ability. He was posted to different parts of the world, with tours in Sierra Leone and Iraq, as well as two tours each in Northern Ireland and Afghanistan where he had specialist roles dealing with "improvised explosive devices" (IEDs) and weapons intelligence.
While building his career and gaining extraordinary technical skill, he also had his family of four children, two from a first marriage and two with his wife, Toni.
The clear-eyed determination that built his career had another aspect: his unfailingly solicitous nature. Gary understood the strains his absences placed on his wider family. It was entirely characteristic of the man that his wife, children, parents and siblings could all claim to receive letters, cards, phone messages, e-mails and word of mouth remembrances throughout his tours of duty. Gary forgot no-one in remembering his duties, personal and professional.
In 2006, his parents, Joe and Annette O'Donnell, heard of the award of the George Medal to their son with pride and some surprise because, in his modesty, Gary never hinted at his exploits. Reading the citation is a humbling experience. Most who did, wept with both pride and fearful apprehension on reading of his deeds. Warrant Officer O'Donnell fully deserved the newspaper epithet "hero".
On 10 September, he was in Afghanistan commanding an IED disposal team dealing with a bomb detected by a high-risk search team. His task was to clear a route in a vulnerable area for 5 SCOTS Battlegroup, in and around the western side of Musa Qala. In the course of one recent day, he had cleared eight bombs as part of an extremely select and intimate group of individuals. WO O'Donnell was calm and amidst his equally brave comrades as he moved forward. He was killed in the subsequent explosion. He died doing the job he loved surrounded by people who loved, admired and respected him.
His fellow soldiers rated him a natural leader of men: "his big smile often giving reassurance to the less experienced or more anxious".
The Defence Secretary, Des Browne, got it right when he summarised WO O'Donnell's achievement: "He was personally responsible for saving thousands of the family, friends and comrades of others from the anguish that is currently being felt by his own."
WO2 Gary O'Donnell leaves behind his wife, Toni, their children, Aidan, eight, and Ben, nine weeks, as well as his children from a previous marriage, Cayleigh, 16 and Dylan, 14.