This weekend, I readily pledged my public support to a £1 million newspaper appeal for a new memorial to those brave men and women who have served in the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan.
I believe that the Sun on Sunday is right to insist that the courage that servicemen and women displayed in these conflcits must never be forgotten. For the United Kingdom to play a key role in two overseas conflicts stretching from 1990 to 2014 has put a tremendous strain on our Armed Forces – and has involved huge personal sacrifices.
More than 300,000 brave servicemen and women – supported by thousands of civilians – fought the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to help keep us safe. Sadly, 679 individuals paid the ultimate price, while thousands of others were left wounded and battle-scarred.
The Sun on Sunday’s campaign has already raised more than £200,000, while the Treasury has agreed to waive tax in another £200,000 boost to the appeal.
The recent award of the Victoria Cross (VC) – Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award – to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey encapsulated the bravery of our Armed Forces in the two campaigns.
I believe that today’s heroes – the men and women who served bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan – will become tomorrow’s legends, individuals whose courage will be revered for ever.
My passion for bravery dates back half a century and was largely inspired by my late father, Eric’s, experiences when wounded shortly after landing on Sword Beach during the D-Day landings of June 1944.
Over the past decade, I have done all I can to champion the courage of our servicemen and women, including writing five books on gallantry and building the world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses.
It is for this reason that I have made a significant donation today to the Sun on Sunday’s splendid campaign.
Memorials provide a focus for a nation’s appreciation of great commitment and sacrifice, and they ensure that the brave deeds of a generation will be remembered in the years, decades and centuries that lie ahead.
I could detail any number of individuals to illustrate the bravery of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 14 years. However, given inevitable space restrictions, I will highlight the courage of just two men – one displayed gallantry in Iraq and the other in Afghanistan.
In March 2005, Private (now Lance Sergeant) Johnson Beharry was awarded the VC for two acts of astonishing bravery in Iraq the previous year.
In the first incident in May 2004, Private Beharry, at the time aged just 24, had been in the driver of a Warrior armoured vehicle when it came under a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attack. His vehicle having been hit, and with thick black smoke from a fire all around him, Private Beharry opened the hatch, and led five other Warriors towards safety under heavy fire.
When another RPG took out his Warrior’s periscope, he had to drive with the hatch up and his head exposed to enemy fire for a mile, before setting off the fire extinguishers which immobilised his vehicle.
Just six weeks later, his Warrior was ambushed again and an RPG hit its frontal armour just six inches from Private Beharry’s head. Despite major head wounds, in great pain and bleeding heavily, he reversed the vehicle through the ambush area to safety.
In the two incidents, Private Beharry saved an estimated 30 lives and, despite being in a long coma, he eventually survived his horrendous injuries. When his VC was announced, Private Beharry became the first man since 1969 to be awarded the VC.
It is not just the frontline soldiers who have shown immense courage in the two campaigns. As someone who has twice carried out vigorous training with our bomb disposal teams, I have a great admiration for those who display premeditated courage, day in and day out, dealing with Improvised Explosive Devices (IED).
One such hero is Staff Sergeant (now Warrant Officer) Kim Hughes, who was awarded the George Cross in March 2010 for bravery in Afghanistan the previous August after arriving at “a harrowing and chaotic situation”.
Staff Sergeant Hughes, then 29, was called to a scene where some comrades had been left dead and injured by a massive IED explosion. Shunning protective clothing and other routine precautions to save time and lives, Staff Sergeant Hughes carried out three high-risk “manual neutralisations” of further IEDs in a Taliban-laid circuit.
As a result of my support for the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, I have been privileged enough to meet both Warrant Officer Hughes and Lance Sergeant Beharry: I admire them both because their courage is matched by their humility.
Whereas Warrant Officer Hughes survived his ordeal, his comrade, Staff Sergeant Olaf “Oz” Schmid, received his GC posthumously – having been blown up and killed, aged 30, in October 2009 as he tried to defuse yet another IED.
It is for wonderfully, selfless men such as Staff Sergeant “Oz” Schmid, who cruelly died on the last day of an exhausting five-month tour, that we must raise the funds to build a lasting memorial. I would urge everyone to consider supporting the Sun on Sunday’s appeal.
How to donate
The Iraq/Afghanistan Memorial Project (charity number 1160028) gets all of your donation. Texts charged at donation plus standard network rate. Text donations do not work from outside UK and phone calls from abroad are charged at international rates. Donation services provided by Spoke, 0333 202 3390.