Eight ‘brave little soldiers’ who have lost their fathers in conflict will march past the Cenotaph on Sunday. Here they reveal how friendship has helped them battle through grief
- Children have all tragically lost parents while they were serving in the military
- Scotty’s Little Soldiers set up in 2010 by Army widow Nikki Scott for children
- Charity now counts Prince Harry and his wife Meghan as keen supporters
Proudly wearing poppies, these children may prove the most poignant sight at the London Remembrance Day parade tomorrow.
Tragically, they have all lost parents while serving in the military. They are now part of a charity which counts Prince Harry and his wife Meghan as keen supporters.
Scotty’s Little Soldiers was set up in 2010 by Army widow Nikki Scott, 38, who was surprised by the lack of support for bereaved children in Forces families.
From left to right: Ben O’Donnell will march for his father Gary O’ Donnell, Isabelle, Molly and Emily Reynolds lost their father Antony Reynolds, Callum and Ryan Darbyshire’s father Steven was killed in Afghanistan, Megan Hunt will march for her father Nathan Hunt and twins Connor and Adam O’Neill’s father Kris died in Iraq
Her husband, Corporal Lee Scott, was killed when his vehicle ran over an improvised explosive device (IED) in July 2009 in Afghanistan, leaving her with two children — Kai, now 15, and Brooke, ten.
‘When Lee was killed, it was like a horrible dream and telling Kai, who was only five at the time, is the worst thing I’ve ever had to do,’ says Nikki.
‘From that day on, Kai changed. He became anxious and worried about where I was. Around nine months later, my cousin persuaded me to go on holiday, and as I watched Kai playing in a pool, I realised it was the first time I’d seen him smile since Lee’s death. That’s when I had the idea for Scotty’s Little Soldiers.’
Antony Reynolds, 41, an avionics technician, took his own life. Antony loved being in the Army, but he struggled with his mental health after serving tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan (left). Kris O’Neill, a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was killed aged 27 by an IED in Iraq, in April 2007 (right)
Since then, the charity has helped hundreds of bereaved children via group events such as Christmas parties, and family trips to Center Parcs or one of the charity’s six UK holiday homes. It also provides access to professional bereavement counselling, and educational grants.
‘Prince Harry nominated us as one of the charities to benefit from donations for his wedding, which was a shock, but an honour, too,’ says Nikki. ‘We’ve helped children whose fathers served alongside him, and he’s thanked us personally.
‘The idea to have some of the Scotty’s Little Soldiers children marching in the Remembrance Day procession is a new one, but we’re delighted that 20 children will be taking part.
‘My own two still find the day too difficult, but I’ll be going. It’s going to be a very emotional day. But I’m incredibly proud, and I know that Lee would be so proud, too.’
Here, five widows, whose children will be part of tomorrow’s parade, reveal why it means so much to their little heroes…
Ben will wear his dad’s medal
Toni O’Donnell, 51, is a stay-at-home mother. She lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, with sons Aidan, 19, and Ben, 11. Her husband, Warrant Officer class 2 Gary O’Donnell, George Medal and Bar, who worked in bomb disposal, was killed by an IED aged 40, while on tour in Afghanistan in September 2008.
When Gary was on tour in places such as Iraq or Sierra Leone, I tried not to think about the dangers.
He loved the intricacies and unpredictability of his job, and was a brilliant father and husband.
Gary O’Donnell, George Medal and Bar, who worked in bomb disposal, was killed by an IED aged 40, while on tour in Afghanistan in September 2008 (left). Steven Darbyshire, a sergeant with the Royal Marines, was shot in Afghanistan, aged 35 (right)
On the day he died, all was normal. Ben was two months old and Aidan was eight, and I was making tea. A man and woman came to the door and got out their ID card, and I knew I was about to get the worst news of my life. Aidan was playing outside but heard me scream: “He’s dead isn’t he?’ and ran in. I don’t recall much after that.
In January last year, Nathan Hunt, a warrant officer, took his own life, aged 39
Scotty’s was set up two years later. By that point, Aidan hadn’t talked much about what had happened, which worried me. But at Scotty’s he met children who had been through the same thing. He has made lifelong friends.
Ben has no recollection of his father — he actually feels guilty about it sometimes — but he’s been helped, too. When a date such as Father’s Day comes around and the children at school might not understand what he’s going through, his friends from Scotty’s will.
September and October are particularly difficult months, so we try to get away — we’ve just returned from Dorset.
I was so pleased when I heard about the parade. Ben is a little envious of the memories Aidan has with their father. Aidan even marched with Gary’s regiment one Remembrance Day. So this time, it’s Ben’s turn. He’ll wear his dad’s medals. He’s proud to be his son.
They know they are not alone
Sarah Ross, 35, is studying social work. She lives in Suffolk with daughters Molly, 15, Emily, nine and Isabelle, seven. In July last year, her husband Antony Reynolds, 41, an avionics technician, took his own life.
Antony loved being in the Army, but he struggled with his mental health after serving tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. We had separated, but we were still good friends. He was the most amazing, hands-on dad you could wish for.
He clearly wasn’t in a good place last summer and he’d been hospitalised. But in July I went to his house and found him dead.
Molly was old enough to realise what had happened straight away when I returned. But we waited until the next day to tell the other two. It was the most horrific time.
Our visiting officer who liaises with families from the Forces told us about Scotty’s, but at first I felt we didn’t deserve help because Antony had taken his own life.
But Scotty’s made me realise all children who lose a parent need support. They are all suffering. First we went to the charity’s Christmas party, and the girls benefited hugely from meeting other children.
Molly says it’s like an extended family that lets you know you’re not alone. Emily doesn’t talk much about what happened but, like her dad, she loves running and has done fundraising races for Scotty’s. Isabelle enjoys the parties and holidays, but she’ll benefit more from the charity when she’s older.
I knew immediately the girls would want to be involved in the Cenotaph parade. Remembrance Day has always been a big part of our lives. On the first without Antony, last year, we placed a wreath during our local parade.
This year it’s going to be on a much bigger scale. It’s a privilege for the girls to take part, and it’s lovely to think that out of something so tragic, they’ve gained friends and support for life.
It gives my boys happy memories
Kate Darbyshire, 38, is a civil servant. In June 2010, her partner Steven, a sergeant with the Royal Marines, was shot in Afghanistan, aged 35. Their sons Ryan, 15, and Callum, 13, will take part in the parade.
I was getting ready for work and my mum was helping me to get the boys ready for school when she answered the door to two people in military uniform and a priest. She came to get me, and I knew from the expression on her face that Steven was dead. I’d never seen her look like that before.
Steven had been shot while retracting a bridge over a ditch. He’d been killed instantly. My first words were: ‘My children are in the bath.’ You go onto autopilot, and I just wanted them ready for school because I wanted to keep things as normal as possible.
Ryan and Callum were five and three, and two of the very first children to be helped by Scotty’s.
Steven was such a character, and although you can never replace a father figure, I’ll be for ever grateful to the charity for providing some of the best experiences of their lives.
They’ve both been mascots at rugby and football tournaments and we’ve been to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. Ryan has also spent the day at Liverpool FC, and Scotty’s is helping to fund a skiing trip with their school.
It means my boys will be able to look back on their childhood and have some happy memories.
We’d always spent Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph in Wigan, but said we’d like to do the London parade one day. When this opportunity came up, I knew it would be a day they would never forget. I feel privileged and proud that they can take part.
Megan has her special ‘family’
Lainey Hunt, 43, is a warrant officer in the Armed Forces in County Durham. In January last year, her husband Nathan, also a warrant officer, took his own life, aged 39. They have one daughter, Megan, 11.
Nathan joined the Royal Engineers when he was 16, and he loved his job. He also loved being a father. He always joked that he wanted a girl because he couldn’t play football very well.
But he had also been diagnosed with recurring depression. He took medication but wanted to keep his condition quiet, for fear it may affect his career.
We spent Christmas 2017 together and Nathan was suffering. He hadn’t slept for days and I was worried. On New Year’s Day he visited his parents in Lincoln for the night, and the next day I got a phone call from my father-in-law to say they’d found his body. He’d taken his own life.
I went into absolute shock. Megan greeted me with a cheery: ‘Hi Mummy!’ I felt sick. I was about to break her heart.
I decided not to tell her it was suicide at first. She thought he’d simply died in his sleep. I wanted her to be able to absorb that news first. She was only nine and had doted on her dad. She wrote a poem for the funeral and read it in Lincoln Cathedral. High-ranking officers were in tears.
Three months later, it was the right time to tell her the truth. After that, the only person she would talk to about it was me. One day she’d be fine, the next day she’d be crying all night.
When we were invited to the Scotty’s Christmas party I was so nervous. I imagined lots of families would have stories about their men killed in action. I didn’t know anyone who’d killed themselves.
But Megan got talking to another little girl whose father had also died by suicide. On the way home, she said: ‘I’m not on my own, Mum.’ She finally realised her daddy didn’t do anything wrong.
We call all her new friends the ‘Scotty’s family’ — because that’s what they are.
We’re still grieving, of course. The lead-up to Christmas is very tough. But taking part in the procession to the Cenotaph means so much to us, and Megan will be proud to walk beside her special ‘family’.
Seeing them will be so emotional
Tina O’Neill, 38, is a stay-at-home mother. She lives in Lincolnshire with twin sons Adam and Connor, 16. Her husband Kris, a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was killed aged 27 by an IED in Iraq, in April 2007.
Kris had only been in Iraq for five days when he was killed along with three other soldiers and an interpreter, when their vehicle went over an IED. I’d heard the news on the television but thought it couldn’t be him because the report had mentioned ‘nurses’.
But at 12.30 there was a knock at the door. I didn’t want to let them in, but they insisted. They had something urgent to tell me.
I was talking to another mum from Scotty’s recently about how you cope when you’re widowed with young kids, and the truth is, you just have to get on with it.
The Army is great at sorting out repatriation of the body and the funeral, but after that there’s very little support for the children.
It was my welfare officer who mentioned Scotty’s when it was set up three years later. The boys were six and had started asking questions about their dad.
This welfare officer thought Scotty’s might help, and it was great to meet other children who had been through similar experiences. The charity organised a holiday for us at Center Parcs and the boys had a whale of a time.
They get a Christmas and birthday present each year from the charity, and even at 16, they still get excited when they see a parcel arrive.
We have always marked Remembrance Day at the church where Kris is buried, but when the chance came up to go to the Cenotaph in London we were all keen to attend.
I’ll be wearing my Elizabeth Cross (the emblem given to next of kin of members of the British Armed Forces killed in action) and the boys will both be wearing poppies. It will be emotional seeing them both in the parade, particularly as Adam is the spitting image of his father. But we’re looking forward to commemorating the day and supporting the work of the charity which has helped us over the past nine years.
- For more information, visit scottyslittlesoldiers.co.uk
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