Iraq veterans have shared touching letters they sent to their families during the war to mark 10 years since Britain withdrew.
Ahead of the anniversary on Saturday, former troops who suffered life-changing injuries have revealed how handwritten notes from their wives, children and other soldiers kept them going through the war and the decade since.
The military airmail were known as ‘blueys’ because they were sent between UK families and Iraq soldiers in blue envelopes.
Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers Corporal Simon Brown, who had been leading a successful mission to recover six stranded colleagues in 2006 when he suffered a near-fatal shooting to his face, has shared a bluey he sent to the comrade who rescued him.
Cpl Brown wrote the letter to Corporal Warren Ward thanking him for his “efforts in saving my life” after waking from a 17-day induced coma at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham with wounds that left him blind in one eye and with 20 per cent vision in the other.
Fourteen years later, while reconnecting on a video call, Cpl Ward, now 50, told Cpl Brown, now 42, how re-reading this letter stopped him from taking his own life after he suffered major spinal injuries later in the war.
Cpl Ward, from Winsford in Cheshire, told his friend: “When I was down, I was in that dark place and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get out of it… everything almost got on top of me so I got my letter out and I read it…
“In the first line I’d start to get a lump in my throat and then halfway down I’d get a tear. It has got tear marks on it. But now I celebrate it.”
Cpl Brown, from Morley in West Yorkshire, said he intended the letter to motivate his soldiers to “keep going” even though he felt like his “heart had been ripped out” after losing his sight.
Now an ambassador with charity Help for Heroes and a coach for Leeds Rhinos in the Physical Disability Rugby League, Cpl Brown said he wanted people to know that Iraq veterans are “still here”.
He said: “We may not be at war but military personnel are still getting hurt and will need support for 30 or 40 years from injuries attributable to service that happened in 30 to 40 seconds of chaos.”
Royal Military Police officer Mark Clougherty shared letters from his two young sons and wife Jennifer, who was expecting their third child Niamh when he was deployed in Iraq.
Now 48, Mr Clougherty described the letters dating back 18 years as a “precious family time capsule”.
The former officer, who is from Scotland but now lives in Northern Ireland, said: “The separation was really hard on us all but especially my younger boy, my wife had a keyring with a photo of me made for him and she gave him one of my T-shirts which he slept with under his pillow.
“The unfolding war was all over the news and although the boys were young, they knew I was in danger.”
His son Cieran, then six, told him in one letter: “I can’t wait to go swimming and to McDonald’s with you (and) also push Niamh in her pram… when you come back I am going to jump on you and race with you in the street… I really miss you”.
Mr Clougherty has suffered with PTSD since a near-death experience when he was almost struck by a Challenger tank in the Kuwait desert, where he had been deployed to save three engineers who had been taken hostage there in 2003.
Since then, he has survived testicular cancer and through sports recovery at Help for Heroes will be representing Team UK in the 2022 Invictus Games.
RAF airman Matt Neve, now 36, from Swansea, also suffered with PTSD, but never showed his struggles in letters to his fiancee Zoe when they were both aged 19.
Part of Mr Neve’s job as senior aircraftsman was to transport injured soldiers to hospitals, which took such a toll on his mental health that he attempted suicide.
Re-reading his letters 18 years later, Ms Neve said she wanted veterans to know that “it’s OK to ask for help”.
“It’s OK not to feel OK and know that asking for help is not a weakness,” she said.
The couple now have two daughters and are ambassadors for Help for Heroes, which has supported Mr Neve’s mental health recovery and selected him to compete as an archer in the Invictus Games in Toronto in 2017.