Beloved son

by Roger Howard / 16 April, 2015

The dreaded knock on the door in the night brings news that no parent wants. Roger Howard and Anne Scott pay moving tribute to their son, Jack, killed while serving in Afghanistan.

Roger: Sunday, August 29, 2010, Gate 16, Wellington Airport

We all stand quietly, waiting for the boarding call. The suppressed excitement Jack had before departing for his first tour is gone. Instead he has a faraway look. He is already back in Afghanistan.

Boarding is well under way. We can’t put off the farewells any longer. After a quick hug, a promise to his mother that he will take care, he leaves us. The four of us watch him go. He doesn’t look back.

We walk slowly back through the airport. Anne is very quiet. “What is it?” I ask. “I’ll never see him again,” she replies.

“Don’t be silly – this time he’s with the Pathfinders, in a reconnaissance role. He’ll probably never fire a shot.”

Pte John William Rangitane “Jack” Howard

Saturday, November 6, 2010. Email from Camp Bastion, Helmand Province

This tour has been completely different from my last. It took 3 months of endless patrolling before they first hit us in Zabul in 2008. They hit us on our 2nd op here and it’s become a regular thing a month into the tour.

Monday, December 6, 2010, 4AM, Melbourne

There is an urgent knocking on the hotel door. We wake with a start. It must be the taxi we ordered for 6am. We will miss our flight! How did we sleep through the alarm?

We have had a wonderful weekend to celebrate our wedding anniversary, the honeymoon we never got round to. We can’t wait to tell Jack about the wonderful tapas bar we went to.

Anne opens the door. A man is with the concierge. He is wearing a suit – but she knows. She speaks first: “Is he dead?” “I’m afraid so ma’am … of a chest wound. He wouldn’t have suffered.” With a wail, she drops to the floor. We both help her up. She turns to face me. “You said he would be safe.” I am still struggling to process what we have just been told. She already has. “I am going to bring him home,” she says.

Monday, December 6, 2010, mid-Tasman

The three of us are seated in the back row of the aircraft. We learn that the man in the suit, Freddie Truman, is a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy on a two-year exchange in Melbourne. Woken, too, by a call in the middle of the night from Canberra. “I have a job for you,” the warrant officer from the British High Commission had told him. The fine print you never read on your commission parchment.

I am trying to work out how Jack could have been killed by a chest wound. What about his body armour? He must have been hit by an RPG (a rocket propelled grenade). The exposed top gunner on his Jackal armoured vehicle.

Freddie breaks into my thoughts. He says he needs to tell me something. Something he only had confirmed just before we boarded. It wasn’t an RPG at all. It was an air strike. Ah – a blue on blue. “At least the bad guys didn’t get him,” I say at last. “That really would have pissed him off.” I pause. “I suppose if you’re going to go down one nil, better by an own goal.” It was not what Freddie was expecting.

Jack and an Afghan interpreter in 2008 (with KIWI embroidered on his vest).

Monday afternoon, December 6, 2010, Wellington Airport

Everything is being taken care of with the quiet efficiency of the military, British and New Zealanders working seamlessly together. The girls are there to meet us. We will bring him home together.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010, Royal Air Force Station Lyneham

The giant Boeing C-17 Globemaster drops down out of the low misty cloud that shrouds the airfield. We wait in the freezing cold, the damp seeping up through the ground, as it taxis towards us. The bearer party – six sombre Paras and their company sergeant major – wait while the ramp lowers to reveal a cavernous hold, occupied by a solitary coffin draped in a Union Flag. A single serviceman accompanies it. The bearer party slow-march the coffin to the waiting hearse, repeating in reverse a ceremony that has taken place thousands of miles away in Afghanistan. The first stage of his long journey home has been completed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010, Wellington

Finally we are alone. We have made it through the funeral, achieving our aim of honouring both Jack and his regiment, his other family. The honour guard of Rangitane warriors, having cleared the way for the final journey of a warrior from their whanau who carried the iwi’s name, have departed, taking the korowai that draped his coffin. The bearer party, too, have completed the final ceremony of “undressing” the coffin, presenting the neatly folded Union Flag to his mother, along with his beret, stable belt and campaign medal.

We place our own personal tributes on his coffin. The girls do not want to leave. “We only ever borrowed him,” Anne says gently. “It’s time to give him back.”

The family on the eve of Jack’s departure for Afghanistan in 2008.

Anne: A matter of seconds

It took less than six hours for the news to reach Jack’s sisters, Charlotte and Isabella, back at home in Wellington. Half a world away in Afghanistan, an air strike had gone horribly wrong. A US Navy Hornet, flying off the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf, had fired 120 rounds of deadly cannon fire into a ditch where a section of British Pathfinders were taking cover, knee-deep in water, waiting to assault an enemy compound just 120m away.

It had been a funny old day, one of them told us later.

Visibility was poor due to a sandstorm, making them wonder whether any casualties would be able to be evacuated by helicopter; one usually sure-footed soldier had fallen off a roof; a sniper’s rifle had misfired (which almost never happens); and most importantly, the video downlink that enabled the forward air controller to see what the pilot was seeing had gone on the blink.

The strike was over in a matter of seconds, and as the dust settled and visibility was restored, the cry went out: “Man down!” The Hornet banked, returning for a second pass, as soldiers desperately radioed to abort the attack. The insurgents melted away. No one who was in that ditch that day knows why they all weren’t killed.

The medical emergency response team arrived on board a Chinook helicopter, evacuating two wounded soldiers along with Jack back to Camp Bastion where he was officially pronounced dead. The British military casualty cell swung into action. This was an all too familiar process: Jack was the 346th British serviceman to die in Afghanistan since the war started in 2001. There would be 107 more before the war drew to a close in 2014.

Jack and an Afghan boy working with spades in 2010.

The path to becoming a para

It was Jack’s second tour in Afghanistan. Always interested in the military, he was a keen cadet in the Air Training Corps throughout secondary school, regularly winning the prize for attendance. A love of drama, and particularly Shakespeare, led him to toy with a career on the stage. Ironically, we suggested he choose a more secure career.

In his final year at school, he attempted officer selection for the New Zealand Army but was unsuccessful, describing this rejection as the worst day of his life. But years later, he acknowledged that at the time he was “just an immature smart-arse”. He joined the Territorials instead and went off to Victoria University, but it wasn’t for him. When he announced he was leaving to have a crack at joining The Parachute Regiment, we were surprised and more than a little sceptical.

After arriving in England, it was six months before he secured a place on a pre-selection board – two days for general selection and a further day for The Parachute Regiment. He passed both and went to the Infantry Training Centre at Catterick in North Yorkshire to undergo 28 weeks of basic training. The course was physically and psychologically demanding and attrition rates were high. Of the 61 who started with him, just 14 passed out to receive the coveted maroon beret. Eight were on their first attempt; Jack was one of these. When it looked as though he might be posted at short notice to Baghdad, Roger flew over for his passing out parade.

Jack and girlfriend Sophie Murray.

During his first tour, Jack became his platoon signaller. It gave him some insight into what was going on, but the downside was the extra gear he had to carry – sometimes more than 40kg of kit – in the searing heat. The more water you took, the heavier the load. Some days they fell asleep on their feet.

After returning to the UK, Jack trained there and abroad. He jumped on Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day. Sixty-five years earlier, his grandfather’s Lancaster had flown two missions that night, one in support of his predecessors. A highlight was a month spent free-fall training with the Red Devils display team in California.

Several months before his second tour, Jack was selected to train with the elite Pathfinder Platoon of 16 Air Assault Brigade. Three to a vehicle, like the Long Range Desert Group of his grandfathers’ war, they had the role of roaming Helmand Province collecting intelligence, conducting shuras (meetings) and interacting with locals.

Punished for pens

Jack was unequivocal about the war in Afghanistan. Having studied Islam at university, he saw the Taliban as trying to impose on the people of Afghanistan the most radical and intolerable form of Islam that the world had seen at that time. As he said in an interview after his first tour, New Zealanders have always stood against such forms of oppression.

On his last trip home, I offered him some trinkets to give to the kids – small tourist souvenirs from New Zealand. No, he said. Children found with pens given to them by British soldiers had been punished severely by the Taliban, and teenagers with US currency and a notebook with some addresses were hanged as collaborators. It could be a death sentence.

Joe Ryan, Octavius and Jack in their Jackal.

Chilling emails and a madcap meerkat

Jack never spared us the graphic details in his regular and surprisingly detailed emails home. He could phone when back in Camp Bastion or sometimes from a forward operating base, but the calls were sporadic and he often sounded flat and uncommunicative. The emails, by contrast, were descriptive, considered, lengthy – and chilling. The thrill and relief of hearing he was safe, for now, was so often shattered by accounts of his near misses. His recall of detail – often several weeks after the event – seemed remarkable. It was only when his personal effects were returned to us from Afghanistan that we discovered they were based on meticulous notes made in all-weather notebooks – sometimes made in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances.

There was a lighter side though. In typical Airborne Forces fashion, Jack’s best mate, Joe Ryan, took a mascot with them on their tour. It wasn’t exactly planned, but shortly before leaving the UK, he liberated a life-size cardboard cut-out of a meerkat from the doorway of well-known British stationery chain Clinton Cards. Named Octavius, the meerkat was spirited to Afghanistan. Garden gnomes have enjoyed similar adventures.

Joe insisted Octavius be part of the team and accompany them on operations. Octavius was given a Brigade Reconnaissance Force flash and Para shoulder wings. He had his own seat in the Jackal and, before long, his own Facebook page, posting frequently. Most days, he was photographed on location. Octavius was soon more of an encumbrance than a mascot – for everyone except Joe. In the course of a firefight with insurgents, he became an amputee. For Joe, Octavius was lucky. For Jack, he was a bloody nuisance.

In 2008, Jack had some lucky escapes, but as his emails in 2010 revealed all too clearly, danger seemed to be drawing inexorably closer. In the space of a month, a vehicle following in their tracks detonated a mine, his section commander was shot through the arm in an ambush and, just a week before he was killed, he discovered a round had gone through his backpack.

The 2010 tour was different for us too. In 2008, whenever I knew he was out on operations, I would wake early, unable to sleep, and scan the British newspapers online seeking news of casualties. All too frequently there was, although none from 3 Para. But after that tour, Jack told us that wasn’t the way we would find out. There would simply be a knock on the door in the middle of the night. And there was.

Jack’s funeral service at Wellington Cathedral of St Paul.

Gathering in Wootton Bassett

We are grateful that Jack has been honoured and remembered in many ways both here and in the UK. It was first brought home to us when we made our way from RAF Lyneham to Wootton Bassett, a small town nearby that famously decided to honour every returning soldier – and their friends and families – as the hearses passed through the town en route to the Oxford mortuary. We had seen media coverage of the event, but nothing quite prepares you.

Even though it was twilight and bitterly cold, the streets were hushed, lined with people who had come to show their respects. Friends came from London – welcome and familiar faces in a sea of strangers. Susan bought all the red roses she could find and handed them out. Jack’s childhood friend Lucy was there, as were girlfriends past and present and their mothers. Parents of comrades we had never met had driven vast distances to be there for us at the request of their sons in Afghanistan. One of Jack’s friends drove all the way from Scotland and could stay for only an hour before he had to head home again. Four retired generals from The Parachute Regiment were there, including Hew Pike, a Falklands veteran, who had travelled from Wales that morning. He was the commanding officer of 3 Para when the last New Zealander, Richard Absolon, also serving with the Pathfinders, was killed at the Battle of Mount Longdon during the Falklands War. After the hearse moved on, the staff at the local Cross Keys pub took care of refreshments, as they always did. It was, they said, the least they could do.

Jack’s funeral service at Wellington Cathedral of St Paul.

In the Persian Gulf, a memorial service at sea was held at sunset on the fantail deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and Jack’s two colleagues injured that day were flown out from Afghanistan to attend. Several months later, a large shadow box with the US, British and New Zealand flags and a plaque from the service men and women of USS Abraham Lincoln arrived.

We think Jack would have been particularly chuffed that a dog was named after him. A stray Afghan dog attached itself to his old platoon, who were manning a checkpoint deep in Helmand. After Jack was killed, they named the dog Jack – and when they returned home at the end of their tour, they arranged for the dog to go too. It took some sustained subterfuge, as non-military animals were not permitted in military vehicles or on base, but the Paras are a resourceful lot and Jack the dog now calls Devon home. He lives near a military training area, and whenever a helicopter flies overhead, he looks up expectantly.

Closer to home, Jack’s name has been added to the British Airborne Forces Memorial in New Plymouth erected in memory of Richard Absolon. His name has also been added to the Roll of Honour at St Mark’s Church School and Wellington College. The 7th form Drama Cup at Wellington College and the Air Training Corps Marksmanship Cup are named in his memory. Both seemed appropriate. Before deploying to Afghanistan, Jack won a cup for marksmanship named after George Cross recipient Mark Wright, also from 3 Para, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2006.

Jack’s girlfriend, the family and Prince Charles at the presentation of the Elizabeth Cross and the memorial scroll.

Some very special events

This year we remember the fallen from previous wars – in particular World War I and, 100 years ago, the Gallipoli campaign. Back then, bereaved families waited weeks, months and sometimes years to learn the fate of their loved ones. Some returned home and died of their injuries. Most are buried overseas, often in unnamed graves, memorialised only by name. There are more than 450 war memorials up and down the country that bear witness to those who never returned – and the lasting effect their loss has had on our country.

At the opening of Pukeahu Park, the National War Memorial Park this month, Jack will be one of the fallen soldiers pictured on overhead screens. Some may query his inclusion, as he was not serving with the New Zealand armed forces. Nor was my father and his fellow airmen who left New Zealand to serve in the RAF in World War II. Nor do we seem to mind that Edmund Hillary was a member of the British expedition to Everest.

Our family has been singularly fortunate to have been able to bring Jack back home to Wellington and to make subsequent journeys to meet his comrades, and other bereaved families, at some very special events. We have made six in all, including visits to Colchester, home of The Parachute Regiment, for the presentation of medals at the end of their 2010-11 tour, and to Alrewas National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire for the unveiling of the Airborne Forces Memorial, and a very special lunch with the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief, Prince Charles, at Highgrove. On all these visits, we have found widespread appreciation for the job their armed forces have undertaken, and a deep compassion for the families of those who never returned.

All the royal family attended the memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London last month. Photo/Getty Images

This was very apparent last month when we attended the memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in London to officially mark the end of the 2001-2014 Afghanistan war. Like the Westminster Abbey service to mark the return of the unknown warrior in 1919 (when the congregation comprised 1000 mothers and widows), bereaved families were given precedence and seated beneath the dome, directly behind the Queen. All the royal family were there, and after the fly-past, as the families followed the returned soldiers through the streets of London to the Guild Hall reception, crowds up to five deep lined the streets and applauded. We felt at home. Speaking at the Guild Hall, the British Chief of Defence Staff put his finger on it: all those who served in Afghanistan had volunteered to join the armed forces; they had a choice – their families didn’t.

And so the journey continues. Last year’s inquest in Salisbury helped provide the answers to what had gone wrong and why, but there will always be “what if’s”. Despite the passage of time, Jack’s mates and comrades, like us, still grapple with what happened that autumn afternoon in Afghanistan. Closer than brothers, they shared so much. Such bonds, born on the battlefield, are enduring. Battle-hardened veterans of two and sometimes three tours in Afghanistan, they don’t say much and rarely talk about it. But they are always frank and open with us. Together we laugh – and cry and share stories. Some even call me Mum.

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