On Remembrance Sunday 2010, Aaron McCormick's family received the news from Afghanistan they dreaded. Award-winning filmmaker Henry Singer explores remembrance, grief and loss.
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On Remembrance Sunday 2010, in a tiny village in Northern Ireland,
a family with a loved one serving in Afghanistan received the news it dreaded.
Words can't say how you feel. Sure you can't.
It's literally a part...
of your body that's been ripped apart.
It's been taken from you, you'll never get it back.
Hundreds of miles away in England,
a simple market town reacted to the same news by quietly making preparations.
For more than four years, Wootton Bassett paid silent tribute
as the coffins of fallen servicemen and women came through the town
from nearby RAF Lyneham, en route to their final resting place.
TV: 'People watching this will be thinking, "This could be my son.
'"This could be a member of my family..."'
Images of the tribute became a staple of the evening news,
but barely touched on the enormity of what took place.
'..almost weekly basis, the streets fall silent as coffins are driven slowly along the high street...'
This film tells the story of how the people of a town,
some with their own memories of loss, reached out to support
a family who were facing the darkest moment of their life.
The two came together on a cold Friday in November to remember and honour,
not just a soldier, but a son, brother and friend.
NEWSREADER: 'A soldier from County Londonderry has been killed in Afghanistan's Helmand province.
'The 20-year-old, serving with the Royal Irish Regiment, died
'in a booby-trap bomb blast earlier today.
'The Ministry of Defence is yet to release his name. His family has been told.'
Remembrance Sunday, it was. We were in Tunisia on holiday.
And as soon as we walked into the hotel,
the girl behind reception said, "We've had a lot of
"phone calls from a girl named Tammy."
We ran up to the hotel room. I had about
50 missed calls on my phone, yours was the same.
I had the same. I had the same.
And...we phoned home.
And it was Tammy on the phone.
And I said, "I know. You don't have to tell me, I know.
"But I still have to hear it."
And she told me.
Our world had just fell apart.
We were on the phone, and I answered it. I was like, "Hi!"
And she just said, "He's been killed."
There was no way of saying it to me.
And I just remember crying and saying,
"No, no, it's not true, it's not true."
I was just...froze.
The...the... This is a nightmare, please let this be a nightmare.
I just want to wake up right now.
But it wasn't to be.
REPORTER: 'This is a village in deep shock and mourning.
'The soldier's name was only released by the Ministry of Defence in the last half hour.
'He was 22-year-old Aaron McCormick from here in Macosquin village.
'He was a Royal Irish Regiment soldier and he was serving in Afghanistan.
'He and his family are very well known in Macosquin village.
'His mother is very well known for raising money for the armed forces.'
'..stand shoulder to shoulder to show solidarity with the family
'as they endure what for them must be the unendurable. The pain and suffering...'
'..in paying tribute to Ranger Aaron McCormick, of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment,
who died on Remembrance Sunday.
His commanding officer has described him as the epitome of the Irish Infantry soldier -
tough, selfless, good-humoured and full of compassion.
He showed astonishing bravery...
-'MoD officials visited the family this afternoon.
'It is still unclear when his body will be brought back to village he lived and grew up in.'
All we ever knew about Wootton Bassett was the wee bit you see in the news.
We'd never heard of it before.
Sure we hadn't. And then you start watching the news
when you hear that there's someone being brought home.
And you see them going through the town, the family in pieces.
You know. And you do feel for them.
You can only imagine at the time what they're going through.
But you're thankful your son's fine.
And it's just a natural reaction.
I'm sorry if I'm offending anybody, but it is a natural reaction,
you're thankful your son's fine.
Never dreaming that some day, the knock might come to your door.
REPORTER: 'The town of Wootton Bassett has become famous
'throughout the country and also abroad for the saddest of reasons.
'Every time the bodies of British service personnel are flown home,
'many of the townspeople pay their respects...'
'..famous for the respect it shows to the soldiers who have lost their lives in conflict.
'On an almost weekly basis, the streets fall silent
'as the coffins are driven along the high street from RAF Lyneham.
'It started with a group of old soldiers in their berets, blazers and medals,
'showing the young men who follow in their bootsteps that they understood the sacrifice they've made.
'Since then, this one-street market town in Wiltshire has grown
'to symbolise a nation's gratitude, its respect, its grief.'
WOMAN: Good afternoon, Wootton Bassett Town Council.
Yes, it's approximately three o'clock.
You might have a problem parking in the high street, but if you do, there's a large car park...
I must say, people do usually come smart dressed.
But something probably warm, because, you know...
'It actually started...'
I think some colleagues in the Royal British Legion
were buying their newspaper,
the hearse went by, as the coffin had a Union Jack on it,
they obviously realised it was an ex-service person.
We decided we ought to pay our respects with dignity and respect as they pass by.
We just thought it would be us little group. We had no restrictions on how many people came.
If whoever wanted to join us and show their...sympathy
and pay their respects... they were welcome.
The repatriation on Friday, and he's 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment.
Friday the 19th at 3.15.
Just ringing to let you know
there's another repatriation on Friday at 3pm.
It's terribly to feel isolated and lonely
in what is probably the worst situation the mum, dad, brother,
sisters, relatives and even their own pals are facing at that time,
and I believe that it helps,
I genuinely feel it helps for them to know
that they've got the public grieving with them.
So, it's...3.15 on Friday. OK, Ann.
REPORTER: 'This is an ordinary English town that has become remarkable for one thing -
'the way it pays tribute to the fallen.
'Today, thousands turn out to honour the dead as their bodies are returned to British soil.'
'The Royal Irish Regiment soldier killed in Afghanistan yesterday was Aaron McCormick.
'The 22-year-old from Macosquin in County Londonderry was on foot patrol in Helmand province...'
-'I've just come back from seeing the family, who arrived home from holiday this morning.
'They are obviously completely devastated. They have...'
I heard them coming through the door and I started to panic. "What do I say to them?"
You just don't know what to say to your mummy and daddy
when something like that happens.
So, I just kept making tea, and they put their suitcases in,
and Mummy just came straight over and hugged me.
Mummy and Daddy just walked in the door.
It was like, phew, it was like this big weight had been lifted,
they kind of... and I was all smiles,
happy to see them, the weirdest feeling.
I just run over and said, "Oh, thank God you're home!"
And I went hugging them, and Mummy was like...
I think Mummy said something, "What do we do here? What...?"
She said something really weird, "What do we do now?"
For the next three days I didn't eat,
didn't sleep much, I just could not...could not eat.
And my mum had to force me down, saying," Michael, get that bacon sandwich in you. You need it."
And it did me the world of good.
We had to put on the big, brave face - Mummy and Daddy's all right.
You know, even though we weren't.
But... They might be grown-ups, but they're still our children.
And we had to look after them.
And then we had to do our best for Aaron too,
we had to get him home.
And that's all we wanted, was him home.
REPORTER: 'Wootton Bassett will fall silent later
'as the body of another soldier is repatriated through the town.
'Ranger Aaron McCormick from the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment
'was killed by an explosion on Remembrance Sunday.
'He'd been helping to clear an area of improvised bombs during a security patrol in Nad-e Ali.'
Father, today our minds as a town turn again to the liturgy of repatriation.
We pray for all those who are affected by war, conflict and violence.
We pray particularly, Father, for those who will gather on the high street, at RAF Lyneham,
and on that route to the John Radcliffe Hospital.
It's a very strange day. It's a reflective day, I guess, really.
You know, you think about your family
and how on earth you would be coping with something like this today.
Cos, I mean, they're basically an unknown soldier to you, aren't they, really?
But it's...but it is somebody's son, brother, husband.
You'll see people go by with flowers and things
and then you start to wonder, you know, what relationship to the family that they are.
Cos some are here hours, absolutely hours,
and it must be the longest day, it really must be the longest day
when they're waiting for them to come through.
MAN: Down to the end, take a right.
Nice to make it, thank you, mate.
I think for the first six months,
a lot thought we were accidentally in the high street on a bike run
when the repat happened to come by.
They saw the bikes, they saw what we looked like and stood well back.
And many comments were heard of, "Oh, what are they doing here?
"Have they no respect? Have they nowhere else to be?"
And it wasn't until we'd been here for, I'd say, six months and we'd educated a few people
that they actually decided that we weren't the monsters that they thought we were
and we were actually veterans paying our respect.
Ten of us with all our bikes makes it look very busy there.
You put 20 bikes with 20 bikers, it looks even busier.
And on days when there's not many friends and family in the street,
we make it look quite busy for the families when they arrive from Lyneham.
And that's quite comforting to them to know there's lots of people here.
OK, first of all, today we're repatriating one soldier, Ranger Aaron McCormick,
the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment. You've all done this before,
so I'll make the briefing as brief as possible.
The search phase of the operation's already commenced at 1200 hours today
and we've got search dogs and officers in the town at the moment.
OVER RADIO: 'Search of high street complete. Moving south to Wood Street, then we'll repeat, over.
I think I may be of help to you.
Hi, I'm Steve. I'm with the Royal British Legion,
-I'm their repatriation liaison officer.
So, that's who I am.
-Are you direct family?
I'm really sorry to meet you here.
You want to be stood there, so that's where I'll take the family.
-There won't be a massive amount if you've travelled from Northern Ireland.
That's where I'll put the family.
You be where they are, but there's no need to go out there till about 2.50.
That's all you need, don't worry about anything else.
See the Cross Keys, it's free tea and coffee,
I know it doesn't taste that good, but it's free.
I know, eight sugars in black coffee and it doesn't matter what it tastes like.
It's only a few sandwiches and a cup of tea or coffee,
but it helps the families and it saves them worrying about
getting something to eat, and it's all here ready for them.
Especially when they travel from so far,
and a lot of them bring lots of flowers,
which they obviously put on the hearse
when it does its little pause for a few minutes,
so we always take the flowers off them and look after them in here,
till it's time for them to go outside.
It's just a bit of kindness and human nature to, you know,
do what you can to help other people.
NEWSREADER: 'Here in Wootton Bassett, they measure the loss of life
'every time a coffin comes along the high street.
'Politicians talk about policy in Afghanistan
'and military leaders talk about strategy.
'Here in Wootton Bassett, all they're talking about is the people affected.'
Ever since he was three or four, it was the Air Force he wanted to join.
And it was only when he come 16...
..he just changed, he wanted to go into the Army then.
I don't know what changed his mind.
It was just one day, it's the Army, and that was it.
And you couldn't have talked him out of it. He was...
He was headstrong. Once he'd get something in his head, that was...
You couldn't have changed his mind.
He wanted to do something with his life.
It was also to keep up the family tradition,
because Royal Irish, there's always been a McCormick,
I think Aaron just wanted to keep that family end up.
I was the fourth one in my family to join the Army.
-Uncles was in the Air Force, Army.
-So, it sort of has a background.
-My grandfather was in the Army.
He was killed during the war, and Aaron knew all this as well.
He just wanted the military life. Aaron liked everything to be...
-Like prim and proper, in the right...
-Proper and precise.
-..in the right order.
You know, everything had to be in its place.
That's the way he liked things.
And the Army life suited him.
I didn't think he'd do it. I didn't think he'd leave home in general.
I didn't think he'd leave Mummy and Daddy and his friends.
Then he had the application form and he'd done it, that was it. He just seemed...
he just seemed to do it overnight, he was in the Army and that was it, he was away.
He went, this wee young boy, tootling off to the Army,
and hadn't a clue what was in front of him, just hadn't a notion.
I wasn't against him joining, cos I knew he'd do it anyway,
so we backed him up all we could.
I knew certainly he'd be there in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Mm-hm. Didn't bother him.
Like water off a duck's back, it didn't bother him.
Didn't faze him.
No, it didn't.
Don't get us wrong - we wanted him home, but...
you know, you have to let them go.
-And as long as he was happy doing what he wanted, we were happy.
-We were happy.
-Yeah, we were.
Saying bye-bye to him at the airport that first time going,
knowing that he was going back to England to head over there,
that was very hard.
You know, you don't know if it's going to be the last time you see them.
But he was excited.
I suppose any young chap joining the Army's excited.
Aaron, I would say, no more so than the next bloke.
The same with myself when I joined - the first day you go, you're excited.
You don't know what to expect, stuff like that there.
But certainly he was thrilled and...
was looking forward to it, so he was.
He was the last one left at home.
NEWSREADER: 'The timing of Ranger Aaron McCormick's death was all the more tragic.
'He was killed on Remembrance Sunday.
'The 22-year-old soldier died in an explosion in the Nad-e Ali area of Helmand province
'where he was helping to clear roadside bombs.
'He joined the Army nearly three years ago.
'It was his second time in Afghanistan...'
Whenever there's a repatriation,
I like to find out a bit more about the soldier and about his family.
So, it's not just a face, it becomes a person to me.
My heart just goes out to another family because I've been there,
I've felt it, and I know what it feels like,
and you wouldn't wish that on your worst enemy.
For any family to go through the loss of a loved one is...
..the most traumatic thing I've ever been through.
And I do, I wake up with that sort of...
almost as if somebody's sort of squeezing my insides again.
It's not natural for any parent to have to bury a child...
..and...especially a mother.
I bore that child, I nurtured him, I fed him,
I raised him.
It's like having part of you... It just leaves a void.
BUGLER PLAYS "LAST POST"
It's like standing on the side of a huge cliff...
..and you just get vertigo.
And all you can see is darkness and...
And this is what I feel, this is why I feel such empathy for other mums
that have gone through what I've gone through, because it's...
it's not an easy place to be, it's really not an easy place to be.
It's very hard. Very hard.
Every repatriation is a tug at the heartstrings and...
..a visit back...
But for me, on the day, it's about the family,
what they're going through.
Yeah, my love goes out to them, to all of them,
being one of the band of mothers out there,
stand together and support and love each other.
That's all we can do.
When Aaron came home from his first tour, the first couple of weeks he wasn't himself,
but that's understandable, what he must have went through, seen and done.
He just wasn't quite himself.
He was a wee bit more quieter, into himself. He would have kept things to himself.
Because he used to tell me everything
and then, once he went there and came back...
I think I asked him what it was like and what did he see,
and he just wouldn't tell me any of it.
He sure didn't. And you could tell it scared him.
I could see it in his eyes, it shook him up.
Seeing soldiers getting injured,
just all that kind of gory stuff.
Just in the look of your eyes, you can tell he's been through hell.
He just sat in the living room, didn't want to speak.
Not as normal, normally he was chattering away
and slabbering away about this, that and the other.
And he'd just be lying out on the sofa, didn't want to do nothing, didn't want to do anything.
He just wanted to lie there. And he drank, he drunk like you wouldn't believe.
It was just weird to watch him, kind of thing, so it was. It was strange.
-It wasn't the young boy Aaron, coming home.
-He was a changed boy.
-Like, he went from boyhood to manhood in six months.
It had changed him.
Shortly after he came back from his first tour, he had met Becky,
and he came home and told us all about her, and she was English.
So we thought, ooh, she lives in England,
so we don't know, we're not too sure if it'll last, or...
But then we got the phone call to say he wanted to bring her home,
so we knew it was serious the minute he wanted to bring her home.
He'd never brought girlfriends home for us to meet.
And the minute we met her, that was it.
We were just... She was just part of the family.
Everybody loved her. She was just that lively and outgoing and bubbly,
just like the rest of us.
We're just that loud, and she's the exact same.
She just fitted in perfect.
He told me he was doing security work, then he let slip...
He was talking about handling a gun, and that sort of...
There were little things that were cropping up
that didn't add up to being a security guard.
So. then he had to say, "No, I'm actually in the Army."
He told me he would be going to Afghanistan.
And I think that was sort of... let her know from the beginning,
so it wouldn't be an issue.
But I think you worry, but it was more of...
It was admiration, it was a brave job to be doing.
It didn't make me want to step back and think, oh, I don't want to be involved in this.
It was just, it was his job, he did that, he'd be there doing his training
whilst I'm spending hours in a uni lecture.
It didn't seem to... worry me or scare me.
We were just... we just fitted together.
It wasn't long after the first tour...
They knew they were going back.
-..that they were going back out.
-Two years' time.
-Two years' time.
So, you could say you had two years for the build-up, it doesn't help.
No, it doesn't.
You still get to that last week and you know it's...
..it's upon... it's come to the time.
He didn't really talk about it that much.
It wasn't until he got a phone call from one of his mates
who was going out a few weeks earlier.
He'd been told, this is where we'll be based,
and it's a bad area, but he didn't tell us where.
The minute we heard he was going to Nad-e Ali, that was it, we knew.
That was the worst place, really, to go.
And he didn't really give us that many details,
so he must have been scared himself.
It was a scary thing to think of.
But I sort of looked on the brighter side.
He said he was glad go to back.
He wanted to really do a difference this time.
But when we found out what he did in the first tour,
saying how he went to this building, this compound,
in front of the patrol with a mine detector, trying to detect IEDs,
trying to defuse them.
My ma was livid with him, she ordered him not to do it again.
He promised he would never do it again. And sure enough, he did it.
I couldn't even say bye-bye to him at the airport.
I gave him a hug and walked off.
-Left you with him.
REPORTER: '..sombre day in a grim month of British losses.
'And in Helmand, the fighting goes on. Every day, British servicemen and women out there
'risking their lives in the full knowledge of the dangers that await them.
'And here, back in Britain, so many families now,
'whose lives have been changed for ever by their loss.'
'It's become an all-too-familiar ritual in Wootton Bassett.
'A town where Remembrance Day now comes around far more often
'than it should.'
Because I'm an old soldier,
I know what it's like when comrades have got killed.
I served for three years in the Western Desert with the Eighth Army.
When the Germans came in, supporting the Italians,
that's when it got very, very tough.
We didn't have any air cover, you see.
There was only one road up into the Western Desert.
And the Germans had air superiority.
They bombed the first two trucks,
and then the fighters came along and machine-gunned the wagons.
We were told not to lay on the sand,
but to stand upright, make yourself as small a target as possible.
You're scared all the time, of course you are. Everybody is scared.
You know people are falling, you don't know
whether they just fell over wounded or whether they've been shot dead
or what's happened to them.
I remember this guy was hit. We stopped and we buried him,
by the side of the road.
We got some wood, made a little cross
and put his steel helmet on the top of it.
Said one or two little prayers, you know?
Like you do. And moved on.
We didn't know his name.
But we did the best we could for him.
These guys that have been repatriated through our town,
they have a burial spot, either in their own local church,
or it might be a very nice, well-organised military cemetery.
They've got somewhere where their parents and relatives can go
and leave a few floral tributes. But that little guy...
Right, trust me. Where you want to stand is
between that first bollard and the traffic light here,
in this general area or that area.
As far as I know, it's running on schedule, about 3:15.
No need to be worried about being here till about 2:45, really.
Anything you need to know, just give us a shout.
We usually get direct information if there's any problems.
All I can say, I'm sorry that you're here
under these circumstances, again.
We passed it one day on the motorway, there were four that day,
and it was very...
It just makes me feel cold, even talking about it.
It shouldn't be happening in the first place.
-That's a lot of people's views, isn't it?
The side of it we see here in Bassett, they shouldn't be out there.
That's what we think, anyway.
Talk to anybody in the town, I'm pretty sure they'd all say the same.
-It's very upsetting.
-A lot of people now are very upset
about what's happening, and a lot of these guys are only 18, 20.
-Kids, aren't they?
-Babies, aren't they?
-So it's very, very sad.
-Yes, I think so.
When he was a little boy, he always had his head stuck in books.
Loved wordsearch, crossword books.
Making models of the Titanic and aeroplanes,
and anything he could do with his hands.
Titanic, he was obsessed with the Titanic.
-Everything to do with Titanic, he was...
-He was world expert on it!
He was expert on the Titanic!
He was like a wee nerd, kind of hung about the house,
he was all into his Power Rangers and all his wee toys
and his gadgets, and just sat, stuck in a corner somewhere.
Come on, where's the Power Rangers tape?
Michael, you can help me!
There's not much of an age gap between me and Aaron.
And we constantly played with each other.
We would just love to tell each other stuff
we wouldn't tell anybody else.
That was just going for the bus together in the mornings
to go to school and getting the bus back together
and sitting in the house with each other at night-time.
It was just that closeness.
To get punished,
-the rest would have been...
-Grounded, kept in the house.
To punish Aaron, we had to throw him out.
Out to play.
His nickname was Pingu.
Pingu came from the fact that
when he was younger he was kind of stumpy,
and he kind of walked funny, so he got nicknamed Pingu.
When we started school, he was wee and pudgy.
So tiny, and he went in this big, long blazer.
Mum swore it'd do him for years,
so she'd buy him the biggest, massive blazer you could see.
This is going to sound really stupid.
He started cycling to school
and all of a sudden he went from this wee thing to this big person,
this six-foot person, overnight.
He started becoming all right-looking,
and the hair, and he just totally changed.
I swear, from this wee dude to this big guy. It was weird.
The confidence came out, and he was cocky about everything.
If he was chocolate, he would have ate himself.
He was just God's gift. He thought he was great.
Have a picture with your mammy, all dressed...
Stand over here where we can see you.
Made all his friends, James, Dave, Tom, Parky.
They'd all come and all went out together.
Like all boys, they ended up discovering girls.
Like you do! They were always away somewhere, the four of them together.
First of all, it was a bit sort of, "Who's this geek?"
He had that geeky tendency. We just thought he was a nerd.
And then, once he relaxed
and you got to know him a bit better,
you realised he was just as mad as the rest of us.
That's how we all fitted in together.
He was usually the ringleader, too.
He would have come up with some of the maddest ideas.
We just all tagged along!
He always wanted his mates around him,
and there was no excuse you could give him.
"I've got work the next day", just didn't fly with him at all.
"I've got work at six in the morning,"
he'd say, "I don't care, you come out now." I'd say, "OK!"
He'd walk into a room full of men and he could get on with every man,
but at the same time, he could have walked into a room full of women
and by the time he left, they'd have been all sitting
with their mouths open and gasping, type of thing.
He just had the gift of the gab.
And that cheeky smile, you know, about him.
Plus, he was darned good-looking.
And that's from a mother's point of view!
But he was good-looking.
When he was home on leave, the house was never empty.
He loved a good carry-on.
They used to all love the American wrestling, and the coffee table got
moved out the way on a Friday night, and they had him down on the ground
and they'd be doing all these moves on him.
Just sheer mad house, wasn't it?
-Just enjoying themselves.
He loved all the likes of that.
Just loved a good carry-on.
Plans from Mike-Delta-2185, plane on time, will touch down at 13:00 hours. Received.
Roger that, Mike-Deltha-2185.
'The parents of a soldier being repatriated into RAF Lyneham have
'described how their son was always the life of the party
'and made friends wherever he went.
'They said 22-year-old Aaron always...'
'The body of a soldier killed in an explosion in Afghanistan
'on Remembrance Sunday has been flown home.
'22-year-old Ranger Aaron McCormick
'of 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment was flown into...'
'The body of a Northern Ireland soldier
'killed in Afghanistan arrived back in the UK.
'Ranger Aaron McCormick's family spoke
'of their immense pride and loss.'
'Aaron died as he was clearing improvised explosive devices
'in Helmand province. He leaves behind his girlfriend Becky,
'his mum and dad and his two sisters and a brother.
'But the sense of loss has been felt beyond the family circle.'
That's how cruel war is. Takes away all the young ones.
These tributes are left at our war memorial
after the hearse has moved on.
To me, they're sacred.
It's mums, dads last message to their loved one.
Rather than have them blown away or destroyed by the weather,
I fetch them all back here into this album, and then those boys
who have passed through Wootton Bassett,
they're all recorded in here. So, history itself was written here.
That boy will never know his dad and never have him to take him to school,
meet him from school, play with him.
Read him a bedtime story, like us dads do.
That little thing will never have it. Neither will those there.
"Dear Matthew. Gone, but will never be forgotten. Love forever and ever.
"God bless. Sleep well, our dearest grandson."
I'm a grandad. That could have been my son, my grandson.
I hope I never have to fill it completely.
You always hope that the last repatriation, which is today,
will be the last one.
I have a few more pages to come here,
but I hope we shall never have to see it filled.
'British troops in Afghanistan are getting killed in greater numbers
'than ever before, and suffering ever-higher rates of injury.
'Most of them are due to IEDs, or improvised explosive devices.
'That's according to figures published by the MoD,
'the Ministry of Defence.'
You worry every day, but it's what he chose to do, and...
You just lived for the phone calls...
..so you did.
You carried your mobile everywhere in case he phoned.
Any bit of word from him was like gold dust.
And every time you heard any news on the TV, you worried yourself sick
until you heard from him.
'This month has been the bloodiest of all in Helmand,
'with the fighting said to be
'some of the toughest since the Korean War.
'And it's taking its toll, with frontline medical care...'
You literally felt like you were carrying
a sack of coal on your shoulders.
'In the first two weeks of July alone,
'57 troops were wounded in action.
'That compares to the whole of June, which saw...'
I normally don't watch the news, but I was watching it all the time,
checking Teletext, I was listening to the radio all the time.
'Three Royal Irish Regiment soldiers were injured
'in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan at the weekend.'
If you heard the word Afghanistan, that was it,
you were instantly hooked, you turned round and watched.
A former SAS commander in Afghanistan has described
the British military operation
in the south of the country as worthless.
'Amid some of the toughest fighting...'
You were scared of missing something, as silly as that sounds.
You'd think, "If I don't watch this news and I miss seeing him,"
and that was going to be the last time you'd see him,
silly things go through your head. Obsessed.
It was never off in the house. The news was always there, always on.
'This is some of the most intense fighting
'ever experienced by British troops in Helmand.
'They've battled the Taliban for years
'and still they keep coming.'
He had a time limit on what he could use the phone.
He phoned us and he phoned his girlfriend,
and it was split between the two of us...
..so it was.
And then we were e-mailing and...
Yeah, we e-mailed him.
so we were.
And it was funny, cos he must have waited on our e-mails every night,
cos the answers were coming back straight away,
you know, and...
Of course, he told us not to worry, and...
I think that's understandable.
All the boys were probably home saying that to their parents.
"Don't worry, we'll be fine."
You know, so...
But it doesn't stop you worrying...
..sure it doesn't.
He spoke whenever he could,
he tried to do it once a week, sometimes it was twice.
He never really...went into detail.
Sort of just joking.
"We're going to be...
"we're going out on patrol," and then it was like,
"When I come back, I'm going to be sunbathing and I'm going to get myself a good time,
"so you'll look really white next to me." And...
just...I think he was...it made him feel better by joking,
and it made me feel like it wasn't such an issue.
He rung one night, half 11 at night,
and we just gabbed for 20 minutes, having a laugh, catching up.
Asking what was things like back here,
just trying to get as much information, you know,
trying to get back...has he missed anything over here.
You could tell in his voice he just wanted to get home,
serve his time...
..get back home, get decent food,
and be with family and friends again.
It was the last night he was home.
Before he headed off, he bought drinks, sat down and says, "I've something to tell you,
"I'll not be back, I'll not be walking into my house again on my own two feet."
I looked at him, "What are you talking about? You're crazy."
"Of course you're coming home."
I says, "I'll miss you like crazy if you don't come home,"
and he laughed, and went, "No, seriously,
"I'll not be walking home, you'll not be welcoming me off the plane next time,
"I'll be coming back in a box." And he says the numbers are just too high, there's no chance.
He said, "I was lucky to come home without a scratch after the first tour.
"The chances of me coming back without a scratch on the second tour are just...
"the numbers just don't add up."
We all joked with him and says that, no, of course
he was going to come home, and everything was going to be all right.
But he was adamant that he wasn't, even to the extent
that he secretly went and got baptised at the Church of Ireland Church just at the end of his road
before he headed out.
The holiday was booked a year in advance,
so it was long before Aaron even went to Afghanistan,
so it was.
..yes, in a way, we felt bad going on holiday
knowing that Aaron was out there.
But it was only two weeks and...
We had our mob...we had our mobiles with us,
and he could have still phoned us, you know.
We had said to Aaron, and Aaron said, "No way.
"Yous are going," you know, because he loved his holidays.
And he says, "No, no," he says, "Go on."
You know, he made us promise that we would go.
..go we went.
I was getting ready for work and he rang,
and we were on the phone for ages. It was longer than usual
because he wasn't going to ring his mum cos she was on holiday.
And he was just saying how he'd been...
He hadn't had time to ring this week, but he'd sent me letters
and he'd got my letters through.
He was fine, he was joking, he was taking the Mickey out of me.
He was always winding me up cos I'm English,
so he was laughing about that, and it was...it was a good phone call.
And then, came down, and me dad was, like,
"You've spoken to Aaron, I can tell, you seem more happier in yourself."
And then... To think that was the last phone call...
But I have that, and his family don't.
(It breaks my heart.)
I go to as many repatriations as I possibly can.
Having lost Jason,
families came out to support me
and I think it's really important that...
I want to be there, I want to give the families
the sort of support that they gave me.
and that's the reason why I go.
On the way today, I'm going to pop into Lydiard Park
to see if I can find the memorial for Jason.
I always take Jason's beret with me.
I like to feel that he's still a part of it, so that's why I do that.
'This is the first field dedicated to the 342 service men and women
'who've lost their lives in the Afghan conflict.
'For the families of the fallen,
'this field has created a unique place where they can
'gather and remember. The Royal British Legion deliberately
'chose to create this field near the Wiltshire market town of Wootton Bassett.
'Over the last few years people have regularly turned out to...'
-He's here. Here.
When did you lose your boy?
He was my nephew.
Oh, he was your nephew.
February, this happened. He was due home on the 14th
and he'd been out there for six months in Helmand Province.
What one is your baby?
There, the second row from the back, the second from the right,
-Oh, he's lovely.
He was a beaut, I know.
I'm so sorry for your loss, I'm so sorry for this war,
I'm so sorry for it all.
We're used to them being away,
and as the time goes by, you realise they ain't coming back.
That's the problem, when they don't come back.
-Thanks for comforting me.
I was looking for the photo and I couldn't find it
and I could see the other one and my brother, he's in Kandahar just now.
Oh, is he?
And it's just, like,
every time the door goes when it's not supposed to go,
when you come to the door and it's just...it's horrific, isn't it?
Just look at them, I mean there are just so many of them,
it's so unfair.
'Described as a giant amongst men,
'he was killed by the Taliban on Remembrance Sunday...'
'He was very outgoing and loving to his family.
'I sort of grew up with him cos he lived next door to my granny and grandad.'
'I knew him to see him and he was a very, very nice fella
'and they seemed to be an awful nice family.'
'Those words summed up the mood in Macosquin
'as people were trying to come to terms with the death of Aaron McCormick.
'Friends and neighbours say they've been left devastated by the news.'
All of a sudden my mum's house just got took over, there was people everywhere.
It hadn't sunk in to us without having to console somebody else,
like, a person that you didn't even... you didn't want to, you just wanted to say piss off, go home,
like, I haven't dealt with this yet without you coming to the door.
As ignorant as it sounds, you were just kind of like smiling,
you just found yourself smiling, "Do you want a cup of tea, a sandwich?"
as if you were consoling them. You were like a maid,
you were walking around doing stuff,
even though you really didn't want to.
'A soldier from Northern Ireland
'who died in Afghanistan yesterday was from Macosquin in County Londonderry...'
'..in his home village of Macosquin in County Londonderry, there's been a great sense of sorrow today...'
'..his family are well known in the Macosquin area.
'They received the devastating news while they were on holiday.'
It was a nightmare.
The press drove us insane.
They were knocking on the door,
they were chasing people around the estate.
They were chasing people around the local shop.
They drove us mad.
At times like that, you don't want to talk to the press,
you just want your family.
It got, for a while, every shop you walked in to it was like,
"Our brave soldier, we salute you",
that's all you see on the front pages of the newspaper.
Every day, there was something there.
It's like people became obsessed with it, you know,
the story of this person was from Macosquin
and he's from Northern Ireland or whatever,
and they were just getting obsessed with the whole thing.
It annoyed me, actually, it angered me because that was my brother,
it wasn't just a person on the front of a newspaper, like.
That was my brother.
'The people of Wootton Bassett
'said they realised they had become a proxy for the grief of the nation.
'We've latched on to what they're doing.
'Do you think that is because there's no formal mechanism for recognising those who come back?
'I do, yes, Sarah, but there has never been a formal mechanism for recognising those who come back
'because, quite honestly, in the past, they didn't come back.
'We don't have a set of national rituals for bringing the dead home.'
I lost my brother, Tom, in 1951 in the Korean war.
We were devastated but the big problem was for me, Korea, well, where is Korea?
Could have been on the moon for all we knew back then.
Tom was a very caring guy.
He was a member of the St. John Ambulance.
He would do voluntary duties with the local rugby team.
He was always there for neighbours to call out,
say, "Can you come along, Tom? Young John's got a pea in his ear."
When he went off to do his National Service prior to going to Korea,
he wrote home to my mother without fail every week, and...
we missed him.
MACHINE GUN FIRE
When you lose a loved one, you recall everything,
and I remember sitting on the wall outside my house
and a telegram boy came along on the bike, as they did in those days,
and he handed me this yellow envelope.
I dashed indoors,
mum was sat in the armchair,
I waited expectantly to hear that Tom was on his way home.
When mum opened the telegram, she just erupted and went completely hysterical.
You know, when you're 13 years of age,
you consider yourself invincible,
you've run, you've jumped ditches, you know, you've climbed trees,
and suddenly, you know, you lose your brother, aged 21,
and you realise that even at that young age, you're vulnerable.
I'm prepared to admit this,
I became a much more nervous character.
The loss of someone in your home it's...it's a permanent loss,
Mum obviously loved all her five boys
but there's something special about Tom for Mum and...
..I don't want to sound too dramatic about this,
but there were many times when...
when Mum...when things were really low for her,
and she was feeling pretty depressed...
..she would say, um, "I want to be with Tom."
You cannot replace
a loved one, but I think it would have been,
it would have helped her mental state to have, as I say,
had her boy home,
to have been able to say her final goodbyes to him.
And most of all, to know where he is.
I'm Bert Davey and I'm the Consort to the Mayor of Wootton Bassett.
We tend to split up on these occasions,
because there are so many folk who gather here and it's not a ceremony,
it's not official, we just turn up. Anyway, I'm sorry that this is the way you're seeing our little town.
-How are you?
-Not too bad, not too bad, yeah.
I've been to so many of these occasions and, quite honestly, I'm still lost for words
because anything I say is quite empty.
-Have you been before?
-No, it's my first time.
-Where have you travelled from?
Nice to see a good turn out, guys.
Absolutely brilliant, really pleased.
Hello, old timer, you all right?
There's a path, I'm going to go down here and see all this lot.
It's never been done before in military history
where a whole town has stood still.
For soldiers coming back.
It's only in Wootton Bassett where it's ever happened.
Everybody there has this common empathy.
People are there just to pay their respects to a soldier
who was out there doing his bit.
They turn up on the day
because they feel it's important.
It's about that common wanting to be there, common purpose.
Hello, gentlemen. Good afternoon.
I'm Morris Baker, I'm president of Wootton Bassett Royal British Legion
and also, for want of a better description, parade marshal.
I don't know what you want to do, but if I tell you what we do
and you'd like to join in with us, we'd be pleased to have you, all right?
-When in Rome...
-When in Rome. That's it.
I only give you two words of command.
They're both the word "up".
And what starts is, the cortege will start outside the church down there...
When I see the coffins going by
and they're all draped in the Union Jack,
I don't see what colour somebody is or what religion they are,
or what age they were, or what part of the country they're from,
they're just one of me.
And that's why I'm stood here.
That's why I stand in the street
and that's why I get cold or hot to pay that respect,
because they're one of us.
Excuse me, gentlemen.
-It's all this green, it confuses me.
Hi. Just to let you know, can you keep this area free for the family?
This is exactly where we're going to put them.
So there needs to be room for about six.
I imagine 10 or 15 minutes or so...
-Family approaching designated parking space,
cortege 10 minutes behind them, over.
Thank you, mate. I'm going now.
-Is it coming now?
-The family are coming now.
You can stay here, but spread out when they come here.
This is where they're going to be. Thank you.
Just to let you know, sir, the family are on the way.
OK, thank you very much.
All right, guys, family are on their way.
-The family are on their way.
-Are they? OK.
Yes, so it won't be too long.
Horrible, isn't it?
I know, I know, it's about here.
The family have just arrived.
I am really sorry to meet you here. I'm so sorry.
Thanks for all you're doing.
Don't thank me, it's a privilege what I have to do here, all right?
-It really is. And you've got some families here to see you.
-That's who I am looking for.
They thought they'd come and see you.
They've been here since the early hours, I think they beat me.
The cortege is about 10 minutes away at best now.
It'll go quiet and a bell will start to toll,
so you'll know it's there.
Everybody's here for you, so if you need anything, just shout.
But I'll walk up, you follow me up and I'll fight you a way through.
I'm a bit like a snowplough, to be honest. OK?
I've been sharing very many memories...
I can't even remember the trip, at all.
I can remember getting out the van and Steve coming...
Big Steve met as soon as we got off the van.
..straight for me.
And at first I thought, you know, "My God, look at the size of this man!"
Excuse me, gentlemen, can I shift you all out the way here? Thanks so much.
Exactly where you want to be is here, OK?
It's going to stop right in front of you, OK?
If you need anything shout us, all right?
'I know you might be thinking, how can she forget it? But...
'..all we were thinking of was Aaron.'
This police officer will move out of the way in a minute for you.
We just wanted Aaron.
We just wanted to open it up and take him out and bring him home,
You know, but...
we couldn't, of course, you know.
-15.10, roadblocks in place, all units into allocated positions now.
Just spread a bit there in the middle.
-Cortege approaching, over.
BELL TOLLS CONTINUOUSLY
Standard-bearers, fall out!
'The hardest bit, I think, that day,
'was seeing the coffin coming off the plane.
'That's when it hit me the hardest.'
That's the first you get to see Aaron when they bring him home,
coming off the plane.
And it's the last thing you expect, to be carried off.
..that's when it hit me hard.
I wouldn't cry that day.
I was too proud of my son to stand and cry.
I said he wasn't coming off that plane to me standing crying.
I was too proud of him.
I know it might seem stupid to some people, but that's the way I felt.
He wasn't coming home to his mother standing crying.
I was just too proud of him.
These people hadn't met him before,
they just knew him as a Ranger from the Royal Irish,
but they were still there and they were still showing their respect.
You see people lined up just showing a little bit of kindness,
and it shows...you see the horror of humanity
and then you see that there is still good out there.
And I think you need to see that, you do.
It sort of brings a bit of comfort to you, knowing that...
..there is something like that out there.
Thank you for coming.
-It was an honour to be here.
-It was very good.
I mean, you never can imagine this at all,
you know, when you're watching TV.
But the people are so kind,
-and especially those people in that Cross Keys, is it called?
Can I say, on behalf of the people of Wootton Bassett,
I do hope this show of respect that we paid for Aaron this afternoon
will help you and be some strength to you
at the most difficult time for you.
I wear this Elizabeth Cross with pride,
I lost my brother in the Korean War when he was just 21,
so I know just how you must be feeling as parents.
Thank you, there's no words can say.
My last memory of it -
the sheer amount of respect.
And you can literally feel the respect in the air,
sure you can, from the people.
I think, I think that will be...
You know, seeing the old soldiers standing to attention and saluting,
and, you know, just things like that there.
Like, it's every parent's worse nightmare to have to go through that,
but to know that the support we got from them...
..you know, you could feel it, sure you could.
And it did help.
-Two minutes to clear, please, two minutes to clear.
Aaron would have wanted to talk to every single one of them.
You know, to thank them for being there.
And should it have took him all week, if he could have, he'd have done it.
Have one. You're allowed in the street, have one.
Sit down with me, come and sit with me because I need a seat.
Sit with me.
I'll rest my back cos it's hurting, you get a fag out and light one up, I don't mind.
I don't smoke any more but I don't mind.
But I am sorry to meet you in such circumstances,
I think you're braver than I could ever be.
I did say, if my daughter was in this position, I couldn't do this,
and I think for you to do it is fantastic.
I'm just looking at all them bikes and thinking,
-my God, Aaron would have loved a go on them.
-Yeah, he would've.
RADIO REPORTER: 'The A3102 through Wootton Bassett
'is getting back to normal after the repatriation ceremony which closed the High Street,
'and delays are expected through Devizes due to road works and lights on the A360...'
-I'm sorry, cos we've got a flight to catch.
I know you do, and I've got to get on and get this lot all off the way.
-It was my pleasure, guys.
-You'll hear from me, believe me.
Thank you, and I tell you what, just remember how many people stood here,
and travelled from London, Devon, Dorset, The Midlands
because we want to stand in the street to pay you the support,
not for any other reason, that's why we come.
That's all we come for, all right?
You're in my heart, all right?
Thank you, guys.
This one was no easier than the last,
and the many that have gone on before.
But Aaron's done his duty, and we're saying thank you to him for doing that,
and I think what we ultimately are saying -
and I do hope I've chosen the right word for it -
because it's not something that's a pleasure,
but it's a privilege...
..it's a privilege for Wootton Bassett to be able to pay their respect to Aaron,
on behalf of the nation, we hope.
And I guess that's what it's all about.
Supporting people when they need it.
And we'll have to keep doing that.
SOUNDS OF CHILDREN PLAYING
I was asked a question recently -
"When does it start to get easier?"
If anything, it's getting harder.
You're used to them being away for a while,
but you're constantly waiting for the phone call,
"Och, I'm at the airport, come and get me,"
and, you know, we know we're never going to hear that again.
You're waiting on the front door getting opened and,
"Somebody get the frying pan on," you know.
Knowing we'll never...we'll never hear that again.
Our saving grace is...
..we can stand in our garden and we can see him.
With the church just being a couple of yards down the road,
we can see where Aaron is.
Any time we want to go to him, we can go to him.
You do have your really off days, you don't even want to see nobody,
you don't want to speak to nobody, you don't want anybody near you.
But then, it's nice going down to the graveside now,
because his headstone's there.
I don't look at that as a bad place.
I go down there and talk to him.
I tell him everything, still.
I sound a bit crazy at times,
but it's nice seeing him there, like Aaron's home.
THE FAMILY ARGUING AND LAUGHING
I called my last card ages ago and threw that down...
Hearts on the card.
Then he'd have just went to me, "Well, Ma, that's it."
He would have really cracked up when he lost.
-Oooooh, sure, man!
The chairs would have went flying, everything.
He didn't like losing at anything.
'You know, you have them memories, and memories never go.
'We all grew up pretty well...'
..and all bonded as adults, as much as we wanted to kill each other as children,
we all kind of grew up and always ended up back in my mum's house,
no matter what happened.
Always stuck in that bungalow, stuck in that wee house.
We just hovered about that kitchen or in the side garden
and Michael was maybe out or Callie was out,
then when Aaron was home he was always lingering about somewhere,
so it's kind of like that kitchen and garden has all my memories of Aaron,
all of them, actually.
SCREAMING AND LAUGHING
Aaron always done crazy things, ever since the day he could walk,
-so he was.
-He was a bad influence on me.
-He was the joker of the family.
-He was the joker of the family.
He'd have been the one that started the carry on and instigated and everything.
Anything that was started, it was Aaron usually started it, so he would have.
He'd have went in and lay flat on the bed and pulled the quilt over them so you didn't see him,
and you'd have went in to lie down,
and got on the bed and lay down, and the next thing you felt
was the arms and legs just coming up out of the bed and coming round you.
-Not as gently as that, now.
-No, no, no.
-Heart attack time.
Oh, it used to be madness.
He put an apple in his mouth and got on the table and pretended
he was the Christmas pig and told me not to eat him.
I'll never get that image out of my head on this table.
-In his boxer shorts.
-In his boxers, it was disturbing.
And then with his hands tied behind his back
and a big red apple in his mouth, going, "Don't eat me, Tammy!"
My daddy and Aaron has the same witty sense of humour,
so you sort of look at Daddy and you still sort of see Aaron,
that cocky, arrogant sense of humour.
YOU NEVER CALLED YOUR LAST CARD!
You knock before you throw the last card down!
-You don't throw that down...
'I'll never forget him, never.'
I don't know, as long as my daddy and that house is still around and all his friends and stuff,
you never forget, actually, never forget.
He got his good looks from me.
No, he did not, he looked like me!
-No, no, he looked like me.
-Aye, he did.
What do you call it? His cheekiness and his cockiness,
he got from his Da.
The looks and the brains came from me.
Come here and get a picture with your mammy all dressed...
Stand over here where you can see you.
He did dress up every now and again.
Clubs, last card.
We used to strip him
and put a girl's dress on him and throw him out in the front garden!
That was just cruel, that was wrong.
And we won a wee penguin in Spain one year
and we said if Aaron couldn't come on family holidays with us, the penguin would come.
So that penguin has been to Spain...
It's sailed down the Nile, it's been to the Valley of the Kings,
you mention it, it's been there.
Any time we go on holiday or anything, he comes.
I know it's silly and...
..but he loved it, he thought it was a brilliant idea.
And he used to phone up and say when we were going on holiday,
"You're taking Pingu."
And I'd say, "Yep, we're taking Pingu."
It even came to Wootton Bassett with us.
Even though nobody else knew.
But it was there.
There it was.
And we'll carry on taking it everywhere with us.
Cos, if we can't take him, we'll take it.
And that's our memories of him with us.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
On Remembrance Sunday 2010, the Coleraine family of Ranger Aaron McCormick received the news from Afghanistan they dreaded. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away the townspeople of Wootton Bassett prepared to honour him.
One year on, in this intimate portrait of one soldier and one town, award-winning filmmaker Henry Singer explores remembrance, grief and loss.