Gallery: Paras remember fallen comrades

THE commanding officer of a regiment that saw some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan paid tribute today to its “humour which defied the very worst of days”.

James Hore

THE commanding officer of a regiment that saw some of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan paid tribute today to its “humour which defied the very worst of days”.

Lieutenant Colonel Joe O'Sullivan, of 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, was speaking at a memorial service to honour the fallen troops.

During its recent tour of Afghanistan the battalion lost nine soldiers, plus a further six who were either linked to or who worked with it.

The service, at St Peter's Church, in Colchester, followed a march through the garrison town by 600 members of the battalion.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to applaud as they passed.

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Speaking during the church service, Lt Col O'Sullivan said: 2This was the very hardest end of soldiering, which the battalion had not seen for 26 years, with little margin for error and no place for the faint-hearted.”

He continued: “There were individual acts of bravery, which the nation may recognise in time, but every man gave his best in his own way and the soldiers of 2 Para today were the successors to the battalion that held the Arnhem Bridge with such tenacity, or refused to contemplate defeat against superior numbers at Goose Green.

“People outside looking in have been amazed by the battalion's resilience, its ability to carry on and on and its humour that defied the very worst of days.”

During the service, the names of all 15 men killed on duty were read out to a church packed with members of the regiment and their families.

A total of 15 soldiers were remembered during the service - nine from 2 PARA itself and six other soldiers who were attached to, or working alongside the battalion, in the wider 2 PARA Battlegroup.

About 120 family members of the fallen soldiers and those badly wounded during the summer, attended.

The families of Captain Richard Holmes and Private Lee Ellis, who were the last two members of 2 PARA to be killed on operations, in Iraq in February 2006 were also there.

Also remembered was Pte John Atlee of 2 PARA who died in a car crash after 2 PARA returned from their last tour in Iraq in 2006.

Lt Col O'Sullivan said: “The friends and comrades 2 Para have lost this summer will be remembered in the hearts of those who fought alongside them.

“They will be remembered in the hearts of their families who bear such an overwhelming loss with a solemn pride in their sons and husbands which humbles us all.

“The nation will remember them every year and their living memorial will be 2 Para.

“Just as those who served in Afghanistan this summer have upheld the finest traditions of the Parachute Regiment and honoured the memory of those who have gone before them, so those that follow will do the same - 2 Para will remember and 2 Para will face the challenges of the future.”

The service was led by battalion padre the Rev Alan Steele, who joined the troops in Afghanistan.

“Each one of us was tested on this tour,” he told the gathering. “Clearly, we did not all face the same tests but we were all tested in a variety of ways - our courage was tested, our commitment was tested, our self-discipline was tested, our loyalty was tested, our mutual respect for each other was tested, our personal integrity was tested.

“This testing has been prolonged and relentless because of both the duration and the demands of the tour.”

He recalled the harrowing week when the regiment suffered its heaviest losses.

“The biggest and by far the most difficult test for each one of us, whether in Afghanistan or in the UK, was when we lost men, killed or seriously wounded,” he said.

“In that dreadful week in early June, when we lost five paratroopers in the space of four days, I asked a senior non-commissioned officer how his guys were coping and he replied: 'There will be a time for tears later, now there is a job to do.'

“May I suggest that the time of testing is now done and that here, today, is the time for tears.”

He told the congregation that now was the time to “take stock” and “reflect” on the experiences of recent months.

But he added it was not a time for “regret, remorse and rage.”

"These are only dead weights that pull a person down,'' he said.

Reverend Steele said men in the battalion had likened their time in Afghanistan to a quote by Charles Dickens.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he said.

“This quote probably encapsulates the feelings of the majority of us who deployed to Afghanistan - the tour was both mega and hideous.”

During the service, as some relatives of the deceased soldiers quietly sobbed, some members of the regiment read bible passages. The Last Post was played by a lone bagpiper, which was followed by a silence to remember the fallen.

The hymn Jerusalem was sung during the service, which ended with the National Anthem.

One child, clutching a teddy bear, was comforted by her mother as she filed out of church with the uniformed soldiers, who were greeted with applause as they walked out onto the street.

Sergeant Andy Turnbull, from Sunderland, admitted the battalion had faced a "horrific time'' as they coped with the death of their comrades.

But the 32-year-old, who has spent time in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland during his 13 years' service, said the soldiers were touched by the reception they received ahead of today's service.

"It's the only time I've come back and people have lined the streets,'' he said.

"It's comforting that people feel that way.''

He was joined at church by his fiancee, Vicky Martin, and two-year-old daughter, Jessica.

Sergeant Joe Keenan, 34, from Liverpool, added: "It was really emotional, walking down the streets with people clapping.

"It's great to be recognised for what we've done.''