Family pay tribute to 1st British soldier to die in Afghan

Dusty eyes again.

Family pay tribute to 1st British soldier to die in Afghanistan this year

[align=center]'He died saving the life of a badly-wounded soldier .. the danger never worried him'[/align]

Exclusive by Rupert Hamer Defence Correspondent 03/02/2008
Darryl Gardiner (SM)

He sounded tired and strained. Finally Corporal Darryl Gardiner's voice cracked with emotion.

Thousands of miles away, sitting in her living room, mum Sharon, 48, listened intently as her battle-weary son described his job in Afghanistan.

"It was at night and everyone else was out. He said he was just back in Bastion, the main British base in Helmand," said the mother-of-three.

"There was something different in his voice. We talked about what he had been doing. He was telling me about their efforts to win the hearts and minds of the local people.

"He said, 'Mum, you should see how they live, they've got nothing.

You should see the children. We're here to help them and we're making a difference, a real difference.

"'Ok so not everyone likes us, but a lot of people do and we've got to support them.'"

Sharon adds: "Suddenly after all these years it was me, his mum, who was getting the lecture, not the other way round. There was emotion in his voice, which was unusual. He talked about helping the kids. But that was Darryl, he would help anyone."

Days later Sharon answered another late-night call - this time it was a knock on the door from an Army captain.

"My heart was racing. I was probably hysterical. I said, 'Just tell me, just tell me, just tell me'.

But I already knew."

The officer sat down and told her that her 25-year-old son was dead - the first British soldier to be killed in 2008.

That afternoon, on January 20, Cpl Gardiner - known as Daz - had been killed instantly as a mine blew up under his Pinzgauer wagon.

Daz died just over two kilometres from the town of Musa Quala, which before Christmas he had helped liberate from the brutal rule of the Taliban.

A vehicle from his unit, the Brigade Recce Force, had been hit by a mine and Daz had driven to the troops' rescue. He had picked up a badly-wounded soldier and was ferrying him towards a waiting helicopter.

His brother Paul, 28, who serves with the RAF, said: "The soldier was in a lot of pain and crying out. Darryl was reassuring him, telling him, 'You're going to be fine, it's OK, we're nearly there', keeping his spirits up.

"They were about 100 yards short of the helicopter when a mine went off. Darryl died straight away. He didn't suffer, which is of some comfort.

"The word hero is bandied around a lot but my brother was a genuine hero. He was helping others when he died and that was typical of Darryl.

The injured soldier survived and is now back in Britain in hospital. My little brother was out there doing his duty, making a real difference to people's lives. We're so proud of him.

"You cry until you can't cry any more. Now we just talk about him, remembering stories of the three of us - myself, Darryl and our sister Laura - growing up together."

Photographer Phil Coburn and I spoke to Darryl's family and his girlfriend, Lucy Smith, 25, at their request. We had met Daz, a skydiving fanatic, last month in Afghanistan, joining the Brigade Recce Force which lead the battle to recapture Musa Quala, a drugs stronghold where those who opposed the Taliban were hanged in the town square. The day before he had witnessed the death of Trooper Jack Sadler, 21, also killed in a mine strike. Earlier in his tour, Daz saved the lives of four comrades when he shot dead a suicide bomber hurtling towards them.

Despite the impact of Jack's death Daz instantly made us welcome. As he watched us file our reports he would say, "Look Rupert, is there anything in your reports that would upset my mum? I need to know."

When we said goodbye, Phil and I held out our hands. In return we got a bear-hug. To us this bearded warrior was invincible. We never doubted for a moment we would see him again.

Today in his mother's living room, with a huge picture of Daz in his parachuting gear centre-stage, his shattered family struggle to come to terms with their loss.

His partner Lucy, a community mental health nurse from Salisbury, Wilts, who had been living with him for three years, recalls his last phone call hours before his death.

"It was 2am. He said, 'Babe, sorry, I had to call. I'm having a really bad day and I needed to speak to you'.

It was 6.30am there but he had been up in the night. He had coats wrapped around his head and feet, he was inside two sleeping bags, it was snowing and he was in the middle of nowhere.

He was missing the things everyone takes for granted. He said, 'I want a night in a bed, I'd like a shower.'

"He said he'd call me later.

That call never came."

Daz and Lucy had met three years previously during a night out in Salisbury. "We were planning to get married," she says. "We had spoken about having children. We knew our future was together."

In two days, his body will be cremated after a funeral service at St Mary's Church in Stafford.

Paul and best friend Reg will scatter his ashes during a free-fall jump at Netheravon, Wilts, where Daz did most of his parachuting.

Sharon, an NHS project manager, said: "I could shout and scream but I don't. It won't get me back what I want. I want my son back. If he was here now he would say, 'Mum, stop it, I don't do crying women'.

"I told him, 'Be careful, keep your head down, don't be Rambo'. But that wasn't his way. Darryl would never shirk anything. He put 110 per cent into everything he did.

"For me he'll always be my little soldier - the little soldier from the cartoons we watched together when he was just a child. My little soldier."

'You cry until you can't any more'

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