Saturday 12 Jul 2014
Remembrance Day used to be something that honoured the dead of two World Wars. But, increasingly, families in Wales are finding themselves at war memorials mourning the loss of loved ones killed doing their duty in Afghanistan.
The true heartache of those left behind – and the trauma of families with those who do return, but terribly changed by their experiences – is revealed in a moving documentary, Afghanistan: Five Welsh Families, which airs on BBC One Wales tonight (Monday 8 March).
Cameras follow parents and partners struggling to get to grips with the tragedy of losing someone in combat, and discover the reality for those currently serving and preparing to serve in combat.
Kelly Gore, from Pencoed, lost her partner Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous last year – the first Welsh Guard to die in Afghanistan.
She still can't bring herself to get rid of his toothbrush from the bathroom, let alone part with his ashes, even though Tobie had stipulated where he wanted them scattered.
"Before I met Tobie I thought Remembrance Day was for World War One and World War Two, you know, as many people do," says Kelly, from Pencoed, as she recalls standing in front of a war memorial with Tobie's details on.
"And this time, you know, you're having two minutes silence because of Tobie, someone who belonged to you."
Also in Pencoed, the family of Dane Elson are trying to come to terms with their loss – Dane was another Welsh Guardsman killed by a roadside bomb.
The couple, who keep a shrine to Dane, lighting candles for him most days, are so proud of Dane's achievements and that he died fighting to keep those in Britain safe – but find it hard to believe the world still turns without him.
Dad Stuart seems bewildered, six months after his loss: "Most things in life you can sort out," he says, "but I can't sort this out."
The sort of horrors the Welsh troops are facing every day are brought home by Phil Thomas, who is serving his second tour of duty in Afghanistan with the Territorial Army.
Phil is filmed in Camp Bastion, where he works in the operating theatre, and though hardened to what he'd find by his first tour, Phil is finding this latest stint "horrendous".
The scale of the injuries he's seeing every day are so much worse than last time that he confesses to being "knocked for six" by what he's seeing.
Although Phil is scheduled to return home later this year, sometimes the trauma of the theatre of war stays with the troops.
The documentary speaks to Michael Hughes, whose best friend was killed next to him by a roadside bomb, and who is now haunted by the sights and sounds of battle.
Michael's mum Ruth Davies has seen a big change her son. Traumatised Michael, suffering terrible flashbacks despite leaving the army two years ago, has been found by his mum trying to dig up the carpet in the lounge, as he struggled to build a trench for them both.
Michael, from Carno, who now works on a farm, is at last seeking help from a group called Combat Stress, where counsellor Mike Burrows says that, for every coffin draped in a Union Jack that is repatriated, four or five men and women soldiers are suffering either mental or physical injuries.
Despite their touching stories, the programme finds there is no shortage of recruits willing to do their bit for Queen and country.
Max Thompson, in Amlwch, is 18 and currently undergoing military training at Catterick.
For mum Alex, Max is making a last-ditch attempt to turn around his life, blighted by years of bad behaviour.
Though a confessed pacifist, Alex believes there is more hope for her son in his going to war than there is in staying in his home town.
Afghanistan: Five Welsh Families is narrated by actor Matthew Rhys, who is donating his fee to the Welsh Guards Afghanistan Appeal fund, which is supporting injured soldiers.
He says: "I know people who have served in Afghanistan and how it affects them. When you hear of Welsh regiments serving over there you feel a real affinity for them."
Following Afghanistan: Five Welsh Families, BBC One Wales will be staging a debate about Afghanistan from Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon. Afghanistan: The Debate will air at 10.35pm tonight.
Afghanistan: Five Welsh Families, Monday 8 March 2010, BBC One Wales, 9.00pm
Afghanistan: The Debate, Monday 8 March 2010, BBC One Wales, 10.35pm