The biggest day in November has to be the 11th. At 11am the nation stays silent for two minutes. These two minutes are particularly poignant for me; I know what it’s like to worry about a family member in the armed services. I remember very well the first time my young brother left for active duty in Afghanistan. Waving to him as his car drove away, not knowing if that would be the last time I saw him, was tough. A tour of duty is usually six months; it feels like six years. Every time you hear a radio report or see something on TV about casualties, you tense up.
His involvement with the army has meant I have more empathy with soldiers and their families and it’s that empathy that made my recent experience so moving.
A few weeks ago I visited somewhere I’d been meaning to visit for ages, the lovely National Trust house and garden, Polesden Lacey. What a treat it is. The views alone are enough to make it worth a visit. I sat on one of the benches right up against the house with my wife, while the children were running around on the lawns. Through the window we could hear someone playing Debussy on the piano, it was perfect.
The lawns by the house are terraced with quite steep grass banks, which of course the children were enjoying to the full. As I stared at the view, in a way that only parents of young children know how, I could see a small group of men and women doing some sort of exercise on the grass banks. I was curious; what were they were up to? The banks are steep but they aren’t that challenging.
Before I had a chance to investigate further, my 4 year old son gave me the answer. He was playing near the group and shouted at the top of his voice “Daddy why has that man got robot legs?” Oh the joys of parenting. As usual he was saying it like it is; the man did indeed have robot legs. How do you answer that?
I simply looked at the man, smiled and said to him “I feel a glittering career in the diplomatic corps awaits him” pointing to my son. I think he could sense my anguish and luckily he laughed.
I went over to the group and started chatting to them. Two of them had lost both legs and another had lost his legs and an arm, and yet here they were walking around trying to master what we take for granted. Simply walking up a steep slope; it was truly inspiring and humbling.
One sees servicemen with missing limbs on TV but to see them up close makes it more real. I'll certainly be attending the local ceremony at the war memorial in Thames Ditton this year, and if those guys I met at Polesden Lacey are reading this; I’ll be thinking of you.