Ten years after her son was killed in Afghanistan, Nathalie Bouzigues met up again with ITV News Presenter Mary Nightingale, and spoke of her journey through grief and how it is all to come for those who have lost loved ones in Ukraine
It is a bittersweet reunion. Ten years after Nathalie and I first met, we’re together again. This time at the National Memorial Arboretum. It’s a tranquil and very moving place, 125 acres of peace: open space, trees and scores of memorials to the thousands of British servicemen and women, lost in too many conflicts through the years. It’s a place Nathalie has come to know well, during the decade since her son died. Corporal Jake Hartley was killed in Afghanistan, just four days before turning 21. He perished, alongside five comrades, when their Warrior armoured vehicle was struck by an IED - an improvised explosive device. The soldiers had been on patrol in the Lashkar Gah region of Helmand and Kandahar provinces – trying to protect local people.
It was a tragedy that made grim headlines at the time – the biggest loss of British personnel in a single day in Afghanistan - six young men – dying in the name of freedom. They became known as the Warrior Six:
Sergeant Nigel Coupe
Private Anthony Frampton
Private Christopher Kershaw
Private Daniel Wade
Private Daniel Wilford
And Corporal Jake Hartley
When I met Nathalie at her home in Dewsbury a few weeks after Jake died, she seemed almost submerged in shock and grief, but she was determined to tell her son’s story. She was holding it together for the sake of his little brother Ethan – just 12 at the time. We spent the day discussing Jake, and her pride in his achievements – an outstanding young man, who’d always wanted to join the Army, and had won the award for best cadet during training. His commanding officer called him the ultimate infantry soldier who stood out from his peers - a star with a bright future.
Jake relished the discipline and challenge of army life - a highlight for him the three months he spent learning how to parachute in Canada. Nathalie showed me photos of her boy in uniform. A handsome young man with a big grin. In his prime. This was Jake’s second deployment to Afghanistan, and he’d opened up to his mum about his anxiety at returning to the warzone. Jake said he was sorry. He felt ashamed of being afraid. Nathalie told him he had nothing to apologise for.
Days later he returned to Camp Bastion with the 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment. On March 6, 2012, Jake and his five comrades died at the hands of the Taliban. The press covered the return of the coffins. The bereaved families with heads bowed in grief. Nathalie spoke movingly and honestly about the terrible loss, and the way the news reached her. It was the outcome every service parent fears most – a searing and destructive grief. Some bereaved people are reluctant to speak to the media amidst their loss. Who can blame them? But I think Nathalie felt to do so was to honour Jake’s memory – to make sure people realised how special he was, and the enormity of his sacrifice. Over the years we kept in touch – occasional phone calls on important anniversaries. A lot of late-night texts.
Nathalie herself says she struggled to make sense of anything after she lost Jake. For weeks she couldn’t escape the smell of smoke in her nostrils and would soak in the bath for hours to wash away the torment. She also faced the challenge of comforting Jake’s little brother – reeling from the shock of losing the role model he idolised. Grief was a long and terrible ordeal, she said. Walking in the winter sunshine 10 years later Nathalie seems barely to have aged - but today she’s calm and solidly grounded. The grief is still there, but it has evolved, she says. It is now a part of her life, and always will be, but the raging agony has passed. She no longer cries all the time. But Nathalie is angry and disappointed about the way the US and UK pulled out of Afghanistan, without, she believes, adequate preparation. What was it all for - when women and children are no better off than they were before all those allied soldiers gave their lives? Were all those young men and women wasted?
We talk about the latest war to afflict the world. The mothers of the soldiers being lost in Ukraine conflict have no idea of the grieving journey that awaits them, she says. Their pain is all to come. She struggles to watch the horrifying images on TV news. It’s all too close to home.
In the week that marked 10 years since Jake’s death, and what would have been his 31st birthday, Nathalie found a wonderful way to remember her boy: jumping from a plane at 15,000 feet to get just a glimpse of the exhilaration he found learning to parachute in Canada. Remarkably, she discovers the instructor she’s been allocated also taught Jake all those years ago, and still remembers him well. The jump goes according to plan – and she lands safely. It’s only once back on the ground that Nathalie gives way to emotion. She did Jake proud.
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