Sally Veck found consolation in helping other bereaved parents after her combat medic daughter was killed in Basra.
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Three years after Sally Veck’s daughter was killed in Iraq, she was still crying every day. Finding a way out of her grief seemed to be impossible. She would tell people that she was having a bad day and some would respond, “What, still?” as if mourning had some shelf-life, a uniform timespan, at the end of which normality would resume.
But normality was a long way off for Sally. Her daughter, Pte Eleanor Dlugosz, who was a combat medic in the Royal Army Medical Corps, was killed in
Basra, Iraq, in April 2007 when a roadside bomb destroyed the Warrior armoured vehicle in which she was travelling. At just 19 years old, Sally’s “little action girl” was gone. Memories of Eleanor’s full-of-fun childhood lingered, but grief became an obstacle that Sally could not climb.
Eleanor was one of the youngest women killed in combat and her story resonated around Britain. Her portrait was one of those chosen by the artist Steve McQueen to be part of his Queen and Country exhibition commemorating 155 soldiers who were killed in Iraq. Sally went to London to see the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and a chance meeting with Roger Bacon, one of the founding members of the Bereaved Families Support Group, facilitated by SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, proved to be the first step in starting to move forward.
Roger’s son, Major Matthew Bacon, was killed in Iraq in 2005. As he sought to make sense of his son’s death, Roger felt a need to connect with families of other servicemen and women who had been killed. He became the group’s first chairman and this year was awarded the British Empire Medal in the New Year Honours list. Sally, who lives in the Meon Valley, near Southampton in Hampshire, explains: “I didn’t realise or understand how being in a room with 300 people who have lost their loved ones could be a positive thing. I thought it was going to be very heavy and down, but to my absolute delight and need, it was a very uplifting and positive experience.”
One thing that struck Sally was that SSAFA paid all expenses for support group members coming to events; through her work as a hotel receptionist, she knew what a financial strain that put on the organisation. “Straight away it was in my mind that you can’t take without giving something back,” she says. “So I got involved in
raising money for SSAFA.” But Sally doesn’t do things by halves, as those who know her can testify, and that shone through when she decided to hold a fundraising tea party for SSAFA’s Big Brew Up, an annual fundraising event held across the country. “I was going to do it at home, in my garden.” says Sally, with an infectious laugh that must disarm all but the most curmudgeonly of donors. But my conservatory is full of horsey stuff and dog baskets and I thought, ‘I can’t move all that’, so I hired the village hall. Lots of people made cakes and raffe prizes and it grew and grew. I just thought, ‘I hope people come’ and they did. People came from Cheshire, Somerset, Kent – from all over.”
The average Big Brew Up event raises £200 – the fundraising power is in the number of events that happen all over the UK. At Sally’s first attempt she raised £1,000, the next year she raised £3,000 and that started a pattern of fundraising that culminated last year in a calendar produced by the support group that raised a total of £10,000.
Sally is driven by her gratitude to an organisation that gave her what she needed at the time. It wasn’t normality and moving on, it was the positive effects of camaraderie and shared experience. She explains: “After a tour of Westminster Abbey, we had a memorial service at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I always stand at the back, and I stood next to some men that I didn’t know. I tried so hard not to cry but when I looked up they were all crying. So I thought if they can cry and not be frightened or ashamed, so can I. You’re trying to hide it and sometimes you need to just cry.”
Sally says that SSAFA has brought a purpose to her life and has changed the way she feels about Eleanor’s death. “If I organise a function and keep myself busy, I still have low weeks like on the anniversary of Eleanor’s going, but it’s changed lots. “I met someone who held on to me and said, ‘You’ve got to remember how lucky you were to have 19 years with her’, and when I think of it in this way, it’s a lot easier.”
Those treasured memories of a 5ft 2in girl who could beat all the boys still brings a smile as she looks back. ‘‘When Eleanor joined the Army, she wanted to
drive the tanks on the front line but she wasn’t allowed. The only way she could get to the front line was by being a medic, so that’s what she did. ‘‘I’m not too sure where Eleanor’s tank obsession came from. I had an old Land Rover, Dad had a steam engine and drives horse and carriages – we were always very odd. She probably thought, ‘Why not a tank? I haven’t got one of those.’
“She was just a real action girl. Her granddad had a smallholding and she would think nothing of helping to deliver a lamb there. She had an air rifle and she would shoot targets to choose the lottery numbers for us and then when she did basic training she got best shot. She beat all the boys.” Sally, who is now 50, intends to take a break from fundraising but remains committed to the support group. There’s enough hesitation in her voice when she tells me to suggest that the break won’t be for very long, if any time at all.