‘I don’t hate the Army for taking away my son, he loved it’

Blackpool soldier Christopher Whiteside
Blackpool soldier Christopher Whiteside
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It is humbling to talk to 
Diane Whiteside.

Softly spoken and 
polite, she is a lovely lady who has been through the most horrifying of ordeals.

As we talk at her house in South Shore, it is impossible not to glance at the two photographs of her son Christopher, small in size and placed discreetly on the mantelpiece, but which somehow dominate the lounge.

He is 20-years-old in the 
pictures, dressed in Army uniform. He looks handsome, fit and healthy, a young man with his life ahead of him.

Christopher never saw his 21st birthday.

He was killed in July 2009 while serving in Afghanistan.

“There was a knock at the door at 10 o’clock at night and my other son, Daniel, answered. He shouted that it was a man in an Army uniform and I just knew,” said Diane.

“I can remember it all now. It was in slow motion, it was 
horrific. The man at the door took his hat off and I knew what he’d come to tell us.

“It is a horrific job these people have to do because they know as soon as they get past that front gate they are gong to change someone’s life forever – and it has.”

What struck me throughout my half-hour chat with Diane was her dignity. Her eyes filled with tears on several occasions. Her voice faltered once or twice. But she never broke down and was always calm and measured with her responses.

It is almost five years since she lost her son but the suffering is etched in her face.

“I still go to his grave every other week and put fresh flowers on for him. It is still painful,” she said.

“When it happened I just felt numb. That is the word, and I think we still are now. I know this sounds horrible, but when I first met some of the lads from his regiment, I thought why have you come home and not Christopher?

“It is horrible and I will never get over it. Sometimes I still expect him to walk through the door, like he always did, and shout ‘hi mum, I’m home’. It is hard.

“But you’ve got to carry on because you have to think of the rest of the family.

“I’ve got to think of my other son, Daniel, my partner Malc, and my mum and dad.

“I wish Chris was here but he never will be.”

Christopher, a keen fencer, joined the Army in 2005 aged 17, but was discharged a year later due to a knee injury.

He spent 12 months as an apprentice butcher at Morrisons on Squires Gate, where Diane also works, before deciding he was missing army life too much.

“It’s why, when I eventually went back to work at Morrisons after he was killed, it wasn’t a case of getting away from it. Everyone knows him and 
everyone knows what happened,” she said.

“But they always announce his name in store on Remembrance Day, which is nice, and it was Chris’s own decision to go back to the Army – he was 
missing it too much.

“You don’t expect your 20-year-old son to be taken away from you, but I don’t hate the Army for that because it made him happy.”

Some might find this hard to comprehend, but Diane believes that even if Chris had known what was going to happen, he wouldn’t have changed a thing. He adored what he did, she says. He was doing his duty, and serving his country – alongside his friends in the Light Dragoons regiment – meant everything to him.

Diane praises the Army for “helping her every step of the way” following Christopher’s death.

For more than three years, the family had a visiting officer, someone from the Armed 
Forces who keeps in close 
contact and makes sure they are OK.

I ask what it was like in the 
immediate aftermath of Chris’s death. When British soldiers are killed, it is big news in the media.

“That was horrific, very hard,” says Diane. “It is a horrible thing seeing it on TV, seeing your son’s face on the screen.

“But I think the worst thing was waiting for him to come home. Because so many were killed (seven British servicemen lost their lives in Afghanistan in the same week), their bodies were all at a hospital in Oxford and we had to wait three weeks until we could have the funeral. They were the longest three weeks ever.

“Our visiting officer came every day. Every time he came we asked ‘have they released his body yet?’ No, he’d say. Next day, ‘have they released his body yet?’ No. 
“It was just unreal.”

Diane says that when she finally got to see Christopher’s body she found it comforting.

Her son was on foot patrol in Helmand Province when he was killed by an improvised explosive device. The bomb threw him into a stream where he drowned.

“When I saw his body he just looked asleep. He had lost his foot from the ankle and his hand, but he looked at peace, which helped me,” she said.

Hundreds of mourners 
attended Christopher’s funeral at Holy Trinity Church.

“I didn’t imagine how many would turn up. There were so many people, people who didn’t even know him. That was an honour,” said Diane.

“But Chris wouldn’t have actually wanted that fuss, the big military funeral. He wasn’t that sort of person. He was very down to earth, what you see is what you got with him. He wouldn’t be into all the fuss and all the media.”

Neither is Diane. This is the first time she has properly 
spoken since Christopher died.

After his death, when the 
media wanted to talk to her, she shied away. But she was advised by the army to give one interview, to The Gazette, and the national papers took quotes from that.

“It was a very odd time, overwhelming really. The media all jump on the bandwagon. I know it is a big story and all that, but it isn’t nice for the families,” she said.

“Christopher actually said to me that he didn’t want his name released should something happen to him. He didn’t want us getting all the hassle.

“But I thought he deserved to have his name released, so I did override him on that. I felt awful doing it, but I thought he deserved to be recognised.”

Earlier in the year, the UK handed over its command of military headquarters in Afghanistan, as part of the latest step towards the complete withdrawal of British troops from the country. I ask Diane how she feels about this.

“I feel it should have happened sooner and maybe before I lost Chris. Too many have been killed,” she said.

“But then again he was a soldier and if it wasn’t this war it might have been another.

“It was his job and he knew the risks. He was told what he was doing was code red. It was dangerous. I didn’t know that, we only found out at the inquest that there was a high probability they may not come back. But being young you think you are infallible. They think it will never happen to them.

“Chris was just the sort that would always volunteer rather than sit on his backside in Camp Bastion. That was what he was like.

“So I’ve no regrets that way and, in hindsight, if he knew something was going to happen he still would have gone. He loved it that much.”

I ask if the death of her son has changed her view on war.

“Wars are all to do with religion,” she replied. “I’m not religious myself. I was slightly before I lost Chris. Not now. If there was a God he wouldn’t have taken my boy away from me.

“But Christopher always said that if he was going to be killed he’d rather be killed in action than crossing the road.

“One of the officers in his regiment says that’s how every soldier wants to go – not in an old people’s home, they want to go in a battlefield with their mates.”

Five years on, the Whiteside family are trying to carry on with life as best they can.

Diane is still at Morrisons, her partner Malc works at BAE in Warton, and Daniel is thinking of going to college after failing to get into the Navy when he was diagnosed with epilepsy.

Things will never be the same again but at least the family can remember Christopher with enormous pride.

“I know a lot of people do forget, they do, but obviously we don’t,” she said. “It has made me stronger, much stronger, and I feel immensely proud of Christopher and the job he did. But the pain is still there every day and always will be.”

* Tomorrow: Steve Canavan speaks to two more families who have lost loved ones in the 
Afghanistan conflict