Tuesday, 24 May 2011

McKinnon, Obama, Two Mothers and Honouring 'The Fallen'

I went to visit this woman’s grave yesterday morning.

I’d never been before, though I’d meant to.

I never met her, in life.

Her name is Corporal Sarah Bryant and she was killed in Afghanistan - along with three of her colleagues - when the vehicle they were travelling in was hit by the blast from an improvised explosive device (IED) on 17th June, 2008.

She was the first UK servicewoman to die in that country.

She’s buried at the Methodist cemetery in Wetheral… a small village about two miles away from my own, and I walked there in the wind and the rain so I could get a photo of her gravestone, for this blog.

At first, I went to the wrong place… to Holy Trinity Church - a 16th Century, sandstone chapel which stands overlooking the River Eden.

This was where her funeral service took place… in the same church she was married in, two years before her death.

The vicar read out a tribute from her husband, Carl, during the service: “She was my best friend and soul-mate and I will never stop loving her.”

The Lych Gate at the entrance to the churchyard is adorned with plaques of all from the parish who fell during the two World Wars, and now – added to names and dates going back to the early years of ‘The Great War’ - there’s a new, oak plaque with Sarah’s name on it.

However fitting a tribute, it looked so wrong, and what caused further discord in my mind was that there was so much space underneath…

I searched the churchyard and found only ancient graves and tombs with crumbling stone and barely-recognisable names, before I realised that she must have been buried somewhere else.

I walked back up through the village and found a public footpath sign pointing up a narrow lane towards the cemetery, and followed it to find as picturesque and English a burial ground as there can be, surrounded by vibrant, green trees with gravel paths and orderly rows of gravestones… and there were so many.

I began to walk the path, looking left and right at the names of people I never knew… it was pouring with rain, but I didn’t rush. I didn’t know Sarah, either, so it felt right to pay my respects to everyone buried there.

I think I did visit every grave.

There was a boy of 15 who died in the 1970s and beside it, the grave of his mother, buried in the ‘90s. I wondered how hard it must have been for her to live all that time without him. I had tears in my eyes.

The gravestone of a Major in the Army, who died aged 31, but two weeks after the end of World War II?

Jeremy ‘Jem’ Stedman. Aged 17. He was in my brother’s year at school and I could see his smile the moment I read his name. He was killed in a gale in 1988, when his car was hit by a truck blown over in the wind.

I couldn’t find Sarah’s grave until it seemed I’d read all of the others. I even backtracked and re-read names, and then I noticed a similar stone to the Major’s, standing alone at the edge of the cemetery.

With relief, I read her name, took my hat off and stood there for a few minutes, rain trickling down my face, in silent thanks. I took a few photos and made my way back home.

This guy is Staff Sergeant Olaf ‘Oz’ Schmid.

I never met him, but my brother did. They were friends and colleagues and Oz used to babysit my brother’s children – my niece and nephew.

S/Sgt Schmid was a bomb-disposal expert who had successfully disarmed 64 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) before a newly-developed Taliban device he was working on detonated. He received ‘devastating injuries’ and died.

At his inquest, it was quoted that ‘several comrades told how he was "impatient" and "frustrated" after his five-year-old stepson Laird told him: "Daddy, time to come home."

Oz’s widow, Christina, received his posthumous George Cross, for his bravery in disarming all those devices over the course of just five months. He undoubtedly saved an awful lot of lives… both from the Allied forces and ordinary Afghan people.

My brother is alive.

He’s eight years older than me and he’s been in the Army since the age of 16, and he was in the Army Cadets for two or three years before that.

A life-long soldier and true warrior, he has – apart from the Falklands Conflict in 1982 – served in almost every theatre of war the British Army has been involved in for almost three decades: Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Northern Iraq/Kurdistan, the second Gulf War and Afghanistan…

He - like Corporal Sarah Bryant and Staff Sergeant Schmid - dedicated himself to service for his country. Whatever you may think about the governmental motives of military action, there is no doubt that our servicemen and servicewomen are a staunch and courageous force.

They put their lives on the line… some of them pay the ultimate sacrifice… though none of them want to.

In the Spring of 2003, my brother was among hundreds of thousands of troops that began the push from Kuwait, into Iraq, with the intent to topple Saddam Hussein.

Of course, all of this was on TV… the ‘Shock and Awe’ air strike on Baghdad and 24-hour reporting was probably more popular than Big Brother, that year.

I remember, a few days into the conflict, seeing my mother standing in the living room of her house, watching the television, and she was shaking. There were tears in her eyes as she listened to some reporter talking about a push towards, I think, Basra, and that there were an awful lot of British troops involved.

She started to sob… it was heartbreaking. I put my arms around her and she couldn’t stop crying.

Her little boy – who she’d carried and given birth to, held in her arms in the first moments in this world, then loved, protected and adored for all that time after, was thousands of miles away, in danger of death.

There’s no consoling that fear.

Hugs don’t work.

Words of reassurance don’t help.

That’s her little boy in danger…

Now… time to make sense of all this…

Gary McKinnon was arrested nearly ten years ago for ‘hacking’ into US government computers, including systems for NASA and the US Air Force.

He used a computer ‘script’ to search for blank passwords and entered these systems to look for evidence of UFOs and suppressed free-energy technology. (He was smoking a lot of cannabis at the time.) He also left some silly messages that he shouldn’t have, but… sticks and stones…

In the year of his arrest – 2002 - having admitted his ‘crimes’, it looked as though he’d go to court in the UK and get a community sentence.

This is from Wikipedia:

“McKinnon remained at liberty without restriction for three years until June 2005, until after the UK enacted the Extradition Act 2003, which implemented the 2003 extradition treaty with the US wherein the US did not need to provide contestable evidence.”

Now, because of this act – which was ratified a year after Gary was arrested – he faces up to 60 years in a US prison for the crime of walking through already open cyber-doors, looking for UFOs.

He has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – an Autism spectrum disorder, which explains so much in regard to the obsessive behaviour which got him into trouble in the first place.

Gary’s mother, Janis Sharp, is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure to communicate with… she is a true heroine, a remarkably passionate and glitteringly good soul who has been doing everything she possibly can – over many years, now – to stop her son… her little boy… from being taken thousands of miles away and put in a place he simply would not come back from.

His life is shattered. He’s been on the edge of suicide for years and only the constant care of his mother, girlfriend, cats and some exceptionally dedicated members of the mental-healthcare community have kept him alive.

Take him away from all of that and of course he’s going to commit suicide. I know I would do the same, in the same position.

The thing that frustrates me the most about this case is that both David Cameron and Nick Clegg supported Janis wholeheartedly before they ‘came to power’. They gave her assurances that they would stop this extradition, if elected.

This is an excerpt from a Daily Mail article, with words from David Cameron, in 2009:

Mr Cameron said he did not believe Britain's extradition proceedings were set up to apply to cases like Mr McKinnon's.

'It should still mean something to be a British citizen - with the full protection of the British Parliament, rather than a British Government trying to send you off to a foreign court', he said.

And this is part of an article on Nick Clegg, who appeared alongside Janis in a demonstration, before he ‘came to power’:

Mr Clegg has been a high profile supporter of their efforts and dismissed claims by the previous government that it had no power to intervene. 

In an article last year he wrote: “It's simply not good enough for Alan Johnson to shrug his shoulders and claim that nothing can be done. 

“It's completely within his power to enact amendments from the Police and Justice Act, which would allow Gary McKinnon to be tried over here. 

“Or he could urge the Director of Public Prosecutions to begin proceedings.”

Now that they’re in office, they’ve distanced themselves from their words, their oaths and their promises to stop Gary being extradited.

President Obama is visiting the UK this week, and there is so much hope focussed on the possibility that he could bring the good news that the US is going to relinquish their demand for Gary to be tried in the US.

To relinquish demands to extradite and imprison a mentally-ill man - already on the edge of suicide – who was looking for evidence of ‘little green men’, by walking through open doors in lax security systems of a Superpower.

What I’d like to see these three men do, together, is visit the graves of Sarah Bryant and Oz Schmid, and all of the other British troops who have been killed… to talk to their families and all those who loved them… to meet the maimed, injured and traumatised troops that survived… all the dedicated, brave troops who have ever fought these wars… all the families and mothers who have held that aching fear of their loved-ones being killed in far-off lands… look them in the eye and tell them:

“It is because of your dedication and sacrifice that dangerous terrorists like Gary McKinnon can be brought to justice.”

And then I hope those people spit back in their leaders’ faces so hard that their phlegm lubricates their eye sockets for weeks afterwards.

If Gary McKinnon is taken from this country, it would be the greatest, most disgraceful disrespect to the memory of the fallen…

It has to stop, now. It’s time for Gary to be freed from this, and it’s time for Janis to be able to live her life again… with her little boy safe and well.


  1. Really interesting to see your UK point of view on this matter. I have a friend who is a member of the Patriot Guard Rides, so he goes to military funerals whence people died in Afghanistan and Iraq all the time.

    As for Gary, he messed with the Air Force, and there are many ass holes with power in the Air Force...another story to tell you, I guess. And he has Asberger's Syndrome. USAF would not like that, doesn't fit their mold.

  2. That's the thing... it's never been about 'justice' - it's been about revenge, and both of our countries should be better than that, especially regarding a mentally-ill man who simply stumbled into these places because the lack of cyber-defence. He may have actually prevented a much more dangerous attack by alerting them to their weaknesses in security.

  3. wow Les, some story, had me in crying. My husband was in Navy 25 yrs, navy,chief petty officer. He serverd all over Iraq Afg. Qua. I know he would not like this. We are still friens with many other Miltary even though he is retired now and working for the railroad. My favorite Capt. & Master chief was in Rhode Island I know they would not stand for this either, very decent men .I wish my degree was finished... this is sad..

  4. It's crazy that there's so much bravery from our troops, and not just on the front line... and pompous politicians thousands of miles away from any danger perpetuate this sort of oppression on our own people.

    Thank you so much for the comment. Sorry for making you cry! ;-)

  5. I commend you Sir, great work


  6. This was an incredibly intense post. Thank you for sharing your insight.

  7. Thank you for reading, Lynn... it was a wrenching piece to write. Was thinking of heading up to the grave today, but perhaps it's a day for her family.

  8. I agree with Lynn. Thank you for posting. Moving blog. Son is trainee para only 21 probably end out in afghan x


  9. I hope he stays safe and well. :-) x

  10. I went to school with Sarah. Your writing brought a tear to my eye.. Such an amazing person beautiful, intelligent, friendly and caring. It was a pleasure to have known her and an absolute tragedy that she lost her life in this war on revenge/oil or as the government puts it.. terrorism! She will never be forgotten. I have 3 other friends still serving and there isn't a day goes by where I don't think of them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, wonderful blog post.

  11. Thank you for your words, Tom. It's heart-wrenching to look at her headstone and know that - if she'd lived - she wouldn't have even been 30, now... and should have had a long, long life ahead of her.

  12. Very moving, Les, very. We may never be free of wars, I fear, but for God's sake let's batter the bloody doors down that lead to the hearts of politicians and infuse them with some common sense and give them all a political dogma-ectomy; insist that, as their electorate, we are treated with some respect, listened to, heard and - above all else - given some credit with having the intelligence, the intellectual capacity, to see through their deceit.

    I used to be an angry young man, but I think I'm turning into an even angrier old man! Apologies for a rant on the back of such a good post, Les.

  13. I think you might find this an interesting story http://www.newser.com/story/121508/david-hart-british-marine-killed-in-afghanistan-leaves-150000-for-friends-las-vegas-vacation.html

  14. I really believe we have time to change... grow up out of this adolescent phase the human species is going through, and learn to appreciate and respect each other on a global level.

    Who knows how long this process has been held back by a tiny minority who keep getting us into wars?

  15. That's a great story - wonderful spirit. :-)

  16. Great story and thanks for telling it. Totally agree with you that we need to realize that we are all one and the same and there is no enemy. In the words of a great spokesman, "there is nothing to fear but fear itself." There really is enough to go around if we were all willing share the resources. Sharing was something I learned at an early age with lots of sibling and limited money.

  17. Thanks, Jan! It would be such an incredible world for us if we could just learn these basic rules that children are taught, wouldn't it? :-)

  18. Hard to read. Harder to ignore. thanks for the post

  19. A great post, very moving and truthfull, lets hope some of our politicians read it, it might make them think before making these stupid decisiona LIKE GOING TO WAR.
    We are all well aware our presence in this particular theatre is not going to make a blind bit of difference, why cant our politicians see this, or can they but will not admit it.
    My heart goes out to every mother and father who has lost some one or has some one serving at this time, its a tradgedy that has to end we cannot expect these young people to give up their lives for a fruitless cause.

  20. Just reading a 1973 book of Cumbrian Villages, a page mentions
    the village of Wetheral being one of the prettiest villages. My wife and I set of for our annual holiday to the UK and we stay near Middleton inTeesdale. Searched Google images for the village which led to the sad story of Sarah Bryant and your blog. The story brought a lump to my throat and sadness for the tragic loss of Sarah. We will make sure we visit the Methodist church and follow in your footsteps. I am sure it will bring tears to our eyes. Thank you Les.
    George & Amanda Box Perth West Australia