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Why Did Gordon Gentle Have to Die?

Paul Kelbie

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There was never any doubt what Gordon Gentle would end up doing when he left school. Both his mother’s brothers had served with the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Northern Ireland, and for the quiet, 6ft 2in Celtic fan it seemed there was never an alternative but to follow in their footsteps.

School friends teased him over his military ambitions, saying he was too kind and good-natured to be a soldier. He was called Gentle, after all. But the teenager had the strength of character to ignore them, and enlisted with the regiment last year.

On Wednesday, the same friends, who nicknamed him him “Soft”, will gather to honour a 19-year-old who joined the Army to see the world but ended up being the 60th and last British soldier to be killed in Iraq before the handover of power to the new Iraqi government.

Fusilier Gordon Gentle died last week and two of his colleagues were seriously wounded when a bomb planted by the side of a road in Basra was detonated as their Land Rover passed by.

His death caused outrage when it emerged that he had only just completed his basic training before being sent to Iraq. His parents condemned the lack of preparation.

Yesterday it was reported that a number of servicemen have been sent to Iraq without undergoing training designed to help them deal with likely threats. The Ministry of Defence is pleading “exceptional” circumstances.
Since news of his death was broken to his family last week the tight-knit community of Pollok in Glasgow has been in shock. Family and friends have attacked the Government and the Army for sending such a raw recruit into a combat zone.

“He shouldn’t have been there, none of our boys should be there,” said his tearful mother, Rose, who works as a cleaner. “Why don’t Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon send their own families out to Iraq? My son was just a bit of meat to them, just a number. They don’t care about him - all they’re worried about is the next election.”

The garden of the family’s modest terraced home has been turned into a makeshift memorial to the soldier as friends and neighbours have draped flowers, cards, soft toys and Celtic football shorts over a wooden picket fence adorned with messages of condolence.

A steady stream of well-wishers have called to honour the boy, who was well known and liked in the community.

“All the kids in the street are devastated,” said Paul Montague, a neighbour. “He was a marvellous guy.” On Friday the body of the young soldier - the first Royal Highland Fusilier to be killed by hostile fire in 24 years - was flown back to Scotland for a military funeral this week at St James’s Church, which lies just around the corner from the family home.

“I am confident that the Pollok community will turn out in their hundreds to pay tribute to Gordon Gentle,” said the Scottish Socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan, a family friend.

Mr Sheridan, a childhood friend of Rose who knew the teenager all his life, described the soldier as a “delightful young man”.

“He was at the very heart of everything that was good about the community,” said Mr Sheridan. “He was involved in organising the local gala day, the annual football tournament … in saving the local community hall from closure. He was involved in all the activities which make a community a community.”

It was partly due to that same selfless spirit that, despite his first overseas posting being to a war zone, Mr Gentle had assured his family he was happy to go as it was “part of the job” and he accepted the risks. He was proud to wear the uniform of a regiment with more than 200 battle honours to its name, even though he told Rose that all he was doing was “delivering water”.

Throughout his tour of duty he regularly wrote or called home, always upbeat about life and making plans for his return. He told his family how he had taken up boxing and was looking forward to heading off to Greece or Spain on holiday this month.

His last letter arrived about 48 hours after he had been killed - further grief for the family. It said how much he was excited about coming home to see friends and have a “bevy” with his dad.

The two men were close. When, in April, Gordon completed basic training at Catterick in South Yorkshire and passed out in a military parade in front of his family, his father, George, called it “the proudest moment of my life”. A family portrait shows the serious-looking soldier in full dress uniform flanked by his smiling and adoring sisters, Pamela, 21, and Maxine, 14.

For a hard-working family from Pollok - a Glasgow suburb - their son’s graduation into the ranks of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Highland Fusiliers was a matter of achievement.

“He was the best son a father could ever hope for,” said Mr Gentle, the 45-year-old painter and decorator who has been devastated by the loss of his only son.

Brought up in a tight-knit community where neighbours watch over one another and children play happily in the street Gordon Gentle was instilled with a sense of duty, fair play and social conscience.

Before joining the Army the teenager used to help organise the local Pollok Gala, deliver campaign leaflets for the Scottish Socialist Party and was regarded as the “kind of lad who would do anything to help”.

“He was a fine, upstanding, hard-working guy who was always a credit to the school,” said Wullie Todd, deputy head teacher of the local Hillpark Secondary School, which Gordon attended until leaving to join the Army.

“Gordon was always keen to get involved in school activities and was a great asset,” he said. “His death has been a great shock and we are all devastated for his family.”

The young soldier’s transformation from playground to parade ground started last year with 14 weeks’ basic training, then a 16-week combat infantry course at Catterick Infantry Training Centre in North Yorkshire.

The first 12 weeks were spent on weapons training; map reading and battlefield first aid, together with nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) training, followed by lessons in battlefield communications and physical fitness.

After the first phase the youngster was taught the fighting skills of an infantry soldier, combat tactics and - in preparation for deployment to the Gulf - did a one-week course on convoy drills, and ambush awareness.

Despite assertions from the Army that the teenager had been properly trained, his family are not convinced and are angry that he was sent in to a combat zone after such a short time in the military.

“He was just out of training a matter of weeks before he was sent to Iraq,” said the boy’s uncle, Gordon Graham, who was a fusilier for six years. “He did the basic training but that just does not give enough preparation for what he faced in Iraq. He hadn’t had the time to be trained properly.”

Mr Graham’s brother, Wullie, was also a member of the same regiment. He said the Army needed to give young lads like his nephew at least two years’ training before sending them into situations like Iraq.

“Gordon shouldn’t have been there, it’s not our war,” Mr Graham said.

“The Army sent a baby to do a man’s job,” said the teenager’s aunt, Senga Fry, who described her nephew as “a lovely, handsome, big lad who had lots of pals and plenty of girlfriends”.

The family, although grieving, remains proud. In the words of his father: “He managed to get out of Pollok and do something with his life.”

Published Monday, July 5th, 2004 - 07:53am GMT

Paul Kelbie is Scotland Correspondent for The Independent newspaper, UK.

Article courtesy of The Independent

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