IN September 2011 Royal Marine Andrew Mills received a chilling phone call in the early hours of the morning, informing him that his services were needed to support a Blackburn mother whose only son had been killed in Afghanistan.
As 24-year-old David Fairbrother was shot dead by a single gunshot wound to the head during a security patrol in Helmand Province his shattered family were left to pick up the pieces back in Blackburn.
And as a media relations officer it was Andrew’s job to make sure the family were able to cope with the level of publicity that they were set to receive and often comes with the death of a soldier.
But the journey from Portsmouth to Blackburn was one that would be a ‘life-changing’ experience for Andrew, a former QEGS pupil, when he realised how much he had in common with the young man who had just his life snatched away so quickly.
“I remember that phone call like it was yesterday telling me that there had been a fatality and that I was needed. I was told that it was in Lancashire and was then given the BB1 postcode so I knew it would be Blackburn. I then discovered it was in Redvige,” said Andrew who served in the Royal Navy as a submarine weapons engineer.
“When I arrived at the family home, I knocked on the door and walked past a photograph of a young man in a QEGS uniform and it sent shivers down my spine. He was wearing the same ‘house tie’ that I had worn in previous years and I discovered we were in the same team. I looked again and thought that it could have very easily have been me thirty years ago.”
Andrew met with David’s mum Julie and sisters Ruth and Emily and said his job was appreciated by the family at such a tragic time.
“The press had reported that David had died and during those days I accompanied the family. We went to see the headteacher at QEGS and it was clear Mrs Fairbrother was really suffering and needed me to talk on her behalf. I spent a week with the family and like David, I was a former QEGS pupil and a Royal Navy man. It made me realise that we had an awful lot in common and hopefully I brought as much comfort as possible to the family.”
When the tragic news first breaks within the first 24 hours a senior non-commisioning officer deals with the family. Once the details such as the repatriation and funeral arrangements have been arranged families think what’s next...
Andrew said: “Obviously there’s media coverage that families aren’t expecting so it’s my job to say to the family ‘do you want to talk about your son on the tv? Do you want to speak to the media? Or do you just want everybody to go away? It’s a huge part of their grieving process.”
David Fairbrother was due to return home at the end of October 2011, instead his funeral took place at the beginning of the same month at Blackburn Cathedral with Jack Straw, QEGS teachers and hundreds of people paying their respects.
“For me it was the best thing that I have done and the worst thing that I have done,” said Andrew. “Because I am a former Blackburnian, it was a case close to my heart. At the beginning you drink lots of tea and try and take the burden off the family. I liased with the Bishop of Blackburn and helped make the process run as smoothly as possible and when things had calmed down, David’s best friend Ben spoke to the media on the family’s behalf,” said Andrew who lives in Gosport with his wife Charlotte. “Often speaking to the media can bring some closure for the family.”
Yesterday 50-year-old Andrew went to Camp Bastion on a four month contract where, until November, he will be the media relations officer for the Royal Navy as troops start to come home.
Andrew said: “When the government announced the withdrawal of troops by November there are people who are now ready being churned out. I am no Alistair Campbell I am the media expert and you have to be honest and open and informative and we have to recognise the government politics too.”
In November Andrew will come back to the UK to his own business and ‘other day job’ selling Nephria beauty products worldwide and to department stores such as Harvey Nichols.
He added: “As for Afghanistan I am emotionally and physically ready to go,” said Andrew. “I am doing what I have done all of my life and I am looking forward to being back with the troops. I still keep in touch with David’s family and when I am home in Lancashire in November I will be able to visit his mother. There is the memorial in Camp Bastion that has the names of all of the servicemen that have been killed and David’s name is there too. I will take a picture and bring it home to show it to Mrs Fairbrother.”