It was 7.30am and Brigadier Mike Griffiths was at home on leave and just getting dressed, when his wife Sue answered a knock at the door. As the father of a son serving in Afghanistan – and also colonel of his regiment – he knew immediately what the knock meant.
“I knew that something dreadful had happened. I came downstairs and grabbed hold of Sue and told her she needed to sit down, and she realised that this wasn’t good news.”
As a senior officer it was the type of message he was all too familiar with. But here was his own boss telling him that his son Andrew had been badly wounded in Helmand. The young Army captain had been blown up by a Taliban bomb, hidden in a compound floor.
“We’d managed a phone call once a week, because Andrew’s unit tended to be in the more difficult bases to reach. He never talked about what they were about to do, but he’d say that they were off to do something quite difficult. He’d only tell me, not his mother. We just had to get on with it while he was there, knowing he was well trained and among a very good bunch of soldiers. And that’s the way we coped with it, and we were just looking forward to him coming back.”
Even after the knock at the door, there was still hope. The tall, blond 25-year-old was being operated on, before being flown back to the UK that night for treatment on the military ward at Selly Oak in Birmingham. Almost two years on, Brigadier Griffiths still remembers every detail of what happened next.
When he and wife Sue walked into the hospital, Andrew was still alive, but heavily sedated. "We knew what his injuries were and we walked into the ward to see him, and it was shocking. But he was still alive. We – unlike so many – got our son home, and there was a chance."
The family and Andrew’s girlfriend kept vigil at his bedside. One day, after a week, he regained consciousness. “I think he’d known we were there all the time,” says Brigadier Griffiths. “I was looking at him, and he was looking at me. I told him to nod his head and he was as conscious as you can be with the sedation they were giving him, and he recognised us, though he was never able to talk to us.
“He was badly wounded but not badly damaged, if that makes any sense. And he knew we were there because he recognised our voices, and he would respond to us talking. At one stage we spoke to him and asked him if he understood where he was, and that he was in hospital, and he gripped onto us.”
But after 12 days, on 5 September 2010, Andrew died, just a month before his 26th birthday, the first son of a serving officer to die in Afghanistan. The story from battlefield injury to hospital death is movingly chronicled in this week’s episode of Our War – the series whose use of soldiers’ own gritty helmet-cam footage won it a Bafta award earlier this year.
“Grief comes in waves, but you learn to cope with it,” says Brigadier Griffiths. “You never forget. I don’t think there’s a waking hour where I don’t think and feel sad, but then, I know that’s what everyone who goes through a loss does.”
Brigadier Griffiths is matter-of-fact when he speaks, as befits a man who has spent his life in the Army and who, as colonel of the Duke of Lancaster regiment, attended repatriations, as well as the funerals of those who had died in Iraq or Afghanistan. He is now the director of personnel operations in Army HQ. It’s a job that includes overseeing the Army’s visiting officers: the men and women who have to break the news of deaths and injuries to soldiers’ families, and help them cope in any way they can.