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.
Has his son’s death made him question the Army’s mission in Afghanistan? There is a pause before he replies. “No, it didn’t. And I pause only because as a father, to lose your son in any way makes you question something. As a soldier – and I’ve been to Afghanistan – I believe that we are right to be there. Whether everything has gone in the best way it possibly could in Afghanistan is for others to make their judgement on over time. But Andrew was doing a job he had trained for, that I think he was good at and that he wanted to do, so I would never consider it was a waste or that we shouldn’t have been there. The only person I blame is the man who planted the IED Andrew stood on. It could have hit any one of 20 other men in that compound on that day.”
While deeply grateful to the comrades who had saved Andrew’s life on the battlefield, and risked their own lives to get him to the medical evacuation helicopter, the fact that he was returned home alive brings with it its own pain.
“The one thing we find most difficult is that we got him back for 12 days. And the regret is that, broken and battered as he was, with the support we would have given him he would have had a great life. And I feel in a way I’ve been cheated, and so – as a soldier and a father – I find that most difficult. But I know all the family feel we have lost something large in our lives. That is what bereavement does. You shouldn’t ever have to bury your son or daughter.”
Mike says their three other children – Laura, 29, who also served in the Army, David, 25, and Abby, 21 – have dealt with their brother’s death in different ways. Andrew’s memory is kept alive by a new family phrase they all use when decisions need to be made.
“The kids would say, ‘What would Andrew do?’ and that’s become ‘WWAD’?, because he was very get-up-and-go. On holiday recently, we went white-water rafting, and there was an amazing zip-line across a valley, where you lie down and go like a bullet. We asked WWAD? And we said – he’d go, so we did it. We’re not living our lives through him, but when you tackle a challenge, we think how he would have done it. So that’s been positive.”
But of course, there are still dark days. “Sue misses him dreadfully. I do, too, and those are the days you have to be careful with each other. This breaks some families, but for us it’s brought us together.”
The couple now live in a small village near Andover in Hampshire. Soon, Mike will leave the Army to take up a new job and a new challenge. But he makes clear that he is not leaving because of Andrew’s death.
“Andrew had one bad day in the Army. That was the day he stood on the IED. And that’s the way we’ve always tried to keep it, in our heads.”
In the film, Brigadier Griffiths speaks directly to camera, trying to hold back the emotion as he answers the hardest question for any bereaved father: Did his son die in vain? For him, the answer is clear.
“To not believe it was in a good cause would be to say to all those who’ve given their lives, to all those who’ve been wounded, to all those who have served there that it was not the right thing to do. Dying for your country on operations is something that comes all too often with the job. As long as there are young men and young women brave enough to step forward, we are a nation to be proud of.”
The new series of Our War begins tonight at 9:00pm on BBC3