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Thursday, September 21, 2023

A fallen soldier’s final words of love

By Russell JenkinsBEFORE Gunner Lee Thornton went to war he poured out his love for his fiancée in a letter that he hoped she would never have to read.The 22-year-old soldier had left instructions with his “soulmate”, a 21-year-old student, that she was to open it only in the event of his death. This month he was shot dead while on patrol outside Basra.Helen O’Pray, his fiancée, decided yesterday to show the contents of the letter to a wider audience before his funeral next Monday. It begins with the affectionate greeting “Hi babe” but ends solemnly: “I love you, always and for ever.”He told her: “I will always be looking over you to make sure you’re safe. Helen, I want to say something and I mean this more than I ever did before. You were the love of my life, the girl of my dreams. . .”“So whenever you feel lonely just close your eyes and I’ll be there right by your side. I really did love you with all I had, you were everything to me.”Surrounded by pictures of the dead soldier and hundreds of sympathy cards, Miss O’Pray tried to put into words how she had felt as she read the letter for the first time. Gunner Thornton’s parents, Mick, 41, and Karen, 44, were with her at their home in Marton, Lancashire.Miss O’Pray said: “There are no words that can describe how I felt when I read the letter for the first time. I love him so much. He was kind, generous and everything you would want in a man. I miss him dearly and this letter just shows how much I meant to him.”Gunner Thornton was brought up in Blackpool, and always wanted to be in the Army. He joined 12 Regiment Royal Artillery after leaving Palatine High School, and was sent to Iraq for his first overseas tour of duty at the age of 19.He and his fiancée planned to marry in August 2008. He gave her the letter when he returned to Iraq in April.He volunteered for patrol on September 5 after two of his regimental colleagues, including his close friend Stephen Wright, 20, were killed when their Land Rover was hit by a roadside bomb. Gunner Thornton was shot when the patrol came under fire in the town of al-Qurna. He was hit once and was flown to a military hospital in Germany but died surrounded by his family two days later.Lieutenant-Colonel Jon Campbell, his commanding officer, said it was typical of Gunner Thornton to volunteer for patrol. It was an act of defiance against those who had killed his comrades. “He showed no hesitation in driving out of the security of the Shaibah Logistics Base and facing the ever-present threat to British soldiers in Iraq.”Gunner Thornton’s parents were on holiday in Bulgaria with their other children, Ryan, 19, Sean, 15, and Jake, 13, when they were told that their eldest son was gravely ill. They flew to the military hospital in Germany. Miss O’Pray and her mother, Janette, flew from their home in Cheshire. Mrs Thornton said: “We had prepared ourselves for the worst but nothing can come close to how we all feel. He is a hero to us all and achieved so much in his short time. We are proud of him and will never forget him.”This year Gunner Thornton’s picture was featured on the programme cover for Blackpool’s Veterans Week, and he was among a contingent of soldiers from the regiment to be granted the Freedom of the Borough in a ceremony at the town hall.Michael Simpson, of the Imperial War Museum, said that there was a long tradition of soldiers penning moving valedictory letters from the front line. Soldiers in the First World War were encouraged to do so. “It has become a bit of a tradition since,” Mr Simpson said. “Somehow, facing death and being hundreds of thousands of miles away from home made men articulate emotions to their loved ones they would never have felt able to do face to face.”Hi babe,I don’t know why I am writing this because I really hope that this letter never gets to you, because if it does that means I am dead. It also means I never had time to show you just how much I really did love you.You have shown me what love is and what it feels like to be loved. Every time you kissed me and our lips touched so softly I could feel it. I got the same magical feeling as our first kiss. I could feel it when our hearts get so close they are beating as one. You are the beat of my heart, the soul in my body; you are me because without you I am nothing. I love you Helen, you are my girlfriend, my fiancee and my best friend.You are the person I know I could turn to when I needed help, you are the person I looked at when I needed to smile and you are the person I went to when I needed a hug. When I am away it is like I have left my soul by your side. You have shown me so much while you have been in my life that if I lost you I could not live. You have shown me how to live and you have shown me how to be truly happy. I want you to know that every time I smile that you have put it there. You make me smile when others can’t, you make me feel warm when I am cold.You have shown me so much love and so much more. I want you to know how much you mean to me. You are my whole world and I love you with all my heart, you are my happiness.There is no sea or ocean that could stop my love for you. It is the biggest thing I have ever had.When I say I love you I am trying to say . . . That you make me feel warm and great about myself, you make me smile and laugh every day; you make time to talk to me and listen to what I have to say. I know God put me and you on this earth to find each other, fall in love and show the rest of the world what true love really is.I know this is going to sound sad but every night I spent away I had a photo of you on my headboard. Each night I would go to bed, kiss my fingers then touch your face. I put the photo over my bed so you could look over me as I slept. Well now it is my turn to look over you as you sleep and keep you safe in your dreams.I will always be looking over you to make sure you’re safe. Helen, I want to say something and I mean this more than I ever did before. You were the love of my life, the girl of my dreams.Just because I have passed away does not mean I am not with you. I’ll always be there looking over you keeping you safe.So whenever you feel lonely just close your eyes and I’ll be there right by your side. I really did love you with all I had, you were everything to me.Never forget that, and never forget I will always be looking over you. I love you, you are my soulmate.Love always and for ever.Lee

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