Tuesday 17 September 2019

'These were the real heroes' - how the families of Irish soldiers killed on UN duty have paid the highest price for peace

The families of Irish soldiers killed on UN duty have paid the highest price for peace, writes Alan O'Keeffe

LOVED ONES LOST TO PEACE: Private William O’Brien (above) was killed in 1986. A commemoration today will honour Irish soldiers who died while on United Nations duty
LOVED ONES LOST TO PEACE: Private William O’Brien (above) was killed in 1986. A commemoration today will honour Irish soldiers who died while on United Nations duty
LOVED ONES LOST TO PEACE: Corporal Peter Ward (right), who was killed in a gun battle in 1992, standing with brother-in-law Noel O’Brien (left), who would accompany his body home. A commemoration today will honour Irish soldiers who died while on United Nations duty

Alan O'Keeffe

Irish families continue to mourn the loved ones they lost in Lebanon. As the 40th anniversary of the deployment of Irish troops beckons on June 24, a family spoke of losing two young men among the 47 Irish soldiers who died in the troubled Middle Eastern country.

Twenty-one Irish soldiers were killed in action in the early years between 1978 and 2000 serving with the United Nations' Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Pauline Ward lost her brother William O'Brien (25) when he was shot dead shortly before Christmas in 1986. Her husband Peter Ward (29) was shot dead in 1992.

"People don't realise what was taken from us," said Pauline. "I was left to rear four kids on my own."

Both 'Willie' and 'Wardie' had lively personalities.

They died doing their duty in seeking to keep the peace and protect the local population in one of the most dangerous places in the Middle East.

Irish troops had to patrol and live in a perilous 'buffer zone' between two warring sides.

On the one side was the DFF - De Facto Forces supporting the Israeli army - and on the other side were Iranian-backed Hezbollah gunmen.

The two sides regularly exchanged gunfire, rocket fire, mortar fire and artillery fire. Israeli tank-fire was another hazard.

The two Irish brothers-in-law were killed by opposite sides. Private Willie O'Brien was on sentry duty at the local Irish HQ in 1986 when he was killed by a ricochet bullet believed to have been fired from high ground occupied by the DFF.

Corporal Peter Ward was shot by Hezbollah guerrillas in 1992 as he bravely went to the assistance of his Irish comrades who were under fire from several Hezbollah gunmen.

The Irish were manning a checkpoint which had been closed down for the night and Hezbollah was determined to pass through the Irish checkpoint as part of its escape route after its fighters had finished a gun attack on its enemies in the region.

Corporal Ward, as car commander of one of three armoured personnel cars sent to re-enforce the checkpoint, was shot in the heart by a high-velocity bullet that penetrated his flak jacket.

Another soldier, Private Niall Coleman was badly injured.

A comrade, Paul Coventry, from Ballymun in Dublin, ran under heavy fire to assist the injured Private Coleman and was later awarded the Military Medal for Gallantry.

Poignantly, serving with Peter in the Lebanon was Willie's brother Noel.

Noel heard that morning that an Irish soldier had been shot but he was not worried for his brother-in-law as he believed Peter was not on duty. He did not know that Peter, who had finished his nightshift, had offered to go to the scene of the gun battle as he was still wearing his full army kit.

Noel later escorted Peter's body back to Ireland as relatives sought to cope with this second tragedy to hit the family.

Pauline Ward (52) was both happy and sad recalling stories of her husband and brother last week when she joined three of her nine sisters - Geraldine, Connie, and Martina - at a hotel in their hometown of Athlone.

In a meet-up with the Sunday Independent, the four sisters were joined by Connie's husband Paul Cooley (67), a retired quartermaster sergeant who served six military tours in Lebanon, and Martina's husband John McCrossan (57), a retired quartermaster sergeant who served nine tours in Lebanon.

They know too well it is the families who lost loved ones who paid the highest price for peace.

The sisters grew up in an extraordinary Irish military family. Their father, John Toby O'Brien, a sergeant in the military police, saw six of his seven sons join the army.

Five of his nine daughters married Irish soldiers. Seven of his grandchildren became soldiers and his great-granddaughter Chaz O'Neill is one of the army's youngest soldiers.

The news of Willie's death came as a devastating blow to the family. Willie's wife Mary was pregnant with their second child.

Their son Eric was three years old. Five months after Willie's death, his son Liam was born.

Willie's sister Martina (54) said several letters and Christmas cards written by Willie to members of his family arrived after his death.

Martina said a letter she received from him is stained with her tears.

The four sisters recalled happy memories of their brother, who was a stylish dresser growing up. He had been a big fan of the Bay City Rollers pop group and would wear the band's trademark tartan-denim trousers.

He was also a fan of rock group Slade whose big hit was Merry Xmas Everyone. Willie was killed as the 1986 Christmas season was getting into full swing.

His sister Geraldine (58) said it was heart-rending when she would hear the song being played. Whenever she hears it, she says to herself: "That's Willie's song."

Pauline said her husband Peter, a farmer's son from Gortletteragh, Co Leitrim, was a loving husband and a wonderful father to their four children.

Their twins Emma and Louise were aged eight, Martin was five and Kim three when their father was killed.

Martin later followed in his father's footsteps when he, too, travelled to Lebanon as an Irish soldier.

Peter was a good-humoured man with a lovely 'devil-may-care' attitude.

He was super-fit and an All-Army boxing champion.

She remembered when their twins were born, Peter ran all the way from the hospital in Ballinasloe to Athlone, 18 miles away, dressed in his civilian clothes in the early hours of the morning, to give her parents the good news.

"Peter was killed 13 days before he was due to come home," said Pauline.

"On the day I got the news, I saw the priest and an officer come to my porch door and I knew what must have happened. I just screamed. And the kids screamed," she said.

Later, the suitcase Derek had packed was sent home. It contained a gold pendant for Pauline with one half of a heart while the other half of the heart was to be worn by Derek as a symbol of their 'forever love'.

The suitcase also held a teddy bear which their daughter Emma still treasures a quarter of a century later. She called it 'Pete'.

Years after the deaths of Willie and Peter, several family members joined the relatives of other Irish UN casualties to lay wreaths at a monument in Lebanon to the Irish fallen.

The monument contains dozens of names.

Veteran Paul Cooley said: "Pop stars and footballers are treated as heroes.

"But these Irish lads were real heroes who laid down their lives for peace in the world."

Pauline is proud of a framed citation accompanying medals awarded posthumously to her husband by the Lebanese authorities.

It acknowledged the debt owed to the Irish families of the fallen.

Referring to Corporal Ward's death, it states: "This act of noble sacrifice remains as a symbol of strength for the people of Lebanon who continue their pursuit of peace and normality.

"The family of Corporal Peter Ward must bear honour through these awards for they paid the highest price for peace."

A commemoration ceremony will be held today at 3pm at a monument to soldiers, who died on United Nations missions in countries around the world, at Coosan Cemetery, Athlone. National commemorations will be held on June 24.

Sunday Independent

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