Poignant letters from tragic hero

We will remember him: Lee Thornton's image is projected onto Blackpool's cenotaph. Beloow: Lee Thornton

We will remember him: Lee Thornton's image is projected onto Blackpool's cenotaph. Beloow: Lee Thornton

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The fiancee of tragic Gunner Lee Thornton has opened her heart to the author of a new book about the pain she suffered when reading a letter he left for her to open after his death.

Blackpool soldier Lee, 22, penned the beautifully-worded note to Helen O’Pray before being shot and killed while on his second tour of duty in Iraq in September 2006.

Undated handout photo issued by the MoD of Gunner Lee Darren Thornton, of 58 (Eyre's) Battery, 12th Regiment Royal Artillery, who has died from injuries he sustained in a shooting incident in Iraq. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Saturday September 9, 2006. Gunner Thornton died yesterday from injuries he received in a shooting incident north of Basra on Tuesday. An MoD  spokeswoman said his patrol came under fire near a building used to plan reconstruction in the town of Al Qurna. See PA story DEFENCE Iraq. Photo credit should read: MoD Crown Copyright/PA.' Lee Thornton from Blackpool

Undated handout photo issued by the MoD of Gunner Lee Darren Thornton, of 58 (Eyre's) Battery, 12th Regiment Royal Artillery, who has died from injuries he sustained in a shooting incident in Iraq. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Saturday September 9, 2006. Gunner Thornton died yesterday from injuries he received in a shooting incident north of Basra on Tuesday. An MoD spokeswoman said his patrol came under fire near a building used to plan reconstruction in the town of Al Qurna. See PA story DEFENCE Iraq. Photo credit should read: MoD Crown Copyright/PA.' Lee Thornton from Blackpool

His letter is one of a series of farewell letters written by servicemen and women to their loved ones, dating from the Napoleonic Wars right through to the Falklands Conflict and the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book, If You’re Reading This, has been written by Sian Price, a TV and radio producer who was inspired to write the collection after working on a documentary for BBC Radio 4.

Speaking to Sian, Helen, who was a 21-year-old student at the time of Lee’s death, described the emotions that overtook her when she learned her future husband would not survive his injuries.

She said: “It felt as though I had been punched in the stomach, I was sick and couldn’t breathe.

“I was totally devastated and felt that my world had ended. I was crying so much I nearly collapsed.”

Helen also says that although re-reading the letter provided inestimable comfort, it was a bittersweet compensation.

She explained: “I had thousands of letters from the age of 16.

“It made me realise that I would never read his words again.”

Lee’s mum Karen Thornton, 52, of Marton, said: “I think it’s nice that Lee’s memory stays alive through the letter as well as through his family and friends.

“Lee was a very, very thoughtful person.

“The past eight years have gone in a blur, I know it sounds like a cliche but it still feels like yesterday.

“I’m so immensely proud of Lee, I feel that every day.”

Lee’s two younger brothers have followed in his footsteps, both choosing to join the Royal Artillery. Sean, 23, is a Bombardier in his brother’s former regiment 12 Royal Artillery while Jake, 20 is a Gunner in 47 Regiment.

Karen added: “Jake spent his 21st birthday in Afghanistan while on a tour of duty before returning back to England in November last year. I’m very proud of them both. They didn’t join the Army because of Lee, it’s just the kind of boys they are. They are both so sporty and active.”

Both boys are now stationed in the UK.

Sian said the book, published by Pen and Sword Books, had been a “labour of love” that took her more than three years to complete.

“Across the centuries there are different themes and attitudes expressed but the over-riding message was that they loved the people they were writing to and wanted them to know that.”