The latest issue of the Lion magazine for the British Isles and Ireland arrived the other day. The following article is copied in full from that issue as this is something which I feel deserves much wider attention. Further comment from me would be superfluous.
In 2011 the repatriation of military men and women who have lost their lives in conflict was transferred from RAF Lyneham where the processions were honoured by the people of Royal Wootton Bassett, to RAF Brize Norton. The local Lions Club, Carterton, volunteered to help the County, District and Town Councils by providing manpower to help, and to keep a team of volunteers always ready to assist with car parking.
Their role has become much broader as they meet the friends and wider family members of the returning soldiers, giving help and advice, suggesting places to eat, where to get flowers, and keeping a constant supply of tissues to help dry tears…
THE CARTERTON LIONS TELL OF A TYPICAL DAY:
It’s strange how we watch the news with different eyes these days. The Lions of Carterton are constantly alert for the dreaded news - another death in Afghanistan.
The process begins. There are 16 Carterton Lions available on the rota. When just one Repatriation is taking place we need eight. When the six soldiers came back, 14 of us were there. The rota is sorted and the timetable sent out. Usually the plane lands at 1.30 pm and the cortege passes the Memorial Garden at
around 3.30 pm.
It is 8.30 am: One of us is on site to check it is clear, put the initial signs out, and start reminding local people that there will be some disruption to their travel arrangements that day. The parking area we use is a well-known short cut around the town. Most of them sympathise with the need for the road closure which we will put in place later to reduce traffic movement and ensure the safety of our visitors.
At 9.30 am Lion Mike fetches all the signs from the store and brings them up to the site – placing them carefully. Local people walking their dogs stop to ask us what time the cortege will arrive – and stop to chat and put the world to rights. The Team Leader receives the radio allowing us to communicate with the organising team. We make sure the portable loo has arrived – and put out the Lions’ free shoe cleaning facility. With so many of our visitors having military connections, clean shoes are a must.
Some people start arriving very early, especially if they have travelled a long distance. They may have come the night before; they like to get their bearings and then have time in nearby towns (Witney or Burford) before the Repatriation itself takes place. We are there to provide information and advice for them.
10.30 am: Lion Don or Lion Alan arrive; they understand how the cars will be parked that day. If it has been dry enough, then we can park on the grass – otherwise we need to use the road spaces which are more difficult to organise. They put up the marker posts to mark the lines for the first rows of car parking and
work out the order for the day.
11.30 am: Lion Jeff arrives as the first of our “greeting” team. These are the Lions who offer emotional and practical support to the visitors – and this is a vital part of our work. The initial thoughts of us all are with the close family – and a nucleus of them actually go to the Repatriation Centre on RAF Brize Norton where they are in the care of the Military.
But the Lions see the wider family - aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. They frequently arrive in convoys having driven long distances. Some weeks ago there were eight cars which arrived in convoy from Liverpool – each car containing four young people. For them this is a devastating time: they have lost their mate, the chap who played centre forward for their football team, the bloke who played the bass in their band or the one they sat next to at school. And for many of these young people, it is their first real brush with death.
They need our support. They are glad of a chance to stretch their legs and walk down to the Memorial Garden. Our “greeting” Lions are there to walk and talk with them on their way to the Garden – to provide a helping hand, a friendly smile, basic advice and even a packet of tissues. At the Garden they move into the care of the Royal British Legion Family Support team. We have also put together a leaflet showing a map of the area, where they can buy flowers, get some refreshments or take time out in a peaceful environment.
By 12.00 noon our team numbers six or seven and our own radios are distributed amongst them. This enables us to keep in touch with each other throughout the rest of the day across what is a widely spread site. We are pleased to see the arrival of one of our Lions with his Motorhome and a welcome brew, cup of soup, sandwiches and cakes. Lions need feeding!
1.00 pm: We are now almost up to full strength. There are at least three greeting Lions, four to guide the cars and park them safely as they begin to arrive more frequently. Local people are now slowed down and reminded clearly about the repatriation and the fact that the road will shortly be closed off.
The British Legion Bikers are arriving and taking up their places in their reserved area. Many of them come every time – from Devon, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Birmingham, and ‘Portsmouth Pete’ who has become a firm friend to us all.
1.30 pm: The plane lands. For many of us this is the most poignant moment in the day. But there is work to do. The short cut road is closed and we can now work safely guiding larger numbers into the main area.
2.30 pm. This is when the “rush” starts as local people begin to arrive. Many of them we know well and they know where we would like them to park and what the protocol for the day entails. There are always some very latecomers – which makes life very difficult as the later they are the further away they need to park.
3.30 pm. The message comes through on the main radio to say that the cortege is approaching. A distinct envelope of peace seems to come over the area and, even though we cannot see the cortege, we know it is there.
This is the time for us to be opening up the road block to ensure that everyone coming off the site has two choices for exit.
4.00 pm We are surrounded by people making their way back to their cars and their homes. Many stop to thank us for what we are doing – all say “hope we don’t see you again”. We know what they mean.
4.30 pm The signs have been gathered back together and Lion Mike takes them safely back to storage at the Pavilion.
As we go back to our own homes, we reflect on the change to the work we do from the initial “parking” task that we were allocated. Our remit is so much wider – providing emotional and practical support for the huge number of people, both young and old, who come to pay their respects or receive their loved ones back home. We all say how good it would be if there were no more repatriations. But if there are, then Carterton Lions will be there. We have never been more conscious of our motto - “We Serve”.