Royal Welsh officer helps soldiers' grieving families

Captain 'Mo' Moynihan
Image caption Capt 'Mo' Moynihan is a welfare officer for soldiers' families

Pontypridd-born Captain Mo Moynihan knows how to keep order.

As a regimental sergeant major in the Second Battalion the Royal Welsh, his job was to maintain discipline in the ranks.

Promoted to captain two years ago, Mo's new posting as the battalion's welfare officer has demanded a very different approach. His task has been to keep families as happy as possible when their loved ones are away fighting in Afghanistan.

He's had to be social worker, entertainments officer and general fixer all in one.

Mo's the first to admit he has found the transition from parade ground to tea and sympathy quite challenging, and, in an audio diary he kept for BBC Wales, he relates with disarming and moving honesty how he handled things when the worst-case scenario happened and the regiment lost a soldier.

Pte James Prosser died in 2009. Mo has spent much time since helping the 21-year-old's grieving mother, Sarah Adams, get through the ordeal. It included a harrowing inquest last September.

Image caption Pte James Prosser with his mother Sarah Adams

I visited Sarah at her home in Cwmbran. Her front room is full of memories of her elder son. In one corner are his photos, medals, his "dog-tag" and a small flask of morphine that every soldier carries in case of injury.

In another corner stands a 3ft cross made of polished brass artillery-shell casings. James's comrades in his platoon built it at Camp Bastion for his repatriation service. Pinned to its centre is James's "hackle", the white plume worn in their berets by the Royal Welsh. Next to Sarah's sofa, the cross glows with a tragic intensity.

A mother's grief

"I miss him every day. I just don't think James was ready," she told me as she wept.

"He was very quiet on the drive down to camp. I rang Mo after I dropped him off and told him to check he was ready to go. And I rang Mo several times over the next few weeks to tell him I was worried about James in Afghanistan."

In his diary Mo talks about how he tried to put Sarah's mind at rest. After her last call, Mo told her that "she should stop worrying because her son was in safe hands."

That was just days before James was killed by a massive Taliban bomb which hit his Warrior armoured vehicle near Musa Qala.

Sarah had been expecting James home on leave soon, but instead, early on a Sunday morning, she got the knock on the door from the casualty notification officer that every mother, wife or girlfriend dreads.

"I didn't listen to him," said Sarah. "I just kept repeating to him 'No. It can't be true; he's coming home in 10 days'."

The next few days were so hellish for her that she demanded that the army relieve the inexperienced casualty visiting officer of his duties and replace him with Captain Mo Moynihan.

Mo says the drive from the barracks in Tidworth to Sarah's home was the longest he's ever made: he was still wracked with guilt. In his diary he says: "I stayed seven hours with her…There was finger pointing… I had to apologise… I was emotionally drained… why had I told her James was in safe hands?"

Image caption Pte James Prosser in Afghanistan

Sarah was so angry she said she didn't want a military funeral. Over time, she changed her mind because she realised how much her son had loved the army.

"It became clear everyone in the regiment was so proud of him," she said. "It's what he'd have wanted."

Nearly a year after the funeral, there was the inquest in Newport. It happened to be the first day of the Ryder Cup and the city was full of excited golf fans, all of them unaware of a family's grief as Sarah, her daughter Emma and James's younger brother Josh arrived at the coroner's court.

Shared humanity

Mo was there too, as he has been whenever Sarah's needed him over the past year.

The event turned out to be as awful as Sarah had feared, despite the best efforts of the coroner to show that James had not been conscious as he lay dying.

The Royal Welsh infantrymen who'd survived the explosion alongside James gave statements and the coroner asked Sarah if she had questions for them.

"Was James in pain?" she asked his mates. "No," came the reply.

In the most poignant moment of all, and in a quiet voice, Sarah just said: "Thank you for being with him."

Afterwards, Sarah told me she sometimes still goes into a dark place where she wonders whether her son was conscious during the helicopter flight to Bastion.

"The worst thing is thinking I wasn't there to hold James's hand during his last moments," she said.

Mo says he still feels guilty for what he said to Sarah just before James died, but the grieving mother doesn't hold it against him. In fact, they are now the best of friends, brought together by a shared humanity in the face of a terrible loss.

The second of a three-part series While the Boys are Away is on BBC Radio Wales at 1917 BST (FM) and 1930 BST (MW) on Monday, 2 May.

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