Homecoming party turns to wake for family of shot soldier

By Cahal Milmo

The Independent

11 August 2004

On sunday night, Private Lee O'Callaghan called his mother from his base in Iraq to tell her how "excited" he was about coming home. He was to arrive a week today. To mark the occasion, she had redecorated his room.

During the call, the 20-year-old infantryman said to Shirley O'Callaghan that the situation in Basra was "scary". It was the first time in five months' duty in the southern Iraqi city that he had expressed any fear for his safety.

Barely 24 hours later, at 9pm on Monday, two officers from the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment arrived at the maisonette on the London housing estate where the O'Callaghan family live to deliver the news that Lee was dead - he had been shot in the chest during clashes with Shia militiamen.

He was the 63rd British serviceman to have died in the Iraq war and the 14th soldier to be killed in action since fighting was declared over. As the Ministry of Defence began an inquiry yesterday into the death, which will look at whether the young soldier was wearing appropriate body armour, a member of his family called for British troops to be withdrawn from Iraq.

Standing outside the family home in the Elephant and Castle area of south London, Pte Evans' aunt, Margaret Evans, 51, said: "My nephew lived for the Army. It was all he ever wanted to do. He was a great kid who had found the path he wanted to follow. But why are they in Iraq? It is a nonsense. It is my personal opinion, but my message to Tony Blair is that we should not be there and we should get the rest of the kids out."

Defence officials declined to go into detail yesterday about how Pte O'Callaghan, a fanatical supporter of Millwall FC who had been in the Army for less than 18 months, was killed.

A MoD spokesman said: "A full inquiry will be carried out into the circumstances of the death. Until that has concluded, we cannot comment on what happened."

It is known that he was on a patrol in an armoured Land Rover which was attacked on Monday afternoon by militants loyal to the radical cleric, Muqtada Sadr, who were armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Four other soldiers were injured during clashes across the city. All were thought to be from Pte O'Callaghan's unit, 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, based at Tidworth on the Wiltshire-Hampshire border.

For the family of the dead soldier, who lived all his life in the area surrounding the Old Kent Road, his death was barely comprehensible.

His father Eugene, a retired publican, was being comforted by relatives as he sat outside the ground-floor maisonette, where Lee's brother, Danny, 16, and his two sisters, Gemma, 12, and Kerry, 11, were being comforted by their mother.

Mrs Evans said the family, who had last been together in March this year for a holiday in Malta to mark Lee's graduation from his basic training, had been concentrating on his homecoming and assumed reports on Monday of the killing of a British soldier did not apply to them.

She said: "He called on Sunday night. He told his mum he was just so excited to be coming home. His mum was doing up his room for him.

"He did say that it was getting a bit scary in Basra that day. That was the first time that he actually said something like that. He liked to appear relaxed the whole time. His parents and the other children are devastated, absolutely distraught."

Friends described Pte O'Callaghan as a dedicated soldier who had joined the Army Cadets as a young teenager and counted his local football club as his only other love. He had watched the FA Cup final between Millwall and Manchester United from his base in Basra.

Mrs Evans, standing 100 yards from the Catholic church, called the Church of the English Martyrs, where her nephew was baptised, said: "It's terrible. He was a young man who had found his career. It was what he wanted to do. For life."