Few mothers can be touched by tragedy like Jan Hawkins.
Their older son Alex was blown up by the Taliban 15 years ago. Then last month, his brother Nigel, who was two years younger and also a soldier, died in a suspected suicide after battling PTSD.
Nigel – who served in the same regiment as Prince Harry – tried in the days leading up to his death to no avail, his family say.
Today, as Jan bravely tries to deal with the aftermath of the double tragedy, she is calling for an overhaul of the Department of Defense’s handling of mental health.
She tells her story as the Sunday People’s Save Our Soldiers campaign continues – with exactly the same goal.
Jan said: “Alex’s death hit Nigel very hard, to the point that he almost blamed himself because he couldn’t say good luck before he went to Afghanistan.
“He told me he wished he had died in his brother’s place.”
The two brothers had both served in the army at the same time, but in different regiments. Alex was a Lance Corporal in the Royal Anglian Regiment while Nigel served alongside Harry in the Blues and Royals for 12 years.
Alex was killed and two comrades wounded in Sangin in July 2007 after the Vector vehicle they were traveling in was blown up by a homemade bomb while on routine patrol.
He survived the blast but died later that day at the age of 22.
Nigel, a 34-year-old divorced father of two children and a stepson, was buried on May 3 and his inquest is due in September.
His body was found with a friend in Dorset. Nigel, who lived in Alton, Hants, left the army in 2015 and worked for a transport company.
He was one of more than 350 veterans and military personnel believed to have taken their own lives since 2017. Most of the fatalities were combat veterans who struggled with mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Jan said Nigel has been struggling during lockdown, getting into debt and trying to get help for his mental health issues.
The mother-of-four, whose two daughters also served in the army, says veterans with mental health problems should be given priority treatment.
Jan, who lives in Dereham, Norfolk with his husband Bob, 33, added: “Too many veterans take their own lives. Nigel had been diagnosed by a counselor with PTSD caused by the death of his brother.
“He asked his GP for help and was told someone from a mental health team would be in touch with him, but that never happened. Instead of getting help, he was asked to fill out forms. What he needed was to talk face-to-face with someone who would listen to his problems and help him. But that never happened and he eventually decided he couldn’t go on.”
Jan fondly recalled how their two sons were very close as boys.
She said: “Alex was the more serious one. He was an easy child and never caused any concern. Nigel was the prankster who always made everyone laugh. I always said he should have been on stage as he was a very good mimic and could tell jokes with any accent which made them even funnier.
“Nigel was dyslexic, which meant that while he could read and write well, his short-term memory was almost non-existent. The dyslexia wasn’t noticed until he started taking his GCSE exams, which didn’t help.
“He did well in everything he did in the army and he was a great organizer who would help anyone.
“The boys were very close, even though they were very much chalk and cheese. Alex weighed before he acted, Nigel dove head first and took a chance on luck.
“Nigel was bullied as a kid because he was tall for his age. Alex was always there for him and got him out of danger. Most of all, they were brothers and proud of each other.
“I feel blessed that these two brave young men were my sons.”
Alex attended Wisbech Grammar School in Norfolk where he excelled at sport and aspired to become a fighter pilot for the RAF while Nigel attended comprehensive school.
Jan added: “Alex had poor eyesight in one eye and his dream of becoming a pilot wasn’t going to come true, so instead he said he wanted to join the local regiment, the Royal Anglians. We got all the pamphlets and looked at all the options the army had to offer but he insisted on the Royal Anglians.”
Alex joined in 2003 at the age of 18 and fought as a rifleman in Iraq in 2005. Comrades in the regiment’s 1st Battalion described him as a model soldier – and within two years he was promoted to corporal and trained as a marksman.
He was deployed to Afghanistan with his battalion in April 2007.
Jan added: “Alex said Afghanistan is very different from Iraq. The fighting was more intense and while he had been looking forward to engaging in it, he didn’t think he would survive.
“When he came back after two weeks of vacation he said, ‘Mom, I don’t think I’m coming back. If I’m killed, I want to be buried, not cremated.
“He let me hug him, which he hadn’t done since he was a kid. I asked him if he wanted a full military burial and he said yes.
“He wasn’t grumpy – just very practical. He said his unit was under attack the whole time and 16 days later he was dead.”
Jan was volunteering with the Army Cadets at a summer camp in Yorkshire when she received news that Alex had died.
She added: “Nigel blamed himself for Alex’s death. He wanted to wish him luck but was in training and couldn’t and somehow thought it was his fault. I don’t think he ever really got over what happened.
“I think from that moment he was traumatized. I was devastated when I lost Alex and it took me nine years to get over it. Now I’ve lost Nigel too. Not long ago he told me that he wished he had died and Alex had lived.
Why Fergal Keane left his role as BBC war reporter after suffering from PTSD due to the horrors
HMS Sheffield survivor ‘proud’ of his service to the country during the Falklands War
“I think he just couldn’t cope and didn’t know how to get help.”
A Defense Department spokesman said: “All suicide is a tragedy and our thoughts are with the Hawkins family.
“We are committed to the health and well-being of all of our serving and former employees and encourage every veteran who may be struggling to access the support they deserve.
“Veterans in England can get expert support from Op Courage, the Veterans Mental Health and Wellbeing Service.”
The Samaritans are available 24/7 should you wish to speak to us. You can contact them for free by calling 116 123, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or going to the site website to find your nearest branch. You are important.