'My hero Darren did not die in vain'

Darren Neilson
Darren Neilson
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The widow of a British Army soldier killed in a tank explosion has spoken of her determination that he would not die in vain.

Jemma Neilson, 29, from Walton-le-Dale says that she has confidence in the changes being put in place after an inquest revealed that an undetected design flaw was behind the death of corporal Darren Neilson.

Royal Tank Regiment corporals Matthew Hatfield, 27, and Darren Neilson 31, died during a live firing exercise at Castlemartin Range in Pembrokeshire, Wales.

A seal stopping explosive gases escaping into a tank crew’s turret was not in place before the lethal blast.

Cpl Neilson was thrown from the turret in the explosion on June 14, 2017.

Cpl Hatfield, 27, and a father of one, from Wiltshire, who also died, had been loading ammunition.

Both men were taken to hospital but later died of their injuries.

Jemma, Darren’s childhood sweetheart and mother to their eight-year-old daughter Mille, said: “We were very content with the outcome of the inquest. We feel the coroner did a really thorough investigation.

“There were all sorts of things that we felt as a family needed to be explored.

“Going back through what happened in the inquest was an emotional roller coaster. We have waited a year for these answers and some clarity into how this could have been allowed to happen.

“But I’m confident that the army has stated now that it will never happen again.

“In my mind Darren didn’t die in vain, we have put changes in place to make sure it won’t ever happen again.

“I really want to protect Darren’s friends and colleagues. It’s had a lasting impact on soldiers. They’ve got to get back into the tanks.

“If they knew Darren that would be horrendous to get back in a tank, you need to have the trust that things have changed.

“I don’t ever want it to happen to anyone else’s family - to go through that grief and heartache.

“If Millie ever asked questions in the future as to how Darren died I wanted to be able to tell her in the most truthful way. That was important to me.”

Darren and Jemma met when they were just 14 years old at Blackburn Ice Skating Arena.

“We were childhood sweethearts,” said Jemma, a mobile hairdresser.

“We used to go ice skating on Saturdays with our friends and we have been together ever since.

“We got married in 2015. It took him a long time to propose to me. I practically ran down the aisle, I didn’t want him to change his mind.

“There’s pictures of me skipping down the aisle I was so happy.

“I waved him off at Preston Railway Station when he joined the army and he would come home at the weekends.

“He was a massive Blackburn Rovers fan and a big family man. When he was home all his time would be devoted to Millie. She’s a mini Darren, they are both so full of life.

“He loved nothing more than to go out and party with his friends. He was always the centre of attention, he was so likeable.

“In the army he was well respected. His younger colleagues really looked up to him. I don’t think I realised how well respected he was and how intense his job was until the inquest. It takes a lot of responsibility.”

After the couple tied the knot in 2015 they moved into married quarters at Fulwood Barracks.

It was the first time that the two of them we able to enjoy living in the same city.

“When he returned to his regiment down south we decided to move down to be with him,” said Jemma.

But it was not to be. Jemma added: “I got the knock on the door on the Wednesday evening and we were going to move down south the following week on the Friday. Our life was turned upside down.”

In the early hours of the morning Jemma raced down south to where Darren’s regiment was based.

“They said you won’t recognise Darren. I just knew that he wasn’t coming home. He had 24 hours at that point thanks to his amazing friends who went straight to him after they saw him ejected from the tank.

“We were able to say our goodbyes. We sat with him. I told him off. He was on machines.

“Millie wasn’t there - that would have been too traumatic because Darren was very badly injured.

“We were with him overnight and he passed away on Thursday at 3.20pm.

“He had wanted to be an organ donor but his injuries were too bad, so unfortunately that was not to be.”

After Darren’s death Jemma moved out of Fulwood Barracks and back in with her parents in Walton-le-Dale. She said: “There has been lots of ups and downs but I have an amazing family.

“Millie’s been amazing. Her school has been fantastic and she’s got the most terrific teachers. She’s doing better now than last year. She’s the glue that’s stuck us all together.”

After her dad’s death Millie, who goes to Walton-le-Dale Primary School, has been supported by Scotty’s Little Soldiers, a charity dedicated to supporting children and young people who have lost a parent while serving in the British Armed Forces.

She and Jemma have also paid back in kind and dedicated much of their time over the last year to fund-raising for the charity. One of the biggest events was a charity ball which also marked Darren’s birthday on February 23.

“The main thing that we have focused our efforts on is keeping Darren’s memories alive,” said Jemma. “That’s what’s kept us both going.

“While we are doing the charity events for Scotty’s it was all in his memory. Darren is a focal point and we talk about him quite freely and I think that’s helped Millie. She’s got amazing friends who all wrote her letters and the school did a cake sale for Millie. I don’t think you realise how amazing people can be, it’s just incredible.”

So far Jemma and Millie have raised £8,000 for Scotty’s and £500 for the British Legion. Their target is to raise £10,000.

Jemma said: “Darren was our hero and he will remain our hero.

“He had this big bursting personality and an infectious smile.”