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My dad was shot down and captured during the Gulf War

For Blades and former Red Arrow pilot Kirsty Murphy the 30th anniversary of the end of the Gulf War marks a more personal milestone. It was that day she finally knew her father Flt Lt Robbie Stewart, who had gone missing just two days into the conflict, was coming home. Robbie, a Tornado navigator, had been shot down during a low-flying bombing mission. In this guest blog Kirsty, who was 13 at the time, recalls how it felt to be in the middle of the story which gripped the nation.

We knew Dad would be going back out to the Middle East in January so Christmas in 1990 was very meaningful for us. Dad was very honest with us and told us there was a chance he would not come home. He sat me and my brother Scott down separately and told us what he would want us to do if that happened.

Kirsty Murphy with her dad Robbie

We had spoken to Dad on the Friday night and we knew he was flying the next day. On the Saturday, we went to the panto, and, looking back, mum said she had had a really bad feeling at the panto.

It was later that evening that Scott and I heard the unforgettable sound of somebody's number one shoes clip clipping down the path at our home.

He knocked and asked to speak to mum. She was round at a friend's, so he simply left again without telling us anything!

Although we didn't say it, Scott and I knew – there's only one reason someone in uniform knocks on your door. So we waited for mum to come home. Eventually I went to bed and later mum came up to tell me the news.

At the time I was interested in Cold War spy novels, so my initial reaction, was that I really hoped he had been killed. I was terrified that he would be captured and tortured because I knew what that might mean.

There were so many awful stories coming out of Iraq about what Saddam would do to his own people, never mind someone he was at war with. So I wanted him to be dead and that made me feel very guilty. Eventually I had a conversation with Mum about it and once I'd shared it I felt better.

The day I found out he was coming home, I was at boarding school. I was watching the TV after school, trying to see if there was any news. I was asked to go to the Matron's office, and my friend's mum was there -  I said "is it good or bad?"

Dad had been missing for six weeks and for all that time we didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. Most of the British PoWs spent five days in Cyprus for debriefing and medical assessment before coming home.

My mum, brother and I were waiting in the squadron building at RAF Marham when he landed and, watching through the window, I could see dad coming down the steps. It was so exciting.

We heard him shuffling down the corridor because he had quite bad leg injuries and he came in and just hugged us so tight and burst into tears. My dad is not a man who cries very much so when he does it is intensely moving. I remember saying to him "are you in pain? are you in pain?" because it was almost a painful cry and I thought we were hurting him.

Coincidentally I worked out of the very same squadron building when I was on the Tornado with 13 Squadron. In fact, I found out that I had got into the Red Arrows in the very same office that I first met dad in. That office was quite a special place!

In 2012, I had some mental health problems following the two separate Red Arrows fatalities. During that time I realised that I although I knew what had happened to dad, I had never asked how he had actually coped with it.

He told me that  he coped with it on a minute by minute level:  if you're alive and still coping that's all you need to worry about and try not think too hard about what might be about to happen. You can cope with the pain right now so don’t worry if the pain's going to get bad or not just deal with the pain you've got right now. And you're dealing with it right now so take solace in that.

On a broader level he took a lot of strength from us, his family. He was happy to leave us knowing that we were cared for and financially secure. He was made to stand against a wall as if to be shot at one point and I asked "how on earth do you cope with that?", he said "I just thought of my family and how proud I am of you all".

What happened in 1991 didn't define his career, dad went on to serve for 42 years in total, teaching on the Tornado conversion unit and then on the Elementary Navigator School at Cranwell.

He did give some presentations to groups that he felt would benefit from learning about his experiences and how he coped, but eventually stopped. He has just finished writing up his experiences in a personal diary. Not for publication but for his family: for Scott and I, and my son. That will be his legacy.

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