Soldier’s legacy to live on in school

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THE legacy of a Portadown soldier killed in Afghanistan is to live on in a school in Nepal.

Lieutenant Neal Turkington (26) was killed, by a rogue Afghan Army soldier at an army base in Helmand province in July.

His father Ivor, who was born in Lurgan, has spoken publicly for the first time about his exceptional son and the family’s plans to remember Neal.

Ivor, who grew up in Ashley Crescent and Desmense Avenue, said: “We are immensely proud of Neal. He was brave, he was loyal, he was funny and kind, he was just a fantastic person in so many ways.

“While we miss him terribly and will never come to terms with his death, we know that he was loved and admired by a lot of people.”

Neal was a platoon commander with the First Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles. He comes from a proud military family - Ivor’s father Ernest fought in the Second World War and his grandfather Valentine Stewart fought in World War One.

His parents Ivor and Marie, brother Gareth and sister Cathy, along with his many friends, plan to honour Neal’s memory by launching a £55,000 project to rebuild a school in Nepal.

Neal, who was committed to volunteering work in poor countries, and had lived and worked in Nepal, where he had fallen in love with the people there.

His father Ivor recalled the morning he learnt of his son’s death on July 13.

He’d just finished his round of golf in Portstewart when he’d heard on the news of the death of three Gurkhas in Afghanistan. He phoned the number given out during the broadcast but was unable to find out if Neal had been one of the soldiers killed. Instinct told him he needed to return home to Portadown.

The couple had just been in the house a couple of minutes when the doorbell rang and Ivor took the few but agonising steps to the front door, where two Ministry of Defence officials stood.

He said: “I just said to them, ‘You don’t need to come in, I know what you’re going to tell me, just don’t come in. But they insisted. It was as if once I opened the door and let them in, I would be opening the door to some terrible, new phase in our lives.”

Ivor and his wife then faced the terrible prospect of contacting their son Gareth and daughter Cathy, both of whom live in London, and telling them that their brother was dead.

Ivor said: “I said to Gareth, ‘I’m going to ask you to do something no father should ever have to ask his son to do and that is to go and meet your sister in Fulham and inform her what has happened’.”

Over the coming weeks, the family had to endure a series of heart-rending experiences, including meeting Neal’s body at RAF Lyneham and the emotional journey through the Wiltshire village of Wootton Bassett. It was a further two weeks before Neal was finally laid to rest in Kernan Cemetery, after a moving service in St Mark’s Church, Portadown.

And not long ago, Neal’s belongings were finally returned to his family - packed into eight boxes delivered by a white van.

Said Ivor, “There were a lot of books, which was typical of Neal as he was always reading, and lots of his journals, some of which have been very painful for us to read.”

The couple left the hardest box until last - the one containing the final clothes Neal wore, his boots still dusty from the desert sand and his flak jacket unwashed.

Since signing up for the Army 10 years ago, Neal had developed a passion for volunteering and helping others in places such as El Salvador and Nepal, and his personal motto of ‘seize the moment, make a difference, have no regrets’ saw him pack many experiences into his short life.

Since his death on July 13 this year, Neal’s parents Ivor and Marie have been inundated with tributes to their son, and now the Turkington family, along with Neal’s friends, are remembering him the best way they know how - by establishing a project to rebuild a school in a Nepali village, where 50% of the population are illiterate.

Ivor said: “The project has been identified with help from the Gurkha Welfare Trust (GWT) and is intended to bind together Neal’s passions in life - knowledge, making a difference, travel and his utter respect for the Nepalese culture and traditions.”

As part of his Gurkha training, Neal had spent several months in Nepal, learning the language - he commanded his troops in Nepalese - and had also stayed in the region in 2003, as a volunteer English teacher.

The aim of the Neal Turkington Nepal Project (NTNP) is to raise £55,000 to pay for a school building and improvement project - The Lieutenant Neal Turkington High School - in Thansing village, in the southwest corner of Lamjung district.

The current school in the village is attended by 476 pupils from dozens of surrounding mountain areas, many of whom walk over narrow, precarious paths for four hours daily to attend lessons. Out of the 476 registered students 40 are ex-Gurkha dependants.

The NTNP project will provide six new classrooms and improve the others, which suffer from overcrowding, damp, uneven mud floors and a severe lack of light. The project also aims to build a new toilet block and incinerator, and make other improvements to the fabric of the existing buildings.

Ivor said: “Neal got tremendous fulfilment from volunteering, and if there is any chance that his story can have a positive influence on young people then that will be a fitting legacy.

“As we begin to reflect with immense pride on Neal’s contribution in his relatively short life, we can see we were blessed and honoured to be the parents, brother, sister or friend of someone who lived his dreams - be it when he was being brave and compassionate on the battlefield serving his nation and liberating a nation’s people from tyranny, or in his leisure time and leave periods - unswerving in his commitment to humanitarian need – always intent on making a difference.”

Anyone wishing to donate can do so via the web link www.justgiving.com/ntnp. To find out more information about the project go to www.ntnp.org.uk . Anyone wishing to donate who does not have access to the web can forward their donation to the Lurgan Mail, 4 High Street, Lurgan, BT66 8AW – cheques made payable to ‘The Gurkha Welfare Trust (NTNP)’.