Three soldiers seriously injured in Afghanistan have been visibly moved by the warmth of the welcome they received in Gibraltar as the guests of the local Royal British Legion.
As Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, Ranger Andy Allen and Rifleman Jake Bartlett arrived in Main Street on their first morning there was loud applause from the children of St Anne’s School and the Hebrew School who had turned out to meet them.
Escorted by Momy Levy, chairman of the Gibraltar branch of the Royal British Legion and the man responsible for organising the visit, the soldiers made their way up Main Street.
The progress was slow - not because of the soldiers’ injuries but because everyone wanted to hug them, shake their hands, and even kiss them!
Several shopkeepers emerged to give them gifts and the Mayor and the Commanding Officer of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment arrived to insist that the soldiers sign the VIP visitors book at City Hall.
Mr Levy said:
The whole of Gibraltar has taken great pride in having these heroes with us. I’m pleased that everyone has made them so wonderfully welcome.
Accompanied by Lance Bombardier Parkinson’s stepfather Andrew, Ranger Allen’s father-in-law Tom, and Rifleman Bartlett’s mother Wendy, the soldiers were given a tour of the Rock in two specially-adapted taxis and, inevitably, the Rock’s famous apes duly turned out to meet the lads and to pose for lots of photographs.
Later in the week, they were invited for tea by His Excellency The Governor, Vice Admiral Sir Adrian Johns, who gave the visitors a guided tour of The Convent, his historic residence.
By this stage, the soldiers had become local media stars with daily updates of their visit in the Gibraltar Chronicle and interviews on the GBC (Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation) TV channel and on BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service) radio.
With coverage like this, it was no surprise that they were invited to be the guests of various restaurants and bars and, of course, everything was always ‘on the house’.
Commander British Forces Gibraltar, Commodore Tom Karsten, was also keen to meet the soldiers and to support their visit. On the considered advice of physiotherapist Captain Paul Thompson and some very experienced Physical Training Instructors (PTIs) an afternoon of water sports was arranged - while Ranger Allen and Rifleman Bartlett tried to cling to the ‘doughnut’, Lance Bombardier Parkinson and his stepfather enjoyed a speedboat ride around the harbour.
The visiting soldiers were then given a guided tour of the many miles of military tunnels which were dug inside the Rock of Gibraltar by the Royal Engineers during the Second World War.
Unusually for January, the weather was perfect, and, on the hottest day of the week, the Royal Navy’s HMS Scimitar took the visitors out into the Straits as guests of the Gibraltar Squadron.
Ranger Allen said:
Everyone’s hospitality has been overwhelming. None of us expected this response from the people of Gibraltar. We were told that many local people were nearly in tears after meeting us - well, we three were nearly in tears ourselves.
It’s hard to pick out a single highlight from the week. For me I enjoyed meeting everyone in Main Street just as much as I enjoyed being on the doughnut in the harbour.
Rifleman Bartlett added:
I definitely would like to come back to Gibraltar. It’s a unique place and this has been an amazing experience. For me the highlight was to be up so close to the apes. And I think my mum has enjoyed the trip as much as I have.
Lance Bombardier Parkinson said:
I can’t thank everyone enough. It’s been a fantastic week because we’ve had so much to do. I enjoyed being back in the company of all the servicemen - I even enjoyed a bit of ‘fiz’ with the Army PTIs and meeting the dignitaries.
But, most of all, I enjoyed going round the harbour in the speedboat. Even the taxi drivers have been good company and nothing has been too much trouble for them.
Ranger Allen added:
This is a perfect place for injured lads to visit. There is so much to see and to do and everyone is so incredibly welcoming. We have all been really touched by the warmth of the welcome.
The last word comes from Momy Levy:
In over forty years of public life, I have never been so proud as I have been by the success of this visit and I feel truly humbled by the cheerfulness and bravery shown by these soldiers. They are true heroes.