THE end, when it came, came quickly; death arriving shortly after dawn. At approximately 8:30am on the 1st of March last year, a team of soldiers from the Irish Guards were advancing towards a meeting with US troops through the northern part of the Nahr-e Saraj district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Among them were Lance Corporal Liam Tasker, a 26 year old dog handler, and his springer spaniel Theo, a team celebrated for their ability to locate the improvised explosive devices so brutally effective at maiming and killing British soldiers. Tasker and his dog had been with the Irish Guards for not quite a fortnight, but already the men felt less intimidated by the badlands outside their base. “When Liam arrived,” his commanding officer recalled in a letter, “it was like opening a window in a room in which you’d lain ill, filling it with fresh air and sunlight.”
What happened next would be described later as an “audacious ambush”. A burst of gun fire followed by explosions. “Mortars!” someone shouted. “Man down! Medic!” Tasker had been shot in the head, dying instantly. Under fire, soldiers broke cover and made their way to where he lay. Theo, distressed but unharmed, was still attached by the lead to his master’s belt, making it difficult to examine the body. The dog was cut loose and Tasker was evacuated by helicopter. Theo, back at base, suffered a seizure and later died, for reasons that an autopsy was unable to explain. Liam Tasker’s mother Jane Duffy does have an explanation, however, which she shares when I visit her at home.
“I think Theo died of a broken heart,” she says. “Nobody will convince me any different.”
Jane Duffy, a petite, dark-haired, friendly woman of 53, lives with her two daughters in Tayport. It is a quiet street in a quiet part of a quiet town. The cold evening air is fragrant with chimney smoke.
Duffy had lived in Belgium, where her husband Jimmy works for Nato. She has returned to Tayport to be near her son. Liam Tasker lies in the cemetery on the edge of town, a beautiful spot with views across the Firth of Tay to Dundee. The British army has, over the generations, recruited heavily from this corner of Scotland, and one needn’t look far to find the graves of other young men who lost their lives in their country’s cause. Private Berry, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who died in the winter of 1918 at the age of 25. Private Hugh Cavanagh of the Black Watch, who died in spring, 1944, aged 21. Passing these, looking for the more recent grave, you sense the decades collapsing together; the comradeship of shared sacrifice.
Liam Tasker’s headstone identifies him as a Lance Corporal in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps and quotes his personal philosophy: “Each day’s a gift, not a given right.” He had planned to have these words tattooed; so his mother decided to have them carved on his grave. “To me,” she says, “that’s him getting his last tattoo.”
There are reminders of loss everywhere in the Tasker home. An oil painting on a wall of the living room shows Liam and Theo. By the fire, serving as a vase, is the shell casing that was fired at Camp Bastion, the main British base, to mark their passing. Around her neck, Duffy wears one of her son’s dog tags. Somewhere in the house is Theo’s collar, lead and harness. Duffy and her daughter Laura Tasker, a 21-year-old recent graduate, have agreed to talk in order to express their pride that Theo is to receive, posthumously, the PDSA Dickin Medal, recognised around the world as the Victoria Cross for animals, at a ceremony later this month. It is a medal for gallantry or saving human life during military conflict, first awarded in 1943. Theo, during his five months in Helmand, made 14 confirmed finds of home-made bombs and the materials to make them, more than any other arms and explosive search dog in Afghanistan to date.
“It means everything to us,” says Duffy, explaining that her son had actually put the dog’s name forward for the Dickin. “He’d be so chuffed for Theo getting this medal. I just wish he was here to go up and get it. But Liam got his mention in despatches, so it’s nice that Theo’s getting his recognition, because to me they were a team. One couldn’t have done the job without the other. I’m so proud of them.”
Tasker and Theo had been in Afghanistan for a little more than five months when they died. It was their first tour. Tasker was due to return to Britain three weeks later, but Theo, having proved so effective, was being kept on for an extra month. “I spoke to Liam on the Saturday and he was killed on the Tuesday,” Duffy recalls. “I asked him how he felt about leaving Theo, and he said, ‘I tell you what, I’m going to bloody miss him. He’s kept me sane and safe loads of times.’”
Search dogs and handlers, although they have headquarters at Camp Bastion, tend to be embedded with other infantry companies at forward operating bases in Helmand. For the handlers, this means they see little of their colleagues in the Military Working Dog Regiment, instead spending weeks in the company of troops who are usually, at first, complete strangers. In this context, the companionship of the animal becomes even more important and intense. “The only consistent person in Liam’s time out in Afghanistan was Theo,” says Laura Tasker. “They shared a bed, shared the day together, spent the night together. They were the only consistent things in each other’s lives the whole time they were out there.”
Liam Richard Tasker was born on December the 11th, 1984. He was christened in Tayport, but grew up at various air bases around the world, doing most of his schooling in Driffield, East Yorkshire. His parents were both in the RAF: his father, a mechanic; his mother in supply. His uncle Richard is a major in the Royal Logistic Corps. An elder brother, Ian, served with the Royal Signals during the first Gulf war. They are forces through and through.
Ask Jane Duffy what Liam was like as a boy and her eyes light up. “Oh gosh, he was always up to something. He was the character of the family. I remember when we were stationed at Gütersloh, and he was only about three, he got an upstairs window open, moved the bed and he was hanging out. He also taught himself to ride a bike when he was four. You name it, Liam did it.”
Laura smiles at this. “He was always, always a massive adrenalin seeker. He couldn’t sit still.”
He was a big, solid lad, a prop in the scrum. His nickname was BLT – Big Liam Tasker. Family photographs show him looming above his mother and siblings with a laughing look in his eyes, as if deeply amused by the size disparity. He had a running joke with his brother and sisters that he was the ‘Golden Child’ – mum’s favourite. He was one of those people who go at the world with a smile on their face. Naturally upbeat, he would take care to conceal when he was tired or upset. It was a point of principle with him to be the guy who cheered others up. “He never, ever finished a phone call without telling me he loved me,” Jane Duffy recalls.
Tasker was, according to Major Alex Turner in a letter of condolence to the family, “gregarious, even cocky”. The Irish Guards had been severely rattled before he joined them, intimidated by the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which during the tour had cost a number of soldiers their legs. Tasker and Theo brought a welcome air of domesticity to the base. He would exercise Theo in the morning, throwing a yellow tennis ball for the dog to chase on the shingle of the helicopter landing pad. Onlookers were reminded for a few pleasant moments of Brighton beach. “At work, at rest, those two carried us along,” wrote Major Turner. “How we miss them.”
The Military Working Dog Regiment is made up of various breeds including springer and cocker spaniels, German shepherds and Labrador retrievers. Over the last five years, in order to deal with the huge numbers of IEDs, the numbers of search dogs based at Camp Bastion has approximately doubled. The animals come to the military from public donations, rescue centres and from breeders. Theo was born in November 2008 and bought a year later for £350 by Corporal Andrea Brady of the RAF police. He was trained by Corporal – now Sergeant – Lyndsay McGlynn between December 2009 and April 2010.
“He was a really, really good dog,” says Brady, who has since left the forces. “He picked up the training so quickly that we all said whoever gets him would be very lucky because he was a little superstar. He had such drive and determination. I remember Liam was so chuffed to get the best dog. The pair of them were such a good team because they were both naturals. To get results like they did you’ve got to have something very special. They shone together.”
Before his deployment to Afghanistan, Tasker had spent four years working as a dog trainer at the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray, having transferred there in 2007 from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. From being a boy he had an affinity with animals, especially dogs, although he was loathe to admit to his army buddies that back home in Tayport were two Maltese Bichons, fluffy white handbag dogs, called Missy and Milly. Missy, somewhat overweight, he trained to climb on to the couch by strategic placing of pieces of ham on a series of footstools and pouffes.
Dog handlers, preparing for a tour of the combat zone, spend six months to a year at squadron barracks in the UK getting to know the animal with which they are to work; this is crucial as they will depend on each other out there, and many others will depend on them. Tasker did not have that luxury. His first two dogs didn’t work out: one injured a leg during training; the other proved gunshy – frightened by the sound of firing. He was paired with Theo just a fortnight before deployment. “I think that’s what makes the story even more unbelievable,” says Laura. “It’s like they were meant to be together.”
Tasker and Theo were deployed in early September 2010, flying out from RAF Brize Norton. Dog and handler seem to have been sympatico. Colleagues suggest they had similar personalities – inquisitive and industrious, keen to get the job done, happy in their work. Tasker badgered his commanding officer to be sent to the front. Theo, as soon as the bomb detectors were switched on, would whine and bark until he was allowed to search. Footage from Afghanistan shows Theo straining at the leash then running off to sniff for explosives, pushing his nose into the Helmand sand, tail wagging, as excited and at home as if he was hunting for rabbits in Tentsmuir woods. “Theo has what I like to call character,” his handler wrote in his letter recommending the dog for the Dickin. “To other people these may seem like bad traits, but to me it makes him.”
Liam Tasker was in no doubt about the risks of his job. He wrote a letter to his family to be opened in the event of his death, a very brave and moving document in which he tells them what they mean to him. He appointed an executor of his estate. He chose the music for his funeral: songs by Metallica, Christopher Cross and Band Of Horses. This, surely, is the very definition of courage – to do your work knowing you could die doing it. His family have found solace in his heroism.
“You have to,” says his mother. “That’s what keeps you going. It’s hard for a mum, isn’t it? But you take comfort in the fact that he saved a lot of lives. But more so that he was doing what he wanted. That’s what you’ve got to keep thinking. Liam was doing something he really wanted to do.”
When Jane Duffy was informed by the army padre that her son had been killed, she asked straight away about Theo. At that point the news was that the dog was fine. But later the padre returned and explained that Theo had died. “Not that we wanted Theo to die, but we kind of took a bit of comfort in the fact that the two of them were together,” says Duffy. “He didn’t have to leave his dog after all.”
Theo was cremated in Afghanistan and his remains were given to the Tasker family. The ashes travelled to the UK on the same flight as Liam Tasker’s coffin. Jane Duffy will neither confirm nor deny that dog and master were buried together. “They’re where they should be,” she smiles. “Liam and Theo are where they should be.”
It is 19 months since Liam Tasker died. Jane Duffy is a different person now to who she was when he was alive. “My life will never be the same again,” she says. Being the mother of a fallen soldier, she says, is like belonging to a club you never wanted to join. “It is the worst pain ever and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.” Yet the pleasure she takes in talking about her son, about how he lived rather than how he died, is apparent. She believes he and Theo are together, and begins to cry – for the first time during the interview – while reading out a short poem about the rainbow bridge where, according to the fond myth, animals and their masters are supposed to be reunited before crossing over into the afterlife. She wipes her eyes. “Once we start talking about Liam, we don’t stop.”
There have been so many deaths in Afghanistan. Tasker was the 358th member of the British armed forces killed in the conflict. The shameful thing is we remember so few of their names. If Lance Corporal Tasker and Theo stand out it is because their story has the feel of a fable – a kind of moral lesson teaching us about bravery and loyalty and grief, and teaching us, too, that the qualities we mean when we use the word ‘humanity’ are not displayed solely by humans.
“People often think of it like Theo was the dog and Liam was the handler,” says Laura. “But it was like any team. If you are having a really bad day and you’re upset, you chat to your mate about it and they comfort you. That’s very much the same bond as them. They weren’t just handler and dog. They were friends.”