“He would have wanted to be laid to rest close to his Army colleagues. And now he is.”
The heartbroken mum of Sapper Richard Walker has said a final goodbye to her “unique and precious” son.
Hundreds of Wearsiders packed into Our Blessed Lady Immaculate Church in Washington Village yesterday for the funeral of the 23-year-old soldier, killed in Afghanistan.
Scores more stood outside in the rain as the service was conveyed over loud speakers to those who grew up, knew and loved “Richie”.
After the funeral, close friends and family, including mum Kathryn, 46, travelled to Catterick Garrison, chosen as his final resting place.
Speaking to the Echo, Kathryn, of Blackfell, Washington, said her son would have wanted to be close to colleagues he loved serving alongside.
Just a few days before yesterday’s service, the grieving mum paid a private visit to see her son in the Chapel of Rest.
“He just looked so peaceful,” she recalled.
The young soldier died at Patrol Base Hazrat, in Helmand’s Nahr-e Saraj district, on Monday, January 7, after a rogue Afghan soldier began firing.
Yesterday, colleagues injured in the incident joined hundreds of others to pay their final respects.
Surrounded by flowers, spelling the words “son” and “brother”, Sapper Walker’s coffin was lifted from the hearse by those he served alongside.
Kathryn, her head covered by a scarf, led the mourners, which included Sappers Walker’s brothers and sisters; Bage, Nathan, Joshua, Rhiannon, Shirley Ann, William, McCarthy and Liliya-Shay.
Close friends, clutching single red roses, struggled to contain their emotions as they followed the procession into the church.
“Footprints in the Sand” by Leona Lewis played out as the mourners took their seats, while those who could not fit inside gathered in the grounds, around loud speakers.
Following hymns “Abide with Me” and “Onward Christian Soldiers, Lieutenant Colonel Chas Story, Commanding Officer of Sapper Walker’s 28 Engineer’s Regiment, told the mourners how the young soldier touched the hearts of all who knew him.
He said: “To have the death of a soldier in your regiment is an awful thing, we were all so shocked by what happened to him.
“Richard was an inspiration to his friends, people wanted to follow him. He loved his job and he was doing all that he ever wanted to do in life.”
Lt Col Story confirmed that another soldier injured in the shooting that killed Sapper Walker remains in a critical condition in hospital, while others hurt in the attack were able to attend yesterday’s service.
Sapper Walker, who joined the Army in 2008 after signing up at the Army Careers Centre in Sunderland city centre, had been in Afghanistan since last August, but was due to return home in March.
It was the former Washington School pupil’s first tour of the war-torn country.
Mainly based in Hameln, a large contingent from the 28 Engineers Regiment made their way over from Germany for the service.
A keen SAFC fan and amateur goalkeeper, Sapper Walker had last visited his family at their home in Blackfell the week before Christmas.
Kathryn said: “We had enough time to have an early Christmas dinner before he flew back to Bastion on Christmas Eve.
Sapper Walker coffin was carried out of the church as “Yesterday” by Leona Lewis was played out. Family and friends then began their journey down to Catterick.
Father Sean Hall, who presides over Our Blessed Lady Immaculate Church in Washington Village, conducted yesterday’s service. Here is his homily to Sapper Walker.
“In the last month or so I have celebrated the funerals of two veterans of the Second World War. Clearly they survived the conflict they served in and lived to a ripe old age.
“Many of their comrades did not, of course, and they died as young men and women in the services just as Richard has done.
“The point I made at those funerals was the enormous debt of gratitude current generations owe to those who sacrificed their years of young adulthood, and the many who gave the ultimate sacrifice of life itself.
“We, in this country, now enjoy freedoms and opportunities which would never have come about but for their sacrifices then.
“Richard believed that what he was doing in his service was to help improve the lives of the people for whom he was building roads and bridges and whom he was helping to train for the future. This makes the way in which he died particularly tragic.
“I know that his mother and family are immensely proud of what Richard was doing. I know from speaking with his family and with some Army personnel how much he was respected and liked by everyone who worked with him.
“As Kathryn said to me,”You couldn’t forget Richard... even if you wanted to!” And nobody does want to forget him.
“What people will want to remember, in time, are the good times with Richard over the years, and that will come, given time.
“Hopefully also, the gratitude we now feel for those veterans of a war which helped us to have the freedoms and opportunities we now enjoy will be the same for the majority of the people for whom Richard gave his young life.
“We thank God for Richard’s young life, for his work and service and commend him back to God, safe in the knowledge that he has been called to that resurrection that to which all Christians look forward.”
Born on February 7, 1989 and growing up in Blackfell, Washington, Richie Walker was a young lad “full of surprises”, according to his mum.
Popular with friends and teachers at Washington School, he soon made a name for himself as a keen goalkeeper.
He was also, as a young lad, a keen dancer, being the only male member of the Muriel Harrison School of Dance in Hylton Road, Sunderland.
“He loved to dance,” recalled Kathryn. “He was never bullied for it or anything at school, it was just something he enjoyed doing. He really was unique and special.”
But it was a career in the military that Richard held closest to his heart, even from being young.
“From being a little boy, that was all he talked about,” said Kathryn. “But he had an accident when he was younger which meant he injured his hand so he wasn’t sure he would be able to join up.”
But after a chat with Army career advisors, Richard was reassured he would be accepted and, in 2008, signed up.
The young soldier quickly adapted to Army life and was soon a popular and hardworking member of his regiment.
On April 13, 2011, Richard’s young life changed forever when he became a dad to daughter Lilly-Faith.
Suddenly he had two great loves in his life - the Army and his baby daughter.
“Lilly-Faith and the Army, that was all he ever talked about,” said Kathryn.