BY the time she was 25 Melissa Lamb had been a wife, a mother and then a widow.
Her husband Rifleman Martin Lamb was killed three years ago in Afghanistan, aged 27.
Since then she’s worked to rebuild life for herself and their daughter Rosie, five. Now she’s joined forces with Martin’s relatives to launch a charity – the Martin Lamb Trust – to help bereaved families.
“I was 25 and I’d been married and widowed. I’d lived the life of a 80-year-old,” said Mel, who grew up in Stroud and now lives in Kingsway.
The 28-year-old has had to come to terms with some of life’s hardest lessons, such as how to talk to her young daughter about a war in a country far away.
She’s also had to work out how to be a young widow “without a rule book”.
Mel and Martin, from Cam, met as teenagers when she was just 16. He was studying carpentry at Stroud College and she was doing a healthcare diploma.
Martin started to write to Melissa when he did his first tour in Afghanistan, aged just 19.
When he returned the couple got together and moved into a home in Nailsworth.
“I kind of got used to him being away, I don’t think I understood the extremes of what he was facing,” said Mel.
“We never had any Army things around, he always kept it separate and never talked about it. I didn’t know the details of what he did.”
Martin went on to serve overseas several times, including in Iraq.
When Mel found out she was pregnant the couple were shocked but thrilled.
They married at St Matthew’s Church in Cainscross and, after Rosie was born, they moved to army married quarters in Sedbury. Martin then prepared to return to Afghanistan.
“That last tour was different. He cried when he left. He’d never done that before and he was worried, that’s the only way I can describe it.
“We meant to have a party before he left but then, suddenly, he had to leave earlier than planned. So that didn’t happen. None of the family got to say goodbye.
“Every time I spoke to him on the phone he cried, he’d say ‘I’m worried’.
“Something was different. It’s like he was saying goodbye.”
A friend’s wedding on a Saturday in June, with Rosie as a flower girl, meant Mel had a busy weekend.
“I was filming all our friends at the wedding, saying hello to Lamby. Then, on the Sunday after the wedding, I didn’t want to go home. I spent all day at my friend’s house, putting off going home.”
Just a couple of week’s earlier Mel had told Martin she was pregnant with their second child. He had been delighted at the news, telling Mel it was going to be his last tour in Afghanistan, he would leave the Army and work as a carpenter.
“At 9pm that Sunday I’d not long been home. There was an Army man at my door,” said Mel.
“You know when someone from the Army visits on a Sunday night what it means.
“I just started screaming. It was like I’d been stabbed in the stomach.”
Mel then faced the terrible task of calling Martin’s parents and the rest of the family to break the news.
“Then everything was kind of crumbling.”
The next day Mel lost the baby. She was treated in hospital on the Tuesday after the pregnancy ended, then on Thursday was in Royal Wootton Bassett to witness her husband’s body being repatriated to England.
“I was dealing with a miscarriage and a funeral in the same week. When you lose your husband and your baby, which do you deal with first?”
She moved out of married quarters and returned to Gloucester to be nearer her family. She admits that the next couple of months were a blur, especially as the family had to wait for weeks before a funeral could be held.
It was only after the service that she felt able to get her life back on track, for Rosie’s sake.
Mel returned to college and has since gained six A-levels, with a view to possibly studying at university one day.
She has had to help her daughter understand and cope.
“Rosie and I have both had to grow up really quickly. But I want to keep her like a child.
“I talk about her dad all the time with her but I also tell her how many people there are in her family who love her.”
Mel said she has received fantastic support from the Army’s family liaison service and also praised Gloucestershire bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, which had given her the opportunity to meet other Army widows.
She said coming to terms with the withdrawal of British troops this year is difficult.
“I do wonder what’s been achieved, especially now they are pulling out.
“I’m sure things are better for many civilians in Afghanistan but I worry that when the British troops leave the Taliban will undo everything that’s been achieved.”
And it’s hard every time she hears of another death in Afghanistan. To date, 453 British military personnel have been killed in the conflict. Martin’s family know the pain and the challenges that will face each bereaved family.
“Grief is a bubble that hangs over you. It’s pure pain,” said Mel.
But she says she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. She has a remarkably positive and mature outlook on life, saying she needs to be a happy mum for Rosie.
“By the time I was 25 I’d lived the life of an 80-year-old,” said Mel, adding that she had an affinity with elderly widows.
“One neighbour asked me ‘how do you cope with the lonely evenings?’”
Mel would admit that ‘not very well’ would be the answer.
“Lamby always said to me ‘you’re rubbish on you’re own, make sure you move on’. And he’s right I am terrible on my own, I love to be around people.”
And she has found fresh hope in a new relationship with her partner Chris Quigley.
They met on a rare night out in Gloucester, when Mel almost warned him off, saying: “You might not want to get involved, I’m a widow and I miss my husband.
“He barely knew what a widow was. The thing with being a young widow is there is no rule book. I wish there was.”
But she says Chris has been very special and has been able to find the right place in her life and Rosie’s.
“He says ‘I’ve met you and Rosie is a bonus’. I’ve got Martin to thank for that.”
MARTIN’S family have joined forces to launch the Martin Lamb Trust on what would have been his 30th birthday.
“We’d like to raise funds to help bereaved families,” explained his cousin Sara Clarke, who lives in Kingsway.
They hope to be able to raise money for things like memorial benches but also for counselling and support for bereaved families.
Mel said: “There’s a big picture. We can see what needs to be done from the perspective of someone who’s been through it.”
They’re already working towards installing a memorial bench for Martin in his home town, Cam.
“A bench somewhere which means something offers a little bit of space to think and reflect,” said Sara.
The Martin Lamb Trust was launched with a ball held at Stonehouse Court Hotel.
The family is already planning future events and would love to hear from any business which may like to sponsor the charity, the mascot of which is called Lambo. Call 07427 167718 or 07912 106769, or email firstname.lastname@example.org