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'I can't live in the past'
7:00am Saturday 21st April 2012 in Books
War widow Christina Schmid reveals how she has picked up her life and focused on fulfilling her husband's last wishes, after he was killed in Afghanistan while defusing a bomb. She charts their love story and the repurcussions - both political and personal - following his death, in Always By My Side.
By Hannah Stephenson.
A pile of boxes remain unopened in the new house that Christina Schmid and her eight-year-old son Laird have just moved into.
Army quarters held too many memories for the young widow, whose husband, Staff Sgt Olaf 'Oz' Schmid, was killed trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, the day before he was due to fly home after a gruelling five-month tour of duty in 2009.
Schmid, 30, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was posthumously awarded the George Cross after he defused 64 bombs in five months. The medal and his iPod, which he carried with him everywhere, are now on loan to the Imperial War Museum.
Christina, 36, hit the headlines when she applauded him as his coffin was carried through Wootton Bassett, fulfilling the promise that she made to him that if he died in Afghanistan she would honour him, stand proud and let people know what was going on out there.
"I realised that my clapping had got people talking about Afghanistan and the role of the Army there and the men who were dying - and raising awareness of the Afghanistan conflict was a good thing," she recalls.
Oz wanted her to 'gob off', as he called it, about the acute shortages of highly-trained bomb disposal experts which led to massive pressures on those already in the field.
He wanted her to voice concern about the rest and recuperation periods which were flouted, the inappropriate armoury soldiers were asked to wear in searing temperatures and other threats.
The last time he phoned her, the day before he died, he had been up for four days, hadn't slept or had a break. He said it was relentless and that staying alive was like a lottery. He didn't think he was coming home.
Now she has written Always By My Side, which charts their love story, his career, the terrible grief his death caused and her fight to honour his memory.
Nearly three years on, she believes she has made a difference. She took part in a hard-hitting Panorama programme which brought to light the difficulties faced by the bomb disposal experts and the ever-increasing threat of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
She met David Cameron, who later pledged a further £67 million towards Armed Forces training and equipment and, most recently, pressurised him to ensure that the military covenant he pledged to provide better long-term care for troops and their families becomes law.
Christina has also campaigned for the charity Tickets For Troops and travelled up and down the country doing motivational speaking.
She seems a force to be reckoned with. Yet there is a vulnerable side that many have not seen as she endeavours to keep calm and carry on nearly three years after her husband's death.
She has not put up the family pictures of her, Oz and Laird, Oz's stepson, in the new house near Winchester because they still make her cry. And she is forcing herself to open one box of his possessions every month.
It's little things that set off the tears, but mostly the smell of him, she says.
"I feel like he's round me all the time. I do a box a month, but a lot of it's rubbish. There is still a smell of him. Some of it is dusty or a lot of it has to do with the material in the kit, such as neoprene, or fabrics he would wear. I can remember the smell of him from different exercises.
"Certain songs also get to me. Or it might be something that someone says which I know he would find funny. It's tolerable now, but not so long ago those things were excruciatingly bitter-sweet."
Others have commented on how strong and dignified she has been, but Christina says she has cried a river of tears in private and with close friends.
She still has the pasty Laird made with Oz just before he went to Afghanistan, his name engraved on it. She can't bring herself to chuck it out of the freezer. The menthol-tipped cigarettes he put in the passenger door well on his way to war remain where he left them.
She tries to keep busy on anniversaries and hasn't resorted to anti-depressants or booze. She had counselling briefly, but says it didn't work for her. Christina now wants to move on.
"I've got to live in the moment. I can't live in the past or the future. I treasure what I have now. I need to redefine myself. The reality is Oz is not here and he's not coming back."
She has been dating another soldier, Mark Clarke, for a few months after meeting him in a coffee shop, and feels the need to start living her own life.
"His older brother knew Oz so he's kind of connected, but not bomb disposal. He's not going away and he wants to come out of the Army. He's done quite a few tours of Afghanistan. I'm used to men who are completely unshakeable. I don't think I could be with a civvies bloke."
Christina, a former pharmaceutical account manager, was pregnant when Oz went on his final tour of duty, but lost the baby several months later. She'd also suffered a previous miscarriage and admits that she grieves for the family she never had.
"Then, I talked to a friend who's a Macmillan nurse who said, 'You could look at it from the point of view that you're healthy and Laird's healthy and you're only 36 and you could go on to have more'. But I am still sad about it."
While others may benefit from her campaigning, Christina hasn't forgiven the Army for failing in their duty of care, she says.
"I won't take the pressure off. I will continue to 'gob off' for as long as I can."
But she is reluctant to enter the debate about whether we should be in Afghanistan at all.
"I don't want to make it a political thing. If there was a clear-cut scenario, like another Hitler on our doorstep, it would be easy to say we must keep our troops there. But this is a long-term conflict and I feel quite strongly that it's time we were getting out of there.
"I don't think we are getting the balance right. The charities and the communities are picking up the bill, not financially, but through the fall-out of war, of losing many lads and lasses."
For now, she thinks it's time for her to step back. "I want to take stock and focus on Laird. I want to step back from the forces, which reminds me of Oz. It would be nice to do campaign or charity stuff, but on a local level."
The pictures of her late husband may eventually come out of the boxes in her new house, she smiles.
"A couple are already framed and I know I'll put them somewhere, along with some of his trinkets. But not just now."
:: Always By My Side, by Christina Schmid, is published by Century, priced £12.99. Available now.