To many people in Bridgnorth, Brian Downey will be a familiar figure, as he strikes up jovial and hearty encounters on his daily shopping expedition, I can always hear his friendly and voluble Geordie inflections as he walks up our street – calling out to the dog, the children and passers by. What many of us have an is only an inkling of just how much of a real ‘hero in our midst’ this passionate and straight talking man most certainly is.
Prompted by Lisa Urkovskis, whose son Jamie Chater in serving in Afghanistan and who said: “Brian has been such a support to us and to the many families of serving soldiers, the whole town would nominate Brian as a local hero,” I realised it was high time I spent some time finding out more, particularly at this time of year as the retired Royal Marine strives to make the lives of those serving our country a little bit more comfortable with the thousands of boxes filled with essential goodies he sends out to the troops abroad. So Brian came round, proudly displaying his medals, and I began to build up a picture of a remarkable life and the proud and loyal values engendered by 23 years of active service within the ‘family’ of the Royal Marines.
Hailing from the North-East, from a family which included General Lee’s Surgeon General in the American Civil War, gunners at Trafalgar and Grenadier Guards at Waterloo, Brian was a clever grammar school boy picked out by ICI to be a chemist. But the thirst for adventure ran deep and at 16 he managed to talk his way on to The Queen Mary heading for the US where he travelled around – eventually becoming a runner for bootlegged whisky.
Returning to the UK, Brian signed up to the Royal Marines and saw 23 years of active service from the mid-60’s in such far flung places as Borneo, Sarawak, Aden, Yemen, Oman, and of course, Northern Ireland. This was the era of the ‘Brush Fire Wars’ marking the end of Colonialism and the Cold War. Brian remarks: “They were great days for soldiering and I simply loved the life and the comradeship. I would be gone for months, no letters or mobiles. I would simply disappear then reappear”.
The world knew very little about the deployment of the Marines during this time, they just quietly got on with their job, maintaining a dignified silence. Needless to say, in military circles Brian’s remarkable career is well recognised and has been recorded and archived by the Imperial War Museum.
“Many of the lads in the Marines don’t have much in the way of family. We send these boxes and it reminds them that they are remembered back home”
But it’s the significant work that Brian continues to do in retirement on behalf of the Royal Marine Association which marks him out. “Many of the lads in the Marines don’t have much in the way of family. We send these boxes and it reminds them that they are remembered back home.” Brian has sent thousands of boxes – all made possible by generous donations from local people – to very appreciative troops. “You simply can’t buy things like toiletries out there, and the ‘scram’ (food), repair kits – such as condiments and soy sauce – make life in the front line taste a bit better”.
Brian also works hard to raise money for injured service men and women who end up at Selly Oak Military Hospital. “One moment they are on duty in Afghanistan, the next they wake up – possession-less and injured – back home we help them get back on their feet and provide a few basics.” Brian was delighted to be given a cheque for £400 raised by the pupils at Oldbury Wells School last month.
The most serious role, however that Brian takes on is that of attending funerals and visiting bereaved families. Brian is uncharacteristically quiet about this: “It’s important to attend. It’s the Marine family coming together, and showing that the lads are not forgotten by the older generation”.
“I am immensely proud to be part of such a family, a family that looks out for each other, always has done and always will. By sea, by Land.”