Many boys look up to their elder brothers but for Aaron McLaughlin it was hero worship.
On Sunday, Aaron is running the London Marathon in memory of paratrooper brother Kirk who took his life in 2017, aged 35.
Aaron credits Kirk, who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after serving his country, for turning him into a man.
Aaron said: “He was a combination of best friend, dad, brother and hero.”
Kirk also got Aaron fit – he was 18 stone when he left school. He said: “Kirk helped me lose weight through running. We did weights together. Within a year I’d lost four stone.”
Kirk joined the Parachute Regiment in 2002, completing tours in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. On leave would head home to his family in Loughton, Essex.
Then the brothers would do ten-mile runs and sit on a bench on the highest hill in Loughton to watch the lights of London coming on and talking about Aaron’s time at college.
But Aaron, now a 27-year-old chef, clearly remembers the moment his hero changed.
As part of the elite Paras, Kirk had done countless parachute jumps, but in 2012 he suffered a hip injury from which he did not recover. He was medically discharged in 2013.
Kirk became depressed and Aaron said: “We couldn’t share the same workouts and he would lock himself away from the world.”
Like his military operations abroad, Kirk would not discuss his injury or feelings with Aaron, his parents, or his sister Charlene, 34, or other brother Taylor, 25.
Aaron said: “His whole life had been about serving in the armed forces. I’m sure he must’ve seen some tough times on tour which, combined with feeling purposeless, ripped him to pieces.”
Aaron claimed the NHS and Ministry of Defence “left Kirk out to dry” with no real support when he most needed it.
He said only the military charities SSAFA and Support Our Paras helped.
He said: “I remember SSAFA funding him to do art and photo courses, buying him a specialist bed for his hip, even helping him buy a cooker for his flat. They understood what he was going through and wanted him to rebuild a new life.”
But in November 2017 Aaron was called to Kirk’s flat by their dad. The whole family was outside. There was a cop car and an ambulance.
After a few hours and their worst fears being confirmed, the family was allowed into the flat to pay their last respects to the fallen hero.
Aaron said: “I was in shock and sat on a grass verge in the wind and rain, sobbing.
“He seemed so peaceful at last, like he wasn’t in pain any more. I gave him a kiss, told him I’d never forget him, then drove in my car to that hill we’d spent so many hours on, looking down on the town until dawn.”
More than 500 family, friends and veterans attended Kirk’s funeral in Epping.
Heartbroken Aaron took three months off work and spent every day at Kirk’s grave talking to his brother looking for a way forward. Knowing the devastating effect PTSD and depression had had, Aaron signed up for fund-raising challenges.
Last year he and Taylor climbed Ben Nevis, Aaron completed a gruelling Para selection course and did his first two half marathons.
He said: “Kirk and I had always talked about doing a marathon but we never got around to it. I knew this had to be the best way to honour his memory.
“I’ve got a shrine at home with all my photos of me with Kirk, all his old letters and postcards, and all the medals I’ve won so far to raise money for SSAFA.
My training for the London Marathon has been really tough but every time I need a boost I sit at that shrine to remind myself why I’m taking on this ultimate challenge.
“When I cross that finish line I’ll stare at the sky, knowing Kirk will be smiling down on me.”
SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, provides lifelong support to anyone who is currently serving or has ever served in the forces, and their families. This includes both regulars and reserves.
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