Family weeps as body of soldier with big heart returned to UK

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THE family and friends of a Yorkshire soldier with a “big heart” who was killed in Afghanistan supported each other yesterday as they wept at his repatriation.

Rifleman Sheldon Steel, from 5th Battalion The Rifles, was killed by an explosion in Helmand province while on foot patrol.

He was airlifted to an Army field hospital but was declared dead shortly afterwards.

The body of the 20-year-old was flown to RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

Following a private ceremony for his family at a purpose-built repatriation centre on the air base, the cortege left via the Britannia Gate on its way to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

The cortege was escorted at walking pace as it approached the memorial garden in Carterton, past Royal British Legion standards.

It was there that Rifleman Steel’s mother, Victoria, his two sisters, Carys and Cody, and brother, Kameron, had gathered.

Stood next to the Union Flag, hung at half-mast, they clutched white roses which they then placed on top of the hearse.

Several friends and extended family members also approached the hearse, placing their hands against the glass and bowing their heads.

As the hearse pulled away there was a spontaneous round of applause by over 100 members of the public who came to pay their respects.

Rifleman Steel was caught in the blast from an improvised explosive device in Babaji, in the Lashkar Gah district, on November 27.

He was described as a skilled marksman and had proven to be "one of the stars of his company", the Ministry of Defence said.

In a statement, his family, from Bramley, Leeds, said: “Sheldon was loving, caring and affectionate with his family and we all heard from him regularly.

"He loved being in the Army from when he was in the Army Cadets to joining 5 Rifles. He was a big lad – all six foot four inches of him – with a big heart.

“Words cannot explain how much he will be missed by us all.”

Victoria said he was so tall that his grandmothers had to stand on the wall outside the house to kiss him ‘goodbye’.

The Rifleman had recently won the coveted title Top Dog for winning a contest in his battalion.

Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Tom Copinger-Symes said: “Rifleman Steel was the essence of a Delta Dog, as the members of D Company 5 Rifles are known.

“As a club within a club, the Delta Dogs have a particularly special identity in our battalion and Rifleman Steel was immensely proud of that identity.

“And so he should have been, because he was, and will remain until next year, the Top Dog –which is to say the winner of D Company’s annual competition to find their best rifleman.”

He won the accolade in the last few weeks before deploying to Helmand.

“None of us will ever forget his humble and self-effacing delight that night, mingled with a touch of embarrassment, at finding himself at the centre of such attention,” Lt Col Copinger-Symes added.

He said: “Rifleman Steel won this accolade in the last few weeks before deploying to Helmand, in an arduous and hard-fought contest that fully stretched the Riflemen’s mental and physical capacities.

“He truly was a special blend of physical robustness, sharp intellect, old-fashioned politeness, and natural leadership flair – all underscored by a quiet confidence and understated ambition.”

Rifleman Steel joined the Army in November 2009 and underwent his combat training at the Infantry Training Centre in Catterick, North Yorkshire, before he passed out in April 2010 and shortly afterwards joined 5 Rifles.

His death takes the number of British troops who have died since operations in Afghanistan began in 2001 to 390.

Nick O’Brien, assistant principal at Rifleman Steel’s former school, Swallow Hill Community College, Armley, said he had been an “enthusiastic and very committed” student.

“He had a real sense of fairness and he knew the difference between right and wrong,” he said.

“He was a very bright individual and he was a team player. The school is really sad.

“It’s hit a lot of people because he was a well-liked student.”

Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband expressed their condolences on Tuesday. Mr Cameron said the soldier’s “courage and dedication will never be forgotten by our nation” while Mr Miliband said Rifleman Steel “served with huge commitment and courage”.

Earlier, Ashleigh Craig, a former Army Cadet and friend of Rifleman Steel, added: “Sheldon was a good mate and we couldn’t have wished for a better friend. He was so brave and we are all so proud of him. We will miss him a lot.”

robert.sutcliffe@ypn.co.uk