It’s a chilling story which needs little introduction. The brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby shocked us all, not least because its aftermath seemed to play out minute by minute with live TV coverage.
Eloquently Her is privileged to have had the chance to sit with Lee’s mother, Lyn, and hear directly from her about those harrowing times, and about the passionate campaign work which fuels her every second of every day.
Her clothes still damp from the tears of a grown man sobbing on her shoulder, Lyn Rigby has just welcomed another grateful military veteran into the haven she fought to create.
She might never have discovered the incredible strength, resolve, and sheer dogged maternal determination which is today positively transforming the lives of military personnel and grief-stricken families from all over the UK.
This is, after all, the mother of a murdered serviceman whose name we all remember only too well.
Lee James Rigby. 25. Drummer and Machine Gunner. Member of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Lee Rigby. Son of Lyn Rigby. Murdered in plain sight on the afternoon of 22nd May, 2013.
The detail of that brutal crime needs little retelling here. After all, it was an horrific incident which was shared widely in the media at the time, and which has been reflected upon, by so many, in so many ways, in the years since.
Today, Lyn admits that there was something of a ‘mother’s instinct’ which played out on that springtime day, as she drove into work just after lunch, and took a call from her elder daughter.
“When Sara rang that day, and said she was watching the news about a soldier killed in Woolwich, it was as if my body and brain started very quickly accepting that this was indeed my son,” she admits.
“There had been so many times in the past years where I had taken a call from Lee, just moments after news broke about the death of a serviceman.
“He had been in the Army for six years and travelled much of the world, so I had grown used to accepting the risks and having that constant nagging worry when he was deployed wherever.
“There was a degree of comfort in knowing that at that time, back in May 2013, he was actually on barracks in the UK – but even so, something about Sara’s call really got me in the pit of my stomach.”
By the time Lyn arrived into work – a call centre – the television screens were playing out the live coverage of a fallen soldier in a UK street in daytime.
In an instant, every muscle of her maternal bond took over.
She knew. She knew Lee was dead.
“I was looking at the dead body of my son.”
“While everyone else was watching that screen – or the televisions in their front room or offices – and seeing just another awful scene in the UK, I was transfixed on the hoodie, and the boots,” she says, her voice breaking.
“It was my Lee. There was absolutely no fragment of doubt in my mind whatsoever. I was looking at the dead body of my son.”
Worse fears confirmed.
“Eventually, we’d all rung so much that I think we drained the battery of that phone,” she recalls.
“By the time it was made official and they told me that yes, this was believed to be my son, I was already so aware, and beginning my own horrific journey of grief.
“I’d lost the soldier, and the son. We’d watch him go into the military as a mere boy, and transform into a man. I couldn’t have been more proud of the man he had become.”
It’s that pride in her son, and the acute awareness of some of Lee’s strongly held convictions around the wellbeing of service personnel, which has, to this day, been the fuel in Lyn’s life.
Even in her darkest hour, she knew that, as the mother of both an eight and 11 year old daughter at the time of the tragedy (as well as Lee’s elder two siblings), she could not for one minute afford herself the ‘self-centred grieving’ which naturally she felt close to slipping into.
Instead, she swallowed her own pain as best she could; crying only in her solitude away from children’s eyes.
“What else do you do?” she questions.
“Lee had four sisters and they all needed me. They’d lost their brother. They didn’t need me to fall to pieces too, so I had to channel my grief in other ways, and just find ways that would ‘keep me going’ for all their sakes.”
Time may never heal the pain of losing Lee, but it has opened a very new chapter for Lyn – and it’s one she is embracing with such incredible fortitude and courage.
Provided with something of an impetus by another grieving military mother – “she told me to pull myself together, write a book, and set up a charity”, recollects
Lyn – this inspirational mother ploughed every ounce of energy she had into launching the Lee Rigby Foundation.
Her mission was clear. She wanted to provide a legacy charity which would offer respite to grieving parents and siblings of fallen service personnel.
“As soon as I sat down and thought about what I needed to achieve in Lee’s name, it was so obvious,” she says.
“The energy seemed to come from nowhere, and it gathered pace incredibly quickly, with huge numbers of people wanting to support us through fundraising or campaigning or spreading the word in whatever way they could.
“Lee had always said to me how sad he found it so upsetting that there wasn’t enough done for the family beyond the ‘next of kin’ or for suffering servicemen and women themselves.”
“Because I wasn’t actually ‘next of kin’ in the case of Lee’s death, it really brought home what the issues were, and also the depth of the issue around needing to support the families ‘left behind’.
“I started making it clear that my mission was to open a home where those grieving parents and siblings could come to get peace, be together, share memories, and heal in their own small way, for a period of time.”
It was always going to be a mammoth undertaking.
But, as with so many things ‘thrown into the universe’ as a request, someone, somewhere, appeared to hear Lyn’s prayer.
“Through a friend, we took a call from the wrestler Kendo Nagasaki,” she continues.
“There was some irony in it, because Lee had grown up always loving to watch wrestling, and then, all of a sudden, here was I getting a call from a guy known as the masked wrestler…and he wanted to help.
“Until that point, I’ll admit that there were some really dark times”
“Until that point, I’ll admit that there were some really dark times, when sometimes I wondered if I would be better off dead, but Kendo brought such hope with him.
“He’s a Buddhist, and was keen to invite me to meditate with him and talk about Lee at his country estate in Staffordshire.
“From there, very quickly, came an offer from Kendo to turn a dilapidated building on the estate into very special sanctuary.
“Over the months ahead, and with the help of hundreds of very special volunteers, I was then able to build Lee Rigby House.
“I also moved with my husband and children to the country estate, making the decision to build my life entirely around the charity and Lee Rigby House – all in the name of my son and what he stood for.”
It has two double bedrooms, two single rooms, two living rooms, a kitchen, and stunning outdoor space and is a place of complete peace and safety where forces’ families, active duty personnel, and veterans can get away from all the pressures of the outside world to de-stress, and begin recovering from either bereavement, or trauma, or both.
It is already providing respite and joy for dozens of families.
In fact, prompted by last year’s Manchester bomb attack, Lyn elected to evolve the original concept, and extended the the charity’s objects to include victims of domestic terrorism.
Now, in the summer of 2018, Lyn is on the verge of an even more inspirational chapter.
“This was never the finish, as far as I was concerned,” Lyn says, with forthright determination.
“Because one of Lee’s big concerns had been about how veterans are affected, I always felt that we should have a ‘next stage’ of building works, where we could create bespoke accommodation for them in an annexe, on the side of Moor Court Hall.
“We have had all the plans drawn up and the Veterans’ Annexe will include self-contained bedsits, a hydrotherapy pool, arts and crafts workshops, and be a really thoughtfully created place which will help those who have ‘been through the toughest of times’.
“I’ve spent recent months inviting veterans from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences to come up here, visit me, and be brutally honest about exactly what it is they want.
“I’ve had grown men regularly sobbing on my shoulder saying how grateful they are that someone is creating something by ‘actually listening’ to what they want, rather than making assumptions.
“I get that they don’t want loud activity places, but somewhere tranquil to reflect and recover. I want it to be all about them.”
The massive fundraising campaign to raise £500,000 for the Veterans’ Annexe development project is now underway.
In September, Lyn will use her story and her relentless passion, to ensure that the project is known about at an ‘official beginning’ event in the Houses of Parliament.
She will call on ministers, media, and the public, to really listen to what it is that our veterans and their families need.
She will ask that the lives of people like Lee are not forgotten, and that the surviving servicemen and women – and their parents and siblings – are forever in our thoughts and are signposted to projects like the Lee Rigby House.
“I can hardly believe we’re at this point,” she admits, somewhat choked at the reality.
“It will never ‘bring Lee back’, but I am enormously proud of what we’re achieving in his name.
“I know with every single heartbeat in me, that I’m living out his thoughts and beliefs.
“That, despite everything that has happened, it makes me an incredibly proud and happy Mum. This is a journey which we’ll continue to travel in his honour.
“Every tear and struggle to make this sanctuary happen for the veterans of the UK is absolutely worth it in my eyes. It’s what I am now meant to be doing – for my son, and for every family out there who is yet to benefit.”
For more information about the Lee Rigby Foundation, please visit www.leerigbyfoundation.org.
If you would like to contact Lyn and her team and offer help or support, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
To donate, please go to https://www.facebook.com/theleerigbyfoundation