WHEN it comes to describing the McKee family, the phrase “brothers in arms” has never been more appropriate.
Two of the Banbridge siblings are currently serving in Afghanistan with the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) while another brother finished his tour at the end of last year.
Lance Corporal Stephen McKee, 27, is four months into his second tour of Afghanistan along with his 23-year-old brother, Lance Corporal Michael McKee.
Their younger brother, 21-year-old Ranger Gareth McKee, was also in Afghanistan until December when he came back to the UK for training – just in time for his wife to have their first child.
Continuing the family dynasty, the McKees also have an elder brother in the Territorial Army at home in Northern Ireland.
The RIR is renowned for its family links, and currently has eight sets of brothers, including a set of twins out in Afghanistan, as well as various cousins and brothers-in-law.
Speaking from Camp Bastion, Stephen McKee, who was the first to join the RIR, said: “My family has always been military so it was just something that was always there.”
Michael added: “I always knew I was going to join, I just didn’t know when.”
The McKee men lost their uncle, who was a UDR soldier, when he was murdered in 1981.
Michael said: “I think things stemmed from then. We want to keep the family name in the Royal Irish too – there’s a pride there.
“The family have seen the one before them go in, and then they follow. It’s almost like a curiosity.”
Stephen said: “We wouldn’t have gone anywhere else than the Royal Irish – definitely not.”
In 2008, the two brothers were sent to Afghanistan together for the first time, but ended up in different companies.
Stephen said he worried about his younger brother when he wasn’t close to him.
“When you’re with your brothers over here it’s okay, but in 2008 I wasn’t with Michael – he was in a different place,” he said.
“So every time that something happened and something came over the radio ,you were waiting to see who it was and panicking.”
Michael added: “When you found out it wasn’t your brother, there was a sense of relief. You’re always upset that someone has been hurt, but when it’s not your own family, you’re reassured.”
The men admit their mother “probably doesn’t sleep very well” at night, but said she has three grandchildren who keep her busy when her sons are away.
Stephen’s wife has also had a stressful time this tour, with her husband and father both serving with the RIR in Afghanistan at the same time.
“She’s going mad,” he said.
Michael, who will marry his fiancee, also from Banbridge, this December, said: “She worries but I’ve left her a wedding to organise while I’m out here – so that should keep her busy.”
The McKees said they have had “amazing” support from the people of Banbridge, and also paid tribute to their parents, two sisters, and partners who regularly organise benefits and send out welfare parcels to the soldiers.
Michael said of his fiancee: “She just asks me who hasn’t got a parcel and then she sends one for them to make sure everyone gets – even when we’re not here.
“Someone has to keep the wheels turning so we’re glad the McKees are part of it.”