CLUTCHING the framed ‘Pride of Banbridge’ award featuring a photograph of her son proudly wearing his Royal Irish Regiment uniform, Heather McKee paid an emotional tribute to everyone who had registered their vote in the Leader’s competition to find a local hero.
Although there was a strong panel of contenders, all worthy in their own right, the late Lance Corporal Stephen McKee was by far the outright winner, receiving over 82 per cent of the vote.
Speaking from their home in Banbridge yesterday (Monday), his visibly moved parents paid heartfelt thanks to everyone in the district who had supported them over the past difficult year and said the award would be a constant reminder of what their son had meant to his many friends in the town and further afield.
“This is really a big surprise and up until a week ago we didn’t even know Stephen had been nominated,” said his father Bobby. “All the nominees were extremely deserving and we are very touched that people thought Stephen worthy to win the award.
“He was well known in local sporting circles and within the marching band fraternity but we didn’t think there would be such a huge response. We are very grateful and comforted that people remember him and the sacrifice of all soldiers who have served and are still serving in Afghanistan.”
Stephen’s mother Heather, who has since had her son’s name tattooed on her hand, said the past year had been “extremely difficult” but the support of Banbridge people, who had turned out in force for the funeral, who had helped financially and by giving their time in a major fundraising event in August, and who had now voted to make Stephen the ‘Pride of Banbridge’ had given the family tremendous comfort.
“As a family, we are so grateful to everyone; the town’s support has really helped sustain us over this past very difficult year,” she said. “The fundraising event in August was amazing and through the walk and auction, both of which were held on the same date, we raised over £23,000 for the army’s Benevolent Fund.
Heather said it was important to raise money as funds undoubtedly helped “ease the agony of many other families”.
“Money will never bring Stephen back, but it does help to think that the money we donate will help ease the agony of families like ours,” she said. “We also wanted to do something personal in memory of Stephen, so through the fundraising we were able to buy new drums for the RIR Pipes Drums and Bugles, in which Stephen was a keen drummer.
“I really wanted to do this as Stephen was passionate about drumming and it would be something he would have wanted. Every time the drums will be used, Stephen will be there as well.
“Stephen’s brother Gareth was playing at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo this year and we just couldn’t go and watch. It would have been too painful to think that Stephen should have been there too.
“Christmas wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be because I was kept so busy cooking for everyone, but my son Michael’s recent wedding was very difficult. At a wedding rehearsal it was so hard seeing the three boys there and knowing one was missing.”
Looking towards the first anniversary on March 9, Heather said it was a day she and Bobby were dreading. “We would like to do something in Stephen’s memory each year, but this year we will spend the day quietly, just reflecting,” she said. “It is very painful to think how close he was to getting home - he was due home on Mothers’ Day - and during my last conversation with him he said jokingly ‘not to worry’, that I would ‘be getting something’.”
“Stephen was killed during his second tour of duty and I don’t know if it was a premonition or not, but I had a real sense of dread throughout the tour, while the first time he served in Afghanistan I didn’t have that same heavy feeling.
“March 9 will be an awful day, but Stephen is always with us and always will be. I will be thinking where to hang this award so it will take pride of place in our home, just as Stephen is now Pride of Banbridge.”