TRIBUTES have been paid to the Banbridge soldier who was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday.

Lance Corporal Stephen McKee (27), from 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, was killed when during an operation to disrupt insurgent activity in the northern Dashte area of Nad-e Ali district his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device.

In 2003 he joined 3rd Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment as a part-time soldier. When the Home Service were disbanded he decided to transfer to 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment and he joined them at Tern Hill, Shropshire, in April 2007.

Lance Corporal McKee was posted to B Company, where he served with distinction for three years before moving to the Machine Gun Platoon in D Company in 2010. He first deployed on Operation Herrick 8 in March 2008 and was quickly recognised as a fine soldier, trustworthy and courageous.

In a statement on the Ministry of Defence website his wife, Carley, led the tributes to her husband.

She said, “You will always be my hero and every step I take in life, I will have my two angels looking after me. You truly are the best husband, father, son and brother anyone could ask for. Till we meet again. Love you always.”

The Defence Secretary, Dr Liam Fox, added to the tributes saying, “I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Lance Corporal Stephen McKee. The tributes of those he served alongside describe an exemplary soldier who was committed to his duty and his friends within The Royal Irish. I send my deepest condolences to his family and to those with whom he served so ably.”

Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir MBE, Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment, spoke of the McKees military connections.

“The death of Lance Corporal Stephen McKee has sent a wave of shock and sadness through this Battlegroup. Everyone knows the McKees. Everyone respects the McKees. The McKees are in the First Battalion and the McKees are in the Second Battalion,” he said.

“It is families like the McKees that make this Regiment what it is; they are the fibre that runs through us and what gives us our fighting spirit. It is because of families like the McKees that we are the winners in this fight.

“Stephen McKee was the finest of men; he was irrepressible, he was utterly reliable and he was a fearsome warrior. As part of the Operations Company he fought the long battle to drive the enemy out of the Nad-e’Ali Canal zone and into the desert.

“And it was into the desert that Stephen and his comrades followed, in pursuit of the enemy. When he died, he was attacking the insurgent in his bases there, harassing him, capturing his weapons and destroying his explosives.

“Not only was he the finest of Irish soldiers, he was a man with great depths of resilience. I had the privilege of spending a little while with him and his wife Carley after their baby daughter passed away unexpectedly last year.

“His parents and his brothers and sisters had closed around the grieving couple. Their strength and the unshakeable of bonds of this wonderful family were truly humbling. Please God be with them all now.”

Locally, Banbridge Rangers, who Lance Corporal McKee played football for, have cancelled all matches this weekend as a mark of respect to their team mate.

Paying tribute on their website, club Chairman, Richard McMinn, said, “Stephen was a well respected member of the club and highly regarded and thought off by both the players, management and officials of Banbridge Rangers Football Club. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and immediate family at this sad time.”

Lance Corporal McKee leaves behind his wife Carley, his parents Heather and Bobby, his brothers Michael, Gareth and Robert, and his sisters Kelly and Rebecca.

There will be full, comprehensive reaction to Lance Corporal McKee’s death in Tuesday’s Leader. Meanwhile you can pay your tributes below by clicking on ‘sign in’ the Your View box below and then follow the instructions.