Southampton, England, UK
Army, PVT, 2nd Btn Duke of Lancasters Battle Group
4/5/2007, Iraq, Basra
In the back garden of her grandparents home near the village of Swanmore in Hampshire, a magnificent horse-shaped white wreath is only just beginning to wilt. Inside the back door, under the harnesses of Eleanor Dlugosz’s horse Polly, lie her uniform hat and belt, so small they look like children’s dressing-up clothes.
Eleanor was tiny and tomboyish, says her family, “a tough cookie who was drop-dead gorgeous”. She may have been petite and feminine – she was 5ft 2in and a size 8 – but it was the pint-sized Eleanor who could beat the biggest and brawniest at army training in Cornwall and Winchester.
She was the first to jump into a freezing lake while the other cadets hung around the edges as their sergeant-major shouted: “You wusses! You’re going to be beaten by a girl.” (They were.)
On a weekend training camp in the woods the other cadets groaned when they were told that their tea was three live chickens in a cage.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” Eleanor said as she took out her pocket knife, cut off a chicken’s head and put the carcass in front of them. “There’s your tea.”
Eleanor’s bravado and femininity were part of her appeal. One senior army officer wrote to the family: “Eleanor was a strikingly alluring young woman.” His letter is one of dozens of cards and letters of condolence that spill from every surface of the Vecks’ cozy front room, alongside the flowers that still arrive regularly. The letters tell of a girl “with a heart of gold” who “lit up every room” and for whom “nothing could be too much trouble”.
A soldier, Rachel, has written to tell Eleanor’s family about how bullied and homesick she’d been during training, and how Eleanor had had cheered her up by “playing the clown”, mimicking the corporal who’d shouted at her.
“Eleanor sat up helping me polish my shoes until 3am,” wrote Rachel. “She was the only happy memory I have of my army training.”
On the table lie piles of photographs of Eleanor, as a little girl on horseback, in uniform on parade, glamorous in a ballgown, mostly of her smiling and all looking stunning. Her parents recall a vibrant, determined “action girl” who wanted to help others and be busy, in the thick of things.