By Ian White
When Brenda Hale married a soldier, she knew there was a risk that one day he might not come back from a tour of duty.
She feared that knock on the door.
She says that, many times, "I had felt that heart-stopping fear and panic that snapped at my heels like a stray dog until the phone rang and I heard his voice."
But Thursday 13 August 2009 was different.
"I checked the clock on the wall. It was noon. Surely there will be something by now, I thought ..."
But still no email from hubby Mark in Afghanistan.
Heart beating rapidly, Brenda hurriedly wrote another concerned message.
"I held my breath again as I pressed the 'send' button, but over the whoosh of the email being sent, a sudden rap on the front door made me freeze.
"In that instant, I could feel an invisible hand clasp my heart, which was now thumping like a stone against my chest. I turned and walked to the door, full of foreboding and dread," she recalls.
Asked if she was the wife of Captain Mark James Hale, the words "hit me like a shot from a gun" and she slammed the door shut in their faces.
With an icy cold feeling seeping through her body, Brenda finally let the military personnel past her doorstep in Northern Ireland. They confirmed Mark had been killed shortly after 9am in Camp Bastion.
Brenda sank into a "deep fog of shock" – but in that moment she had a vision of her husband.
"I stared at it, hardly believing what I was seeing. It was a pair of open church doors – they were the church doors of my own church – and behind them was a piercingly bright light.
"I could see Mark in front of the doors, and although there was no sound, I could tell he was trying to tell me something. He was looking directly at me, saying, 'Sweetie, I need to go now.'
"I nodded, and then I watched him turn and walk in through the doors."
Brenda wept as she knew Mark was in a better place.
The couple had become Christians almost two decades earlier after a friend, Andy, returned from New Zealand to tell everyone about his new-found Christian faith.
"This seemed a little far-fetched to most of us, but Andy was a loveable guy and so we put up with his eccentricities."
Brought up to go to church, Brenda knew all the Bible stories but did not know God personally.
One day she read a Bible she had accepted from Andy "just to shut him up". Phrases from the New Testament such as "I am the way and the truth and the life" echoed around in her head.
Brenda knew something was happening in her heart. Eventually, she gave in to what she knew was God's voice, and prayed for Jesus to forgive her sins and enter her life.
She soon discovered Mark had similarly been reading Christian books from Andy – and had taken his own step of faith to become a Christ-follower.
He told her he had been trying to find out if there was any truth in what Andy had been saying about the Christian God being the only God, and about Him sending Jesus to earth.
"He lowered his voice, as if he was imparting a dreadful secret, 'He's right, Brenda. What Andy said is true. I ... I've become a Christian. It's amazing.'"
When Mark asked Brenda if she thought he was mad, she explained that she had had the same experience!
Over the years, people noticed a change in both of them, but Mark was still very much a tough army man who no one messed with. He had a deep sense of loyalty to "his boys" out on tour.
They always felt safer with him they said as "your God will be out there with us"; to which he always replied: "He's your God too. You just need to ask Him and He will be with you too."
Yet Brenda sensed vulnerability in her husband for the first time as he prepared to go to Afghanistan, and he admitted this time it felt different.
However, Mark would not ask anyone to do a task he was not willing to do himself – and it was while heroically leaving a safety area to help an injured soldier that his life was taken from him.
Mark was the longest-serving soldier to die in Afghanistan, yet Brenda and their two daughters were left with little financial support.
Brenda has since been involved in politics and volunteering in Northern Ireland to help campaign for military wives' rights and support war veterans, army chaplains and The Army Benevolent Fund.
Her story is told in I married a Soldier by Brenda Hale and Rachel Farmer.•