The mother of a British soldier caught up in one of the bloodiest incidents in Iraq this year has accused Tony Blair of sending her son to fight an "illegal" war.
Dani Hamilton-Bing, whose son tried to quell rioters in Basra after the downing of a Lynx helicopter in May that killed five British soldiers, attacked Mr Blair for putting the lives of over-stretched troops in Iraq and Afghanistan at risk.
The early learning lecturer's comments are unusual because tradition dictates that military families of serving soldiers do not speak out.
But Mrs Hamilton-Bing said that anger at seeing her son sent to fight a dishonest war had driven her to take action, adding that many other military families shared her views.
She said: "My son joined to fight legal wars, not wars based on lies and deception.
"Does Tony Blair really value what these men are going through? Does he really understand the sacrifices these men and women are making?" she asked.
Mrs Hamilton-Bing was out shopping with her husband, Rob, when live images of the Lynx helicopter crash were broadcast across the world from Basra.
Frozen to the spot, they stared at the images of soldiers battling rioters, knowing that somewhere in that violent melee was their teenage son.
"We just got in the car. We couldn't get home fast enough and sat glued to the television. We just wanted to catch a glimpse of him, to know he was alive," said Mrs Hamilton-Bing, 43.
Unaware that her son was in fact inside the burning Warrior armoured vehicle on their screen, she tried to call his mobile throughout the day until they finally spoke:
"He said, 'That was me Mum, that was my wagon that was alight'. You have to remain calm but inside you are screaming and crying," she explained.
Mrs Hamilton-Bing insists that she is part of a majority vehemently against the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, who believe the forces have been over-stretched, and treated like "mercenaries" for hire by a dishonest Prime Minister.
She believes that she is only reflecting the views of the servicemen and women who say nothing because they acknowledge that they relinquished that right when they signed up and "took the Queen's shilling".
"People just see these big strapping lads going off to war and these strong people waiting behind. It is a façade," she said.
On Thursday Mrs Hamilton watched her son, Pte James Hamilton-Bing, 18, of the 1st Battalion, The Light Infantry, return to Basra after his leave, knowing full well that in his previous four months in Iraq he has endured nightly mortar attacks, riots, countless fire fights and watched a comrade die. Perhaps worse are the things he would not talk about. The first time she watched his father drive him off to the airport on his way to Iraq in April the normally relaxed lecturer - a military daughter and a military wife - disintegrated. "I couldn't walk. My legs would not carry me. I was like jelly. I just sat and cried. It was self-pity. I couldn't be bothered to get dressed, to eat. I was quite horrid and uncaring to [my 12-year-old daughter] Chloe. I didn't appreciate how she was dealing with it," she explained.
After her own mother declared that she had two choices - dissolve into a nervous wreck or channel her grief - she decided to set up a support network for families and was stunned by the response. She received calls from women just streets away and others half-way across the world. Today the Iraq families are being joined by those whose relatives have been deployed to Afghanistan.
"Nobody believes what the Government says. Nine out of 10 agree with me," she said, adding: "There is a general feeling of two steps forward, one step back all the time. There doesn't seem to be any end in sight."
Like them, she now has rituals for coping. The telephone never leaves her side. The family do not go out together in case a call comes in. Her son's bedroom is left exactly as it was the day he walked out. "When he went his bed was left as he had got out of it that morning. I would not clear it up in case he didn't come back."
The other day she found herself accosting a woman who was yelling at her young son in the supermarket. "I said, 'I don't want to be rude but can you not speak to your son like that? My son is 18 and he is in Basra. Just appreciate your son. My son could be dead any day and you are worrying over a bag of sweets'."
Over the months she has listened to the change in her teenage soldier. Initially enthusiastic, his phone calls home began to change. He stopped talking of peacekeeping and began describing deadly battles in the "hell hole". He sounded exhausted.
"They don't have enough resources. They are over-stretched. Everyone is doing two men's jobs. Every time I spoke to him he was dead on his feet. He could barely say 'yeah' on the phone."
The worst moment came when the Lebanon conflict was dominating the news, she explained: "He said, 'People have forgotten about us, Mum. We are doing this shitty job, doing our best and they have forgotten about us'. That cut me to the quick."
Mrs Hamilton-Bing admits she was fiercely proud when her son joined the Army at just 16. In their home county of Cornwall, it offered a far better career than joining the tourism or building trade. It was not until she was listening to the local news one day that she realised that the "Op Telic" training he was undergoing meant he was off to Iraq.
"I am not against war, just an illegal war. I can't understand why we are there. I want to know why we needed a UN mandate of nine out of 15 and we went in with just four. Maybe if Tony Blair tried to tell me I would understand better," she said.
Copyright © 2006 Independent News and Media Limited