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'Being in the military was all Sarah ever wanted.. she loved serving her country' EXCLUSIVE KILLING OF A HEROINE SARAH-JAYNE'S EX-HUSBAND SIMON.

Byline: By STEWART MACLEAN and EMILY NASH

BRAVE airwoman Sarah-Jayne Mulvihill died "one of the RAF's finest" after triumphantly living out her lifelong dream.

Former husband Simon Wallis told yesterday how Sarah-Jayne, 32, had yearned to join the RAF since she was a youngster.

Despite leaving school with few qualifications she single-mindedly rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, winning the admiration and respect of male colleagues.

Devastated by her death, Simon said: "Being in the military was all she wanted to do. I think she loved the sense of adventure and the fact that you were serving your country. Sarah was totally committed to her ambitions. She was the kind of girl who'd always get what she wanted."

Sarah-Jayne was named yesterday as one of five personnel who died when their Lynx helicopter came under apparent attack in Basra on Saturday.

She was the first British servicewoman to die in action in Iraq and the first to be killed by enemy action in 22 years.

The other dead were named as Wing Commander John Coxen, 46, Lieutenant Commander Darren Chapman, 40, commander of 847 Naval Air Squadron, Captain David Dobson, 27, also of 847, and Marine gunner Paul Collins, 21.

Yesterday Tony Blair joined families and colleagues in hailing their "heroism, commitment and professionalism".

Kitchen fitter Simon, 34, married Sarah-Jayne when they were teenagers. The couple lived in Herne Bay, Kent.

He said: "She was in the Army Cadets at school and afterwards in the Territorial Army. She told me that she wanted to make it to officer. It was hard because she didn't go to university or have A-levels.

"But she did it and that shows what kind of a girl she was. She was quite a tough cookie.

"The last time I saw her she'd been for her interview to join the RAF. I was delighted because I knew how much it meant for her."

Before joining the RAF in 1997, Sarah worked as a chemistry technician at the University of Kent.

Her father Terry is a carpenter and her mother Sue works as an administrator for Social Services.

Last night the couple, from Herne Bay, were being comforted by their only other child, Jason, a customs officer.

Sarah-Jayne, who divorced Simon in 1996, later married RAF colleague Lee Mulvihill. Lee said last night: "Sarah was my best friend and my most beloved wife. She was also an adored daughter and sister, loved and respected by all.

"Her love of sport and outdoor activities was only outshone by her commitment to the RAF, of which she and I are extremely proud to be part of.

"Her loss has greatly affected and impacted on more people than anyone can comprehend."

Sarah-Jayne, previously based at RAF Benson, Oxfordshire, was on her second deployment to Iraq serving as a Flight Operations Officer.

Her commanding officer, Group Captain Duncan Welham, said: "She was one of the RAF's finest - courageous, upbeat and unselfish. She was a dedicated officer who'll be missed by us all. Her character and commitment made her extremely popular.

"There was nothing she wouldn't tackle and her contribution to all aspects of life and work was sought and appreciated."

Friends remembered a keen athlete who could outrun most of her male colleagues in the forces.

In 2005 Sarah-Jayne was posted to Kenya and was briefly attached to the Army on exercise with RAF helicopters.

There, she beat all-comers during a daily dawn jog. An MoD tribute said: "She outran them in the morning mile and shone brightly as a strong staff officer among the Army's best." Gladys Snell, a neighbour of Sarah-Jayne's family, remembered a "lovely, bubbly girl".

She said: "She clearly loved what she did in her career. It was something she'd wanted to do from a young age. It's so awful to hear this dreadful news."

The last servicewoman to die in action was Heather Kerrigan, 20, of the Ulster Defence Regiment.

Heather was killed by an IRA landmine in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, in July 1984.

The Lynx helicopter in Saturday's tragedy is believed to have been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

New Defence Secretary Des Browne yesterday told subdued MPs of his sadness at the crash. He refused to comment on whether the aircraft had been shot down.

The MoD confirmed the remains of all five victims had been retrieved and their families would be able to hold funerals. A spokesman also appeared to suggest the Lynx had been attacked.

His confirmation that Sarah-Jayne was the first servicewoman to die in Iraq "as a result of enemy action" seemed to rule out engine failure as an explanation.

Mobs of Shia rebels had cheered as the stricken helicopter burned on a rooftop and attacked rescuing troops with stones, gunfire, grenades and petrol bombs.

Mr Browne told MPs the troops defended themselves using a "limited amount of ammunition".

He rejected suggestions in the media that the violence showed southern Iraq was "rising up" against the UK, requiring troops to be withdrawn immediately.

Five Iraqis were killed in the disturbances and 28 were injured.

WING CMDR COXEN

VETERAN Wing Commander John Coxen is the most senior British officer to be killed in Iraq since the invasion.

John, 46, only recently arrived in Iraq to take charge of the helicopter operation in the Basra region. His commander Group Captain Duncan Welham said: "John was a devoted husband and a true professional. He was humble and courageous."

MARINE COLLINS

HELICOPTER gunner Paul Collins was last night described as the perfect example of what a Royal Marine should be.

The grieving family of the 21-year-old, from Dawlish, Devon, said: "Paul was a wonderful young man full of potential and zest for life. He was physically and mentally strong, though this was tempered by an intelligent, thoughtful, caring nature."

LT CMDR CHAPMAN

THE devastated family of Lieutenant Commander Darren Chapman last night described him as a fun-loving dad.

Darren, 40, commanding officer of 847 Naval Air Squadron based at Yeovilton, Somerset, leaves a wife, Liz, son and two daughters. They said: "He was a fantastic father, husband, son and friend who was deeply committed to family life."

CAPT DAVID DOBSON

CAPTAIN David Dobson joined the 847 Naval Air Squadron just two months before his death.

But colleagues said the 27-year-old bachelor had swiftly gained the respect of all who worked with him. Royal Marines Colonel John McCardle said: "He approached all his duties with tremendous levels of enthusiasm and cheerfulness."

Voice of the Mirror: Page 6

emily.nash@mirror.co.uk

CAPTION(S):

WEDDING: Sarah-Jayne and Simon in 1991' FLIGHT LT MULVIHILL Sarah-Jayne had dreamed of joining the RAF from her teens' RAF: Sarah-Jayne won respect in career
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Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 9, 2006
Words:1115
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