Friends and family of a New Zealand soldier who died in Afghanistan say he was a popular man who was fiercely proud of where he lived and where he went to school.
26-year-old Corporal Douglas Hughes, known as "Dougie", died at 1.45pm yesterday after being flown to Bagram Air Base hospital.
An investigation is under way into the non-combat death, which is believed to be a suspected suicide.
The New Zealand Defence Force has not elaborated on how Hughes died, but Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said today suicide was being considered as a cause of death, but stressed that it was not confirmed.
He said he didn't believe anyone else was involved in the death, and said Hughes had no record of mental health issues.
A member of Hughes' command was with him at the Forward Patrol Base Romero when he sustained his injuries about 10.40am, Jones said.
His auntie Anne Hughes said the family was finding the loss hugely difficult.
Only a few weeks ago, they had skyped Hughes, who was excited about returning home.
He told his whanau how much he was looking forward to visiting family in Australia with his younger cousin, who was to pick him up on his return.
''He was really looking forward to coming home,'' Anne Hughes said.
''It's very hard for us, he is still in Afghanistan, and we don't know when we will be able to bring him back.
''It's so hard, I said to my daughter this morning, Douglas would be so angry, so angry because he had so much to do, so many plans.''
Hughes went to live with his aunty and her family in Tuakau, south of Auckland, when he was 14.
She enrolled him in Tuakau College where he excelled. She said she was grateful for the teachers there for helping to mould her nephew into a fine young man. ''They motivated him and never gave up on him.''
Hughes played rugby league and was passionate about kapa haka.
''He was very competitive, everything he tried he gave it his best.''
He decided on pursuing a career in the army as a senior student.
''He decided this was something he would like to do and at the same time he was a bit scared. But he saw it as a challenge.''
Close friend Ursula Aitken, who had known Hughes since he moved to Tuakau, said he was a caring man, ''always laughing and teasing his close group of friends''.
She said he was ''staunchly proud'' of Tuakau College, his achievements in kapa haka and his culture.
''He really made it, he was a natural leader.''
Another friend and former school mate Linda Voice said she would remember Hughes as being very generous who always made time to catch up with friends when he came home.
''We were proud of him, proud of his success in the army and being a good role model.''
'A SAD DAY'
The New Zealand Defence Force named Hughes this morning.
"This is a sad day and on behalf of the entire New Zealand Defence Force, I extend my deepest sympathies to the family, colleagues and friends of Corporal Hughes," Jones said.
"While there has been some speculation in the media around the nature of Corporal Hughes' death we will be unable to confirm this until a full investigation has been completed," he said.
Hughes, was not married and had no children.
In a statement read by Jones, the family said they were "saddened" by the loss of Hughes.
"He was a talented sportsman with a good sense of humour who lived for his career in the Army," they said.
"He will be sadly missed by his loving whanau."
Hughes served eight years in the Defence Force and was on his second deployment to Afghanistan.
He was a rifleman from 1st Battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment based in Linton Military Camp, near Palmerston North, and had also served in the Solomon Islands.
Jones said Hughes' remains were still in Afghanistan while arrangements were being made to bring him back to New Zealand.
"The Defence Force intends to return Corporal Hughes to his family as quickly and expeditiously as possible, while supporting his family in this process."
The Defence Force has notified the immediate families of all soldiers involved and was providing them assistance.
Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said it was a "tragic day" for the New Zealand Defence Force.
His thoughts were with Hughes' family, who were "shocked" by the loss.
"I just want to extend my condolences on behalf of the New Zealand Government to the family," Coleman said.
"Corporal Hughes was a young man who had served his country very well. He was a young man with a really bright future ahead of him and this is an absolute tragedy."
His death would be "extremely hard" for the troops in Afghanistan and his home-base of Linton, he said.
He was the first New Zealand soldier to die in Afghanistan since Special Air Service Lance Corporal Leon Smith was killed after being struck by a Taliban bullet in Kabul on September 28 last year.
SAS soldier Corporal Doug Grant was also killed by the Taleban gunfire in Kabul on August 19.
Their families were presented with the New Zealand Memorial Cross on Sunday.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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