I spent last night at the "Millies", The Sun newspaper's prestigious Military Awards – and what an inspirational and moving experience it was too.
In fact, I was privileged enough to be one of the judges for the awards, which seek to highlight the gallantry of members of our Armed Forces, along with the bravery of their families in coming to terms with death and serious injury.
The event at the Imperial War Museum in central London, which was attended by Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall, was, at times, extremely emotional.
It wasn't just women who had tears in their eyes: many of the men, including members of the Armed Forces, could not hide their sadness as they reflected on those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice for their courage.
Equally moving were the stories of those who had been left severely disabled by Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) or enemy fire and were learning to cope with their injuries. I was deeply touched by the film clips of those servicemen battling adversity at Headley Court, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre in Surrey.
One of the many highlights of last night was an insight into Scotty's Little Soldiers, a charity launched to support the children of men and women killed whilst serving in the British Armed Forces.
It was set up in August 2010 by Nikki Scott, a mother of two and the widow of Corporal Lee Scott, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. Some of the children who have benefitted from the charity were on stage: at Christmas the charity provides toys and other gifts for the sons and daughters of parents who have died in service. I was so touched by Mrs Scott’s achievements that I have already made a donation to Scotty’s Little Soldiers.
It was also impossible not to be impressed by the courage of Captain Simon Maxwell, from the Royal Marines, who in August last year stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. His severe injuries meant he had to have his left foot amputated.
However, earlier this year he took part in the Iron Man competition, thereby becoming the first serviceman to complete the challenge within a year of being injured.
For those who do not know what an Iron Man competition consists of, it is a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile cycle ride and a 26.2 mile run (a full marathon) – in that order and without a break. It is a formidable enough challenge for the fittest of men, let alone for someone who has lost a leg just months earlier.
In recognition of his monumental achievement, Captain Maxwell won the Overcoming Adversity category presented by Ricky Gervais, the actor and comedian, who joked: “I thought you were the coolest man I’ve ever met but I’ve just met your granddad!”
I was apparently invited to be a judge in recognition of my expertise in the field of courage. As well as writing four books on gallantry and lecturing on bravery, I have build up the world's largest collection of Victoria Crosses (VCs), along with other collections of decorations for gallantry. Furthermore, I am the Prime Minister’s Special Representative for Veterans’ Transition, working with Government departments to ensure military personnel get the support they need when making the switch to civilian life.
I felt hugely honoured to be chosen for the role, as I am sure did my fellow judges who included Andy McNab, the SAS hero turned best-selling author, Jeremy Clarkson, the broadcaster and writer, Frank Lampard, the England and Chelsea footballer, Dominic Mohan, the Editor of The Sun, and a number of senior figures from the military.
Last week the judges were invited for tea at Clarence House where our host, the Prince of Wales, was kind enough to congratulate me on my recent tv series, Heroes of the Skies, which was screened in conjunction with my book of the same name.
Those present last night included David Cameron and his wife Samantha, Sir David Jason, the actor, Elle Macpherson, the supermodel, David Haye, the former British heavyweight boxing champion, and a host of celebrities from the world of showbusiness, sport and other walks of life.
However, the real stars of last night were the servicemen and women honoured for their acts of selfless sacrifice while serving the nation. The Roll of Honour included awards for nine categories, such as Most Outstanding Solider, Most Outstanding Sailor/Marine and Most Outstanding Airman. There were also two Judges’ Special Recognition Awards.
The Sun is to be applauded for its work in highlighting great courage by members of our Armed Forces. The "Millies" have become a really significant event in the national calendar and – based on what I witnessed last night – I have no doubt that they will continue to be so for many years to come.
* Lord Ashcroft’s latest book, Heroes of the Skies, is on sale now and all author’s royalties are being donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund. Watch the Millies on ITV1 at 9pm on Friday, December 14.