SMALL ARMS ATTACK
The rifle sat easily in the firers hand as he lay in the rushes beside the irrigation ditch – his body hidden from view. Only the tip of the weapon protruding, the only part visible.
The rifle sight settled on the enemy fighter as the firer began to settle his breathing, ready to begin the firing cycle and take the shot.
He was confident that a combination of the sun setting behind him, the reeds from the ditch concealing his position would offer protection from the retaliation that would inevitably follow.
To his left lay his number two, also comfortable amongst the vegetation, scanning the open ground, watching not just for the enemy but also civilians who might stray into the line of fire. Next to him was his own automatic rifle. There was nothing said between the pair.
Gently the firer squeezed the trigger and the bullet was gone.
The 7.62mm round flew through the air at around 750 metres a second. With nothing to deviate it, the only thing that would prevent it from hitting the target was the accuracy of the firer.
Today the Taliban marksman was off his game for the bullet landed short, at the feet of the young soldier it was meant to strike, meant to kill.
Immediately he hit the ground, his patrol colleagues joining him in the Afghan dirt.
In unison they peered through their x6 ACOG sights, as Corporal ‘Lofty’ McDowell called in the action:
“Contact, single round, graded red from the west. Firing point not identified, wait-out”, he screams into the mouthpiece of his Bowman 354 radio.
On his third tour of Afghanistan, Lofty is newly promoted but vastly experienced for someone so young. He is already used to the Taliban’s ongoing tactic; the single round engagement.
As his men continue their hunt for the firing point, from 700 metres away another round is fired, narrowly missing a second soldier.
In official military circles the enemy firer would be known as a marksman, trained shot or sharpshooter, to call him anything else would imply the enemy had a capability they do not. It would lead to a perception of a highly sophisticated, highly skilled, operator able to engage us from extreme long distances.
But the reality is that it makes no difference what you call the firer. When you are pinned down by accurate fire and you cannot identify the firing point terminology becomes unimportant, a talking point for those not there.
What is important is how you deal with this threat.
For soldiers fighting in Helmand this is just one of many enemy tactics they have to deal with. They are well trained and know how to counter whatever the enemy throws at them, today it is small arms fire, tomorrow it will be an IED, they get on with the job while others talk about it.
As I lift my head from the dirt I see Lofty going about his work, supremely confident with his own ability and that of his men.
IMPROVISED EXPLOSIVE DEVICE
“A giant of a man.”
These are the words used by Colonel Bob Seddon, the former commanding officer of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid, to describe the bomb disposal expert killed in Sangin whose inquest was held in 2010.
It is a fitting tribute to a fiercely brave man.
But for every one or two Improvised Explosive Devices – so called roadside bombs – found by specialist high risk teams several more are unearthed by the skill and concentration of the ordinary soldier.
Such was the case when Ranger Gavin Edgar found one of the deadly devices and a haul of other IED making equipment while on patrol in Nad-e-Ali.
“I slowly pulled the top of the hay away, saw the pressure plate and couldn’t believe my eyes! I’m delighted but I was just doing my job at the end of the day”, said the 19-year-old from Ballymoney, Northern Ireland modestly.
Modest or not the skill with which he does his job accounted for a device capable of killing him, his colleagues and innocent civilians. With the device was the component parts to make a further 10 devices.
It is statements like that from Ranger Edgar which underlies the real courage of these men, many only teenagers, as they go about their work trying to make Nad-e-Ali a better place for the people of Helmand.
These young soldiers, brothers, sons, husbands and friends step forward day in, day out knowing each step could be their last.
Amongst their number will be those armed with metal detectors, scanning the ground ahead of them. But often the detector will offer only psychological comfort because – as with the device which accounted for Olaf Schmid – the bombs the enemy plant are increasingly sophisticated and decreasingly reliant on metal components to make them work.
We do have another weapon in our armory though, the mark one eyeball.
Inching forward soldiers will scrutinise the ground at their feet looking for the tell-tale signs of enemy activity: disturbed earth, patches of raised ground, soil a slightly different colour to that which surrounds it.
But the task is exacting. It allows for no breaks, no distraction. A moment’s lack of focus can result in broken bodies and shattered lives.
There is also the peril of tunnel-vision. With so much attention centred on the hazard below there is always the risk that another Taliban threat – an ambush, suicide bomber – goes unnoticed until it is too late.
So far the combined brains of those working in the arms industry have failed to develop what would perhaps be the most useful battlefield weapon of all – eyes in the back of your head.
Until that happens, the imprecise act of warfare goes on, with British troops – hour by hour, minute by minute – making judgement calls on where the biggest and most immediate dangers actually lie.
Most of the time we get it right and complete another patrol unscathed. But not always.
And that is when another miserable train of events is set in motion: the loss of a man, the repatriation of a body, the inquest into a violent death.
As my Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir DSO MBE said of Ranger Edgar:
“The IED threat in this area has been significant. We have lost life and limb to IEDs. Ranger Edgar’s professionalism has without doubt saved lives. A good morning’s work!”
It is continuous, relentless, it saps the soldiers energy little by little. It is both physically and mentally demanding and it drives your actions every minute of every day, every step, every turn of the wheel. “But it is just about doing my job at the end of the day”.