Garmsir – Maj Sher Wali

The weekend – Sunday to be precise – marked an anniversary few needed reminding of. 9/11. Fifteen years on from the attack on the Twin Towers, the moment that threw the West into the War on Terror. And by coincidence Sunday also marked ten years since I was ordered into battle as part of that war.

My mission should have been straightforward. To join a handful of other British soldiers – a motley assortment of regulars and reservists, from infantrymen to signallers to medics – whose job it was to help the Afghan army and police retake from the Taliban a non-descript, but strategically important kalay deep in the south of Helmand Province.image

Once secured we were to hold Garmsir for 24 hours until relieved by a larger force. Except things didn’t quite go to plan. After a bloody struggle we recaptured the outpost, but a week later we were still there, besieged.

Day in, day out, we fought for survival. I took my first life in Garmsir, and a few more after that, some at close quarters. This was not killing for killings sake nor was it something to boast about. It was war, and the men I killed where intent on killing me.
After a week I was one of just three British troops who remained in Garmsir. But we were not totally without help, our Afghan colleagues fighting at our shoulder including Sher-Wali, a Pashtun Afghan and Major in the National Police Force.

Sher-Wali had history. He’d fought with the Mujahideen against the Russians and had initially sided with the Taliban when they first took over his country. But growing disillusionment with his new masters meant he was now pitted against them as part of the Afghan Government’s campaign against the insurgency.

He was not an opportunist; simply someone who wanted the best for his family and his people and all too often found himself bitterly disappointed by those who promised the earth and delivered dust.

imageI formed a strong friendship with Sher-Wali. We shared our food, our stories. We fought side by side and on more than one occasion Sher-Wali saved my life, in one incident shielding me from the explosive yield of a rocket propelled grenade with his own body. He was and remains the bravest and most noble man I have ever known.

In the most difficult of circumstances he fought ferociously beside a man he knew little about who came from a culture he didn’t understand, but in whom he had placed his trust.

At the last it was he, not I, who paid the highest price of all. Sher-Wali died on the final day of the engagement, carrying out my orders. For me it was a body blow and when we departed back to base – our Royal Marine Commando relief having turned up a fortnight later than we expected – it was with a mood of melancholy not elation.

Driving into Camp Bastion the faces of those whose entire Afghan experience revolved around this sprawling encampment exhibited shock at the sight of us. Our single remaining unarmoured Land Rover had been peppered by shrapnel and with numerous entry and exit bullet holes, the ballistic matting long since torn off by Taliban firepower, a hole the size of a fist bored into the driver’s headrest evidence of a large-calibre round striking its mark.

Everything was covered with a fine film of Afghan desert dust, lending us humans a ghostly appearance, though not so much so that it disguised the dirt, blood and human waste that stained our uniforms. The strain of the experience showed in our eyes, framed as they were by furrowed brows, matted beards and crazy hair.

For my actions in Garmsir I was awarded the Military Cross. It still arouses in me conflicting senses of pride and shame. I was not alone in being decorated and our clutch of honours – two MCs, a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross and a Mention in Dispatches – made this patrol the most decorated since the ill-fated ‘Bravo Two Zero’ during the first Gulf War.

The sights, sounds and smells of ten years ago linger with me now. But the more intense memories are those of the people I served alongside. Most of all I remember Major Sher-Wali: his smile, his presence and his loyalty.

He died fighting on his own soil. I believe in what we did in Afghanistan, but it was only ever an interlude for me. I had a way out, an escape route, God willing I would return home after a six-month tour. Sher-Wali was at home. His fight was existential. Mine was a job. Yet because of people like Sher-Wali Garmsir has stayed with me and I returned to Afghanistan to fight on two more occasions.

Physically I have never returned to Garmsir. Mentally I have never really left.

 

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Doug Beattie MC joined the Army as a sixteen year old junior soldier. He served for thirty-four years rising through the ranks from Ranger to Captain while serving in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Queens Commendation for Bravery during the invasion of Iraq and the Military Cross for his first of three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He is now a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

KIA

PLEASE DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE A LOVED ONE IN AFGHANISTAN OR HAVE LOST A LOVED ONE.

You turn on the TV news and there, somewhere after a report on the credit crunch and before the footie, you get the other stuff, events in brief, the stories they haven’t got pictures for or don’t think are important enough to warrant two minutes all to themselves.  Amongst these fillers you hear the presenter say, ‘A British soldier has been killed in action in Afghanistan after being hit by a roadside bomb’.  Killed in action.  KIA.  It all sounds so unsentimental, so impersonal, so clinical.  But its’ not.  It is usually brutal and bloody and painful.  So here it comes, the wretched truth about KIA, a truth you’ll never hear, let alone see, on News at Ten.  This is what KIA is all about.

11:46hrs

This was the time a British soldier stood on an IED, an improvised explosive device, a roadside bomb.  It wasn’t clear whether it was the heal of his boot that made contact first, or the sole, or perhaps he was already springing off his toes and well into his next stride when the weapon that he trod on killed him.  It doesn’t matter, for any of these scenarios would have set off the same catastrophic chain of events.

As the weight – several stone of the soldier, and a few more of his equipment – came to bear on the track, it also fell on the part of the bomb that would trigger the explosion.  Just below the surface, encased in a motorcycle inner tube to keep them free of dirt and moisture, were a pair of old saw blades: one connected by wire to an electrical power source, a pack of six domestic batteries; the other attached by a different wire to a Russian mortar shell. The blades were wedged apart at each end by a piece of wood.  In this configuration the blocks acted like a circuit breaker, preventing the flow of electricity, keeping the system inert.  With the soldier’s full weight now coming down inexorably on the top blade, it buckled and bowed in the middle, then made contact with its twin beneath.  And that was that.  The circuit was complete and a current started to flow, at the speed of light, from battery, via the saw blades to a detonator.  In turn the detonator was connected to a booster charge, which in itself was hooked up to the mortar shell.

The weapon could have lain there for days, a week, a month.  It might have been there for a year or more.  Of course, it wouldn’t have mattered to the bomb how long it had gone undiscovered.  It had no feelings, no sense of time, no memory, only and endless patience it wasn’t aware of.  But now its moment had come.  It was about to do the one and only thing it had been created for.  Wreak death on the enemy of those who had first dug the hole for the weapon to sit in and then carefully buried it, hiding all signs of the earth having ever been disturbed.

In that most routine and instinctive of movements, walking, the British soldier had sealed his fate, self-selected himself as a victim.  And the life for his family was about to be irrevocably altered.  Shattered beyond recognition.  Not that they knew it yet.  Though, it seems, he probably did.

Because even as he was completing his step, as events were about to unfold beneath him out of sight, he suddenly stopped as if he suspected something.  Had he already seen something, felt something not quite right through the rubber sole of his boot?  It was as if he already had an inkling of what he’d just done.

But by now it was way to late to alter the course of history.

The chemical reaction going on inside the mortar shell was rapidly generating an extreme amount of pressure and heat – as much as several hundred tones per square inch of the former and anything between 1,500 and 2,500 degrees Celsius of the latter.  It was all happening so fast – unimaginably fast – and it had become impossible to turn the clock back; things had already gone far beyond the point of no return.  Yet for a few more milliseconds there was still no outward sign of the impending disaster.  Because at that precise moment the destructive power was still, just about, being contained within the shell.  The original makers of the shell had been ruthlessly exact in their calculations.  They hadn’t wanted all the heat and pressure to burst out too son.  No, they’d designed the casing to be strong enough to resist its own demise for as long as possible – long enough for the force of the imminent explosion to have reached its absolute zenith.  And only then did it break free.

The mortar disintegrated into a million pieces of metal that hurtled away from the seat of the blast.  There would be no dodging them.  Not at the immense speed they were travelling – as much as several thousand meters per second.  The fragments were followed by the blast wave.  It radiated from the epicenter of the explosion even faster than the splinters of the bomb casing, at a velocity many times the speed of sound.  For good measure there was a heat wave too.  And a hell of a lot of noise.

Because the mortar had been buried only just below the surface of the track the soldier had been walking on, most of the energy was funneled skywards, following the path of least resistance, up through the thin veneer of the Afghan desert.  It took with it bucket loads of dirt and grit.

In the moment the explosion mushroomed clear of the ground, both the soldiers’ legs were shredded.  It was as if someone had furiously rubbed them up an down a giant cheese grater, not stopping until the white of the bone was clearly visible through the bloody, ragged remains of human tissue.  If the soldier had had the chance to take in what was happening to him, then he might have been tempted to count his blessings, pleased at least that both his lower limbs remained anchored to the rest of his body.  But he would have been wrong to do so.  Already they were useless to him; indeed they were hardly recognisable as legs.  There was little or no skin left to speak of, and much of the mass and most of the definition of the muscle had gone too, hacked off by supersonic, super-sharp pieces of twisted metal.  That which remained had become blackened in places – charred, seared by the extreme temperature that accompanied the blast.  The torn remnants of skin and uniform had been similarly singed.

As the cuts of human meat, some minuscule, others the size of a hand, were hacked off the bone, other fragments of the bomb now buried themselves deep inside the ragged flesh that remained.  They also tunneled into the man’s thighs and groin, peppering the muscle.  For good measure the billowing cloud of dust then further contaminated the wounds.

The blast wave continued running up the length of the victims torso, forcing its way under the body armour, eventually tearing it off.  The two removable, protective ceramic plates worn to protect the front and back of the armour had already been blown from their pouches, and now, as projectiles, they had become part of the problem rather than the cure.

By this stage the soldiers weapons had been ripped from his right hand, then the hand and the arm were flayed as the legs had been.

As the blast reached his head, it got beneath the rim of his helmet and forced it off, the chinstrap offering only limited resistance before giving way.  There was also massive damage inflicted on the mans throat and jaw.  A large piece of shrapnel – or maybe it was the plate off the body armour – had torn out his voice box and smashed his chin.  A fold in the skin now hung limply from his cheek.  Even if he had wanted to call out for help, to scream in pain, he wouldn’t have been able to do so.

There was also the damage done that you’d struggle to see.  The force of the explosion had caused serious internal injuries.  The soldier’s eardrums burst.  So too did the blood vessels in his eyes.  His lungs probably collapsed as the blast wave rippled through his body.  By now he was no longer in contact with the ground.  Instead, he and his barely attached limbs were sailing through the air, tumbling, turning, before crashing back to earth.  He was flung a good ten meters from the point of detonation.

The very worst thing of all was that – despite everything – he was still alive.

Eyes rolling; trickles of blood seeping from his ears, nose and mouth; torrents of thick red blood pumping from at least three severed arteries; he was still alive.

And conscious.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the medic did a heroic job trying to treat the soldier, applying tourniquets, inserting a drip, giving morphine.  And then it was a case of clock watching, waiting for the MERT helicopter to arrive.  Knelt down alongside the casualty, the medic held on to the soldiers remaining good hand, offering what comfort he could, reassuring him everything would be alright.  Except it wouldn’t.

Because twenty minutes after he had detonated the bomb, the soldier succumbed to his horrendous injuries, the lifeblood finally drained out of him into the dust.

The brutally dispassionate message went out over the radio ‘UK Bravo now KIA’

That’s is the reality of Killed in Action.  For some, death comes mercifully quickly. But for others dying is an agonizing, lingering, terrifying experience.  Their last on earth.

Now, where were we? Ah yes.  How did Chelsea get on against Man Utd.

‘TASK FORCE HELMAND’ by Doug Beattie MC

The Olympic struggle, every day of every year for the rest of their lives.

If the roots of the Olympic Games can be traced back thousands of years to the ancient Greeks, then the Paralympics is of rather more recent vintage and its origins lie rather closer to home; in Buckinghamshire, to be precise.

For it was in 1948 at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital that Dr Ludwig Guttmann, an expert in helping rehabilitate injured service personnel, especially those with spinal injuries, organised an event for those hurt during World War II. The first International Wheelchair Games coincided with the start of the now last-but-one Olympics to be held in London. The rest as they say is history and by 1960 in Rome Dr Guttmann’s vision had evolved into the inaugural Paralympics. The 400 disabled participants came from all walks of life and were not just injured servicemen.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann

But here’s the irony. Given the genesis of the Paralympics it will surprise many, and shock some, to learn that just six members – two per cent – of the current Great British team are from the armed forces.

To be blunt, it isn’t as if there isn’t a deep pool of prospective talent. Since the start of 2006, 281 UK personnel have been categorised as being very seriously injured in Afghanistan. 289 others seriously injured. Before ‘Afghan’, was Iraq. For Operation Telic the figures were 73 and 149 respectively.

Most of these people will have been young, extremely fit, immensely courageous and steely-willed. And as an organisation the military puts sport very much at the heart of their activities and they support all abled and disabled service personnel achieve the highest levels possible in numerous sporting activities.

So why will so few of them be competing in 2012? Is the MOD disinterested and failing to carry the flame for an institution it itself helped bear and nurture? Or is there something else that precludes participation of the very people one would want on the team sheet?

Despite first sight of the evidence it is probably the latter.

The numbers demonstrate the balance of casualties have occurred in the last half decade or so. Advances in equipment and battlefield medical provision mean that many of these troops survived injuries which in previous conflicts they would not. Yet it also means more soldiers, sailors and airmen than ever before are left facing the future with life changing injuries, a euphemism for terrible wounds which require years of treatment. Many have lost one or two limbs, brain damage, loss of sight and groin injuries are also common. The road to some degree of adequate recovery is long and arduous.

Occasionally it is all but impossible. Demonstrating the difficulties a good friend and close colleague was seriously wounded in 2008 when his vehicle went over an IED, this would have been as the last Paralympics was coming to an end. Four years later he still wears a cage around his left leg, shattered by the blast. Even now there is no guarantee that he will not lose the limb but his fight is no less a fight than those chasing Olympic glory.

Clearly there are wounded colleagues who notably and publicly achieve immense feats of endurance: reaching the poles, trekking to Everest, learning to ski, sail and cycle. They are truly inspirational role models, but for the majority of those who have been hurt the challenge is not to travel to the ends of the earth or to climb mountains, but simply to get to the end of the road under their own steam or ascend the stairs in a home designed for the unimpeded. Their lives are not moulded by four-year training cycles but constant hurdles over which they must leap merely to reach the end of each day.

Nor is youth, for those who possess it, a single-edged sword, for their bodies continue to mature. Cleaved bones keep on growing.

Recovering from catastrophic injuries

None of which is to say that future Paralympics teams will not be packed with service people. But first, almost to a man, those with injuries want to stand on their own two feet. The great depths of pride and courage they possess drive them on to try and regain their independence and, crucially, to regain their place in the military family as equals.

Winning a gold medal is one thing, retaining the admiration and respect of colleagues is quite another. And it is these things which the professionals at the MOD rehabilitation centre at Headly Court focus on, helped on by the immeasurable contributions from charities like Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and the Army Benevolent fund just to name a few.

For once a soldier, always a soldier and nowhere is this best demonstrated than with Lance Corporal Ben Parkinson.

Horrifically maimed in 2006, Ben carried the torch through his home town of Doncaster ahead of the able-bodied games, not from a wheelchair, but walking tall as a soldier who serves in the British Army. And he is not alone; the number of soldiers who return from operation in Afghanistan without limbs yet fight to stand with their colleagues to receive their operational medals is also inspirational.

Olympians

The motto of the Paralympics is ‘Spirit in Motion’. It could be said that Ben and his colleagues exemplify this sentiment day in day out, not just every four years.

 

KILLING AND COMPASSION ON THE BATTLEFIELD

Breathing hard, my back against the dusty wall of a mud compound, its metal doors forced open to reveal a small shop, the coolness of its shade washing over me, I stared hard at the Taliban fighter at my feet.

All smiles after the patrol when all my men are safe

He stared back.

Just moments earlier he had been intent on killing me and my men. What his motivation was – ideology, money, excitement – I didn’t know and would never find out. For the man’s deep, dark eyes were unseeing.

They were those of a man who had breathed his last, another casualty of war.

Where he lay, a small pool of blood had formed behind his head, his loose fitting robes twisted around him, the feet bare, the long hair matted with dirt, his beard matted with blood.

Around him was strewn the detritus of a medical emergency; tubes, bandages, a syringe, signs that immediately after he had been shot the soldiers then proceeded to try and save his life. It was not to be.

Death had triumphed over life. When we could, we would take a DNA sample and a photo, and then leave his body to be buried by the local population whose hospitality he had forced himself upon, taking advantage of the Pashtun-Wali code, the ancient custom of kindness to strangers adhered to as much today by the local population as it was during the time of Alexander the Great.

Afghan Market Stall.

But procedure would have to wait a bit longer, for the sounds of combat had not died with the young insurgent.

Even as my soldiers had tried to staunch his flow of blood and that of one of his wounded colleague, their comrades renewed the attack, trying to force us from the ground we had so recently taken, hoping we would abandon not just the territory but also the wounded fighter and the weapons and radios we had captured.

There was nothing particularly unusual about the situation. Using military mission verbs, we had been in the area to Find, Feel and Understand, in other words learn about the area.

Our patrol had been working on a road between Kalang, our main Patrol Base in Saidabad, Nad-e-Ali, Helmand Province and the rather smaller and more isolated checkpoint Tanoor. The result was predictable.

The insurgents had been first to engage, the 7.62mm short rounds from their AK47s, and 7.62mm long rounds from the PKMs, splitting the air above our heads, ripping up the earth at our feet and slamming into the compound walls the young rangers were using for cover.

But this wasn’t a day to absorb the enemy fire and merely trade a few rounds of our own. Today was a day to take the fight to them. Fast, aggressive movement, charging in depth, clearing insurgent positions and cutting off withdrawal routes.

The dead insurgent had tried to use children to mask his retreat, the same terrified youngsters he had hidden behind when he first opened up at us.

Not that his tactics were any match for the skill of my ranger sniper. He fired without hesitation, but not without thought. Because the highly trained Royal Irish soldier had many things going through his head as he focused on the insurgent.

He had been trained to ask himself three simple questions, Can I? Could I? And finally should I? The first two questions relating to his rules of engagement the last question relating to the impact of firing, what effect would it have not just on the insurgent but on the local population. In the end he had no choice, his skill matching his training.

It was then that the insurgent’s comrade moved from the shadows, rifle in hand as he fired wildly down the track. It was the next .338 calibre bullet from the sniper’s weapon that

A Force Multiplier in Combat

smashed through his groin exiting his buttock and sent him spinning to the ground.

This was not the movies. There was no spray of blood, no arms thrown theatrically into the air, just the sickly sound of the impact; lead boring through flesh and bone.

For the enemy the relief of being alive would quickly have been tempered by knowledge that his body had been seriously if not fatally damaged, physically unable to respond to the commands sent from the brain.

I am no stranger to violent death. Bosnia, Kosovo, the war in Iraq and now three tours of Afghanistan, have ensured that. But that does not mean I am immune to it, whether the loss of life has been suffered by friend or foe. I feel both keenly. The immediate euphoria of overcoming an enemy tarnished by the sense of waste.

Death on the battlefield is at least followed by a full stop. It is the fate of the wounded that raises the questions and introduces the thorny matter of compassion.

After the sniper struck there were quick decisions to be made. Do I send my men 400 metres forward to recover the wounded, give them medical treatment, arrest them and send them back to Camp Bastion?

Or do I leave them writhing in pain and misery, hopelessly willing their shattered limbs to carry them beyond our reach? It’s is a question of risk versus gain, but it is also a question of compassion on the battlefield.

I decided to exercise the compassion only available to the victor. The surviving insurgent is treated as if he is one of us. With a dressing on the wound, and morphine for the pain, a MIST report is sent back to HQ classifying him as a CAT A casualty.

Soon a helicopter will arrive to whisk him away to the same facility that would have treated a British casualty if the roles had been reversed, no medical distinction being made, it is the Law of Armed Conflict and it governs all our actions on the battlefield.

Meanwhile his dead colleague is shown the dignity in death I suppose we all deserve. His clothes are rearranged, his arms straightened by his sides.

Nowhere in the rules and regulations does it say this needs to be done. For what the young soldiers of 1 R IRISH do is a human thing, not a military action, there is a gentleness in the mayhem that makes me proud to command these young soldiers.

THE THREAT – Every minute of every day for combat troops.

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.

Returning Fire

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.

Doug Beattie: reutrn to Afghanistan

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.

Simple Soldiers, Complex Skills

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.

The lonely hunt for IEDs by none specialists

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.

A ‘Find’ a life saved

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”.

FEAR – A very personal emotion

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

Fear. You won’t hear soldiers talk about it. Fear is a taboo subject, a word suggesting weakness or worse, what they once would have called a lack of moral fibre.

An Afghan soldier in the heat of battle

Troops skirt around it, deploying instead phrases like, “that was a close one” or “that wasn’t funny” to mask the reality of what they are feeling. But the question is not whether soldiers feel fear – for they do – but how they react to it.

It can be a powerful motivator, allowing you to do things you never thought you were capable of. But fear can also be mentally and physically debilitating, preventing men from carrying out the actions needed for survival.

If you look you will see fear everywhere. I have known fear, felt it, saw it in the eyes of my men and in the faces of my enemies. It strikes without warning, not just in the heat of combat but in the quiet reflective moments when there is too much time to think.

In the heart of Helmand there is much to be fearful of: the threat of death and injury, of having seen your family, your wife and children for the last time; of letting down your friends and colleagues, your regiment, your hometown, your country.

I have felt physically sick before deploying on a routine patrol, almost debilitated with fear as I watch children and women flee an area we’ve just entered, their dispersal known as a combat indicator, it’s always a prelude to attack. But as a commander I must stand tall, continue the mission, it is the loneliest of feelings, the loneliness of command.

In the middle of winter in Southern Helmand the fighting and killing is done in the open, in mud-heavy fields freshly ploughed and irrigated. There is nowhere to hide, the irrigation ditches that could give cover have been seeded with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the bare tree-lines no longer providing cover from view or fire. The mud is everywhere, it clings to your boots like glue and sucks the soldiers’ legs into the saturated terrain

It is a scene and experience that would not be alien to those who served in the Great War.

When the bullets come there is no quick dash to safety, the mud rooting you to the spot. As the enemy engages, the cursing and high-pitched screaming of men starts. But very soon, the training and the adrenaline really do kick in and the job of war truly begins.

The shouts are workmanlike and purposeful, orders are given and information passed. Insurgent positions are identified and fire is returned. For most the fear has been elbowed aside, the controlled violence and frenetic activity offering an escape. However for some the fear is persistent…

Looking for combat indicators

Back home, the British public are buoyed by media stories of heroism, young men overcoming adversity, it is uplifting. And these stories are part of the picture. I witnessed such bravery on many occasions, I was instrumental in the award of 3 Military Crosses and a Conspicuous Gallantry Cross to men under my command – there can be no greater honour for me that to have my soldiers recognised for what they have done.

But where is the glory for the man who has overcome the most incapacitating fear? The one who has – against every instinct – unfurled himself from a foetal position and used his inner strength to haul himself up to face the enemy?

What recognition for the soldier who has lost a colleague in horrifying circumstances and yet the very next day will return to the scene despite uncontrollable vomiting and emotional confusion?

For many of the men and women in Helmand the biggest battles every day of every week for six months and more are with themselves. Only when those are won can they turn their attentions to the enemy.

Even for me – a soldier of 30 years with 13 operational tours completed – those battles are still to be won daily, each time harder than the last and well beyond the confines of military service.

But they are never fought alone, they are fought with those who share your experiences – your friends, your colleagues, the men left and right of you when the bullets fly.

I screamed as the large calibre bullet flew past my face, too fast to see, too quick to dodge, the distinctive cracking noise known only to those who know battle.

I woke in my camp cot sweating. Even in sleep the fear is there.

An outpost in Helmand Province

Chaos of war? Or dereliction of duty by the MOD?

War is a dirty, ugly profession.

Yet we would be foolish to think men will not continue to fight and die in countries many miles beyond their own often for reasons, and because of reasons, their families back at home might not be able to comprehend or come to terms with when their loved ones succumb in battle.

So what of the current fight the MOD has on its hands as it faces yet another struggle in the courts over the standard of equipment issued to troops during the Iraq war? Is the criticism of relatives justified? Did soldiers know that when they went to war they would go with the very minimum of kit and be expected to get on with the job regardless? Is the situation in the 20th Century any different to what it was in the hundreds of years prior? Should it be different?

The argument levelled by Robert Weir QC representing some of those bringing claims is as such:

“The state is under a positive obligation to take all reasonable measures to protect the lives of its soldiers. In the context of activities that form part of soldiers’ ordinary duties, albeit that these may involve dangerous activities, that positive obligation requires the state to adopt and implement regulations and systems to mitigate the relevant risk to life, including adequate equipment and training.”

On the face of it there is nothing to disagree with in these statements. If war is dirty and ugly then it is also unpredictable. What’s more, the consequences of any sort of misjudgement – whether made in the cushy offices of the MOD or in the heat of battle – can and do result in death and injury.

My experience is that most troops regard the vagaries of waging war an occupational hazard.

As my old commanding officer Tim Collins would say, “Go to war with what’s in your pockets. The rest will follow.” And that’s exactly what my colleagues and I did when we took part in the 2003 invasion of Saddam’s nation. It could well be argued there was not enough kit to go around and that was a failing of the MOD logistical plan but these things happen and yes they do cost lives but it is something servicemen know all too well and just get on with it. Historically it has come with the territory. Again, the real question is should they just get on with it?

It is worth looking at the emotive issue of the Snatch Land Rover (which features in one of the compensation claims) a vehicle I used have used many times over 30 years of – ongoing – service. Soldiers tended to hate it, and not just because it was lightly armoured. But also because it was enclosed, had poor visibility and did not have the ability to mount crew-served weapons therefore being of little use as a firing platform.

Soldiers would rather have the much lighter, totally un-armoured WMIK Land Rover that addressed all the failings of the Snatch except its shortage of ballistic protection. But in war, mobility is often a key part of staying safe and the balance between physical protection and speed and agility is something the MOD has had to try and address over the last ten years of bitter fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Snatch Land Rover

But you shouldn’t always blame the equipment. Part of the problem with the Snatch was how it was deployed, more than once in unsuitable circumstances. This is a failure of command, down to inexperience and difficult operational situations.

(If you really want a woeful vehicle ever to be deployed into an operational theatre then you need look no further that the Vector, but that is a different and lesser-known story and perhaps the subject of another blog.)

WMIK Land Rover after IED strike

There is no universal view amongst soldiers on what constitutes best practice. I did not envy those who crossed the border into Iraq in 2003 inside a 60-tonne Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, essentially cooped up in a bullet magnet, susceptible to both mine strikes and artillery fire, as well as the attentions of the enemy’s main battle tanks.

In contrast my regiment, the Royal Irish, entered the conflict in 4-tonne DAF cargo trucks, 18 men squeezed into each open-topped vehicle travelling no quicker than 30 miles per hour.  Vulnerable? Bloody right we were, but we got on with it because that’s what was on hand and because, we as infantrymen, had a job to do and by choice non of us wanted to be entombed in metal. Ig we had we would have joined the cavalry or the tank Regiment.

As it was every man in our unit had his body armour. We knew this because the commanding officer and his RSM, me, were the last to receive theirs. This was not a procedure prescribed by the MOD, it’s simply a matter of leadership.

Had more and better equipment been available then the CO would have made sure everyone had it, but in truth it was not and we got on with the job – you can see the pattern: ‘Get on with the job, known risks, availability’.  The Army works on a simple premise in war, ‘mission first’ – like it or not that is what you sign up for and if you aren’t up for it then choose a different profession.

In the summer of 2008 in the Upper Gereskh Valley I fought a desperate battle along with just ten other British soldiers to hold a small patrol base named Attal. We were lightly equipped, far from any support and fought protracted battles on a daily basis. The attrition took its toll on my men mentally and physically.

Burdened down with heavy personal protection equipment in 40 degree heat, men got tired, took the less difficult route, did not, could not, apply the skill taught them due to sheer exhaustion.  They had lost mobility due to ‘protection’ and that eventually cost the life of one of those with me.

Leopard 2 MBT – Mobility Kill

There are many who will say that this heavy personal protective equipment has saved lives and they would be right: up to a point. We don’t know how many men would not have stepped on the IED that killed or maimed them if they had not been so bloody tired.

Physical, all-enveloping protection is not everything as the death of a Danish soldier while travelling inside a Leopard 2
main battle tank during our time at Attal proves. Confronted with a bigger vehicle to destroy, the enemy will simply make a bigger bomb. A terrible incident in March when six British soldiers were killed after their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was targeted by a Taliban roadside bomb simply reinforces the point.

All this leads to at least one legitimate complaint about the methods used to issue equipment to our armed forces. In a world of scarce resource the best stuff will always go to those some regard as the ‘best’ soldiers, the elite regiments. They do have access to very lightweight ballistic protective kit out there that better strikes the balance between the competing priorities of mobility and protection. Yet why are these people the pampered few? Better paid, better equipped than the rest of the British Army (and Navy).

Of course, it comes down to a single thing. Cost.

If the MOD looses these cases in the courts I wonder whether the families of those killed in the Falklands will then seek compensation for their loved ones who did not have ballistic protection of any kind? Or will the long forgotten Ulster Defence Regiment who lost 197 soldiers in a conflict many choose to forget be entitled to sue the MOD?

I think it is right and proper that equipment concerns are raised and where someone is culpable then legal action should be taken against them. But the bar for prosecution should be set very high indeed. To blame a lack of equipment when the equipment was not available or its purpose misunderstood by those in command is plainly wrong.

Faced with a public backlash to better protect its troops the MOD might be tempted to pile yet more protective kit onto the soldier. But while this might cover the arses of those in Whitehall, ironically it could leave men and women on the front line less able to defend themselves. Bogged down in the mud they might die because of having too much kit, not too little.

It is sobering to look back at the evidence from D-Day that took place 68 years ago this month. The stories are legion of how over-burdened soldiers either drowned as they disembarked the landing crafts which carried them towards the Normandy beaches or were unable to make fast enough progress across the sand allowing the Germans to pick them off.

Now, as then, war is an unpredictable business. Lawyers must not make it sound otherwise.