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.


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.


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.


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.



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.

British deaths shine spotlight on partnering operation. Tragedy underlines conflicting realities of our #Afghan allies.

The euphemisms for the type of slaughter which has resulted in the deaths of men from the Welsh Guards and Royal Corps of Signals are anodyne. Green on blue; blue on blue; green on green. Yet the human tragedy of such events, where one ally turns his gun on another, will be all too evident to the loved ones of those who will not now be returning from Afghanistan alive.

Afghan soldier prepares for battle alongside British forces.

The killing of three more soldiers in Afghanistan highlights once again the difficulties our troops face whilst training Afghan security forces. The job of mentoring was once the sole domain of UK Special Forces. Yet as the scale of the job became clear the net was cast wider to find suitable people to do it. The bulk of the burden fell on the ‘Green Army’.

Events like those reported today throw a long shadow over this work and it is easy to believe that everything is going wrong in the country. Yet the figures hint at another picture and in this war context is everything.

So far we have trained over 350,000 Afghan security personnel; that’s over a quarter of a million men at arms, nearly four times the size of the UK Army.  Over half of Afghanistan’s people live and work under the protection of the Afghan security services and the other 50% will be in the same situation by 2014.

Me working with an Afghan police commander who was himself a former member of the Taliban.

When we arrived in Afghanistan just under one million children were in education, none of them where female, now we have three million and a third are female.  Many people will know that education is the key to success in countries like Afghanistan but to put education, development, reconstruction, and law and order on the table you need security.

The same goes for the Afghan parliament, when we arrived there were no female MPs. Now there are over 60 and a female is running for the presidency, something that could never have happened a few years ago.

There have of course been some terrible setbacks and today’s is the seventh-such incident since we arrived in the south of the country. In human terms 15 young men have ostensibly died at the hands of our allies, men we had befriended, put our trust in who turned out to be either a wolf in sheep clothing or individuals with a real issue with our western ways.

During three tours of Afghanistan I worked closely with Afghan forces: ate with them, slept in the same compound as them, fought side by side.  They are a people of contrast, incredibly compassionate yet incredibly cruel. In 2006 I fought with an Afghan police major named Sher Wali. He remains the most honourable, noble and brave man I have ever known – he gave his life for mine.  Yet contrast that with what happened in the Upper Gereskh valley in 2008 when I watched as soldiers of the Afghan Army casually murdered a Talib taken prisoner only minutes previously.

But what is the alternative to trying to deal with these dichotomies? Those who say we should throw down our weapons and run ignore the strategic situation. To leave any semblance of order we need to complete the training up to a standard where our presence is not significantly missed.  Once we have trained the ANSF and they take over responsibility it will create the time and space for the remaining British soldiers to withdraw.

That said, the withdrawal has already started with the first 500 leaving by the end of this year and the remainder will follow in an orderly fashion over the next 2 years.

My patrol tries to deal with the aftermath of the murder of a Taliban prisoner by our Afghan Army colleagues.

History could teach us a thing or two. Those critics of the current policy who harp back to the first and second Afghan wars as proof the British cannot win in Afghanistan, should read up a little bit more. The British did actually win the military side of the conflicts, but they failed to secure the peace. It is the peace which is the difficult part of this puzzle and if we do not leave behind viable structures including security then history surely will repeat itself.

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.


‘I leant forward and thrust my bayonet towards the man’s body as hard as I could. I aimed for the centre of mass, forcing my rifle on to him, my bayonet into him, but the gloom made it hard to know exactly where I made contact. There was barely any resistance, the sharpened blade, sliding deeper, quickly disappearing. I heard the metal slice through the flesh, felt it break bone and cut gristle as it glided further in, right up to the hilt. Did I hear a small gasp from the man? I don’t know, perhaps it was the devil inside me playing with my imagination. When it could go no further, I twisted the bayonet to increase the damage.

Just as we had been taught.

I kicked at the body, pushing away clothing, placing my foot on his shoulder. Only then, as my eyes became accustomed to the light did I see exactly where I had struck him. The blade had entered the man’s neck at the top of the spine, the tip now protruding just below his larynx, drops of blood running down the bayonet grooves. I pulled hard and the weapon slipped out, a small piece of windpipe coming with it. I didn’t give it a second thought.

Just as we had been taught’.

Garmsir, Helmand Province, September 2006 – the stuff of nightmares. Yet mental stress makes itself known in many different ways. It is not just about waking up in the middle of the night sweating, suffering flashbacks or diving for cover every time a door is slammed. It can be more subtle than all this, less visible, but equally debilitating.

Often it will be the mundane and the bland which trigger the emotions. How can you expect soldiers who have watched helplessly as friends and colleagues are killed and maimed to get excited about running out of milk? That others can find so important something which barely registers on the Richter Scale of human suffering only risks increasing veterans’ anger and frustration and potential to react.

The Ministry of Defence have made huge strides in tackling mental illness in whatever form it appears: combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder, or simple mental agitation. The introduction of various mental stress lectures, the use of trauma risk management techniques on the battlefield known as TRiM, the Mental Issues Helpline: they all go some way to help an individual as he struggles with issues he may never have felt before. Charities such as Combat Stress also do excellent work. Yet having help available is one thing. Getting someone to take it up is another.

My situation was not – and is not – unique. After Op Herrick IV I needed help and all I had to do was ask for it. But in fact all I did was say nothing. I was too proud to open my mouth. As a 40 year-old captain and ex regimental sergeant major, I had it in my mind the thought that people came to me for help. Not the other way round. And so the burden would fall not on the professionals but on my family, particularly my wife.

For no matter what people tell you it is invariably your family, your friends or your partner who will first notice the subtle and not so subtle changes in the way you behave. They will be the ones woken by your shouts; who will see your nervousness in bars, markets, shops. And in most cases it will be your family who you finally open up to, be it now or later in life.

The recent articles in the Mirror, and other newspapers, which point to an increase of cases of mental disorder within the military miss a couple of important points. Firstly it is the ending of operations and campaigns that are often the trigger for mental decline. So it was with Iraq and Northern Ireland, so it will be with Afghanistan. When you are in a conflict and there is widespread public support for the troops if not for the campaign, then it is easier to rationalise your experiences. But as memories fade and history is revised it becomes harder for veterans to convince themselves that while what they did was hard, it was also for a justifiable greater good. The sacrifice meant something.

Secondly, because of the Army’s concerted effort to de-stigmatise mental health issues, people are coming forward now where they would not have done so before. The scale of the problem might appear to have grown but that could be down to it previously being hidden away.

That said, it is vital that we do not label every member of the armed forces who feels a degree of anxiety and depression as being a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. While those diagnosed with PTSD are likely to have been service personnel deployed on OP Herrick or Op Telic, the MOD concludes:

“PTSD remains a rare condition, affecting 0.3 per 1,000 strength during this three month period [October – December 2011].”

This doesn’t come as news to Dr Ian Palmer, a professor of military psychiatry quoted on the NHS website:

“There’s a myth that serving in the armed forces damages you psychologically and everyone who has served gets PTSD. They don’t. Being part of the armed forces is good for your mental health. It’s good for your employment prospects and gives you discipline. Most people don’t have problems, and for those who do there are excellent psychiatric services in the forces.”

Many people, in all walks of life, will have bouts of mental illness and many of them will get through it with relatively little or indeed no medical intervention; so too with soldiers, sailors and airmen. In many respects my colleagues and I are fortunate. We have a readymade support network of thousands of other people just like us. The problem comes when we leave military service and find ourselves isolated from those with shared experiences.

The end of my third six-month stint in Helmand also marked the completion of my thirteenth operational tour: from Northern Ireland to Afghanistan via Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Iraq. Each time I headed home so too did a new set of memories, not all of them good. Each time I walked back through my front door I was a slightly different person, with a shifting attitude towards the things I had seen and done.

When I returned from my first tour of ‘Afghan’ in 2006 the events I was involved with weighed heavily on my mind, revisiting my consciousness often when I least expected them, not least the moment when I fought my way into a dark, dusty mud hut and bayoneted a man to death.

Yet two years later, back in Helmand, things were markedly different. In 2008 I led a patrol into the Green Zone in the Upper Gereskh Valley. Surrounded and outnumbered we spent four hours fighting for survival. In the end I had to call in air support to keep us alive and get us out. Back at camp I was told that the bombs I had called in and guided to their targets had killed 18 children. It was only sometime later that this hideous claim was in fact shown to be Taliban propaganda and it was a number of insurgent fighters who had in fact died not a group of innocents. The problem was, I didn’t really care either way. My priority was to my men and if they were ok, then I was ok.

So perhaps desensitisation to war and its effects is the thing we should fear most. Maybe those who display mental anguish over the horrors of what they have witnessed are actually the well-adjusted ones, the lucky ones. They have the ability to display their feelings and have the chance to be helped. Maybe it’s the men and women who claim they are immune to emotion whom we should be watching closest.