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 manpower of the British army is to be reduced to its lowest figure in over 200 years, yet the MOD hopes to retain its capabilities and its tempo of operations. That in itself is a questionable and ambitious goal given the volatile nature of the world today. In total over 21,000 British soldiers will go, men and women from the Midlands and Home Counties, Scots regiments, historic English regiments – some of the oldest infantry regiments in the British Army. But the fate of the Gurkhas is perhaps the most thorny and provocative issue. These men (there are no women though this is set to change) have served in the British Army for the last two centuries, have won 13 Victoria Crosses and are rightly viewed as a model of loyalty; an institution within an institution. Only two years ago another British institution allied herself with these Nepalese warriors. The aim of the actress Joanne Lumley was to secure rights for the Gurkhas commensurate with those awarded to all other British soldiers: equal pensions and service rights, and the ability to settle in the UK once their duty was done.

It was a laudable, high profile campaign, which carried the public with it and resulted in total victory for Ms Lumley. Or did it? In fact it might well have actually weakened the argument for retaining so many members of the Brigade of Ghurkhas. The first thing to understand, is that Gurkhas are not unique to the British Army. They also serve – in far larger numbers – in the Indian Army.

Although the first Gurkhas regiments were raised in 1815 to later serve in the British Indian Army their employment, which is essentially as mercenaries, was agreed in a tri-country pact between Nepal, India and the UK in 1947. The pact laid out their terms of service and enshrined the fundamental principle that at the end of their military careers they would go back to Nepal bringing their riches with them. On their return they were viewed as the wealthy and privileged, standing out from the majority of the population in terms of prosperity, education and social standing.

Now the contract has been rewritten and while the rights extended to Gurkhas is essentially identical to home grown British soldiers their flexibility is not. The cost has gone up. The benefit has not. In an era where every penny counts this has made them more vulnerable to cuts.

Each man who joins the Gurkhas goes through a rigorous selection process in Nepal (paid for by the UK military). The successful are then transported to the UK (paid for by the UK military) undergo military training which includes English lessons (paid for by the UK military). After five years they are entitled to what is known as long leave, six months at home in Nepal, during which time they are again supported by the Ministry of Defence (though this too is set to change). Of course the MOD does not have its own money. It spends taxpayers’ money, our money.

So what do we get in return? Obedience and bravery, unquestionably. The fighting record of the Gurkhas is second to none. And yet in modern times soldiering has not been limited to warfare in far-flung places. And this is where the Gurkhas limitations are revealed, for what they don’t possess is utility.

The Northern Ireland conflict dragged on for 30 years yet not one Gurkha unit served on what was known as Op Banner. Nor did they turn out to help with the fire strike in 2002 that drew in 18,000 military personnel. And they were also absent from the Foot and Mouth disease frontline. In fact they have not and never will help with any task that supports the UK civil power. Why? Because the memorandum of understanding with Nepal prohibits it. Simply put, if the Gurkhas were the last troops on the island when a repeat of something like last summer’s riots broke out they would not deploy to restore order. To that end they have far less flexibility than your average soldier.

What the Gurkhas do possess is the ability to recruit and recruit quickly.  Having reduced the size of the military to an all time low, by retaining the brigade of Gurkhas we retain the ability to enlarge the British army quickly if the need arises.  But retaining these men of honour means that other men of honour, men from the UK will find themselves out of a job.

Simply put I am a Northern Irish soldier, I once belonged to the largest regiment in the British Army, I now belong to the smallest.  There are more Gurkhas serving in the British army now than there are Irishmen.  In total Irish-born servicemen have won 188 VCs (of 1355 awarded) yet we took our reductions as every other corner of the UK took theirs.  It is time to dry our eyes and look at the issue with a clear head. 

If the Gurkha’s really want equality then their usefulness should be subjected to the same objective scrutiny lavished on other regiments and corps. In the interests of fairness, surely Miss Lumley could not disagree with that?

Trust a #journalist? You bet. The #military and the #media

Who would trust a journalist?

The temptation after the last few months of ongoing revelations about widespread phone hacking is to say no one. And yet my limited experience is to do otherwise. I have encountered, and indeed confided in, more than my fair share. And my experience overall has been positive.

The relevance of Her Majesty’s Press – the Fourth Estate – came to the forefront of my mind again last week when I saw that the Channel 4 documentary maker Sean Langan was making an appearance on the BBC, both in dramatic form – his kidnapping by the Taliban in 2008 had been turned into an hour-long feature – and confessional when he reprised his life and work in an interview with Mark Lawson.

I have nothing but admiration for Sean.

I first came across him in 2006 as we set about trying to retake the Taliban held town of Garmsir in southern Helmand. Denied access by the military, Sean hitched a ride with the Afghan security forces working along side us who had no qualms about letting a reporter seeing the reality of our squalid little war.

For the next seven days Sean was on hand to capture the horror and terror of a mission which quickly got out of hand and risked turning into a military disaster. But he did not just impassively stand back and capture events. He also became part of them, lending a hand – for example – to treat the steady stream of casualties, from both sides, who were brought into our makeshift base in the centre of the town.

I must make it clear that he was completely impartial to the various aspects of the conflict. He did not take sides and he did not help us militarily. But neither was he immune to human suffering and when necessary he mucked in to try and help alleviate it.

Most of all, he was great company. Straightforward, funny, inquisitive, Sean was everything a journalist should be.

Sean’s footage was turned into a film called Fighting the Taliban (watch on Sean’s website). It shone a bright spotlight on our military involvement in Afghanistan at a time when the MOD was doing almost everything in their power to keep activities shrouded in darkness.

Not long after getting back from Garmsir, I met another journalist, called Philip Gomm. Phil was working for ITV and we got talking at the airstrip in Bastion while we were both waiting for a flight back to Kandahar. He shared Sean’s inquisitive, straightforward nature. Still shocked by my time in Gamsir I spouted on about events there and also told him a little of my past. Patiently he listened. There and then he said that should I ever want to write a book about my experiences then I should let him know. Six months later, back at home, I started to write down my feelings about Afghanistan. I wasn’t doing it with any literary intention, but as a way of communicating what I had seen and done to my wife Margaret. It was she – having read my missives – who suggested I get in touch with Phil and see if his comments back in Helmand had been anything more than politeness. Apparently they were and some 18 months later on An Ordinary Soldier was published. I went on to work with Phil on Task Force Helmand.

Since then I have spoken to scores of journalists without trouble. It seems too that the MOD has softened its view on reporters and authors, recognising that journalists are going to run their stories anyway and that having some input offers the best chance of a balanced report while the knee-jerk “no comment” sounds defensive and suggests there is something to hide, plus risks getting the media’s backs up. Allowing journalists access to soldiers allows them to experience the hardships we face and is more likely to create empathy and understanding. The MOD also now understands that books like mine – Sniper One, Bravo Two Zero, Junior Officers’ Reading Club etc. – can be good recruiting tools.

It might be going too far to say journalists are noble people, but I have come away with a sense that as individuals they are interested in telling the truth. Of course the demands of big business and unscrupulous management means a mere reporter’s integrity is always under threat. And clearly, as within any profession, there are inherently bad apples. But I have time for journalists. Theirs can be a dirty job but someone has to do it. Just like soldiering.