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

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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

AFTER THE HEAT OF BATTLE, THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY

‘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.