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.
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.
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