Monday, July 20, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 17

On the 27th June the Nation has chosen to honour its Armed Forces with a day of there own, a move that is very welcome to those service personnel serving throughout the world including your soldiers here in Afghanistan.

Often I ask myself what it is that defines us as soldiers and what is it that marks us from the general public. For myself I grew up around soldiers and the military way of life and as such perhaps some of the mystique of service life is lost to me. That said now that I am serving here in a more logistic capacity I can see why people admire the actions of our troops, as I hear the recollections of fellow soldiers as they come back from the “sharp end”. Of course not everyone could or should be deployed forward and everyone out here fulfils a vital role, some of the people here will never receive the front page headlines but will never the less save lives in their quiet dedication to duty and these people are no less worthy of our admiration.

We certainly live in times where mistrust, fear and difficulty are part of every day life and I believe in these times people look for examples of the opposites of these problems so that they can lift themselves above the darkness. There are many examples of this from everyday life and service personnel are just one. It does us good to recognise the sacrifice and dedication of others no matter what they do, as it serves as a catalyst for us all to be better even in very small ways.

In a previous blog I mentioned Captain Brigham and Sergeant Mark Giles as they dealt with a large explosive device. In this weeks blog I would like to relate an incident they have recently been in as an example of the extraordinary courage and professionalism, with which your troops conduct themselves daily.

As no British soldiers were badly injured and thank God none were killed you would never normally hear of these events. I believe that this is a shame as the example set by these fighting men serve as a lasting record of all that we value in the Army. Courage under fire and leadership in adverse conditions cannot be taught and therefore the display of such qualities are worthy of recognition.

They OMLT team commanded by Captain Brigham and Sergeant Giles have recently moved to a location known simply as Patrol base (PB) south. The PB is situated in an area long dominated by insurgents, drug lords and bandits and is also key, as it dominates one of the main supply routes all of these groups use to move arms, munitions and other contraband. The PB itself is very basic providing little respite from the daily attentions of a determined insurgent force that is continually frustrated by the ISAF, ANA presence.

To cover every contact with the insurgents would take too long as this area has experienced more than 24 full engagements in just 21 days! Due to the situation they find themselves in, sitting and waiting for attacks is a fruitless endeavour so they must push out, or more accurately fight their way out of the Fob to continue to dominate the local key terrain. The proximity to their adversaries reminds me of a visit on a battle field tour to the fields of Belgium where at one point the front lines were so close that they could even hear the enemy talking and could quite easily see them as they tried to kill each other.

On the day in question Captain Brigham gave orders that the British troops and their ANA counterparts were to push out and patrol the area as a show of force and to reassure any locals that the insurgency are not the masters of this area.

Very soon after leaving the Fob the patrol was forced to cross open ground which is the reality of dominating key terrain. To say this in such a matter of fact way is to do these men an injustice, moving across ground known to be covered by insurgents with an array of weaponry is an act of courage in itself.

In the movies the soldiers saunter across the skyline, whistling and talk about home, reality is much more serious as men laden with equipment must mentally contend with the fact that any time they may be engaged from any direction, by insurgents who will fire from defended compounds that are difficult to identify and even more difficult to capture.

Not far in to the Patrol and the inevitable happens, the staccato ring and zip of small arms fire announces the insurgents intent to initiate the next round of hostilities. In an area so devoid of cover, each man does his best to make himself as small a target as possible and will seek even the smallest of covered areas to gain respite from attack. Captain Brigham and several soldiers manage to find a very small ridge and take the smallest of advantage from it, at this time little return fire is being made, as the patrol mindful of local innocent civilians will not fire until they can positively identify the insurgent position. This is in direct contrast to the insurgents who will initiate contact knowing civilians may be caught in the crossfire.

Very quickly basic skills and instincts take over and those lessons in why things are seen on the battlefield? Pay dividends. The insurgents are using a corner of a compound as a firing point and from there they are pouring a fair rate of fire into the open ground. Now that the insurgents are fixed, Captain Brigham urges his troops and the ANA present to return fire as this will be vital to any attempt to extract from what is known as the “killing area”.

Just minutes in to the engagement an ANA soldier just inches from Captain Brigham is shot, despite the danger of exposing himself to the accurate fire Captain Brigham attempts to save the mans life but unfortunately he dies right there on the ground. The Platoon Sergeant through all of this has been encouraging and marshalling his men, giving them the guidance and confidence that can only be gained from a leader who has the absolute trust of his men. Leadership in these situations is no longer an abstract concept; it is a combination of guts, training and a great belief in ones personal skills.

To assist in the extraction of the ANA soldier and in an attempt to break clear of the insurgent fire a B1 bomber is tasked to drop munitions on the compound used by the insurgents. Again every precaution is used to ensure that the use of such force is proportionate and necessary, however it is clear to Captain Brigham that more fatalities will result from inaction. The B1 drops a bomb on the compound which in itself is something to behold and makes the earth shake for miles around.

After a brief lull the insurgents begin to resume the engagement and are therefore subjected to a further attack from the bomber, this time it has the desired effect and the call sign begins to extract, this with heavy equipment and casualties is difficult and slow, but done methodically with the correct drills will save lives.

Not long into the extraction and disaster strikes again as an ANA soldier initiates an explosive device and is instantly killed. The bond between these soldiers and their mentors of the Mercian Regiment is such that the idea of leaving them on the battlefield despite the inherent danger is not even considered an option. Sergeant Giles once again takes the initiative and while his boss conducts the move out of contact, he conducts the removal of the fallen ANA soldiers. This is despite the fact that he was just meters from the explosion when it happened and was thrown a large distance only to be stopped by a wall.

The patrol eventually extracted and by virtue of their determination and grit, was able to get everyone out of the contact area. The sad loss of the two ANA soldiers was a blow to all but the insurgents were known to have been dealt a harsher blow that day.

What I have portrayed in this blog may sound like the script to a Hollywood movie, but it is a factual rendering of true events. This situation is not isolated and will happen many times to those who live, and are on the front line of the battle to secure a meaningful peace for the Afghan people.

As with most things in life that have true meaning, there is a cost, but when weighed against the eventual prize it is a cost worth paying. Freedom and all that it comes with is never free, but must be levied against the price of those who paid for it. Your soldiers in Afghanistan, once again in your name have epitomised the motto of the Mercian Regiment as they continue to


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