Saturday, February 27, 2010

WO2 Greg Reece RA – Military Stabilisation and Support Team - Op Moshtarak

“It will be a success if it is a total anti-climax.”

That was what we were told. In reality we planned for a big fight, platoon size, out of area fighters willing to stand their ground. All roads IED’d. Possibly IED’d helicopter landing sites.

First light on a cold morning on the outskirts of Naquilabad Kalay and the insertion had gone better than expected. No IEDs, no firing, a slightly longer walk than expected (thanks RAF!) and we were looking down the main street of the town ..... from a safe distance.

“Suppose we better go and meet the locals”, a small group of curious local Nationals were stood at the edge of town wondering what all the fuss was about.

After talking with them for a very short time we realised these weren’t the ‘out of area’ fighters we were expecting and they invited us to walk with them down high street. They really wanted to show off their town. The commander agreed and Neil (our intelligence officer) and I were leading the patrol, carried on a wave of people that slowly grew until we reached the town centre.

We were invited to hold an impromptu Shurah, for 300 locals! I remember looking at my watch. It was 1000hrs on D Day. “I’m sure we’re not supposed to be here doing this until D+10, maybe later, what are we going to do with the next 9 days?”
“Total anti-climax!”

If you were looking for a fight it most definitely was an anti climax. If, like me, you were supposed to stabilise and support the local community it was the exact opposite.

What we found in Naquilabad Kalay was a thriving (if not scared) community. Well kept trees lined the main street with hand pump wells every 20 metres. Good irrigation, healthy people, healthy animals. In fact quite an affluent society, happy to see ISAF, just needing a bit of security ‘Thank you very much!’
So, job done; everyone happy, hand your bedding in, we can all go home! Don’t know what all the fuss is about!

The truth is however, what do I do now? My job is not to rebuild lives, homes and jobs. That’s done. “A little bit of security, thank you very much!”

Maybe they could do with a leisure centre!!!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Major Mike Taylor, D Squadron 1 RTR: Manoeuvre Support Group

Viking Armoured Personnel Carrier

We are back in from the first phase of Op Moshtarak and it is great to be back in camp with hot showers and fresh food.

The last few weeks have been a real experience working as part of the Manoeuvre Support Group; a combination of Viking Armoured Personnel Carriers and the heavy engineering vehicles of 28 Engineer Regiment whose job was to clear a major route into the strategic town of Showal, a settlement with a reputation for being a drug trading haven as well as the ‘seat’ of government for the Taliban.

During the pre operational training we really bonded together well. Our role was to provide the firpower and protect the slow moving column of vehicles. So we had to practise our drills together to allow the Engineers to do their job: using new equipment to plough through or explode IED belts, build bridges, fix roads, etc.

I’m a tankie by training. I’ve got D Squadron of the Royal Tank Regiment out here. We miss our Challenger tanks, but the guys love the Viking Armoured Personal Carriers and they actually enjoy being out on the ground.

On D Day (Sat 13 Feb), several hours after the helicopter assault went in, we trundled out from Camp Bastion with my Vanguard Force in front. They are a very strong, cohesive troop commanded by Lieutenant Anthony Kaulbeck who had to guide us safely around or through the areas laid with IEDs. He recced along less obvious routes to avoid classic ambush points, searching for signs of unusual human activity on the ground. I have to say that Ant has a particular talent for this. Of the 35 IEDs that the Viking Group has discovered, he has been responsible for at least half of them. Life saving stuff really.

Our most rewarding moment of the long route clearance came on Day 2 when we were observing arcs around the leaguer (that’s the place where our 44-vehicle convoy was located, Viking APCs around the outside to provide a ‘metal fort,’ with Engineering vehicles in the middle), when one of the guys on sentry, Sgt Andy Ford, picked up abnormal behaviour in a field 200 metres away.

It was three young men and an elder. What was odd was that the men were acting aggressively towards the elder, pointing and remonstrating, which is a disrespectful way to carry on in a culture that respects age. The elder went back to his compound and soon a people carrier appeared. There was a lot of activity; the women and children were bundled into the vehicle. Meanwhile the men in the field were pretending to work, bending down and sowing seeds but all the time looking up at the leaguer location.

We suspected that the men were insurgents, and their likely plan was to take over nearby family compound to use as firing position that night.

I immediately broke out a Viking Quick Reaction Force (QRF) and headed to the compound. We managed to get there and stop the family leaving. And although they said that there were no insurgents around their fear was palpable. They wanted to get out.

We talked calmly to them and searched the compound. In the meantime the three young men had run away. The local people relaxed slightly. We reassured them that ISAF and Afghan forces were moving into the area to stay. In the end we got a decent night’s sleep without the small arms attack which had been brewing. Prevention was better than a firefight in this situation.

The locals do seem to want us here, but understandably are worried about the transition period when the Taliban still have influence. I have never spoken to a local who, in private, has a good word to say about the Taliban and the influence they hold in society. Maybe they are saying it because they are talking to ISAF, but I sense that people are starting to realise we are not necessarily the bad guys in all this.

Flank Protection for the Manouevre Support Group

Over the next few days we continued to provide protection as the Royal Engineers used Trojan to plough a new main route, and Python was deployed and detonated to clear a particularly difficult point with multiple IEDs on the ground. A couple of bridges were laid to improve the route access until, finally, we drove into the town of Showal and linked up with A Company 1 Royal Welsh. They had spent the week securing the town following their helicopter insertion and were very glad to see us because the route we had just cleared was soon to be used by the logistic guys bringing in fresh food, water, equipment and vital materials to build a proper patrol base.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Maj Tim Harris, Officer Commanding A Coy 3 RIFLES

Reflections on Op Ghartse Ghadmahe, Sangin, Northern Helmand

As I look out across the Sangin Green Zone from Forward Operating Base Nolay, I see green shoots. Perhaps it is too soon to describe them as the ‘green shoots of recovery’ but the seasons are changing and the wheat and poppy crops are beginning to appear; they represent a sign of hope. Most of the fields near me are wheat: the Afghan government’s wheatseed distribution last October was widely seized upon, although hopes of any altruism behind the local farmers’ choice of crop are wide of the mark.

They grow wheat because it is profitable, nothing more. The fields are busy – farming here is labour intensive and involves these hardy people stooping for hour after hour, nursing their precious crops by hand. This makes it doubly difficult for a soldier to identify who is a farmer and who might be laying an improvised explosive device. If we are not sure, we will observe them and make a note of the area so that we might treat it with caution when we next patrol there. But my men now have a good idea of what constitutes ‘farming’ and what is more nefarious. The Afghan soldiers we work with are even more culturally tuned in; together we form a strong team which is the essence of embedded partnering.

There have been dark days, days when our luck has deserted us, but I am confident that there have been more days when the enemy must have felt that fate was conspiring against them. We have given him a bloody nose on more than one occasion, and more importantly he is no longer able to patrol the agricultural ‘green zone’ to our west with impunity, weapons on show to scare the locals. They are still around and among us, and are still hell bent on intimidating the people and stopping us from achieving our goals, but the Rifleman is a resolute beast, and does not scare easily.

It is very easy after we take a casualty to find yourself asking “are we doing the right thing?” The answer, most definitely, is ‘Yes’. Progress can be hard to measure in counter insurgency: the metrics are often difficult to define. In ‘conventional’ warfighting, we can measure success by yards gained, relative body counts and key enemy equipments destroyed. It is easy to demonstrate progress.

However, in a counter insurgency battle where the people are the prize, how do you measure victories, when a victory may simply be a local who decides in his own mind to stop hosting out of area fighters? It is difficult to show graphically how Sangin ‘feels’ better over time. It is sometimes worth going back into old reports and comparing them with today’s circumstances; in doing so I have realised that areas in the summer that would only have been visited at Company strength are now patrolled by Platoons, or even sections. As a barometer of success this is encouraging. But the question we now have to answer is: can the progress that has been made during the winter be maintained over the summer?

Talk of a ‘fighting season’ misses the point. The insurgency is locally based with support from outside (whether foreign countries or other areas of Afghanistan). Contrary to popular myth, most of the insurgents we fight do not pack up and go home for the winter period. They are locals, who fight for a wide variety of reasons: vengeance for the death of a family member, money, status, coercion or in some instances for fun.

The summer brings with it the complexity of the maize crop, which will replace the wheat and poppy that I now see growing. The maize provides, well, a maze for the insurgents to move about in. Up to ten feet high, it is a serious issue. If the gains that have been made over the winter are to be held throughout the summer by our successors, the Royal Marines, we must provide a solution now, perhaps dwarf varieties of maize, that will give the locals a profitable crop that can feed their families and make some money, but do not obscure fields of view.

The seasons change, time marches on and the wheat serves as a daily reminder that the maize is coming too. If we get this right, we can really begin to ‘take the fun out of fighting’ for the insurgents, and make further steady demonstrable progress, however glacially slow that progress may sometimes appear.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sgt Colin Pentith RLC - Fire Support Company 1 Royal Welsh

Sgt Pentith greets a local elder

We had been on the ground for 3 days and, so far, everything was going very smoothly. The boys were into a good routine and the locals had started to actively engage with us throughout the area. The challenge for me now was to lead a Shurah at a check point established by the Afghan Army and Fire Support Company, 1 R Welsh East of Garbay Noray.

This was to be my first Shurah. A far cry from my usual job as a Royal Logistics Corps Chef! The transition from hotplate to hot stabilization really began last year when I got selected to work with 1 Royal Welsh as part of it’s non-combat role in what we call ‘influence’. Effectively it is working with other non military organizations and the locals to make progress through communication, information and initiating local projects.

The elders I met treated me with respect and what struck me from the meeting we held was that the concerns of the locals are just what you would expect anywhere. They are concerned about security first and then basic welfare – schools, hospitals, power and so on. It is up to us to reassure them that we and the Afghan National Security Services will deliver that. This was also the start of our process of getting to know who is who in the local area so that we can identify the key leaders that will make things happen.

Afterwards, as part of the stabilisation process, we distributed blankets and radios together with footballs and pens for the children. They genuinely seemed happy and there were lots of smiling faces so I think it went well. It made me feel good that, having come into their area as ‘foreign’ soldier, I could make a small but positive difference straight away.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Major Richard Gregory - Fire Support Company 1 Royal Welsh

Op Moshtarak Day 5 - Taliban Flag hauled Down

The Company and our Afghan Army partners have now firmly established a Patrol Base, east of Garbay Noray in Nadi Ali, Helmand Province.

The Patrol Base cooking area

For the first couple of days we focused on base security and defensive positions. This involved clearing all the compound areas and surrounding routes for IEDs, filling and placing sandbags for firing points and setting up a home from home in the base. A cooking area, washing area, toilet and even an improvised gym where all quickly created to make life bearable.

Toilet in Use!

By the second day we had started to build positive relationships with the elders and families in the area, holding local shuras to discuss their needs and concerns. Meanwhile our Afghan partners proudly raised the Afghanistan flag to fly above the Camp.

However out on the ground the Front Line was still clearly marked. For four days a plain white Taliban flag has flown just 300 metres away from the Patrol Base, an area where only a few of the locals are willing to go. In much of the area the threat of IEDs remained high.

As the Counter IED Team came in and cleared a route through the area the next phase of Operation Moshtarak, the ‘hold’, is beginning to take effect. The daily Shurahs held by myself are bringing the locals on side. And the regular joint patrols, led by the Afghan Army are showing that security is being brought back to the area.

Today, the fifth day of Op Moshtarak, Afghan soldiers moved in unopposed and took down the Taliban flag, removing the remaining symbol of insurgent control in the area. Another symbol of success on this operation and out on the Front Line another small victory for ISAF and the Afghan National Army.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Padre Mark Christian - Thought for the Day

Camp Bastion Memorial to all those who have fallen in Helmand Province

Thought For The Day by Padre Mark Christian, Task Force Helmand Senior Chaplain
Radio 4, Today Programme Thursday 18 Feb 2010

Last night here in Lashkar Gah, in the tent that is our church, we had a simple Holy Communion service, drawing crosses of ash on our foreheads and saying the traditional words from the Ash Wednesday service which marks the beginning of Lent ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’.

I am not sure if you could say there's ever a good time to come out on military operations, but the season of Lent reflects the atmosphere here better than any other church season. The men and women serving here live a very simple and basic existence.

All the distractions and many of the comforts of home are missing. Everybody works relentlessly, but in the times you do have to yourself, living this life helps you focus on what is important - family and loved ones at home of course, but also the people around you, who serve with you, and upon whom you depend – sometimes to keep you alive.

At the heart of the Lent theme is sacrifice. A quality that's paramount to any soldier, but especially at a time like this, during a major operation. The concept of sacrifice is so important to the army that it appears as ‘selfless commitment’ in our six core values.

Every day, soldiers in Helmand put themselves in harms way for the sake of the security of our nation and to bring peace to Afghanistan:

The young rifleman who knows that he will be attacked almost every time he leaves his patrol base.

Every soldier, who in the face of the enemy understands that he is expected to show 'courageous restraint' – not to open fire if there is any chance of civilians being killed, even if this puts him in greater danger.

The courage, the fear, the sacrifice, the loss of friends and the hard won successes, amongst other things, make a tour of duty in Afghanistan an emotionally intensive 6 months. It changes everyone who serves here – not necessarily in the negative ways that you'll hear on the news or read in the papers, but it deepens our understanding of life because everyday in one way or another we reflect on, and are challenged by, issues of morality, mortality, faith and human relationships.

On my recent leave I visited some patients at Selly Oak hospital. I was talking to one recently injured soldier for over an hour. He was talking about his friends – the ones who had died and the ones he had fought with. About how scared he was, but how he knew he had to go on.

At the end of the conversation I noticed that he was holding one of the brigade dog tags that his chaplain had given him. He read from the verse of scripture that is on the back of the tag from Joshua chapter 1 verse 9 – ‘I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified or discouraged; for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go’. He looked at me and said “do you think I have been strong and courageous padre?

I think you can guess how I answered him.

Captain Anna Crossley QARANC. Inkerman Company, Grenadier Guards

Sharzad, Central Helmand, is a long way from the green hills of the Brecon Beacons but here I am, the first female Nursing Officer the Grenadiers have ever had! It’s taken them a bit of time to get used to the idea, but the lads will pop in to see me to discuss any problems they have or just have a chat. I hope this shows that they have accepted me as part of the team.

I'd already spent three months working in Bastion, so I've come across pretty much every type of injury you can imagine, which is extremely useful preparation for this job out at the Patrol Base where every injury, no matter how serious, will be initially dealt with by me and my team.

The soldiers here have been busy for the last few weeks. Before Op Moshtarak kicked off last weekend they were carrying out what we call ‘shaping’ operations – basically setting up and reinforcing checkpoints in the area to deny the insurgents freedom of movement. And this week they have been full tilt on Op Moshtarak going beyond the original frontline into Taliban held territory.

Back at base the majority of the work I do is primary care: treating minor ailments and making sure the troops are combat effective, that is to say, they are not prevented from doing their job by illnesses and ailments. But we are always at a high state of readiness to deal with more serious injuries.

We maintain constant contact with the Operations Room so that we are prepared to receive the patients when they arrive, but if I hear a loud bang I will always pop next door to see if we are going to be needed.

I have a team of combat medics who are on the ground and work as part of the patrolling teams. They are first on the scene and play a vital role in delivering first aid in the crucial first few minutes when something happens.

Sharzad was the original American HQ for the team that led the irrigation scheme in the 1950s. It was this scheme that created the fertile ‘Green Zone’ that runs down the Helmand River valley today. So the building we operate from is a solid 1950s brick and stone build, with all the original plans, drawings and records still here.

The facility we run is unique within the UK context. It is effectively a mini Accident and Emergency Department and we carry an extensive range of specialist kit to be able to treat people in this location. We also stabilise any more serious casualties for forward transit to Camp Bastion, and the full working hospital that is located there.
Life is busy, but the job satisfaction when we save a life out here is immeasurable.

Patrol Base Sharzad, Grenadier Guards

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Sgt Jason Thrasher 32 Regiment Royal Artillery – UAV Image Analyst

It is day 4 of Operation Moshtarak and I am watching a bank of large screens in front of me. The black and white images are crystal clear, showing me a bird’s eye view of the mighty Python moving into position on one screen, and a foot patrol of Afghan troops and Royal Welsh soldiers on patrol in a different location on another screen.

The Python is about to clear an area of suspected IEDs along the new route being created into Nad e Ali heading towards the key town of Showal. This is the first time that it is being used in Afghanistan and a small audience has gathered behind me to see what happens.

In another cabin next to the operations room the ‘pilot’ of the un-manned Hermes 450 is flying the aircraft directly over the Manoeuvre Support Group, 28 Regiment Royal Engineers. He looks like he is playing on a grown up version of a play station as he deftly guides the UAV over the tactical position on the ground.

We are in constant communication with each other because as I watch the images I can talk him through adjusting the flight path so that I can scan the whole area. My job is to make absolutely sure that there are no local Afghans, military personnel or rural compounds in the blast area. It is going to make one hell of a bang when it goes off!

Image Analysis can be a nervous business! If you make a wrong call lives could be lost. So you have to ‘Confirm in your head …confirm in your head….confirm in your head’ before you make any decision.

I confirm that the area is clear for firing.

The message is relayed to the troops on the ground, and as I watch from Camp Bastion Python lets rip! I can’t hear the sound but the black and white image in front of me explodes in an impressive cloud of dust.

Job done. Back to providing overwatch of the Combined Force 31 foot patrol as it carefully makes its way through another area of Nad e Ali. Our task to hold a secure area in Central Helmand continues with everyone working hard to keep the Taliban out and bring the civilian stabilisation teams in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Royal Military Policewoman LCpl Christy-Lee Ray, attached to Fire Support Company, 1 R Welsh

The last week has been a real experience for me. I have been in the Army for three years now and, in addition to my RMP training, I did a whole year of special training for this tour. Just recently returned from my home leave (R&R), I landed back at Camp Bastion expecting to return to my job with The Rifles. However I discovered that I was being attached to Fire Support Company, 1 Royal Welsh for Op Moshtarak.

I was genuinely excited to be part of such a massive operation, yet loading onto the helicopter in the dark and the dust on the first night I was also a bit nervous. But really you just get on with it. The entry into our objective was tough – we were cold, wet and muddy. Also we all had to carry extra equipment as well as our normal kit. I am only 5’3” and so the weight is tough for me. The first 24 hours out here I found it quite hard, but I have got a used to it now.

Currently I am one of only two females in the Patrol Base. The other girl has to go back to Bastion shortly so then it will be just me. However I just muck in with it all and the lads can see that I do my job just the same as them so there is no difference between us. I do everything that they do but I am also a team medic so when we go out on patrol they will look to me if things go wrong. Working in this environment with the local people I am also a valuable asset as a female searcher.

I won’t go into the full details, but I have already started my main role which is to collect information on the local villagers and movements in the area. I then feed this information back to my boss so it can be used to build a bigger picture of conditions on the ground. It all helps in our efforts to provide a safer environment for everyone in our area of responsibility.

So far it all seems to be is going really well on and the locals have been friendly, helpful and seem to be on side. It is a bit strange really for life to be this quiet, but hopefully it will remain that way and I can just keep on with my job.

It is amazing how the Patrol Base has changed in the short time we have been here. From a bare compound when we took it on D Day, there is now a wash area, a cook area and even a makeshift gym. Most importantly the solar showers arrived by helicopter re-supply and I did enjoy having my first shower for several days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mortar Section Commander Cpl Stephen Hall - Fire Support Company 1 Royal Welsh

D Day - Op Moshtarak

AS we moved off the helicopter we were expecting the terrain to be boggy, but no-where near as bad as it was. As soon as we were off the helicopter we were up to our knees in mud. With all the weight we were carrying and the mud it was really hard going. As well as our standard kit and the mortar equipment I also had the radio so the total weight I was carrying was huge.

Once we were on the ground I had to immediately get the light motor set up in case we were contacted or the entry into our objective needed motor fire. I was soaking wet, very cold and covered in mud, but just kept on going to make sure everything was set up straight away and ready to go.

For my mortar section the worst bit was waiting for the initial assault section to go into the Compound. We were hoping for a “Green Knock” – when the lads go in without a shot fired – but we were sitting there in the dark, freezing and soaked to the skin, waiting for it to “Go Red” at any time. That is the nerve racking time for the boys.

As dawn started to break and we still weren’t in, this was the time I started to get really wary. The initial section and the Afghan soliers still hadn’t got into the compound and we were all out in the open and really exposed if the insurgents opened fire.

Luckily we weren’t contacted and we got in safely. Once into our objective the boys worked really hard to get everything set up in quick time. They were dog tired and operating on their reserves by this time, but they did well.

We have now established a secure Patrol Base and are getting on with our task of providing mortar fire support to the troops when they need it.

So far I think Operation Moshtarak seems to have gone pretty well for us and it does seem to be working, but we are just cracking on with our job now.”

Sergeant Alan Winchester – Air Traffic Control Camp Bastion

A ‘crow’s nest’ view of D Day – Operation Moshtarak

The helicopter flight line had been a hive of activity for days with troops practicing their loading drills and engineers carrying out last minute serviceability checks on the airframes. The pilots; British, Canadian and American, all attended detailed briefs. This was vital considering the scale and complexity of the task.

When I attended the initial briefing for the operation it looked as though there some potential ‘pinch points’ within the timescale envisaged. We needed to be switched on in the tower if anything unplanned happened to the Air Traffic plan because we were dealing with so many different aircraft types – Chinook, Merlin, Apache, Lynx, Canadian Griffin, Blackhawk and Sea King.

D-1: My night started off as normal at 1900 hours and without incident, setting the scene for the embarkation phase of the operation. As the sun set in Camp Bastion, my view from the tower showed row after row of helicopters on the tarmac primed and ready to go. At 0330 hours the Joint Helicopter Force Lines started to gear up in darkness.
D Day at last!

Below me muted lights on the runway and blinking lights from the helicopters created a weird pattern as the dust kicked up from the ground created a hazy effect.

At the sound of over thirty rotors running I could feel the rush of excitement kick in. Finally, I was able to feel directly linked to the frontline and I knew that I would be supporting, as closely as I could, the troops on the ground.

However, when the first aircraft launched calm descended and despite a few unexpected moves all traffic departed on time and landed safely to ensure that troops reached the drop off zones at the correct time. Wave after wave were talked out and back in to Bastion as hundreds of troops and then their additional kit were ferried out into Nad e Ali.

I felt a distinct pride when the op launch was complete at 0600 hours and learnt that every aspect had gone to plan and had been a complete success. I left work at 0700 hours exhausted but content.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Major Richard Gregory, Officer Commanding Fire Support Company, 1 Royal Welsh

Maj Richard Gregory attends a local Shura with village elders

I have never felt the burden of responsibility the way I did when we came in on this Operation. Not in Northern Ireland nor in Iraq. Things went smoothly at Camp Bastion getting the guys loaded up and onto the helicopters. It was very tense flying into the landing zones but we were pleased to get out on the ground with very little drama.

Heavy mud in the fields made the going tough but when we had made it safely in to our compound after being up to our knees in the mud in the dark I thought - we have got it right. The Patrol Base is now established, however the hard work is still to be done. We now have to prove ourselves to the local population and show them that we can provide them with the security they need.

The next phase of Operation Moshtarak has already begun with meetings with the locals set up and patrols sent out to re-assure the surrounding population of the security provided by the ISAF presence.

A Shurah (local meeting) was held in the Patrol Base and a number of local elders attended. I feel very confident that things are going well so far, both with my guys, the Afghan soldiers we are working with and the locals.

Following the Shurah the Afghan soldiers led out a joint patrol of Afghan (ANA) and 1 Royal Welsh troops into the surrounding area and the ANA Platoon Commander discussed the security situation with the locals.

I was really pleased with the way that Patrol went. The ANA Platoon Commander is taking the lead. We still have to prove ourselves to the locals but we have now started that work. To say I am relieved about how things have gone so far would be an understatement. And I am bursting with pride when I see my soldiers here getting on with things that will have a really positive impact for the future of this area.

Cpl Lucy Marrow Combat Medical Technician

I normally train US soldiers in battlefield first aid but we’ve been building up for Op Moshtarak for a few days now, thoroughly checking our medical kits and the equipment in the vehicle. I’ve been training the Gurkha soldiers from the Logistics Regiment here in Camp Bastion as they load up all the supplies ready for the next phase of the operation. Now all the excitement of the helicopter drops is over it is up to these guys on the ground to keep the momentum going.

It has given me the chance to work in A&E at the Camp Bastion hospital, working on casualties and practicing my clinical skills. We don’t normally do this but my Squadron took the opportunity to filter us through the hospital to gain additional experience.

I’ve been out on several Combat Logistic Patrols, working from a Mastiff ambulance that can carry one stretcher casualty. It’s the same as any other Mastiff out here, but inside it is fitted out like a Battlefield Ambulance – so it can carry oxygen and has places for all our medical equipment. I used to be apprehensive when I went out but the Mastiff is a tough vehicle and I have already survived one IED strike where the Mastiff was slightly damaged but my team walked away without a scratch!

The Gurkhas are great guys. Being a girl they really look after me – if I need the toilet they will clear a path out to some cover for me so I can have some privacy. Other than that I’m treated pretty much like the lads.

Everyone is ready to go out there and support what the Royal Welsh and Afghan soldiers have achieved so far. Word is that the first two days have been easier than expected but they will need more rations and other vital supplies to keep going so we have been given notice to be ready to move any time from now.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Flight Lieutenant Chris 'Haz' Hasley , Joint Helicopter Force, Camp Bastion

Flight Lieutenant 'Haz' Hasley in the cockpit of his Chinook

After an in depth planning and briefing process my crew and I walked to our Chinook for the morning assault. We had known about Op MOSHTARAK since our arrival in theatre back in December and as we loaded our troops and engaged the rotors, we were acutely aware of the complexity of the operation we were about to execute.”

With 8 minutes to go to launch I noticed a splattering of oil accumulating on the windscreen. We consulted our ground crew who advised us shut down the aircraft so that they could climb on top for a closer look. After a short interval, which seemed like a lifetime, they told us that there was a leak from one of our rotor blade nods but that the Chinook was safe to fly. With that information we set about restarting the cab as quickly as possible; a process that normally takes 15 minutes. We were airbourne and in formation in less than 5 minutes, overall a minute later than planned.

We struck out at low level under the moonless night towards our objective which was the insurgent held town of Showal. En route to target the ambient light levels were so poor that even our NVGs struggled to provide much more than a dark green nothingness.

On short finals to the target, the formation of Chinooks tightened spacing and pitched noses up hard to decelerate quickly. The back wheels dug into the soft ground of the muddy field and we disgorged our complement of Royal Welsh and ANA troops. Seconds later we were wheels up and racing back to Bastion airfield to pick up our next chalk of soldiers.

In just over 2 hours our packet of 4 RAF Chinooks had delivered approximately 650 soldiers to the heart of the insurgency. An insurgency who after being forewarned of our attack wisely kept their heads down or fled the scene.

At 0610 we stopped the rotors and after a quick debrief headed for bed. We wouldn’t get much sleep as we were taking over the Immediate Response Team helicopter later that day.”

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Lieutenant Colonel Rosie Stone at Camp Bastion

Pictures by Staff Sergeant Will Craig

Lights from my vehicle briefly lit up a line of tense faces as I passed column after column of British and Afghan soldiers interspersed with French and Estonians en route to the helicopter flight line at Camp Bastion. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and finally, after weeks of training and preparation Op Moshtarak was officially underway.

The heavy sound of dozens of rotor blades turning filled the air, and dust kicked up by all the activity hit the back of my throat as I stepped out onto one of the forming up points.

My team’s job was to ensure that all the embedded journalists who will be covering the operation from the frontline were delivered to the right helicopter on time. It marked the end of the busiest 48 hours the Media Operations Centre has experienced since the start of 11 Light Brigade’s tour in Helmand Province.

As with the Battle Group soldiers and aircrew gathered throughout Bastion we had experienced laughter, nerves and a sense of camaraderie with our media guests, but now everyone was firmly focused on the job ahead.

Large groups of men moved into their pre allotted holding areas. Some carried ladders over their shoulders, ready to be used for climbing over the walls into village compounds. Others were burdened with the powerful general purpose machine gun and heavy belts of ammunition. Corporal Lino Woolfe from the Royal Army Veterinary Corps quietly knelt beside his specialist search dog, patiently waiting to be loaded onto his assigned Merlin helicopter.

It was a scene that I have never experienced before in the twenty two years that I have served in the military and will likely never experience again. The mix of tension and anticipation was tangible from the Battle Group.

At the designated time loadmasters signaled for the groups to move, and in a well practiced drill hundreds of troops shouldered their kit and marched in single lines up the helicopter ramps and disappeared from view.

I then moved round to the end of the runway and witnessed an historic sight as wave after wave of helicopters rose up from the dust and the darkness, heading North East towards Nad e Ali.

My enduring memory will be looking up into the sky as the lines of helicopters gradually faded into the distance looking like a string of pale amber fairy lights.