Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hard, sad, emotional and expensive times in Afghanistan

Lance Corporal James Atkin of 21 Engineer Regiment (21 ER) steps up to compile his Troop blog.

First of all I would like to thank the good men of 3 Troop for volunteering me to write this blog! I had never even heard of a blog until today. Bear with me and I will try to keep this interesting. Can I also just say what every soldier wants to say in things like this: ‘HI MUM!’

Now let’s get started. I am a Lance Corporal in the Royal Engineers serving out in Afghanistan. I used to be a Plant Operator Mechanic but upon my posting to Ripon last year, like everyone else in the squadron, our jobs soon changed drastically. A vigorous training program commenced about a year prior to our deployment. Although fun at first, the lads were soon bored with training and couldn’t wait to get out here and put their newly acquired skills into action on a real playing field. My job for this tour of duty was to be a Searcher. I was duly trained and my new skills were honed and confirmed on a six week exercise overseas in November.

Now my whole life revolves around searching, constantly training, keeping my eye on the ball. I have been out on the ground only once thus far but there are plenty more missions planned to keep things exciting for us. Searchers work in small teams, like a close family unit. We know everything about our team mates and I mean everything! So it’s fun being a part of this. Within 3 Troop there are lots of shiny new bits of kit such as huge vehicles, weapons and brand spanking new gadgets to help out the searchers. It is a tough job with all this heat and carrying the necessary weight, but there is a great sense of job satisfaction, I love it.

I am due some rest and relaxation for a couple of weeks in the not too distant future. I’ve planned to fly to Canada and surprise my wife Ariel in the rocky mountains. Now, don’t tell her, okay?

Things out here on Operation HERRICK 12 have worked out alright for my Squadron so far. There is a lot of training for missions, and now that we have settled in and everyone has fallen into line the bosses are starting to give us some slack. There have been hard, sad, emotional and expensive times. Most recently there were two strong characters from the Regiment taken away from us, so the whole Regiment was stood to attention at the military repatriation service the other night saying their goodbyes.

On a lighter note, there has been a lot of mail posted out to the men in 3 Troop. If you were not aware, ten letters or five parcels in a single day is a ‘crate-able’ offence. Which means you have to buy all the others guys a drink. So there are always fizzy drinks being dished out by my team commander Corporal ’Pogo’ McKernan as well as some of the other guys. If you never hear from me again it’s because I was sacked from writing a blog. If not, I will start writing more about what I am doing out here, how the men of 3 Troop are holding up and how the tour is going. If there is anything that you would like to know don’t hesitate to ask. Until next time, take care.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sargeant Stewart McCrone, Quick Reaction Force Commander, 16 Signals Unit at Camp Souter, Kabul.

The QRF was tasked to undertake an exploitation patrol in urban Kabul, close to the airport. The terrain may be different from Helmand but the risks are just as great….

It’s hot at 2pm with the temperature constantly rising, and the patrol, a recce for new routes for emergency vehicles, always turns into something else. As well as dominating the ground there’s always scope for snap Vehicle Check Points and always at the back of your mind amongst the complex compounds is the hearts and minds of the locals.

The patrol started well, though lumbered with the General Purpose Machine Gun and excess support equipment for patrol, the next few hours were going to be tiresome. As we entered the compounds we were bombarded by children – a good atmospheric sign that nothing had been pre-planned from insurgents on our route, though nothing is ever certain.

Maintaining our relationship with the locals can be a challenge at times and this was no different. With the mission in hand, the locals can be overwhelming and large crowds were on us in minutes.

Allowing search dogs to complete their tasks can be tricky as most Afghans do not like dogs, especially in the vehicles. However, with sound control and good interpreter things often run smoothly.

The patrol lasted a couple of hours and water was the first thing in mind. It’s quite difficult to win the hearts and minds and hold good relations when the local populus needs water and all they see is soldiers with it; so to that end we limit the time that we take on water and keep it well out of sight from the locals, so not to cause further disruption to the task.

Patrol all in, water on board, just waiting for the next set of orders………

Picture credit: Squadron Leader Dee Taylor

Monday, April 26, 2010

Training the Afghan National Army in basic medical drills

Lance Corporal John Zoumides on patrol in Sangin's "Green Zone"

Lance Corporal John Zoumides, a medic with 1st Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland (1 SCOTS) at a patrol base in Sangin, writes about teaching medical skills to soldiers of the Afghan National Army.

This week we went out on a lot of patrols in the so-called “Green Zone” in Sangin, where we are based, for lots of different missions. It is very green up here, with lots of crops growing and irrigation channels everywhere.

Lance Corporal John Zoumides

We spend a lot of time walking in the water which always makes me worry for the guys’ feet. I don’t want them to develop trenchfoot. We make sure we dry everything thoroughly after every patrol. It helps that it is so hot.

Because I am the team medic I have to be ready for any eventuality and I carry about 25kg of medical equipment and supplies in my rucksack. I also carry one of the ladders we use to get up and over compound walls because a lot of my guys have packs far heavier than mine. It can get really hot so it is far better if we patrol in the early morning or evenings.

Lance Corporal John Zoumides on an Army quad bike

People ask me if it worries me, dealing with injured people, especially when it is your friends. But you really do go into work mode and nothing matters except getting everyone to safety and looking after anyone who has been hurt. It helps that this isn’t my first tour. I have already done two tours of Iraq and I have been in Afghanistan before. So you do get a bit inured to it all. And on most patrols my medical skills are not required at all.

One day a week I train the Afghan National Army (ANA) Officers who share our base in medical skills. I teach them how to control arterial bleeding and the importance of checking airways if someone is hurt. They always listen very carefully. I don’t think anyone taught them this stuff before.

A small flock of sheep and a local Afghan girl

I also look after their health if they are ill. They know to come and seek me out if they need something. Usually it is just cuts and bruises. But if it was something else I would treat them. We work as a team and we share the resources.

Because our base is close to the 611 we see a lot of the locals, which I really like. The children are so beautiful. Most of the locals are friendly. Sometimes we have to stop them and talk to them and they are always polite.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Frontline blog: tears and tributes to a 'good guy'

In his final blog from the front line, Trooper Pete Sheppard writes for Channel 4 News on how the anticipation of returning home is shattered by the death of a fellow soldier just days before he was due to leave Afghanistan.

Trooper Pete Sheppard is a radio operator with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF), which is part of Operation Moshtarak against insurgents in Helmand Province.

They say a watched kettle never boils. You could also say that time never moves slower than when you are in Camp Bastion just waiting to go home.

The BRF came back into Bastion on 26 March having completed their final op. I wish I could say there was a real end of term atmosphere, that there were big smiles all round. Instead, there was just the awful realisation that whether you are on your first day, or your last – the last day as it turns out – your luck can still run out.

We were in the area north of Five Ways Junction, a major meeting of roads that lead to Marjah, Lashkar Gar and places like that.

We had sent a recce party forward to liaise with the Americans because we were passing through their area. We pushed through and set ourselves up in a leaguer – long lines of vehicles – in the middle of open ground but surrounded by poppy fields and mud compounds.

The next day was spent pushing out patrols and clearing compounds. Nothing much happened that day and when the patrols returned we got the orders from higher to return to Bastion. We were to take part in a 36 hour op. in the Sangin area, leaving 25 March.

Everyone was chuffed about that – returning to Bastion is a chance to shower, wash clothes and eat hot, fresh food.

So we started to move back into Bastion on the night of 22 March. We drove to the Household Cavalry Regiment check point and waited for last light. We took a very long route back – you can't afford to set patterns out here.

As we were coming through Gereshk, right in the centre, we got small arms fire. It's the first time we've come under contact in Gereshk, that I know of.

It was pitch black. We have kit allowing us to drive at night, but its tiring using it for a long time. We crossed the bridge and there were rounds flinging right in front of us, literally 2m in front of my face. You could see the individual tracer winging past.

We swore a bit but just kept pushing on, foot down. None of us fired back, it was just too risky in case we hit an innocent civilian.

As we were coming out of Gereshk on Highway 1 we saw lots of fire and illumination shells in the distance. Apparently one of the Afghan National Police checkpoints was getting contacted, so we stopped there, waited half an hour or so to try and suss out what was happening and then carried on to Bastion.

We had been out of Bastion for several weeks by this point and everyone just wanted to get back in, shower and eat. People had headaches from the long hard drive.

They've put a new gate in with increased security and everyone was getting more and more pissed off as the guards insisted on checking every one of our vehicles and all the individuals inside. We were clearly British, wearing British uniform and driving British vehicles. Our sense of humour evaporated at this point.
Once we were in, we locked our weapons away and just about the whole squadron headed for Pizza Hut and from there straight to bed.

The 23rd and 24th was spent in camp sorting out personal kit and prepping for the op. I was told that I was to stay behind to do the handover of signals kit. A few others were staying behind also.

The rest of the squadron left early on the 25th. They landed in the dark by helicopter in Sangin. The guys were operating within an area that we call an Ops Box - basically an area on the map which people know we are operating in - going through compounds, clearing the area.

There was a really high IED [improvised explosive device] threat up there, so the squadron picked a really difficult route through irrigated fields and not going along main tracks where you are pretty much guaranteed you will find IEDs.

There was a lot of Taliban chatter on the radios with stuff like: "change the battery packs, they are coming" and all that general sort of stuff. So the lads were really wary about this, and so was the boss.

The guys on the ground were telling me when they got back that they were counting down the hours saying: "I've got sixteen hours left until end of tour." Then night time came.

They heard over ICOM [radio set] that the Taliban were watching them from where they were, so they moved compounds that night. The Taliban woke up in the morning to find them gone.

The Fire Support Group were getting contacted with rounds going over their heads, RPGs landing around them, about 100 metres away, so quite close.

Around midday on 26th they were told they were coming back that evening. End of Tour. That would be it.

As they were patrolling, a grenade was thrown over the wall by a Taliban. 'Woody' - Lance Corporal of Horse Jo Woodgate - took the brunt of the blast.

One of the other lads,'Reggie' took a bit of shrapnel as well.

When it happened, myself and Dave Dailey, the three bar, were up at Bastion Quarter-Masters' Stores trying to sort out some sigs kit for the handover.

We heard Op Minimise come over the loud speakers – Op. Minimise is when a Category A casualty is taken. I turned to Dave and said: "I hope it's not one of our guys".

He said: "don't worry, it won't be".

We got back and they told us that two of our guys had been hit. They said it was Woody and one other. At least one was Cat A. Cat A means critically injured and many guys are Cat A, but come through, so it wasn't over. I went for a cigarette and the Padre joined me.

I saw the Padre get called over by the QM [Quartermaster] – he was smoking as well. I knew something wasn't right because he had quit.

We got back into the vehicle and headed back to the compound. As we pulled in, one of the troop sergeants said: "don't get out of the truck, get back in". He told us that Woody was dead.

We went straight up to the hospital to get some more information. We found out that Reggie was stable, that he was in theatre, but that he was going to be ok.

It was all a big shock, there were some tears and the rest of it. It wasn't good at all.

He was a really liked guy and everyone said it, but it was genuinely true. He was a really good guy. Really keen. He loved doing his job.

The guys on the ground didn't find out he was dead until they came back in off the ground that same night. Everyone was in shock, we all felt numb, exhausted and gutted.

The following day we had a service led by the Fijians, similar to the one for Foxy. There were readings, the OC read a poem and then the Fijians sang a hymn.

It was emotional, the song was so beautiful. The harmony of them singing; big tough Fijians but really beautiful voices.

I could feel my eyes starting to water. The Corporal Major said to us all: "if you want to cry, you can, we are in our compound. He's a good friend, just let it go if you want to", and some of the guys did.

It just shows he was a really good lad and he will be missed. After that we returned to work.

We had the vigil and the repatriation ceremony. At around half twelve, we were all lined up on the flight line and as Woody got carried on to the Herc., it was incredibly emotional as well, because you see the coffin going past and you know that he’s actually lying in that coffin. It's a weird feeling.

For the last few days we've just been handing over kit. Things like that, getting everything sorted; making sure the compound is clean, accounting for everything. Just getting rid of everything on our flicks and making sure the new guys coming in know what they are doing.

Yesterday we got called together. It was almost a day off – or as near as you'll get to one out here. And the OC said: "Foxy's funeral is happening right now." He said a few words about him, about his family. And we had another minute silence.

In the afternoon we played troop volley ball. One of the guys came out wearing just a pair of red boxers, nothing else, with sides rolled up. He looked like a porn star prancing about on the volley ball court. We had music going, it was a good atmosphere.

Other than that, guys are getting back into the routine of doing phys, going to the gym.

Today we were getting squared away for the medals parade that is happening in a couple of weeks' time.

Our OC wants the medals parade to be informal rather than marching about. I think he's done that because Benny - Guardsman 'Benny' Bennett – lost a leg a month or so back and this way he can be a part of it. It's a really good idea, really thoughtful.

A lot of people have made plans for what they'll do when they get back. They talk about it a lot. Everyone is talking about how this time is just dragging so much.

When everyone came in from the final op, you would have thought everyone would be happy, but the fact that Woody died, everyone was devastated. Everyone was thinking this was the last op. Why is someone dying on the last day before we become non-operational? Everyone was really cut up about that.

But it boils down to, we have a job to do and as bad as it may sound, Woody died doing the job he loved doing and he will never be forgotten.

It's been a difficult tour. We have had three people killed in action and many more who have been injured, including one, Barni, who managed to finish a patrol on foot despite having a broken an ankle, which is pretty amazing. At least twice, people have had binoculars shot from their hands.

But we've got a lot to be proud of. We have achieved so much in just six months. The boundaries have been pushed.

The Colonel of the Household Cavalry Regiment spoke to us the other day. He told us that we had set the standard for all other BRFs to follow. That we had reset the boundaries of what can be achieved. This is what LD, Foxy and Woody will be remembered for.

This is what we joined to do and what we get paid for. And we're doing it for the right reasons. Large parts of Afghanistan are safer now because of what we have done.

People can move about. They can go to the market. They can send their children to school. Some people back home are uncomfortable that people like us actually enjoy what we do.

As long as we do it for reasons like that, then we can't go far wrong.