Friday, May 29, 2009

Lt Andy Huxter, 11 Platoon, 2 RIFLES, FOB Gibraltar, Helmand

Greetings from Forward Operating Base Gibraltar (FOB GIB)! It has been a busy period for C Coy. The handover/ takeover was in full swing by the advance party when the first main body flight arrived by Chinook on the 10th April.

After a quick set of QBO’s, Cpl Davenport’s section headed down to the Afghan National Army (ANA) Patrol Base located about 500m South of the main FOB, where they met the ANA Platoon with whom they would be living and patrolling for the next few days. In no time Rfn Querino had learned how to bake bread – in an oven made out of an 81mm Mortar ammunition tin. Cpl Warrillow was focussing on feeding us, and his flair in the kitchen was soon displayed through a classic Pasta Bolognaise, only bettered by Cpl Edwards’ Pizzas (based on prior Pizzeria experience, no less!).

10 Pl had a less rushed start, but certainly no less tricky, taking over the mantle of Patrols Platoon from Zulu Coy 45 Commando, who were both experienced and battle hardened. They had several patrols that proved their ability and allowed them to gain good ground experience and confidence in both their kit and their training. Rfn Malou engaged well on joint patrols with the ANA and is doing well learning the local pattern of life. Carrying weight has come as a shock to some, not so LCpl Wilson who is more than happy to carry his fair share and some!

Meanwhile, back in the insular little world of our FOB there has been a lot of work taking place getting to grips with improving security, making life more comfortable and considering how long it will take us to turn ourselves into ripped, tanned, and for some, moustachioed men, as well as wondering if there is a short cut! Some, mentioning no names (CSM!) could do this, if only he didn’t drive from the Ops room to the cook house on his quad bike, a massive 15m walk as the crow flies!

The changeover with the patrol base went smoothly, if not happily for the 10 Pl partner section who discovered none among their number could cook! 11 Pl went on their first couple of Platoon level patrols and, although not striking out very far are quickly getting to grips with patrolling in this environment.

The poppies are beginning to shed their petals and the harvest is in full swing so the fields are busy with local farmers and the insurgents’ priorities are currently on capitalist matters in our area. The temperature is increasing day by day, and the unseasonable rainstorms of late are fading into memory – the feeling of ‘cold’ isn’t a factor any more and there is a lot more warming up to go yet! Our flip flop and watch strap tan lines are coming on nicely.

Lt Andy Huxter
OC 11 Platoon

LCpl Neil Strachan, 10 Platoon, 2 RIFLES, FOB Gibraltar, Helmand

This is my first tour as an NCO and naturally that comes with pressure. While ensuring my section is administrated on and off the ground I am constantly aware at some stage this tour I will need to step up as Section Commander. This is something that I don’t think any NCO Cadre can prepare you for.

On the ground I am at the back of the Section watching the blokes all the time making sure they are alert and concentrating all the time knowing full well how difficult it is with all their kit across unforgiving ground in the intense heat.

Since arriving in Afghanistan last month we have all found ourselves constantly on the go and the tempo of life within and outside FOB Gibraltar is ever increasing.

From a slow five days or so of RSOI in Camp Bastion we have really hit the ground running so to speak here in the FOB. With each patrol longer and more arduous than the last, the operations we conduct are always planned to outthink the Taliban and avoid the Afghan Sun. However sometimes we wonder whether the latter is worth it with temperatures reaching highs of 40+° and it will only get hotter.

Helicopters here are few and far between and the food is far from ideal with spam and plain noodles being the norm. Small treats out of parcels from loved ones and protein shakes are important to keep weight and maintain health.

Our living arrangements are tight and privacy is considered a luxury. 10 Platoon is a close one and everyone’s is working for each other day in, day out. This will be paramount in getting through this tour and everyone is anxious to see what the next five months have in store for 10 Platoon, C Coy.

LCpl Neil Strachan “Big Strachs”
2 Section 2ic
10 Platoon

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 11

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!

By the time you read this I hope you are nursing a hang over that justifies a good day at the "support the troops" fund raiser. I can assure you that any funds raised will make a real difference to those serving at the front line. As they can't speak for themselves at the moment I would like to pass on their sincere thanks to you all.

As we are now past a third of the tour, men are now returning from the forward operating bases (Fob's) some of whom are going on rest and recuperation leave. The men that are returning are changed somewhat from those we flew forward two months ago. Back then most were pink faced and earnest, burdened by heavily loads with the slightly pained expression of men who are about to face the fiercest test of their careers and in some cases lives so far.

Now these same men seem to have a hardened edge and a look of lean hungry fighting men that indeed they are. Most have stories to tell and I for one am glad to give them the chance to tell them. For these individuals flying out of these danger zones is like stepping back into an alien world and I know from experience this can be very disorientating. Within days many will be put on flights that will take them back to home and in to the arms of loved ones. Try to imagine if you will the extremes of high and lows these men have experienced thus far in the tour and while enjoying their leave it will be forever in there mind that Afghanistan and the Fob's are but time and a flight away.

From the feedback so far on the blog, many have asked what it is like living and operating in a base at the front line. To answer this while not compromising any security, this week's blog will be a fictional diary entry made up from my personal experiences on the previous tour here and from the experiences of the troops here to date.

Life next to the edge

As I come awake via the insistence of the soldier responsible for doing the rounds ready for "Stand To", I am struck that the first things that remind me of where I am are the smells and the already increasing heat. It is early summer now and first light is before 0430 in the morning when the sun rises as a great ball of fire, searing all that it touches including my Platoon in our improvised shelters. We have to be up and ready before this time, as tradition and tactical necessity dictate that we mark the change between night and day routine. This means we are all dressed, body armour on and with personal weapons in our hands ready in case of a dawn attack.

It is somewhat comforting to know that soldiers for hundreds of years have observed this routine and in doing so a link to the past is maintained.

As many of the Platoon have pulled "stag" or night duty, defending and monitoring those others lucky enough to grab some fitful sleep in the still heat of the Helmand night, few words are said as men shuffle to their pre-appointed positions and prepare to mark another day in the insurgents back garden.

One of the few constants here, the sun climbs quickly into a sky only partially obscured by the fine sand of a local wind induced sand storm. This is a near daily occurrence and will ensure man and machines are given a fresh coating of dust ready for cleaning. In fact a good part of my life is now spent removing dust from the thousand and one pieces of equipment that we rely on to keep us alive, this ranges from weapons through to medical equipment and vehicles.

Post "stand to" we who are not on stag observe one of the more social parts of the day as we put the kettle on for breakfast. The day we occupied this compound we arranged a rental fee with the owner for what was his house. In addition we purchased for the princely sum of ten dollars a large kettle, which we now use as the platoon cooker in conjunction with our boil in the bag rations. It is safe to say that the kettle is rarely off, as the Platoon Sergeant is a "brew monster" and seems to run on tea!

While the kettle is boiling we set about our weapon systems, as logic dictates only half the Platoon clean weapons at a time, leaving the other half able to react should the insurgents pay a visit (which is often). This week alone the insurgents have fired a number of mortars at our base, some of which have landed inside the compound. Fortunately nobody was seriously hurt and the only lasting damage is some interesting modifications to the Platoon latrine which suffered a near direct hit.

After we finish breakfast and the sentries are swapped (to allow them to administrate themselves) we send out a section of eight men to conduct a sweep of the area around our base. Once this is complete we start to plan the plan and receive a brief for the patrol operation to take place. We have a small village about 400 meters from our compound, and we are charged with its security and working with the local people to establish a fragile peace.

At times the locals will talk freely to us about their expectations and their fears of further conflict; it would seem that they regard us with a certain amount of suspicion until they are shown that we are only here to guarantee their freedom and safety. At other times they will not talk to us at all and will avoid us entirely.
These are nervous times for us as it probably means that insurgents are in the area and the locals fear reprisals when we are gone. Just last week a local man was beaten badly after being set upon by insurgents. They did this publicly in the village market and also issued a threat that "any Afghans seen passing information to the foreign forces will be killed and their families banished from the area".

Today we deployed on a patrol to re-assure the locals that we are here to protect them and in addition to show our strength to the insurgents. It seems to have worked as we gathered some good information from the local villagers and we now have a good idea where the enemy are hiding and mounting their attacks from. In a few days time we will deploy forward to investigate the compounds indicated to us, I hope we find them as they are beginning to destabilise the whole area.

Occasionally the locals will sell or barter with us for some fresh rations that we use to supplement our boil in the bag rations which while being very good are even better when mixed with some fresh spices or eaten with the local flat bread. In addition the pears and other fruit grown here are a good source of vitamins and are very refreshing.

As I sit here in the late afternoon underneath the dancing shadows of a desert camouflage net, I am drawn to memories of home, of grass and water and the thousand other things that we take fore granted until they are taken away. Perhaps that is what makes the British soldier what he is and provides him strength when it is needed. We do not hunger after those things outside our grasp but find contentment in the little things.

It is strange to me that while I am here your "world" continues much as it does when I am there, yet the world in which we survive is like a place from another time. Often I have seen photo's of the troops here and if they were compared to pictures from other times they would be almost indistinguishable.

Soon it will be stand to again and we will go into the long night, often the insurgents will carry out probing attacks on our perimeter which will mean hours staring in to the darkness for any signs of movement.

For now though I sit and watch my small world from beneath the shade and observe the many comings and goings of my Platoon. The smell of cooking, tobacco and stale sweat is in the air as we take a moment of down time after the patrol, each man in his own way winding down and passing out the hours until the light draws in.

The fact that we miss home is a subject that few discuss as it is easier to avoid than confront, in its place is routine and the actions of the insurgents that are outside our control. We also rarely talk of the danger that we face and if we do it is quickly dismissed with bravado and black humour.

Soon I must go and do my part in administrating the camp ready for night routine and part of this is packing all of the kit I have away that I am not using. I find it a little sad but also strangely liberating when the things that make your life can be counted in a couple of bags and a set of Army webbing.

Well readers that was a small snapshot of routine life in a Forward operating base, a life that is both simple but very often punctuated by moments of extreme danger. This is reality for many of your soldiers who live a life not unlike those who have been here before. But in doing so are laying the foundations for peace in this country.

Until next week stay safe and be careful.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Maj Iain Moodie, OC B Company, 2 RIFLES BG - blogs from Helmand, part 2

This month has been a real rollercoaster of a month. On 7 May 09 we tragically lost Rfn Adrian ‘Shelly’ Sheldon to an IED. Our thoughts and prayers remain with their families and friends.

We held a camel racing night here in the FOB in memory of Shelly and most of the ‘camels’ were auctioned for over $100 each. A total of $2,260 was raised and will be given to Project 65, a charity that will split the money between the RBL, ABF, H4H, St Dunstan’s, BLESMA and others.

Whilst we are on the subject of Project 65, we are very conscious that BG HQ is racing the wives in Ballykinler, to row from Belfast to Kabul, and vice versa, to raise money for the same charity. We are delighted to learn, here in FOB Inkerman, that the wives are currently thrashing BG HQ. Our view is that it is all the lobster and cream teas that they have in, by under slung, courtesy of the civilian helicopters that is at the root of their demise. There is a separate blog article of the event but thanks must go to everyone in the FOB for their generosity, especially the Riflemen, Gunners and Sappers who gave up so much of their hard earned cash to an excellent cause and the memory of a fellow Rifleman who is still sorely missed.

The Green Zone has transformed from something of beauty, as I described last month, to something that is slowly dying by asphyxiation. The heat is choking everything. The poppy is dead and has been reaped, so now there are just bare fields. The wheat has turned brown and the local nationals are setting at it with scythes and bundling it onto anything that can transport it to their stores, be it tractors, cars, or donkeys.

The farmers are re-planting again with more drought resistant crops such as curry beans and maize – these crops are more heat resistant but also require less water as the Helmand River yields less and less life-giving sustenance into the irrigation ditches. This drop in the water level has had a positive effect on certain challenged members of the company, who can now cross the ditches and canals without fear of drowning. Sgt Baker, our MFC from 3 YORKS, no longer patrols with his snorkel and arm bands.

Now that the heat has increased and it no longer rains, so the insect life has become more prolific. Shoes now need to be shaken to avoid the odd scorpion; feet need to be lifted off the floor to deny the incredibly fast camel spiders who run with such determination and speed that any pre-emptive move of feet from the floor would be pointless; and lights have to be turned off to avoid the haze of midges and other ‘night-flyers’. An individual walking around the FOB at night, with a head torch, now gathers a personal little swarm of insects, and requires a moment or two of darkness before entering the sanctuary of one’s mosquito net.

Fresh rations arrived into the FOB this week for the first time in 35 days. Hoorah! This is no fault of anyone’s just that fresh food is always a lower priority than ammunition, water, equipment, 10-man rations and mail. It has been such a treat to see a piece of chicken, a burger, real sausages and even steak. Sadly, the supply will end and it will be back to the mundane and the predictable 10-man rations.

Operations continue and we have conducted a number of long, hot patrols into the Green Zone. These have been really rewarding and have allowed us to understand where we are at the end of the harvest season. Everyone is extremely focused on why we are here and doing a cracking job. Everyone has performed exceptionally well and delivered when required.

Finally, I just want to say a collective ‘Thank You’ to you who is reading this for all your support. There have been so many well-wishers, not just an individual’s family and friends, but those who are generously sending welfare parcels to be distributed amongst those Riflemen who are not so fortunate.

We are extremely grateful for your support and generosity. Not only do your gifts alleviate some of our hardship but your messages of support galvanise us and push us on. To do this without your incredible support back at home would make it infinitely harder. We really do appreciate your kindness and collective support. Thank you again.

Maj Iain Moodie, OC B Company

Sunday, May 24, 2009

2 Rifles Battle Group - Afghan Helmand Rowing Challenge

7 Men, one woman, two rowing machines and 40 degree C heat. Rowing the distance from Sangin DC, Helmand Province to Pegasus Bridge, Normandy within 50 days. A total distance of 5,800 KMs

Raising money for Project 65, a project to build a memorial on Pegasus bridge to commemorate the D-Day landings 60 years ago. Any remaining money will go to a group of charities including Help 4 Heroes and the ABF.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 10

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!

It is with sadness that I begin this week’s blog, as you will have heard four of our soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice and I believe that certainly in our time the world is the poorer for it. Clever men will say very heartfelt statements, most will pause for a moment and then the world will turn again and something new will occupy the headlines. This is the nature of things and is no different for those who soldier here.

In these times I try to imagine what it would be like if that soldier were me and for a moment a vision of the utter devastation it would cause overwhelms me. I am sure it is the same for all those who serve here. An officer whom I respect (you know who you are) pointed me to these words of the great orator President T. Roosevelt from his address in Paris 1910. To me they strike a resonance to the struggles of the fighting man from any age.

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.
Who strives valiantly.
Who errs and comes up short again and again.
Because there is no effort without error or shortcoming’.
But who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion.
Who spends himself on a worthy cause.
Who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement.
And who at worst-if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly,
So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
Who knew neither victory or defeat”.

Myself I am not a religious man, so to say that I prayed for these men would be hypocritical, however they are in our thoughts and their families have the deepest sympathy of all of us here.

To continue with the blog I would again like to use the example of recent events and in doing so to highlight the tactics of the insurgent forces. In the previous blog we spoke of the Insurgent tactic of ambush and use of key terrain. Today I would like to show how they employ guerrilla tactics to disrupt and attack our forces.

It is fair to say that with our superior fighting ability and technology we are able to overpower the insurgents in most ways. In the infancy of the Operation there was a tendency towards force on force direct engagements, invariably this would involve the initiation of fighting that we refer to as “contact” followed by a phase in which each side sought to out fire or out manoeuvre the opposition. Even in the most remote areas the insurgents would soon be overmatched by a mixture of superior weapons and more importantly air or armoured assets.

The insurgents still engage the stabilisation forces in this way, however they now employ measures that allow them to engage us from a distance, or devices that can be laid and left to do their deadly work. The following is an account of such an incident that happened here recently and involved soldiers of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment.

Of the many areas that the Battle group cover one is called Nad e Ali, this area has long been associated with fierce insurgent resistance. In striking distance of the provincial capital this medium sized town has seen much fighting of late and is still largely unsettled. The troops from the patrol bases Argyll and Chilli must patrol firstly re-assure the locals and of equal importance dominate the ground denying it from insurgent use.

On one such patrol recently members of the Battalion experienced a very close shave with danger as they were targeted by an insurgent improvised explosive device (IED).

The devices themselves are normally planted at night by trained teams, this again put paid to the notion of a rough uneducated bandit force. They can range from small anti-personnel devices designed to maim anyone unfortunate to stand on them, all the way to huge devices designed to destroy armoured vehicles.

On the patrol in question lead by Captain Brigham and including Colour Sergeant Ben Cox (a native of Worcester) who was the front or “point man” moved down a minor road towards a track junction. Not happy with the situation that he could see ahead Ben stopped the Patrol short and decided to do a check. It soon became evident to Ben that there was something very wrong with this area.

Approaching the area carefully, sweating with the heat and pressure no doubt coursing with adrenaline Ben must try and identify if there is something dangerous that will threaten his mates who are behind him staring into the distance for insurgents with concerned faces.

It is vital that any device if present is cleared, as the insurgent’s show little or no regard as to who they injure or kill with such devices, the amount of limbless children and injured innocent civilians speak volumes against an insurgency that professes to represent the people of Afghanistan.

After a very brief examination Ben discovers enough to convince him that something dangerous may be present. After Ben’s partial confirmation the troops prepare to move out of the area as they need to find cover from the fierce sun and escape the attentions of the local insurgents, who by now are probably aware that they are in the area and who will assume that the device failed to function or has been discovered.

The Patrol now move back towards a friendly forces location that will afford better security and still enable control of the possible area of danger. There they are met by vehicles that will act as observation and weapon platforms if required until the experts can arrive.

A hot Helmand day gives way to a cool evening with a burning bronze sunset that belies the danger that the troops have faced this and every day. Still near the scene Ben and other members of the Platoon including the Platoon Sergeant Mark Giles wait in silent vigil protecting the area and guarding against insurgent interference.

After what seemed like an eternity, assistance came to the aid of the Platoon and after an extensive search several large explosive devices were found in and around the area Ben had indicated.

As is very often the case here in Afghanistan, good observation and basic Infantry skills have avoided potential disaster. An Infantry soldier is trained to observe and remain aware of the situation constantly, this coupled with a realisation of the gravity of the situation saves lives as much as any technology that can only do so much.

Ben, Mark and his team had spent considerable time in territory hotly contested by the insurgents and in doing so saved both their own lives and potentially the lives of innocent civilians. This is not an isolated incident; soldiers of Your County Regiment put themselves in danger daily in the pursuit of peace in this country. And as always try to live up to the Regiments motto:


Well readers that’s it for this week’s blog, I hope to write again soon but until we speak again take care and be safe.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Lt Col Simon Banton, 2 MERCIAN, reports from Helmand (Part 3)

We have now been operating in Helmand for three weeks. The temperature is slowly creeping up but there have been some terrific electrical storms crashing above us. Notable occurrences this week include combat operations in Nad-i-Ali and Musa-Qaleh, and Shuras to engage with the local population.

We have also been visited by the Commander 19 Brigade, the Chief of the Danish Defence Staff and an American Colonel responsible for mentoring the Afghan Corps Headquarters. We are working with our Afghan Army counterparts and I have spent a lot of time with the Afghan Brigade Commander, General Muhaiyodin.

Your soldiers on the ground have worked extremely well with their Afghan National Army (ANA) partners, operating in Nad-i-Ali and Musa-Qaleh.

In Nad-i-Ali, an operation involved fostering security, building new Patrol Bases (PBs) and reassuring the local population. Drawing from elements of the ANA, our OMLT, soldiers from Estonia and other British units, they were successful in several clashes with the Taliban and resulted in the Afghan Security Forces being able to assert more influence in these areas.

Working outside of the relative safety of their bases they deployed onto the ground for several days and fought, ate and slept in their vehicles and alongside the ANA. These joint operations will bear fruit in the future allowing more ANA troops to operate in the areas enhancing their authority in the eyes of the population.

In Musa-Qaleh, there has been increased interaction between ISAF and the ANA. Several Shuras have also taken place recently – what the Afghans call local meetings involving local Elders, Maliks (religious teachers who have completed the Haji to Saudi Arabia) and Mullahs (a religious preacher who has completed education at a Madras or religious school).

These are where our British Company Commanders and the local Afghan Kandak (Battalion) Commanders meet with the local people and any grievances, successes and plans can be discussed. These can be initiated on the spot on a case by case basis, or planned regularly in advance. With copious amounts of green tea being consumed (an Afghan tradition during meetings) this enables reassurance and allows discussion to be fostered, furthering the ‘consent winning’ approach of our troops.

Next week I move to visit your soldiers in Garmsir, previously the scene of fierce fighting but now a bustling town, and I intend to tell you more of the 3 Brigade Commander General Mohaiyodin – he is a lynchpin for our work.

As always we pass on our regards to those in the UK.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 9

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!
Before I start this week’s Blog I would like to invite you to a party! For those of you who are able to get to Worcester my good friends at my favourite pub the Marwood are having a BBQ and drinks starting at 1500hrs on Sunday the 24th May (for those who have Sat Nav the post code is WR1 1JL).

As well as a chance to meet some of my loyal readers and promoters you can take part in a raffle in aid of the troops who are serving here in Afghanistan and enjoy one of the finest eating experiences in Worcester at the same time. Any money raised will be used to make the lives of those troops right on the front line a little more comfortable. This is a cause that I believe in and one that I will be putting my hand in my pocket for. In addition if you are a business that has any items that may improve someone’s life far away from home however big or small, please give generously as those who are serving here have given, as I have heard said “all gave some, some gave all”.

In last weeks blog we talked about Al who I am glad to say I have spoken to and is recovering well, he still has a fair way to go and has had more operations to fix his arm, our thoughts remain with him and his family. It is a mark of the man that he would not discuss himself, but rather asked after the welfare of his troop’s who are well at present and I am sure wish him a speedy recovery.

In a land of great natural contrasts it is perhaps unsurprising that the insurgents who fight here are at times like chameleons, blending in and out of the background seemingly at will. The Helmand province itself is bisected by the Helmand River which in itself is a miracle if man shaping the landscape with the aid of nature. Generations have used and diverted the river too irrigate crops and bring life to the scorched desert. In doing so, they have inadvertently made one of the fiercest combat areas known to any soldier today.

The “Green Zone” aptly named for the tall crops that spring from the freshly irrigated flood planes are a labyrinth of hidden tracks and paths that act as conduits by which the insurgent forces survive, hide and communicate. You will not find these tracks plotted on any map, they are difficult to place even from the air and they provide some small sanctuary for the forces we have come to oppose.

In the films soldiers see the enemy far in the distance, line up their shots and take out the bad guys. Even here sometimes that is possible but very rarely. Often the insurgents are only visible for long enough to start an engagement and will then melt away only to re-appear and fire from another location. In the green zone the two apposing forces have literally walked into each other and have had fierce battles at ranges less than ten meters.

When you engage an enemy from distance in a way you can become partially detached from the combat as if it were somewhat less real. From those who have spoken to me before, who have had to make split second life or death decisions and fought a combatant from very close, this is not a luxury they have been afforded. To be close enough to smell and see every detail of a person you are engaging in a life or death confrontation must be terrifying and require both bravery and training. As an Infantry unit we have young men from where you live, who will experience this sternest of tests of determination and aggression and you will probably never hear about it from them.

The insurgents are well aware of the aggression and determination of your soldiers and I am sure that it does not sit comfortably with them as they try and work out ways to engage us. To do this more often than not, they will choose to plant an explosive device or set an ambush; anything to try and bridge the gap between our fighting skill and technology. That is not to say the insurgents are without courage or ability. At times they show sound tactical appreciation and are able to orchestrate complicated attacks with several firing points and several types of weapon system, from the ubiquitous AK47 to heavy machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.

The main weapon in the insurgent armoury is knowledge of the land and knowledge of the people, as has been said before “to truly know a people you must live among them” and by this I believe our inevitable need for security will always hamper our true perception and interaction with the people of this land.

It could be said that the tactics of the insurgents has given him unforeseen results, by using improvised explosive devices he has forced us to protect ourselves with Armour and by doing so we have inadvertently placed another layer between ourselves and the Afghan people.

I forget where it was but I once heard a debate on which sound could be considered the noise of the 21st century. The noise of planes, trains, music and many others were offered, but one of the front runners was the sound of armour be it tanks or smaller armoured vehicles. I took time to reflect on this and tried as you might, to put myself into the shoes of a person, who going about my normal daily business is confronted with the smell, sound and power that such vehicles filled with grim faced soldiers can muster. It is not a pleasant thought and definitely not one that brings to mind “a force for good”.

It is fair in return to this argument to point out that this was never our intention and that we are only using these methods as a platform to enable us to give the Afghans what they so desperately need. Those grim faced men are not here to conquer the people of Afghanistan, but rather they are a part of the way by which the Afghans may find peace. It is a great truth that in the search for peace one must be willing to go into battle and equally in the pursuit of freedom we must be willing to impose order.

The insurgent force capitalises on our use of force in an attempt to portray us as a force of occupation, hell bent on imposing our Western values and practices on an ancient and peaceful society. They would have people believe that we have come to Afghanistan not to offer peace and freedom but to repress and squash the Afghan tribal identity.

The answers to these allegations are self evident; any force willing to use its own people as human shields is morally bankrupt. Any organisation that routinely physically represses and coerces its own community is worthy only of destruction and failure. Ultimately if you do not represent the people and the vast majority of the population do not recognise your claim to their allegiance, your motivations must be founded on something else. In this case the insurgent pursuit of power is based on the desire to rule by fear, for if you can keep a population in fear you can force them to bend to your will, the cornerstone of any dictatorship. The insurgents do not wish the Afghan people to have the choice in what they do as to keep them in primitive conditions and fear they are easier to control.

Elections later this year will give the clearest indication of how far we have moved forward in Afghanistan. If people vote in numbers there can be no argument as to the direction the Country should go and a vote is the ultimate expression of self determination.

Politics is not my strong point, but as a soldier here I would like to see the Afghan people force forward their own agenda. In doing so, they would say with the clearest voice to the insurgents that the days of violence and intimidation are numbered only by how long they can survive and hide for.

In the next issue I would like to talk more about the types of combat we experience here sometimes on a daily basis. But until then readers as always stay safe and be good to one another.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Lt Tom Parry, 8 Platoon, 2 RIFLES, FOB Inkerman, Helmand

I could not write about the past week without mentioning the tragic death of Rifleman Adrian Sheldon. Shelly was a much loved member of the Fire Support Platoon here at FOB Inkerman and his loss has been extremely hard to come to terms with. Our thoughts and prayers are with Shelly’s family at this time.

A memorial service celebrating the life of Rifleman Sheldon was held on Friday evening. As well as prayers, the Fijian community sang with the Fire Support Group (FSG), and the Buglers gave Shelly a good send off. Rfn Michael Letts, Ricardo Arnold and Tommy Smith Sounded the Advance capturing the offensive spirit of B Company.

8 Platoon, or the FSG as they are known are cracking on with their three main roles within the FOB. Day and night the boys don their Osprey body armour and helmets to man the sangar overlooking the green zone. They have become subject matter experts on the daily pattern of life of the locals living and working in the lush wheat and poppy fields next to the FOB. The guys also secure the Helicopter Landing Site on the few occasions when the Chinooks drop in to resupply us. It is always great receiving all your post and parcels, and it is amazing to see how morale rockets over some biscuits and magazines.

The primary role of the FSG are patrols into both the green zone and into the desert. Patrols vary in length and size. The guys perform extremely well despite their heavy loads in the heat of the day. We often leave the FOB under cover of darkness to make the most of the cooler temperature, as well as to move unnoticed through the waist high irrigation ditches and amongst the hard baked mud compounds which litter the green zone.

Vehicle patrols give us the chance to explore the open desert. We pass through deep wadis and huge flat expanses, stopping occasionally to chat to village elders. Most are friendly, but the children just want the pens we keep on us, as well as the wind up radios.

We have spent the odd night out under the stars before popping up to set up a defensive position on a hilltop or piece of high ground. It is always fun to spend time away from the FOB exploring a new area or somewhere off the limited mapping we possess.

When back in the camp we meet every night as a Platoon to discuss the day’s events throughout Helmand and we vote on who gets to carry ‘Rusty’ inside the FOB for the next 24 hrs. Rusty is an old Heavy Machine Gun left over from the Royal Marines. A kangaroo court normally ensues, with lots of laughing and outrageous accusations before the culprit is chosen and is introduced to the old .50 cal.

The three sections within the FSG have all created their own chill out areas by their accommodation. It has got a bit competitive as each try to outdo the latest adaptation. The only thing missing now is a rock pool water feature!

The guys have adapted extremely well to their new living conditions and have proved very resourceful. Washing is no longer laboured over in buckets, they have ‘liberated’ some concrete mixers from somewhere in which goes their post patrol kit, some suds and a couple of rocks. Job done! Spirits are high again and the men of the FSG will ‘bash on regardless’.

2Lt Tom Parry
OC 8 Pl

Lt Col Simon Banton, 2 MERCIAN, reports from Helmand (Part 2)

Welcome to my second blog as the Commanding Officer of the OMLT BG, I have now been in Command of the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Battle Group for just over a fortnight. All of the mentor teams are deployed onto the ground and the RSM and I have visited the first of the Patrol Bases (PBs) in Musa Qaleh and Sangin. We have also had our first troops in contact with the enemy and our first combat casualty which thankfully was not life threatening.

Our teams are patrolling daily with their Afghan counterparts, spread throughout much of Helmand province. A true testament to how we are operating is that from our furthest base south to our base furthest in the north is well in excess of 100 miles. Our soldiers are operating with other Battle Groups and in certain places alongside other soldiers from our NATO allies.

At both Musa Qaleh and then Sangin, the RSM and I saw first hand how they are living, working and fighting next to the ANA Warriors (what the ANA call their soldiers). In Musa Qaleh the Patrol Bases are closely located, enabling their defences to overlap in many places and allowing them fields of view and fire out into enemy territory.

They are literally on the border between the Afghan government controlled areas and those areas out of reach, where the Taliban still has influence. Each joint patrol between our teams and the ANA assures the population and fosters greater self-belief for the ANA commanders on the ground. Our commanders already have a good working rapport with their ANA counterparts and are nurturing relationships with the populace.

In Sangin, for some, it is familiar territory, as it is where A (Grenadier) and elements of D Company were based on the last tour, less than 17 months ago, how quickly it comes round again! Here they are located in a city which is a beacon of government control in an area that was mostly Taliban controlled. Here our joint patrols are again furthering the legitimacy of the Afghan government and promoting the ANA in the eyes of the local populace.

Our troops have been working with the ANA Warriors for nearly 3 weeks now, helping them dominate the ground and fighting the Taliban with them. We have had several battles with insurgents and taken the fight to them each time, with several new soldiers straight out of training distinguishing themselves.

It was during one of these battles that our first casualty was sustained in the area of Garmsir. Sgt Dennis was injured taking cover from a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG)that exploded close by. He was quickly evacuated from the area, ahead of the timescale that casualty evacuation requires and was swiftly treated for his injuries. He has now returned to the UK and his family despite his enthusiasm to stay. I wish him and his family the best of luck in his recovery and look forward to him returning to duty.

Our soldiers are working really hard and are enjoying their role and I am truly proud of what they do and what they sacrifice. We are now well into our first month and morale remains high. I still plan to visit the rest of our PBs and will keep you informed of these visits, I also hope to get photos of where the men live and work so you can get a feel of their locations.

For those families and friends of the Battalion at home we pass on our best and hope that you are well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 8

Drop into the Marwood for a BBQ!

If you happen to be near the Marwood in Worcester on the 24th at 3pm, they will be having a bbq, raffle and live music (and at the same time Mike is arranging a BBQ in Afghanistan) to raise money to send the troops a few home comforts.

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!

I hope you are well and in my mind you are sinking a good cold pint while you read this. Perhaps you are wondering what it’s like to be in Afghanistan and I hope my blogs so far have given you a little window in to the world as a soldier serving far away from home.

Today I would like to relay some of the realities of combat here and in doing so I would like to highlight an individual, who in my humble opinion deserves great respect for his dedication, drive and leadership under pressure.

In the comfort of home many might quite rightly question the need for so many soldiers to be so far from home in places that have names that mean little to most. To a great number of people there is little or nothing worth fighting for let alone dying for and in answer to this I would like to quote if I may John Stuart Mill, English philosopher:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself”.

Although it must be clear we are not at war here we are still engaged militarily with a determined and organised insurgency. This is in addition to all of the good work that we are doing with great results, with the Afghans, for the Afghans and with the majority of Afghan consent. The men and women of your Armed services do this because it is the right thing to do and on a personal level it is what they have trained many years to be tested in doing.

The many battles that your soldiers find themselves in are not the subject of mainstream news, yet for those who are the line in the sand, they are very real and equally deadly. Daily these men rise in the knowledge that conflict is almost a certainty and that injury or worse fatalities are not a distant concept but a close reality.

One such individual and a good friend of mine is Alan Dennis who you may have seen in the news after he escaped near fatal consequences for the second time and has been injured as a result of insurgent action on this and the previous tour.

Al from first impressions does not strike you as a man of courage and strong leadership that said I couldn’t tell you what a person with those qualities would look like, although the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment has several. A Senior Sergeant of good standing Al has proved himself under fire on a number of occasions including the incident I would like to relay to you in this blog. A modest family man, quiet and unassuming Al is known to most and liked by all.

On our tour of the Helmand province in 2007 Al was badly injured in an incident that left a good friend and member of the Battalion dead. His recovery and determination to get back to work with his mates was nothing short of exceptional. Having spoken to Al about that incident it is amazing to me that he would fight so hard and for so long to put himself back to a deployable level of fitness, a lesser man would perhaps attempt to avoid the current deployment and in this case would not be blamed for doing so.

But Al is not that person, to my knowledge he never entertained the thought that others would go in his stead and this is typical of his type in that he would never have another soldier do something he would not do himself and he would hate his Platoon to deploy without him into danger of any kind.

On the morning of his latest incident Al was again in charge of a patrol in to territory hotly contested by the insurgents of that area. Such areas are a mixture of open sand covered expanses that are broken up by high walled compounds designed to keep herds and harvested crops in and intruders out.

The walls of these compounds are made from age hardened mud and are virtually impenetrable. It is very easy to become disorientated in these areas as pretty much everything looks similar. There are few tracks that even resemble roads in these areas and movement is often restricted to moving on foot. This presents its own security problems and calls for a high degree of control and communication.

The twisting narrow streets if they can be classed as such are pre-disposed to ambush by small, heavily armed groups of insurgents who choose the ground in advance, fire on the friendly forces and attempt to extract themselves before they can be out flanked and killed or captured. Unfortunately there is little option but to patrol these areas and in doing so the troops put themselves in danger time and time again.

While patrolling on what seemed a perfectly routine day the troops very suddenly found themselves caught in a wave of enemy fire as they had walked into the insurgent ambush killing area. In an ambush every instinct and fibre in your body tells you to go back but it is often the case that this is the most dangerous thing to do.

Any insurgent worth his salt will attempt to seal any ambush exits with deadly rifle fire so conventional wisdom is to try and fight through to break free. Sitting at my table in the light this is easy to say, however on the ground with rounds flying past your head it takes an iron will to grip the situation and lead your troops to safety.

The patrol is now firing at the insurgents in an attempt to pin them sufficiently to allow them enough movement to escape the ambush. Conventionally this means you have to fire more rounds at your enemy than he can at you, thereby forcing him into taking cover. This however must be balanced by the urgent need to conserve precious ammunition as there is no time limit on an engagement with the insurgent forces.

It does not take Al and his troops long to earn a brief lull in battle and they use this to gain entry by force into a compound. Once inside they take precious seconds to take stock of their situation which is grim. Still under fire they are now virtually cut off and the insurgents are moving around them in an effort to surround the patrol. At this time Al is given scant seconds to radio a situation report to his headquarters, tell them what is going on and what he intends to do about it. Clearly all efforts will be made to assist the patrol but this will take time and it is time they have not got.

Murphy’s Law states “that if anything can go wrong it will” and this maxim holds true even in Afghanistan. Barely has Al appraised his superiors when disaster happens. As he tries to move forward with an Afghan soldier, in an attempt to stop them being a static and therefore an easier target, a rocket propelled grenade strikes the ground only meters ahead of Al. When the smoke and dust clears he finds himself partially buried and having felt a sharp pain and heard a loud snap believes he has shattered his arm.

Now almost fully pinned down by a force of insurgents determined to overrun the patrol Al has seconds to decide his and his troop’s next actions, while he has been on the floor injured his troops have been frantically trying to find another way to exit the compound that initially seemed like a refuge but is quickly becoming a trap. Eventually one of his troops finds and kicks through a door leading to a track that may facilitate extraction.

Still fully in command and still engaging the insurgents as they appear with one arm, Al and his troops fight desperately out of the compound and continue to fight until the insurgents eventually give up and allow them to break clean.

After this engagement the troops fought all the way back to their patrol base from which Al would eventually be flown out injured but glad that he was able to escape the clutches of the determined insurgent force with the lives of all of his men. Many others distinguished themselves that day and it was the aggression of the Infantry soldier, his determination and his refusal to be beaten that won the day.

Al is now back in the UK recuperating with family and friends and has the best wishes of all of the Regiment, he has as with others epitomised the motto of the Regiment as they “Stand Firm and Strike Hard”.

Next episode we will look deeper in to the realities of fighting an insurgent enemy that can at times strike with great force and determination and equally can melt back into the surrounding country like they were never there.

Until then thank-you for taking time to read the blog, take care and be safe.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 7

A WORCESTER soldier fighting in Afghanistan is proving to be a big hit with punters after he started sending blogs from the frontline back to his local pub.

Helmandblog first reported on the story on the 19 April and many readers asked where they could find the blog. After his sister Tracey posted a comment on Helmandblog I asked if she would let me have the updates - and she said yes. So as they come in I will keep you up to date.

Greetings friends and readers at the Marwood, Worcester!

So far you have heard much of the travel and strife it takes just to get to this country, we have covered the general history of the conflict and how we got to be here. What we have not covered is the other darker part and perhaps the only major part that we cannot control and that is our enemy.

Dismiss from your head the brave Mujahedeen or “holy warriors”, riding bravely in to battle on horseback, if they ever did exist they have been replaced by a ruthless cunning enemy more than capable and willing to use torture, intimidation and terror tactics and that is just on their own people.

In the main the higher levels or “full time enemy” have been raised and converted to an ideal that is as fanatical as it is dangerous. These high level operators are often the means by which the disaffected or poor are converted or paid to carry out attacks against our forces. It is sadly often the case that those who are on the front line are those who have little other recourse in life and even more sadly for some death may be the only escape from a life spent serving a pitiless master.

That said on there is no shortage of home grown enemies more than willing to test the resolve of the “foreign invaders” these individuals will exploit any perceived weakness or opportunity and will attack with impunity regardless of any risk of collateral damage.

Fundamentally opposed to any influence from the western world the insurgent force use guerrilla attack strategies to inflict as many casualties on the coalition forces as possible and will use the innocent local populace to do this. Often the enemy will initiate an attack and before they can be pinned down and dealt with they will drop any weapons and melt back into the crowd thus evading justice for their actions.

In our own dealings with the enemy in most cases we are the very opposite, we plan our deliberate operations with the greatest concern for innocent human life and our use of force is proportionate to the situation faced.

The way in which we engage with our enemy is of no surprise, history has shown us that a numerically superior force with overwhelming advantage of technology and sheer firepower will always force an enemy to ground and make him use guerrilla tactics. In a matter of minutes an individual insurgent can find himself under bombardment from an array of weapons hitherto unseen on any field of conflict.

Often I struggle to understand how we cannot find the cure for basic illnesses yet a man can sit in a different country “flying” an unmanned aerial reconnaissance vehicle passing real time information to other machines that will engage the target in real time!

The fact that the enemy is outgunned does not dissuade the insurgents from attacking us, quite the opposite in fact. The end result is the enemy attacks us is two different ways, Firstly is the traditional force on force engagement where he will set up an ambush of sorts, waiting until a friendly forces patrol turns up and then attack very briefly but with all the force he can muster.

Secondly and more devastating he will employ various improvised explosive devices (IED’s) to attack us often without the need to be present and thus not risk death or capture. Improvised explosive devices are now a constant reality of life here and for the enemy they potentially fulfil a number of criteria.

Firstly when executed correctly the result as painfully evident from the news is fatal but the effects go beyond this. The proliferation of IED’s creates unavoidable fear for both friendly forces and the local populace and they can have the effect of restricting movement.

The use of IED’s is a classic guerrilla tactic, it is relatively cheap and easy to deploy and is much less manpower intensive. In addition the indigenous Afghan is a master of invention and improvisation as can be witnessed if you ever see an Afghan repairing anything from a sewing machine to a car.

For our part we are able to combat the majority of this threat, in the main through good training and preparation and as a response we use the traditional type of engagement to test the enemies resolve in open combat. In summary we have an enemy that has been forced into a corner by sheer combat power and the application of military discipline and who has had to resort to other methods to try and stem the flow of his losses.

Another unavoidable truth of battle is that despite all the technology, the bombs, missiles and aircraft, it is the Infantryman with the sharp point of his bayonet that is the only true way to capture and hold ground. This is why we, your soldiers of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment have deployed and that is why many of my colleagues find themselves exposed to the realities of conflict up close and personal on a daily basis.

For myself I live in relative comfort only miles from those for whom the words sacrifice, combat and true courage are not abstract concepts but rather the only way to survive in what sometimes can be a harsh, unforgiving land. Despite being here so close to those of whom I speak my thoughts go out to those who sit in the dark looking out across disputed territory knowing that somewhere close men are plotting their demise.

In the next instalment I will begin to relate some of the realities of combat here and will use examples from this tour and our previous tour to show you the sacrifices YOUR soldiers are making on your behalf.

Until the stay safe and be good to one another.

Monday, May 4, 2009

FCO - Stabilisation Advisor - James Donally - Gunfire at dawn

Thus did our incoming Battle Group announce itself in Musa Qala. But don’t be alarmed, it was just the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers’ way of marking St George’s Day, and the "gunfire" was actually supplied by a drummer.

Quite nice, though, to be woken up with cup of tea laced with rum (I’m all for tradition). Interestingly, this is the first lot of soldiers I’ve worked with here that are predominantly English, the previous two groups being Scottish and Nepalese. Then, in the evening we marked that other fine English tradition of having a curry, cooked for us by our Punjabi MoD police mentor.

Up the hill, the District Governor is back from his epic tour of Afghanistan and India and is keeping us busy with his demands. Having been mixing with the high-fliers in Kabul and Mumbai I think he might be finding the business of local government in Musa Qala a bit dull.

But we’re receiving more and more Afghan governmental visitors here who are coming to deliver their services (and spend their money) under improved security conditions, so that should help focus the Governor’s mind. In particular, a visit by a commission spent a week here assessing whether we are in a fit state to receive the Afghan Social Outreach Programme.

This programme will establish a community council that will bring different community representatives together to discuss and agree actions on security, justice and development. It means we’ll have a genuinely local and representative council in Musa Qala with some real powers and some real money to spend.

And I have just waved off the Deputy Provincial Governor plus some senior Afghan security officials, accompanied by the Deputy Head of the Civil-Military Mission to Helmand. The Deputy Governor expressed his satisfaction and appreciation of a far better security situation in Musa Qala than he’d expected.

This was a much needed visit that reinforced the Afghan government’s commitment to this district. It also provided a reason for the Governor to serve up some top-notch Afghan food, including fresh rations, and giving us 24 hours off the dreaded spam.