Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 13

Welcome one again readers from the Marwood Worcester and any one else who has taken the time to read the Blogs so far.

To set the theme this week I would like to offer the words of George Bernard Shaw as I believe his words reflect well the thoughts I have had these past seven days.

There are fine things which you mean to do some day; under what you think will be more favourable circumstances. But the only time that is surely yours is the present; hence this is the time to speak the word of appreciation and sympathy, to do the generous deed, to forgive the fault of a thoughtless friend, to sacrifice self a little more for others.

Today is the day in which to express your noblest qualities of mind and heart, to do at least one worthy thing which you have long postponed, and to use your God-given abilities for the enrichment of someone less fortunate. Today you can make your life - significant and worthwhile. The present is yours to do with as you will.

You will of course know by now that over the last few weeks the Insurgents in this land have claimed the lives of several British troops and less well publicised a number of brave Afghan National Army soldiers. The second Battalion the Mercian Regiment has itself suffered, as has many others but as we have said before we will not be moved from our aim.

The Afghan soldiers that serve along side our own forces, are even more committed to the cause of a free and democratic Afghanistan than we are and fight fiercely against those who they see as corruptors of their land and way of life.

This week we have had the pleasure of the company of the BBC and other press representatives. They have come here to see for themselves the conditions and reality of the situation here. During a visit with the Unit Press Officer Captain Cresswell they themselves found out what it was like to be “in contact with the insurgents” and I am sure the stories they take back with them may have a little more colour than they anticipated.

It is my hope that they can return with no small measure of pride in your troops and can therefore attest to the fact that we your soldiers are serving in your name with distinction and dedication.

The Battalion is still committed on a daily basis to improving the capability of the Afghan Army; this in turn brings them in to frequent conflict with the Insurgents, who at the moment are engaged in a battle fought with explosive devices and short violent engagements.

Having spoken to many of the lads coming through camp Tombstone to go on leave, there is little doubt in my mind that the insurgents are as determined as ever to capture and dominate key areas for themselves, as to control an area is to control the population.

Just over a week ago a good friend of mine Martyn Chatterley who is working as a Sergeant Major with the Brigade Reconnaissance Force (BRF) was involved in such an incident and this is a brief summary of what he could remember all be it in my words.

As the BRF we are often tasked to seek out where the insurgents are, this enables future planning to take action against areas deemed under their control. This task is essential as information provided by other sources can be unreliable and sketchy at best.

These tasks are in themselves inherently dangerous as we must cover ground not used in some time and also we will be operating in the insurgents 'back yard'.

The insurgent forces will almost always attack any formation they see approaching or encroaching on their areas of strength.

On the morning of the incident we were tasked to try and establish where the front lines of the insurgents are in a particular area. This would involve moving towards areas indicated by intelligence until the Insurgents engaged us, thus unmasking their positions and confirming their locations.

On our approach to the possible insurgent location we moved as we always do with as much stealth as possible, offering as little a target as possible at all times. We were getting very close when my vehicle was hit by an explosive device. In the movies when this happens the vehicle lifts of the ground and comes down on intact wheels in a cloud of smoke. Reality is very different, I don’t recall the whole of the event due to the initial shock of attack and my injuries; however I do remember the sheer force of the explosion.

The detonation of a large explosive device in a confined space is in itself a potent physical force. Normal objects like rocks and sand become superheated shrapnel driven by an invisible, unstoppable shock wave. To find yourself in the middle of such a force must be a truly terrifying experience and will I am sure be indelibly marked on the memory.

Martyn and his crew considered themselves 'lucky' although how someone who has faced what they have can be classed as such defies normal logic. To me it highlights yet again the professionalism and bravery of our troops on the front line.

There are many types of bravery for example there is the instant type of bravery which will see someone throw themselves in front of a car to save a child. The bravery shown here daily is different and more the impressive for it. Time after time our soldiers will go to places that will likely be mined or contain a fanatical apposing force. In doing so they show the type of grit and determination for which the British soldier is known and feared for. They do so knowing the potential cost as no sane person who has attended a repatriation ceremony cannot fail to be reminded of cost of operations in this theatre.

Martyn has returned to Operations and will continue to soldier on regardless of his brush with fate, his crew were also injured but all will hopefully fully recover soon. We are thankful that no permanent damage was done as many times before such attacks have had a different and much worse outcome.

As I end this week’s offering I would like to wish Lucy and the rest of the news crew a safe journey home. I hope they remember that aside from the obvious confrontations with a determined insurgency we are achieving great things here at considerable cost. They return with our best wishes and the hopes of us all for a safe conclusion of this tour


Friday, June 5, 2009

Lt Col Simon Banton, 2 MERCIAN, reports from Helmand (Part 4)

The last 3 weeks have been a busy time indeed for the 2 MERCIAN BG. We took part in an Operation that helped push the Taliban out of one of their last strongholds and
worked with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) in doing so.

The Operation started just over two weeks ago with joint planning between the ANA, ANP, local leaders, 19 Brigade and under the watchful eye of 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment. It was a prime example of how the Afghan National Security Forces are taking responsibility for their security and taking the battle to the insurgent forces operating in Afghanistan.

Starting on Monday, 27th April, more than 150 warriors of the Afghan National Army and 60 Afghan National Policeman deployed on Operation ZAFAR, which means 'Journey' in the local Pashtu language.

Two teams of 10 men from 2 MERCIAN Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLT), accompanied the Afghan warriors while Gurkhas supported the Policemen. The operation was coordinated on the ground by the 2 MERCIAN Battlegroup headquarters. In total, 35 of your soldiers were involved in the operation at all levels including myself.
The Operation began with a move into villages around BASHARAN to clear the Taliban out and allow Afghan security forces to establish themselves.

Within ten minutes of the operation beginning fighting broke out with the insurgents and then lasted for 2 days. The Afghan Army cleared the enemy held areas and Policemen secured villages and reassured the local population. The Afghan Warriors fighting alongside your soldiers proved to be seasoned fighters and fought hard to provide security in this part of their own country.

Under the careful guidance of the Gurkhas, the Policemen reassured the local people. During this week-long operation many Taliban insurgents are known to have been killed, while the ANA and 2 MERCIAN sustained only a handful of casualties, none serious. The action pushed the Taliban out of several villages near to the provincial capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah.

By the end of the week, UK stabilisation teams were conducting meetings with the local elders, religious teachers and leaders who have been under the shadow of the Taliban for some time, offering a range of ways to help the villagers, from refurbishing schools to improving healthcare provision and security.

My Battle Group headquarters was involved in the initial phase of the operation, where the enemy provided a determined resistance and were not willing to give up the area without a fight. During one 3 hour stage, all elements of the force were involved and we called in air strikes and artillery bombardments to support the troops. With the enemy being outmatched they soon withdrew and by Wednesday we were in a position to start building up permanent bases for the ANA and ANP in this newly captured area.

Within 30 hours and with protection from our forces, the ANA and the ANP the Royal Engineers had secured and fortified an area the size of 2 football pitches.
This operation was another example of the progress being made by the Afghanistan National Army.

They proved to be flexible, committed and brave. On more than one occasion it was touch and go as the enemy fought hard, but the Afghan Warriors did not retreat.

You can be assured that the MERCIAN soldiers fought hard and were absolutely indomitable. They are fine successors to many thousands of infantrymen who have
joined and fought with the Regiments raised in Nottingham, Derbyshire and Worcestershire for the last 300 years.

This was the largest operation that 2 MERCIAN has been involved in since we took over and I am very proud of my soldiers. With just over a quarter of the tour passed I am confident we are up to the task in hand and will continue to work with out Afghan friends to further the security situation in Helmand. As always we pass on our regards to those in the UK and hope you are well.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Colour Sergeant Mike Saunders, 2 MERCIAN, blogs from Helmand - Part 12

If you are reading this letter today know that we are in great sadness. On Thursday morning those who oppose all that we strive to make, took from us the life of one of our brothers.

Truly if there is to be a road to peace in this land of much trouble, the foundations will have been cast by those who have fallen in the pursuit of a higher ideal.
For those of us left behind we are duty bound to bear witness to all they have done. In that telling there is no place to recall how they died, yet speak only of how they have lived, as to do so is to gift them a future in place of that which was stolen.

Too soon, we will send our friend home and as we stand as one he will pass us one last time. With heads held high and with heavy hearts we must give him back to those who have loved him most.

Treat this soldier's memory with kindness, remember not those things that made him less than he was and rather in the quiet times recall all that was good in him.

For his family there are no kind words, or the wishes of the great and the good that can lessen the torment of this most final grief, hold them in your thoughts for who has given more yet asked for less.
He was someone's son, he was a soldier, he was a friend, guard his memory well. And as we stand as a body of men to repatriate the body with the highest of respect, we will stand alongside all the races and creeds which comprise the British Army and all the different tribes which comprise the Afghan National Army.
Regardless of background, we will be united in our respect for a fallen brother. The purpose of our deployment to this country is to achieve a united Afghanistan; it is a parody that this is achieved though violent action and the loss of our brethren.
The enemies of freedom and peace have sought to weaken us this day, but their actions have strengthened our resolve and we will not be moved from our mission. For this week I will say no more, but rather give respectful silence in the memory of the fallen. Next week I will write again when I will tell you of more actions of your Mercian Regiment.


Corporal Steve Childs, 10 Platoon, 2 RIFLES, FOB Gibraltar, Helmand

10 Platoon arrived in FOB Gibraltar around the 15th of April, taking over from a group of very large, tanned Royal Marines. There was an element of ground rush almost immediately as the enormity of the task ahead presented itself. However the lads soon got ready and we were on patrol almost immediately.

The Green Zone, where we operate is a strip of irrigated land either side of the Helmand River. It is made up of poppy and wheat fields, tree lines and deep irrigation ditches. Interspersed among all of this are mud walled compounds that could have been there for hundreds of years. The fields are divided up in a similar way to England with tree lines and irrigation ditches taking the place of hedges. The heat can be intense. When you take a knee in the wheat field the heat is trapped among the stalks and it can get oppressive.

The first few days we were here the Poppies were in full bloom and you could be mistaken for calling the local area beautiful. Since we have been here, we have watched the poppy harvested and the fields cleared for maize and the wheat ripen and turn yellow. The Afghans trying as much as possible to carry on with their everyday lives despite being caught in the middle of an intense conflict between ourselves and the Taliban.

The local Afghans are an interesting lot. 30 years of near perpetual conflict has left them philosophical about their future and their present. Most of the elders are illiterate although they are no fools; they are resigned to their fate of being middlemen in our current deployment.

The Afghan National Army, which we work with on a daily basis down in their own Patrol Base are very different. Most of them are from the North of Afghanistan, so they look different. The locals here are ethnic Pashtuns where as the ANA are Tajiks and Uzbeks. They can be very funny not least in their partiality to some of the younger, better looking members of the platoon. Strangely Cpl Waldron has been invited to the ANA Commander’s summer house on leave, sorry Steph but you have some competition.

As far as welfare in the FOB is concerned we need to correct the expectation that there is internet and text link in the FOB. There was the former but all the terminals are broken and are now back in Bastion so the only means of communication is by Satellite Phone.

The lads are writing letters but you must realise that helicopters come so rarely to the FOB that there can be at least a month disconnect from the letter being written to it arriving to you so please be patient.

I cannot emphasise how important Parcels are for morale and every fortnight when the Helicopter comes in it is like Christmas morning for the guys so keep sending them!
My job as platoon commander is made so easy by the hard work, dedication and diligence of the men under my command. They are an inspiration to me and you should all be very proud.

Corporal Steve Childs
1 Section Commander
10 Platoon