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AFGHANISTAN MY JOURNEY TO THE HELMAND PROVINCE PART 8
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 in to 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. --Michael Saunders