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Introduction: Operation Herrick 4

In April 2006, the troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade started to arrive in Helmand province as part of Operation Herrick 4. The entire force totalled around 3,300 troops. This was a journey into the unknown for British soldiers because they were taking over from US forces. However, it soon became clear that the hope of John Reid, the defence secretary, that we would be able to leave within three years without a shot being fired was unrealistic.

The main combat power was provided by 3 Battalion The Parachute Regiment supported by 1 Battalion The Royal Irish, the Apache attack helicopters of 9 Regiment Army Air Corp, Chinooks from 27 Squadron RAF, 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, a battery of Desert Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles from 32 Regiment Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers from 51 Parachute Squadron. Other support roles were assumed by 13 Air Assault Regiment RLC (Royal Logistic Corps), 7 Air Assault Battalion REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and 16 Air Assault Medical Regiment. Harriers from the Joint Force Harrier detachment, which had been operating from Kandahar since September 2004, provided troops with vital close air support; 34 Squadron of the RAF Regiment offered Force Protection.

April 2006

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, Royal Marines

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, of 42 Commando The Royal Marines, is thirty-five. The son of a civil engineer, he was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, and has a brother. His family moved to Chatham, Kent, when he was eleven. Whitehead joined the Army Cadets aged twelve and the Royal Marines at seventeen, a year after leaving school. He has been on operational tours to Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan twice, the first in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US, and the second to Helmand province in 2006. Whitehead left the Royal Marines in September 2008 with a medical discharge to work as a regional director for a specialist asbestos company. He lives near Dartmoor, Devon.

We arrived in Lashkar Gah at the end of March. But it wasn't my first tour to Afghanistan. I had been one of the few to be there in 2002 when the Marines were sent there as part of Op Jacana. On that occasion, we ended up staying for five months. It was seen as the big search [for Osama bin Laden], the show of force, and to support the Americans in the hunt for terrorists. It was all very new for us as a brigade. It was a steep learning curve, which we took in our stride. There wasn't anything really in and around Bagram [air base] but there were a lot of operations going out into numerous cave complexes and to the far south to places like Khowst. Back then no one went that far south. It was eventful in that we met a lot of people.

There were local villages around us. There were always incidents. There were two villages near our little perimeter track that we made through the minefields around the outside of Bagram: in one village our track went through it and so, obviously, the Americans gave them a briefcase of money and said, 'Thank you very much for letting us use your field.' So, those villagers were happy with us. But the other village, which was approximately 500 metres away, hated them because they [the first village] got the money but they themselves didn't. So they used to mortar each other every night and set traps for each other's kids and stuff like that. We had to take charge of that and try to sort it out. But the locals in Kabul, where the Taliban had fallen the year before, during Op Anaconda, were generally very pleased to see us. It was very quick how you saw a Western approach to everything: the women started wearing jeans under their burkas and things like that.

So it was strange being back in Afghanistan four years later. Before we got out there, the advance party was caught in a suicide bombing. The first multiple out there had to deal with it. They got hit by a suicide bombing at the front gate at Lashkar Gah camp, which shocked them massively. There were a couple of injuries, nothing serious, just walking wounded. Of course, the suicide bomber died. And the vehicle was written off. So we were sat around on our bergens [rucksacks] delayed, waiting to get out there and obviously we heard about it.

It was a weird time because we had a lot of young lads in the Army, and a lot in my multiple. They had never been operational. They gave them to me because apparently with my experience I could take care of them. So the anxiety was quite noticeable, to say the least. Before we got there, everyone was like, 'What are we going into?' Very anxious.

As soon as we got out there, we took over from the Americans. The Americans had a very forceful, aggressive way of handling the local fraternity. They would suit up, heavily armoured in their SUVs, and drive around Lashkar Gah as fast as possible to get from A to B and back again. Our battery commander had his head screwed on. He had discussions with all the multiple commanders and we wanted to go out there with our arms open. But from day one it was 'Suck it and see.' We thought: Are we going to wear berets or are we going to go too soft? Are we going to always have our weapons like this [he raises his arms] or are they going to be down by our sides? These debates were going on from the start, while we were out on patrol. No one knew what our approach should be because we did not have any information to tell us how to do this or that. So it was another steep learning curve. But we got to grips with it well. The population loved us.

This time round [Operation Herrick 4 and into Operation Herrick 5] I was a multiple commander. When we originally turned up in Lashkar Gah, there were only 250 people [today there are more than 1,500]. There was a nice fountain in the middle and a volleyball court, all designed and made by the Americans. There was a perimeter fence and inside there were little pieces of hardened accommodation that the Americans had built. I was lucky enough to have one of these. It was a six-man room with three bunk beds but you had your portable TV and your Xbox.

1 May 2006

McNab: This was a significant day. The Union flag replaced the Stars and Stripes at Lashkar Gah as America formally handed over the 'watch' of Helmand province to Britain. The first members of 16 Air Assault Brigade had been arriving there throughout April. The military task was to keep the peace and to support development projects organized by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development. The aim was to bring Helmand into the ambit of the central Afghan government. British efforts were to centre on bolstering the authority of the governor and reforming the province's parlous police, judiciary and penal system. But it was privately acknowledged that the Taliban had been steeled by America pulling its forces from Helmand, which produces most of Afghanistan's £1.6 billion-worth of drugs.

May 2006

Captain Nick Barton, DFC, Army Air Corps

Captain Nick Barton, DFC, is an Apache helicopter pilot with the Army Air Corps. Aged thirty-two, he grew up in West Sussex and, after leaving school, took a gap year in New Zealand teaching sport, and travelled the world. He graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering with French. In 2001, he went to Sandhurst for officer training, sponsored by the Royal Engineers. After he had passed flying aptitude courses, he joined the Army Air Corps. Following his eighteen-month helicopter pilots' course, which started in January 2002, he joined 656 Squadron as an Apache pilot. He has completed four tours in Afghanistan, serving with 656, 662 and 664 Squadrons, and has since been posted to instruct at Sandhurst.

The Apache is a clever aircraft. It has amazing technology. It's robust, very durable and very capable. And it has awesome fire-power. It can fly at 140 knots max. We – there is a crew of two – can cruise at 120 knots. In Afghanistan, we have an extra fuel tank. We carry twenty-four rockets, and a standard load is two Hellfire missiles, although we can adjust the weapons' load according to the mission. We sit one pilot in front of the other. You can fly from each seat. The more experienced person is usually the mission commander. Ideally, he should be in the front seat, since it's the only one from which you can operate the laser and control the sights. For weapons' guidance, range, etc., that is a front-seat job. Ultimately the Apache is an attack helicopter. The optics are amazing – on a very clear day, at midday, you will be able to break out a guy at about twelve Ks [kilometres], depending on haze. A new sighting system is becoming operational at the moment, which will greatly improve the night-time capability.

Ideally, you want to get target rounds on your first burst from your 30mm, probably your initial weapon for a point target. There is always going to be some slight error in the gun of, say, ten to fifteen metres when you're firing from two K in a moving aircraft. Flying straight at the target is more accurate. You then want to be able to adjust straight away so you're looking for perfect second rounds hit.

Most of the time you fly as a pair [of Apaches] so you have four pairs of eyes looking out – and you have mutual support if you develop a fault or problem. The patrol commander will be mission lead and he will do the majority of the radio work, and your wing aircraft will be the lower aircraft. The higher aircraft is going to get a better line-of-sight comms, leaving the wing to focus more on the targeting. However, some patrol commanders do it differently. Our main role is attack: providing close-fire support for the ground troops. Our other role is providing escort protection to other aircraft, which are going in to the tastier [more dangerous] landing sites.

I first went out to Afghanistan on 1 May 2006. We flew into Kabul, over-nighted there, then went down to Kandahar. Initially we operated out of Kandahar for the first month and a bit – we used to deploy for the day and operate out of [Camp] Bastion when it was a shell compared to what it is now. So we were operating off a gravel pad – quite sporty [challenging/dangerous] – and it was austere in comparison to the runways and air-traffic control that we have now.

Afghanistan was pretty desolate. You were never quite sure what you were going into. There's a certain amount of tension about anyone's first tour. I certainly had a few questions as to why we were there. But you can console yourself by thinking: My job is to be as good as I can be, to provide the best support to whichever call sign needs us.

18 May 2006

McNab: Our troops in Afghanistan received an early indication of the scale of the Taliban resistance. More than a hundred people died as Taliban fighters and Afghan forces clashed in the fiercest fighting since Britain had arrived in the province. A wave of attacks left some eighty-seven Taliban fighters and suicide bombers dead. The battles also left about fifteen Afghan police, a Canadian soldier, an American civilian and an Afghan civilian dead. Nine hours of fighting had begun after reports that Taliban fighters had massed in Musa Qa'leh a day earlier.

19 May 2006

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAC

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, is a Chinook helicopter pilot with the RAF. Aged twenty-nine, he is Canadian and was born in Jasper, a town in the Rockies. He was brought up in Nova Scotia and went to New Brunswick University to do a degree in international relations. However, he decided not to complete his course because he joined the RAF. Initially he questioned the value of his six-month training at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, but he knuckled down and fulfilled his ambition to fly military helicopters. After a relatively quiet tour of Iraq, he served in the Falkland Islands, Northern Ireland and Europe. He arrived in Afghanistan, as a flying officer, in May 2006 for a two-month tour. He has since been promoted to flight lieutenant and has done a further five tours to Afghanistan. Hasler, who is single, is based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire.

The Chinook is essentially a troop-carrying helicopter, used to drop off and collect troops [including injured soldiers]. It is about 100 feet long, 20 feet tall, and it can fly at up to 160 knots. It is armed with two mini guns and an M60D machinegun. It is flown by two pilots who sit side by side. We also have two crewmen, who do everything the pilots don't do: loading and unloading and also firing the guns if needed. The crewmen work the aircraft – we just fly it. If we're dropping off light-ordered troops, just with their weapons and ammunition, then we could carry thirty to forty max in Afghanistan. But it also depends on the conditions – how hot it is, how high we are. Thirty to thirty-five troops would be a good, safe number. Flying helicopters for me is a schoolboy dream that I've never grown out of.

20 May

Departed the Sqn at 2100L [local time] to pick up a few crewmen, and headed to Brize [Norton] to catch our Tristar. For once, the movers at Brize didn't fuck us around too much and we were on the plane in quite good time.

I was pleasantly surprised when a girl from my Initial Officer Training course [at RAF Cranwell] sat beside me. Besides being a Harrier pilot, extremely pleasant and quite clever, she is also very attractive. This had the benefit of making the trip to Kabul seem much shorter.

As we approached Kabul, we were instructed to don our Kevlar helmets and CBA [body armour]. This is a very peculiar sight; being in a white airliner wearing combat gear ... funny maybe only to me.

Upon arriving at 1500L, we were received by the movers and told that our onward flight to Kandahar wouldn't be leaving until 0500L the following morning. It almost felt good being fucked around again by the movers, like some sort of global balance was restored.

Finally, we arrived at KAF [Kandahar airfield] at 2300L on the 19th. KAF runs on Zulu time [a military time zone the same as Greenwich Mean Time], though, so it was actually 0300Z. It would have been great to get our heads down at that point, as we were all exhausted, but instead we were thrust immediately into theatre briefs ... very long briefs.

We awoke today with the sun and were subjected to more briefs and familiarized ourselves with the running of the ops. The latter took the majority of the day.

Upon initial assessment, it is quite clear to me that 'Afghan' is going to be much busier than Iraq. Just today a large US, French and ANA (Afghan National Army) convoy left Camp Kajaki down in the north of Helmand and headed for Camp Robinson in the south. They were ambushed by approx 15 TB (Taliban) and suffered heavy casualties (35–40 dead), including 2–3 French and 2 US. The Chinook IRT [incident-response team] was ordered to pick up the casualties and provide top cover (aided by Harrier and Apache). Later, the 3 Chinooks were tasked with landing the Paras in and around the TIC [troops in contact] in order to provide a defensive line.

Yesterday a Canadian FAC [forward air controller] was killed by an RPG whilst directing A-10s [planes] and Apaches onto an enemy position. She was the first female cas [casualty, fatality] suffered since the Second World War. This place is definitely dangerous and we are right in the middle of it.

May 2006

Major Maria Holliday, QGM, Royal Military Police (RMP)

Major Maria Holliday, QGM, of the Royal Military Police (RMP) is forty-nine. She was born and brought up in Chorley, Lancashire. An only child, her father was an armaments inspector. She attended Holy Cross High School in Chorley before joining the Army in 1978. Her father had served in the Army during the Second World War and Holliday was just four when she announced she intended to follow in his footsteps. She joined as a private in the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), but later transferred to the RMP. Holliday served in Northern Ireland for more than seven years, during which she was awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal (QGM). She was commissioned as a late-entry officer in 1999. She served in Iraq in 2005 and Afghanistan in 2006. Holliday is based at the Army's Bulford camp in Wiltshire.

I arrived in Afghanistan in early April 2007 as the company commander for 174 Provost Company 3 RMP and as the force provost marshal [FPM] for the UK task force. We deployed on 6 April after completing a six-month training period in the UK. When we first deployed, although my company headquarters was in Kandahar, I also had a detachment in Kabul and the majority of my troops were in Helmand province. I spent an awful lot of time on the road, so to speak, but actually in helicopters. If I had been collecting air miles I would have been doing very well! I was spending quite a lot of time in Helmand but about seven weeks into the tour I was also appointed as the SO2 ANP in addition to my company command and FPM role – this meant I was a staff officer responsible for the Afghan National Police, as part of a newly formed Security Sector reform cell.

I had never been to Afghanistan before. When you land on an RAF flight somewhere like that, all the lights get turned off and you have to put your helmet and all your body armour on whilst sitting in your seat on the plane; I think people who have never experienced that before feel a bit of trepidation landing like that – it all goes very quiet. When you arrive in Kandahar it's a huge, multinational camp. It was only half built at the time. A lot of things were still going on in terms of building but it had all the normal facilities that you get on a large army base whilst on a deployment, like little shops and cafés and stuff like that. Because it's an air base, it's a huge camp but you don't get to see anything of Kandahar itself, unless it's your job to patrol there.

Throughout May, I spent my time going between Kandahar, Kabul, Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah. As company commander, I had to make sure that the brigade commander was getting the RMP support he needed, in the right places and at the right time, to support his operations. So it was just ensuring any planned operation was given RMP support at the right level and choosing the right characters for it, depending on what the operation was. One of our main roles out there was getting involved in detention issues, giving advice and guidance to commanders on the ground when they took an Afghan detainee. We had to ensure that that detainee was handled correctly and that the evidence to support the arrest was gathered in the right way. We would guide them [British soldiers] on how best to produce that evidence and what evidence would be needed to support the detainee being handed over to the Afghans.

It was a very difficult situation, bearing in mind that we were there to support the Afghans. We were not at war with them so any arrested locals were designated as detainees – they were not prisoners of war. Quite often during operations in Helmand – which involved other nationalities [such as the Americans] – if somebody was injured, they might be flown to the British medical facility in Camp Bastion, even if they were suspected to be Taliban. Then, by virtue of the fact that the British medical services were looking after them, they became a British detainee. So trying to gather the evidence against them was difficult because we were going up different military chains, different national chains.

But that was not our only role. We also acted as first responders where we could in the case of a UK death. Our Special Investigation Branch [SIB] colleagues are appointed coroners' officers: they gather evidence and investigate the death. Every UK death is treated as an alleged murder; the SIB gather evidence for the UK coroner on his behalf. So, as first responders to any UK death, we had to gather any evidence we could from the scene in terms of forensic evidence and witness statements. That is part of the RMP role, which can be difficult depending on where the incident has occurred and what the tactical situation is on the ground. There were some scenes [scenes of crime] that you simply couldn't get anywhere near because it was too dangerous.

We also police the [British military] force. As part of our traditional military-police role, we would investigate fights or thefts just as we would anywhere else.

In normal policing terms, it was relatively quiet because the troops were so busy and Afghanistan is 'dry': they weren't allowed to drink alcohol, and alcohol always fuels fights and the like, so, in terms of traditional policing, there was very little to do. The main thrust of our work, and certainly that of the SIB, was investigating the deaths of British soldiers but also supporting operations. We had thirty deaths throughout our six-month tour. The SIB were the prime investigators but we worked alongside them.

21 May 2006 [diary]

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF

A frustrating day. I've been here for a few days now and still haven't flown yet. I was a half-hour from getting airborne today, with all of my kit at the ready, when the aircraft I was taking over went U/S [unserviceable]. This seems to be a recurring problem, due perhaps to the amount of flying that we are demanding from the cabs.

With any luck, I will complete my TQ (theatre qualification) tomorrow. In any normal theatre [such as Iraq], a TQ would involve a rather sedate trip, including a local area familiarization and some dust-landing practice. In Afghanistan, however, the op tempo is such that there are no spare cabs or training hours available. Therefore, my TQ tomorrow will be six hours of operational training, flying the Paras into the very spot where the convoy was hit yesterday.

May

We did an op – Op Mutay. It was the Paras' first airborne assault. It was to the eastern village of Now Zad. We knew there were enemy forces there and we just wanted to kick the nest a bit and see what happened. It was broad daylight when we flew in a five-ship assault.

I prefer flying in daylight. You can't see the tracer [firing from the ground] and you can't hear it because the Chinook is so loud. If you're getting engaged, you don't know about it, and that's sometimes a bit better. And you can see where you're landing so there's less chance of a crash.

I was a flying officer at the time and therefore the co-pilot in charge of navigation. I was trying not to get us lost or land in the wrong place. We had decided to assault three compounds. When you're about half to three-quarters of a K away, you try to identify the landing spot. But if there's a shitload of compounds it's hard to ID the right one. It works sometimes but it's not an exact science. You have an aiming spot and you have to make sure your buddy [the other Chinook] can get in too. But for the last twenty feet or so, there's so much dust that you're blind. It's like flying in clouds. You just have to trust your techniques and hope you don't hit a big boulder or go into a ditch you hadn't seen, or something else goes wrong.

We were engaged before we landed but we didn't know about it. Then, as soon as the troops got off, there was incoming [fire]. We landed two aircraft in the back garden quite close to the compound to shock the hell out of them. The downdraught kicked up a huge amount of dust. It was my first real dust landing in anger with guys shooting at me. Everything was moving so quickly. You're aware straight away that you're under fire because you're on the same net [radio network] as the boys. Contacts were being called in but there was nothing we could do. Our ramp was down, offloading troops, but you just have to stay there until all the boys are out. At least the guys in the back [the two crew] have a mini-gun [a six-barrelled Gatling-style weapon] and two M60s [machine-guns] that they can hide behind and shoot back.

We could see the fire too but we had no idea where it was coming from. There were moments where I thought, Please hurry the fuck up, but you can't rush the boys because they're going as quick as they can. They don't want to stay on the helicopter any longer than they have to because they're vulnerable as well. The helicopter is a big, noisy target. It's no secret: we're most vulnerable to RPGs and small-arms fire when we're on our approach and when we're on the ground.

Once everyone was out, we took off. It was tense – maybe we're just pansies – but we were up again after just a few seconds. We went airborne and we held in pattern waiting for a pick-up call, or if there was any injury we'd go and get them. We listened on the nets for the call to come and get the injured but it never came. Once we were clear, the two Apaches went in and covered the boys [on the ground]. It was the first real helicopter assault on the enemy. We also had stacks of fast jet up above us too ...

Once all was quiet – after maybe twelve hours – and everyone [the estimated thirty Taliban] was dead, we went to pick up the boys. And that's the way it should be. It was a really good day. Nobody got so much as a paper cut that day and they killed a lot of their boys [Taliban], so spirits were up. There had been a couple of really close calls, though. One of the troops took a round through his chest plate – through the magazines that were on his chest – and out the other side. Another guy took an RPG through his Land Rover – they weren't armoured then. And another guy got kicked by a cow – they killed the cow obviously! The dits [stories] afterwards were pretty fucking hilarious. It was great. There had been a large scope for things to go wrong, but it was great. We felt very good about things. It was a good eye-opener.

May 2006

Captain Nick Barton, DFC, Army Air Corps

My first ever contact was during Op Mutay. I was the wing aircraft [of two Apache helicopters] on my first tour. I was still a captain but only the flight 2IC [second in command]. For the first six weeks it seemed that, operating as a pair, one of the flights had been in the right place at the right time, had fired quite a lot, and had had all of the contacts. Not that you ever want to engage but that's what you're trained to do. For Op Mutay, we were the high-readiness pair and were only due to support the op if there was a problem with the deliberate tasking flight or if it endured past their crew duty.

As was customary we had read into the op: in outline a daytime op for a 3 Para air assault into Now Zad to target Taliban forces in a few known compounds. We launched 250 [men] in two waves of Chinooks, a fire-support group and all the rest of it into the badlands of Now Zad. At the time, we didn't know how bad they were. The op was starting to sound quite busy with reports of quite a few contacts and the supporting Apaches had been firing again. Since we were not dedicated to support specifically, it was likely that the same flight was going to have another busy day. We got stepped up. One of the aircraft had taken a couple of rounds and had to be shut down for servicing. Our pair complete, we replaced them and went up making best speed departing from the gravel pad at Bastion at approximately 10 a.m. There were various platoons on the ground in two rough groups and we split our pair up accordingly, one aircraft working to each of the two forward platoons. Ideally you are speaking directly to the JTAC [joint terminal air controller] of the lead company that wants your support.

As they [the Paras] were pushing up to this particular building, I thought: Shit, that's someone firing at them – just as they called, 'Contact' [over the radio]. I was seeing the muzzle flash from the guys [Taliban] behind a wall. Fortunately, I was visual with the firing point, something I now realize is a luxury as the firing point is often very hard to see. We were a bit too close to engage straight away and, it being my first contact, I took a bit of time to get in position, get clearance from the JTAC to fire 30mm and get accurate rounds on. We would have been at between two and two and half thousand feet, about one K from the target. Without a shadow of a doubt, there were two of them firing over a wall. They were firing an AK-47 [assault rifle], and possibly one had a PKM [machine-gun] with a slightly longer barrel. We were still operating everything under self-defence [Rules of Engagement]. They were probably 150 metres closing to 100 metres of where the friendlies [British forces] were. I was the aircraft commander in the front seat where you operate the sights and do most of the firing. You make sure the sight, TADS [targeting acquisition designating sight], is pointing accurately at the target; it's compensated for motion so it's nice and steady. You're zoomed in on the day TV camera as much as you can be. You lase [laser] for range, action the gun, check the range and, provided there are no other weaponeering messages, you fire. You watch for the fall of shot, adjust accordingly, and fire again.

Our first burst was perhaps fifteen to twenty metres from the target and we got cleared to fire again with a good rounds call from the JTAC. We could see the muzzle flashes so we put 120 rounds in and around the wall. They stopped firing but there was an orchard on the west side so we couldn't see any bodies or if we actually got them. We know that they no longer fired so it achieved its aim and the Para platoon swept through the area. Knowing what I know now, I could have paused a little bit more so that my initial burst was as accurate as it could have been rather than firing off axis. If you're running straight at them it's going to be more accurate and, hopefully, you can hit them before they start running. The best approach is to track them, then ambush them with 30mm rounds at the point of your choosing.

But it was good. We had four different radios going: an Ops Room radio, an inter-aircraft radio and two different frequencies speaking to the controller of two different company groups. So the divvying up of tasks within the cockpit can be tricky.

The contact went on for five or ten minutes. When it went quiet, we came back for fuel. But the Paras had done pretty well to clear through a pretty dodgy area. It was an eyeopener for everyone at that time. Later in the day, our pair [of Apache] went back up to co-ordinate the pick-up and recovery. The recovery was done with one or two Chinooks less than the drop-off to squeeze it in before we lost the light. Our role was to provide the continued cover as well as confirming the pick-up grid for the Chinooks. It was hot and the Chinooks were [each] picking up forty-four guys plus all their kit. By all accounts it was pretty sporty lifting out of the landing site with extremely limited power. Fortunately everyone got back [safely] and it was mission accomplished.

The temperature and the altitude make a real difference to how thin the air is and how hard the engines have to work to produce the same power. In the UK, lifting the same aircraft load, we would have been lifting with approximately 82 per cent power. In Afghanistan, in 45°C at 3,000 feet, we would probably be lifting at 93 per cent power. But that was our first big op and it felt good to be a part of it.

23 May 2006 [diary]

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF

It's been a long day. Into work for 0300 to start learning the ropes of DA [duty aviator]. I also had to do myriad jobs for the boss. Not that I minded, of course: the poor guy has shitloads on his plate at the moment and it probably helps him a great deal if someone reads his emails for him (although I'm sure he will reread them anyway).

We were all told there is a rescue op going on. A number of ANP [Afghan National Police] had been driven out of their town by the TB [Taliban] (10 kilometres west of Kajaki Dam). They are holing up in a safe-house, which is located in the middle of a steep valley. They do not have comms and it is unknown how many of them are still alive or if they have been overrun completely. The last report, which was received 4–5 hours ago, said they were down to 20 rounds apiece. We all know that the TB do not take PoWs.

Our mission is to take two Chinooks, supported by two AH [attack helicopters/Apaches], one with two Paras and one empty. The Chinny with the Paras (my aircraft) will land and offload the troops top cover. The Paras will move forward and recce the safe-house. It will be filled with either ANA [Afghan National Army] or with TB. If things run smoothly, the second CH [Chinook] will be called in to pick up the ANA, or bodies of. If things go badly and the Paras run into a contact, we will try to recover them while the Paras rain down as much lead as poss.

It is now 1640Z and I am supposed to be up at 2200Z for a 0002 lift. As I was leaving the HQ a new piece of int [intelligence] came in. There are RPG-armed troops amassing in the hilltops, apparently with the aim of shooting down a Chinook. I'd better get my head down. I don't want to fall asleep when the bullets start coming!

24 May

It wasn't long after I finished writing the last entry that I was awoken and told that the op was still on. With time only to clean our teeth, we grabbed our kit and made for the HQ. After a quick brief, we got ourselves to the aircraft, flashed them and flew to Camp Bastion, all while it was still dark. The sun started to rise halfway over the red desert; five minutes later it was 32°C at 200 ft.

At Bastion, all the players gathered for a mission brief given by Maj Will Pike, OC [officer commanding] A Cy [Company]. The mission had changed slightly in that both CHs [Chinooks] will now be carrying troops and landing simultaneously. Int also hadn't nailed down a specific location for the police chief and his men. Instead we had three 'probable' grids which would be confirmed by the overhead Apaches.

The Apaches would be looking for a building in a compound with a blue and white gate, flying a blue and white flag. Also, upon hearing the approaching helo, the chief was meant to start a fire with tyres on it, thus creating a highly visible black smoke.

Before we were even meant to arrive on the scene, a predator UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] would be high above the TGT [target] Loc [location], providing a real-time picture and threat assessment. With all these assets at our disposal, we had a fairly good, warm, fuzzy feeling ... notwithstanding the brief TB threat, which was significant.

After a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, provided generously by the Paras, we lifted and departed the TGT. We lifted exactly on time 0315Z and with our predicted 45 min transit we would be on scene at 0400Z (0830L).

I was in the lead aircraft and in the left-hand seat. My job was to navigate the formation to the TGT, control comms between the HQ JTAC [joint terminal air controller], FST [firesupport team] and all of the air assets and run the mission as we were the command aircraft.

The captain (Squadron Leader Lamb) would fly over the right and generally free himself of further workload in order to maintain capacity. Another task of mine was to manage the fuel for the 2 a/c [second aircraft]. The op was planned in such a way we would be arriving back at the base with only 15 mins fuel remaining.

Things started to go badly when HQ called to say that the UAV was late and would not be arriving until after we were on TGT. We were instructed to press on regardless. The situation grew more tense when the Apaches reported that they were high above the TGT, 5 mins in front of us, but none of the grids matched the description of the safe-house. We opted to remain high and south of the TGT and throw in a few orbits while the Apaches had another look about.

We were growing quite twitchy as we were orbiting over known enemy territory, thinking the TGT was looking more and more like a trap. I was also very aware that while we waited, our fuel gauge was continuing to fall.

Fuel was coming to a critical stage when an Apache piped up saying he had spotted black smoke. We immediately dived down to 50 feet and made best speed to the general area, while I frantically punched the new grid into the computer.

As we approached, the AH [attack helicopters] were giving a further picture of the TGT. It seemed to match the given description accurately. With less than a mile to go, we still weren't visual with the safe-house. We rounded the corner of a hill, still doing 130 knots when we came visual. Andy Lamb threw out the anchors and we landed just shy of the compound with the other a/c in our 5 o'clock. Our wingman's troops ran off and set up an all-round defence, while our troops went into the house to escort the ANP out. Meanwhile we scanned our arcs of fire, while the Apaches provided us with a local-area int picture.

We lifted all the call signs aboard in little more than 9 mins. Unfortunately, without firing a shot. The TB, it seems, either weren't up for a scrap or they were miles away. Who knows?

One final thing of note: one of the ANP, a boy really, was so scared of flying in a Chinook that he pissed himself. One would have thought that being left to the TB would be more frightening ... Each to their own, I suppose.

25 May

What started as a very quiet, sedate day became suddenly very interesting. A Pinz [Pinzgauer 2½-ton truck] had broken down in the middle of the Sangin Valley (über bandit country). Our job was to go in and pick it up before the enemy got to it first. My cab would go in first and drop in a platoon to secure the site and rig up the Pinz for under-slinging. The second cab would come in after us and lift the lorry out. Meanwhile, two Apaches would provide top cover.

We were airborne at 1530Z. This, however, was after a massive comms faff: we lifted but had to return because we didn't have the right troops on board. Also, via the poor comm we had many reiterations to the plan, which had the effect of the crews involved not really knowing what the final plan was.

We passed on to the TGT site, which was forty miles east. The AH were already overhead and were starting to give very good int ... or very bad, depending on your perspective. They had spotted several ground groups of suspicious locals on motorbikes and [in] four-wheel drives. Furthermore, a JTAC (C/S widow) [call sign 'Widow'] was reporting sustained enemy fire very close to his position, which in turn was very close to our LS (landing site).

We established ourselves in the overhead and began a recce of the area. After locating the wagon, we awaited the green light from the AH. He soon said that the area 1,000m around the Pinz was cold and we were clear to approach. We dropped the lever and descended through the threat band as quickly as possible. The Pinz was abandoned on a track, 50m up from a dried-out riverbed. We were over the riverbed at 50 feet and the dust levels were very light. Once over the bank and on the track, the aircraft blew up a huge cloud of dust, which completely enveloped us and caused total brown-out. We still had 25 feet below us and 15 knots ground-speed and continued the rest of the way down totally blind. We landed with a firm thud and waited for the dust to settle while the troops ran out of the back. The first thing I saw when the dust settled was a set of wires not 5 feet in front of the disc [rotor blades].

With the troops gone, we lifted vertically to escape the dust and wires and proceeded low level to the west to gain air speed before climbing up as hard as the aircraft could go to a safe level. Before we could do that, however, the Apaches said that a group of men on 4x4s were advancing 400m in our 12 o'clock. We banked hard left in the opposite direction and then proceeded 'upstairs'.

Now it was our playmate's time to do the same and pick up the load. He executed this perfectly, despite very trying conditions due to the near zero visibility when in the hover while overhead. He departed and we went back to pick up the troops. After lifting the platoon, we were told they had to be dropped off at Camp Robinson, 7 kilometres to the north.

At the same time, we were getting more and more reports from colleagues on the ground of incoming enemy fire. Most of this fire was coming from [Forward Operating Base] Robinson itself. With the light levels fading rapidly and the Apaches above us, we decided to land anyway. This was done without incident. We took off again, transited home and made an approach to the right in darkness.

30 May 2006

Major Maria Holliday, QCM, Royal Military Police (RMP)

We had an RMP lad killed on a helicopter that went down. He was working for RC [Regional Command] South. Of course, that hits home when it's one of your own [RMP] cap badge and a number of lads in my company knew him well. There are only about 2,000 of us in the Army.

It happened during an operation. It was a US helicopter. He was part of a combat media team: Corporal Mike Gilyeat, aged twenty-eight – 'Gilly' to his friends. I had met him for the first time in Kandahar, only two weeks prior to the incident. Because of our distinctive red hats, I noticed him at the repatriation service of another UK soldier who had been killed; he was with a young Canadian colleague. If you see another red hat, you automatically talk to them because there aren't that many of us around. I just said, 'Hello,' and that if he needed any RMP support while he was there, we were always there as the company to assist. He was in theatre on his own because he was sent out from Northern Ireland for a special photographer role; therefore he was not part of an RMP company.

I was actually at the Brigade Headquarters in Lashkar Gah when the helicopter went down. At first, we just had some initial information coming in. We didn't know what nationality the helicopter was. On that particular operation Dutch, US and British helicopters were taking part, so to start with there was some confusion as to what had happened. It then transpired that we'd been lucky to a certain degree. I believe that a platoon of British soldiers had just been dropped off and it was as the helicopter was taking off again that it went down. We were trying to identify who was on it. The crew was US so at first we had no idea there had been a British person on it [the helicopter went down in an isolated area near Kajaki in Helmand province, when it was apparently under fire].

The incident happened quite late at night and people were up into the early hours of the morning trying to establish the full details. It was first thing the next morning that I heard that there was a RMP NCO [non-commissioned officer] on board. I knew that it wasn't any of my own unit because I would have known if they'd been there so the only other military policeman in theatre was that young lad, Corporal Gilyeat. Some of the guys in my unit had worked with him in Iraq.

Every time a UK soldier is killed in theatre, there will be a repatriation service to put that soldier on the plane to send him back home to the UK. Our brigade – 12 Mechanized Brigade, which we were supporting – was doing its own thing at the same time that the repatriation service was taking place at the airport in Kandahar. We were in Lashkar Gah, the Brigade Headquarters, having our own little ceremony. It was outside in an open area of ground. A warrant officer called everyone to attention. Everybody stood in various ranks and files and a padre said a few prayers. A member of the soldier's unit gave a eulogy about him and then we had a two-minute silence. Because he [Corporal Gilyeat] was RMP, we formed the coffin-bearer party at the main repatriation [in Kandahar]. We did as much as we could to help repatriate the body. For our guys, the sad thing was that we were also the ones who investigated the death: the SIB took on that investigation too.

My greatest concern is when I am putting our people out on the ground to support deliberate operations and to support the infantry. I know the characters in my unit and I probably know their wives and families too. You are putting young people on the ground when lines of communication in Afghanistan, for small units such as mine, are quite difficult. Obviously the battle groups could communicate with the brigade but trying to have communications with a particular individual was nigh on impossible. If there was any likelihood that they [the infantry] would take detainees, then generally there would be an RMP presence on the op. If they went out on an operation, we generally didn't get to speak to them again until they got back. We also had an RMP presence in some of the isolated detachments, such as Kajaki, because if there was an incident up there, such as a UK death, it could be very difficult to get to. So you had someone on the ground who could instantly respond. We would put these guys up there and they would embed with the infantry lads.

Including the RMP GPD [general police duties], SIB and MPS [Military Provost Service, like prison officers] there were seventy-three of us [Provost] all told in Afghanistan at the time. We were lucky that we all came back safely [except Corporal Gilyeat]. Sadly, the Royal Anglians lost nine and had something like fifty-seven injured. The tempo of operations during that summer was quite high so it was a constant planning process. We were always planning the next operation. As one unfolded, you were already into the planning phase for the next.

Some of the Afghans found it strange dealing with a woman. Most were OK with it, but there was one incident which amused me: the OC of the SIB, who was male, was reading the paper one day in Kandahar and there was an article all about girls out-performing boys in exams in Britain. He mentioned this to the interpreter, a young Afghan man in his twenties, who said: 'How can that possibly happen?' And the OC said: 'Well, it does.' And the interpreter said: 'This would not be allowed to happen in Afghanistan. We would manipulate the results – it would not be allowed in our country.' That made me laugh.

June 2006

Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Parkhouse, 16 Medical Regiment

Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Parkhouse, of 16 Medical Regiment (part of 16 Air Assault Brigade), is a senior member of a medical emergency response team (MERT). Aged forty-two, he was born and brought up in Exeter, Devon. His father was a civil servant, his mother a teacher, and he has an elder sister. After attending Exeter School, he went to University College Hospital as a medical student. At twenty-one, he signed on as a military cadet because he wanted to combine medicine with a career in the Army. Married to a former nursing officer, he is based at Colchester, Essex. His tours of Afghanistan last, on average, two months, and he is a veteran of no less than six between 2006 and 2008, which means he has spent an entire twelve months there during just three years.

After a major trauma, a certain percentage of victims will die within the first ten to fifteen minutes. There is another peak at around the hour mark. Then there is a third peak at the two-to-three-day mark that is due to complications. With the best will in the world, we [the MERT team] are not going to be able to do a huge amount about the ones that are going to die within the first ten to fifteen minutes, particularly in a military environment.

So instead what we are doing is looking to keep people alive during what we call the 'golden hour'. We have always had in place a medical evacuation system from the point of view of the wounded. But when we first came out [in early 2006], we looked at the med plan and we knew it was going to be difficult to evacuate soldiers who were wounded on the ground back to us within the golden hour. We estimated that it would probably take – with the problems of extraction and the hostile environment – up to two hours to get them back to surgery. So we wanted to mitigate that by pushing out on our evacuation teams – senior doctors who have specialist skills in resuscitation. We are basically your emergency-department doctors, your intensive-care doctors and anaesthetic doctors. The aim is to help the small number of soldiers who may succumb – who may die in transit – because of the potential delay. And that's what the concept of the MERT is all about. It is bolting a small, specialist medical team on to an RAF evacuation team to produce a link from the medic or young doctor on the ground, and the all-singing-and-dancing hospital where a patient will eventually end up.

MERT dates back to the Balkans conflict, if not before. At that stage we had an incident response team [IRT]. An IRT was a way of getting specialist agencies to the site of an incident. That was not only medical, also engineers, bomb disposal, Military Police. That was when we were first putting medical teams on helicopters to go forward and pick casualties up. That was very much a local organizational structure: it was not doctrine. That was when people first had the idea of putting medics or any specialty on a helicopter and maybe leapfrogging other medical nodes along the way to speed up the casualty evacuation. In Iraq this was continued in the early days of 2003–4. We would have specialist RAF teams usually involving a paramedic and a nurse, sometimes backed up by a doctor, depending on the nature of the incident. The thing is those doctors were not necessarily pre-hospital-care-trained to the standard of what we have now in Afghanistan. It was a different war, different situation. It worked reasonably well and they worked very hard.

Coming back to 2006, when we – 16 Medical Regiment – deployed with 16 Air Assault Brigade, we had a lot of experienced critical-care doctors including anaesthetists and emergency medical care practitioners, A-and-E docs. Also, they had the ethos that they really wanted to support 16 Air Assault Brigade as much as possible in-field. 16 Medical Regiment took this idea of a medical IRT and formalized it in to a medical emergency response team [MERT]. It was actually breaking new ground and, like all things when you break new ground, there was a certain amount of resistance to it. I would suggest that the one person who had the most input in starting it was a chap called Lieutenant Colonel Andy Griffiths – in the early spring of 2006. As well as Andy, the other man who really pushed it was the commanding officer of 16 Medical Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel Martin Nadin – now a full colonel. They simply wanted to support the troops on the ground as much as possible.

The MERT is a concept. It is purely about getting the care that the soldier requires to him or her as early as possible. And that is really making sure that these critical interventions, which can be life-saving, are done as quickly as possible by having a team on the helicopter that mitigates the extra length of time it takes. You can carry on doing the treatments while evacuating them and see how they should be treated when they get to the base hospital. The [MERT] team make-up will vary depending on your resources and what is going on on the ground. In the spring of 2006 in Afghanistan, we had a four-person team and that was based around an RAF paramedic, an RAF flight nurse, a senior clinician with critical-care experience – probably an anaesthetist or emergency medicine doctor – and the fourth member of the team was an Operating Department practitioner [ODP]. In 2006, we were averaging three shouts [medical call-outs] a day, but sometimes we would do as many as five.

One of the reasons why I do this job, and one of the reasons other people do this job, is that in the military medical system there is a huge duty of care for the soldiers on the ground. Personally I think the NHS has lost that. The NHS does not have that link with the general public any more and there are lots of reasons for that. But we certainly still have that very strong ethos of supporting the guys on the ground.

June 2006

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, Royal Marines

We had a couple of attacks on the camp [Lashkar Gah] as they [the Taliban] started to get a little bit braver. Or we were perhaps setting one too many patterns – they started to learn what our routine was. The first ever RPG attack was in the early hours of the morning – one or two a.m. It was pitch dark and I was doing my rounds, walking around the base. And a guy with an RPG had literally just walked up to the fence and fired it at a sangar. It missed the sangar and the RPG just went on, like a rocket, straight over the camp and outside again. He had completely missed us from twenty-five metres. How that happened I don't know. I rushed into the sangar, where there was one of my lads, a young Scot named Ted. He had only just come out of training and he was just sat there in amazement saying: 'Did you just see that?'

I said: 'Yes, but are you all right?'

He said: 'Yes, but did you just see that?'

I said: 'Yes, I did. It's OK. It's fine. There's no point dwelling on it.' It was just like a bang and a rocket, like a firework, going off. The RPG just hit some derelict ground on the outside and that was that. But from that point we realized we needed better torches – dragon lights in the sangars – because what we were issued with was not good enough. You could not see out, which meant this guy had just walked up to the fence and fired at us.

11 June 2006

McNab: A British soldier was killed and two were seriously wounded in a fire-fight. Captain James Philippson, aged twenty-nine, of 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, was the first British serviceman to die after the deployment to Helmand province: his patrol was ambushed by Taliban fighters outside Sangin. The servicemen were in Land Rovers when the attack happened. Anthony Philippson, the victim's father, said his only consolation was that his son had died in 'the job he lived for'. Apache attack helicopters were called in to support the troops following the ambush. Several Taliban fighters were killed.

July 2006

Flight Sergeant Paul 'Gunny' Phillips, RAF

Flight Sergeant Paul 'Gunny' Phillips, RAF, is forty. He was born and brought up in Dundee, Scotland, and is the eldest of three siblings. He left school at sixteen and began on a Youth Training Scheme (YTS), rebuilding car engines. He joined the Royal Marines in 1985, but left in 1990 and worked in various jobs on 'Civvy Street'. In 1993, he joined the RAF and spent seven years as a storeman, serving three years at RAF Lossiemouth and four years on Tactical Supply Wing at RAF Stafford. In 2000, he began retraining to become a member of the air crew and joined 27 Squadron in 2003. He did tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia as ground crew and later, as air crew, two tours of Iraq and four two-month tours of Afghanistan. He is based at RAF Odiham in Hampshire.

I hate to use the term but I am a jack-of-all-trades, really. My role is probably the most multi-skilled job in the air-crew world. To run down my duties: I am responsible for the on-and unloading of passengers and cargo, responsible for voice-marshalling the aircraft by day and night in confined spaces, voice-marshalling the aircraft for underslung pick-up and drop-off, air navigation assistance, radio work, limited search and rescue capability, and air-to-ground gunnery. I can field service the aircraft but not in nearly as much detail as engineers.

My tours of Iraq were an absolute breeze compared with Afghanistan. Iraq was just a bimble around the desert enjoying the view. I didn't fire one round in anger. But Afghanistan was a massively different kettle of fish. My first detachment to Afghanistan was with the Dutch Air Force from February 2006 to May 2006 [where Phillips received a general's commendation for his work]. I wasn't involved in any enemy contacts whilst with the Dutch. Then I went back out with the RAF in July [2006]. I had been in theatre for three to four days and there was a big op on called Op Augustus. We were trying to grab some high-value [Taliban] targets in Sangin. It was planned as a five-ship [aircraft] insert with 3 Para. It was intended as a dawn raid but it started to slip and all the timings went out of the window. They couldn't get a definite on the [main] target: they were still trying to work out whether this guy [Taliban] was there or not. But the second objective was to land on the HLS [helicopter landing site] and start clearing the area anyway, then sweep through these two compounds where they thought some relatively high-value targets would be. We were out to the east of Sangin holding for a good thirty or forty minutes for the Predator [unmanned aircraft] to clear us in. And everyone was thinking: It'll get knocked off [postponed]. They [the Taliban] will have scarpered. Then somebody, somewhere, decided we were going to go. So we pootled off to the HLS.

I was in the third cab of the first wave because there was going to be a three-ship to drop off three platoons. There were two ships coming behind us to drop off another two platoons. We must have been a couple of hundred metres from the HLS on the approach and somebody said: 'There's a group of people on the HLS.' I was on the left-hand – the port – gun and I stuck my head out of the window and there was this big group of [Afghan] civvies just stood in the middle of the HLS with these three honking-great twenty-ton Chinooks heading towards them. They got the message and started to leg it. As we went over the top of them, they were still running under the aircraft. They were running across the HLS and I thought: I don't know whether they've got weapons or not but I'm not going to give them the opportunity to use them if they have. So as we went across [the HLS], I waited until the aircraft was about twenty feet beyond them and I put a burst of fire down as warning shots. And I've never seen so many people cover a hundred metres so quickly. They got the message and they got out of there pretty sharpish.

Just prior to that happening, the number-one cab had got opened up on quite heavily. It turns out that this HLS was fairly well defended and it went from being fairly benign to being like Star Wars in nano-seconds. I was in Has's [Flying Officer Christopher 'Has' Hasler's] cab. There was tracer going everywhere – both outgoing and incoming. It turned into a two-way range fairly rapidly. We had just touched down by this point and we were being fired at from two positions. Ginge [Flight Sergeant Dale Folkard] was on the right-hand side, but he couldn't really fire at anybody because the number-two cab was in his way. On the left-hand side, I saw a couple of muzzle flashes from about eleven o'clock. It was from like a small ditch with a tree-line just behind it. I never felt any rounds coming in but I certainly saw the muzzle flashes so they got the good news [fired upon]. And then I could see silhouettes running from one compound to another.

I thought: I've just been opened up on from about fifteen metres from where they are now. So they got the good news as well. But we managed to get the guys [the Paras] off and shortly after that the aircraft departed rather rapidly. We must have been on the ground for thirty or forty seconds. So there were two definite firing points there and there must have been four or five individuals moving from one compound to another. I was firing an M60 [machine-gun]. Sometimes you can tell if you've hit people and sometimes you can't. That time I couldn't because it was that dark. We had all the tracer going off and I was firing a weapon with my [night-vision] goggles on, which had backed down slightly. So you really are firing at a muzzle flash. But once I started firing at the muzzle flashes they stopped firing so, at the end of the day, I achieved my aim because I either suppressed them – or killed them.

That was the first time in my life that I had been in a contact. It was memorable. Frisky: massively so. You can feel the adrenalin pumping. The minute you know something's happening you can almost hear your heart pounding in your ears. You don't really notice it at the time but [you do] once you have a breather and take stock. Once we'd lifted out, we had a quick check: everyone was OK, no holes in the aircraft. I must have looked like a startled rabbit. I said [to Ginge]: 'Fuck me, that was sporty.' I was bouncing around in the back of the cab like a little boy, all excited. I looked over at Ginge and he was just sitting there going, 'Fucking hell.' I said: 'I can't believe we just got away with that,' because I thought someone somewhere was going to get whacked badly. But we managed to get three cabs in and three cabs out and nobody got a pasting.

1 July 2006

McNab: Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, aged twenty-four, of the Intelligence Corps, became the first British Muslim soldier to be killed in the 'war on terror'. He died in an attack by the Taliban on the British base at Sangin. Hashmi's family spoke movingly about how, as a devout Muslim, he had been committed to bringing peace to Afghanistan. Zeehan Hashmi said of his brother: 'He was a very happy young man but very cheeky and mischievous. He was very daring – he had no fear of anything. He was a bit of a joker who could really make you laugh, but also make you cry if he wanted to.' He was the fifth British soldier to die in the past three weeks. Corporal Peter Thorpe, aged twenty-seven, of the Royal Signals, was killed during the same attack, which injured four other servicemen.

7 July 2006

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF

We had to go into Sangin because the boys on the ground were out of water and ammo. As we came in, the aircraft were engaged but, sadly, a guy was killed as he was trying to secure the HLS. So we were called off by the troops. We went back to Bastion. We still needed to get in there and we needed a new plan. Satellite imagery of the area showed us there was just enough space between two buildings where I could put the aircraft down. We had a roller conveyor in the back – pallets on wheels – that we had to get off. But the aircraft on the ground has to move forward as you push on these crates to get them off.

We got there, landed, and there wasn't much room. It was daylight. I was moving forward and the disc was getting quite close to the building, which was higher than the disc. I was out of ideas. I can hardly take the credit but the boss just said: 'You've got to do something here.' So I sort of did a 'wheelie' on the back two wheels. It's a skill we all practise – two-wheel taxiing – but I had never had to do it with a building six inches under the disc. I had to go on the back two wheels and move the heli forward with the building just underneath. So that was interesting. I managed to hold it on the back wheels while they got the crates out and loaded the body on and some of the wounded.

Because it was so hot [swarming with enemy], it was decided the Apaches would light up with their guns an area where we thought the enemy would be. It was a bit odd. As I was doing my thing, just outside the left-hand side, they were lighting it up. To start with I thought it was incoming but later I learnt they were rifling the enemy. It was a bit disconcerting, though, to see these big red balls next to me. But they were just missing us. There was a bit of incoming too, but not much because the Apaches were doing their thing. We were there for quite a few minutes ...

July 2006

Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Parkhouse, 16 Medical Regiment

I first came under fire on one of the earliest jobs I did. We were going in to pick up some seriously injured casualties and the locals – the Taliban – decided to put on a fireworks' display for us. It was the first time I realized that somebody was actually shooting at me – well, nah, I prefer to think they were shooting at the helicopter that I just happened to be in. I got over it by saying to myself: 'Let's not personalize this. They don't know me from Adam. They're just trying to shoot the vehicle I'm in and, actually, the pilots here are exceptional so I'm probably going to be okay.'

But it was easy after that incident because now I just don't look out of the windows: problem solved! Sometimes you don't even know when you've been fired upon although, with the ballistic protection, you can sometimes hear the bullet hissing. At the time [of coming under fire], it's often not scary because you're so focused on what you're doing.

But on this occasion [when he was first under fire] we were going into Musa Qa'leh, which was always notoriously difficult to get into for lots of different reasons. You could see the green tracer fire coming up towards the Chinook, and just as it started to flare in, you could also see the smoke from the RPGs going across and it was very obvious at that point that they were waiting for the helicopters to come in. We were going to pick up casualties that had suffered mortar injuries. We had a four-strong MERT on board and anything up to ten or twelve soldiers with us. We were landing on an unsecured HLS. It was around eleven at night. Pitch black as you go in. You could see some of the lights from the buildings but at that time most of the town centre of Musa Qa'leh was fairly uninhabited. The only locals in Musa Qa'leh then were ones who were trying to do you harm. And everything was pitch black in the back. Basically, they used to use two ways of getting in to an HLS: either flying very high and then diving down very quickly or low-level flying sometimes down at fifty feet and there would be a lot of jinking around. This landing was the latter: flying low and jinking around. But the problem with Musa Qa'leh was electricity pylons, which kept the pilots very busy. The air-crews were fantastic; how they got us in and out, I don't know. And they didn't have the luxury of not looking out of the windows! They had the tracers coming straight at them.

As we prepared to land, one of the [MERT] team had comms with the pilots using a helmet system, getting updates on the casualties, and the rest of us were scurrying round the cab getting kit out and preparing, putting drips up, making sure the oxygen was switched on, getting out extra equipment we might need depending on what we thought the injuries were going to be. And it was extremely noisy. You can't use normal radios in the back of the helicopter because there's too much ambient noise. So most of it's done by sign language, or standing beside somebody and yelling in their ear. And this is where the team approach is very important.

Retrospectively, it's all quite exciting stuff. In Musa Qa'leh, you want to be on the ground for as little time as possible. The back ramp goes down, the guard force – ten or twelve strong – pile out to their perimeter. They are, basically, maybe twenty or thirty metres away from the aircraft, because as soon as you move about ten metres away, you lose a visibility because of the fine dust. And it was pitch black. So they did that and then the medical team came on with the casualties – because there's no way you can have a verbal handover under the rotor blades. So, they had written something down about the casualties and their treatment. Then they brought the casualties into the cab on stretchers and put them in the designated space on the aircraft where we felt was appropriate. Where you put anyone depends on the type of injury because you may want to put him head first or feet first because helicopters don't fly flat, they fly nose down. So it may be more important to have them head up if they have head injuries, or if you're worried about them bleeding out then it's feet up. But they are usually positioned in stretchers on the floor – often strapped down on the floor.

You have to work out with the pilots their plan of evacuation. Were they going to do a few minutes of low flying or were they going to, as soon as they could, go up to fifteen hundred feet? Nine times out of ten we would like them to go up because, as soon as they get up there, there's a more stable platform for us to work on, and as soon as they get up high, they can put some ambient light on in the back. But sometimes that's not possible – once again it comes down to communication with the air-crews.

On this occasion, we were on the ground for no more than sixty seconds. It felt a lot longer. There were three casualties and then we just had to make sure the order was right for us to do interventions. With multi-casualties, the team would break down and the paramedic would often sort out those who, on the face of it, were the less seriously injured. Paramedics are used to working by themselves. The senior clinician and the ODP [Operations Department practitioner] usually work as a team on the worst casualty, and often the RAF flight nurse would have a roving role. She had the comms with the air-crew. She was our link, as well as helping out when we required a third pair of hands.

On this occasion, the three casualties had mortar injuries. Basically, they were on guard duty in a sangar on a perimeter wall and a mortar or RPG had got lucky, struck it and penetrated the sangar.

One guy had serious head injuries with a broken right leg and he was unconscious. We knew he was going to be the worst one because the other two were conscious, which is always a good sign. If they're able to talk, by definition they have a good airway and enough blood pumping around them to keep them conscious. It's very basic signs you're looking for, though it doesn't mean they don't need help.

The ODP and I started working on the guy with the serious head injury and at the back we left the paramedic to assess the two who were conscious. He very quickly did an assessment and he basically gave me the thumbs-up, which meant their injuries were nothing too serious – and we could concentrate on dealing with the casualty in front of us, as he was the most seriously hurt. He was there on a stretcher. At the same time, we told the flight nurse, who was in comms with the pilots, that, as soon as we could, we'd get the pilots to send a message back to the hospital confirming how serious it was. We were also letting them know how serious it was. We can categorize our injuries in various ways. At that stage, we were using the T1, T2, T3 system. T1 was critical, T2 was serious, T3 was minor, walking wounded. This guy was T1 – and the other two were T2s. If someone is requiring a stretcher to move, they are a T2. The flight time from Musa Qa'leh to Bastion is approximately twenty-five minutes. As soon as the pilots have done their stuff and got us up there to fifteen hundred feet – which is usually within twenty seconds – we get some basic light on.

During the flight back, this guy was unconscious, or had a significantly reduced level of consciousness. I was concerned that he had a major head injury. You can't do anything about the original injury: if there is any brain damage it has been done by the bang on the head. But what you want to do in serious head injuries is to prevent further damage. And the best way of doing that is to be sure the patient has enough oxygen, enough blood flowing around his system. And the best way to ensure that is to anaesthetize him and ventilate him in the back of the cab. These are techniques that normally take place in hospital but we're finding that they help an awful lot to reduce morbidity and disability at the end of the day.

A ventilator is essentially a life-support system. You have to give the patient drugs to render him completely unconscious and 'paralyse' him. This patient had a drip in already [when the MERT took him over] so we gave him his drugs through the drip. The paralysing agent worked: it takes about thirty seconds. All the time we were giving him oxygen and 'bagging' him by hand. The ODP did a manoeuvre to stop him regurgitating while he was unconscious. Then we tried to intubate. This is quite a delicate procedure, even in a hospital with good light and with a patient not moving around. Although the patient was paralysed, we had a whole helicopter moving around and juddering. And you have actually got to put a tube the diameter of your finger, and about a foot long, through the vocal cords of the patient. So my target was probably about 10mm and the tube diameter was about 8 mm: you have got to be accurate and it's a relatively skilled procedure. But it's a potentially life-saving procedure – the guys who need it wouldn't survive the twenty-five minutes back [to Bastion] without it.

Then the ODP assessed the patient for further bleeding, external bleeding. He couldn't find much but the patient had a broken right leg – it was pointing in the wrong direction. There was no bone sticking out but the leg had an extra 'joint', which it shouldn't have had. The patient was covered in crap – mud, stuff like that. Everything was happening simultaneously. Once we had secured the airway, we didn't want to lose it. Then we used blades to slit his clothes off to expose his chest, making sure there were no injuries to it. We use blades with a curved bottom so you can't stab the patient by accident: they're childproof, basically. I was concerned because there was no obvious injury to his chest but we were not ventilating very well. One side of his chest was not moving and I thought, because he had been in a blast situation, that he might have blast lung, caused by the pressure wave of an explosion. An explosion can burst a lung. His abdomen had no obvious injury. It was soft, it was not expanding and there was no bleeding into it. It was just his leg.

You can lose a lot of blood from a broken femur and he was quite shocked so I was assuming he was losing blood from his leg internally. And once we had checked there was no reason why the ventilation was not working – i.e. the tube was in the right place – I decided, technically, to operate. Basically, that meant making two holes in the side of his chest.

He was unconscious, he was sedated, he couldn't feel anything. So I put two holes with a big scalpel blade mid-way down both sides [of his chest]. Then I could stick my finger into his chest, making sure there was no obstruction and making sure that the lung was up. And the lung was down on one side because I couldn't feel it. As soon as I stuck my finger in, the next thing I could feel was a 'sponge' and that was the lung. The right lung had collapsed. I was releasing any trapped air that had caused the lung to collapse. And gradually it came up and the ventilation became easier. He was obviously responding to that treatment. Only a senior clinician could have done that. And that is the sort of intervention that putting a senior clinician on the MERT can achieve. Probably only five per cent of all casualties require that intervention so the argument [from critics of the MERTs] is: why are we endangering the life of a senior clinician, a valuable asset, to help such a small number of people?

I would say a valuable asset is only valuable if it is used appropriately. Otherwise it becomes an expensive ornament. So unless you're going to put them out there, they can't help. And each patient saved is a British soldier who is now back with his family at home. His injuries may be severe, but he's back with his family. Anyway, we did all this [treatment] in twenty-five minutes because, after that, we landed in Bastion.

The hospital HLS in Camp Bastion is approximately five hundred metres from the front door. When the Chinook arrives, bringing in casualties, military ambulances are already waiting to ferry the injured to the emergency department. Everyone knows how many casualties are on board because of the number of ambulances waiting: one per casualty. The next few minutes can be the most dangerous for the casualties, moving them quickly from the back of the Chinook into the ambulances without causing them further harm. Usually there's no time for the Chinook to shut down, which means the rotors are still turning and the engines are still pushing out the super-heated exhaust fumes. Add to this mixture the darkness and the adrenalin that's running high, and it's easy for mistakes to happen: intravenous lines can be pulled out, airway tubes become dislodged, even stretchers dropped.

In most cases, the casualties are loaded into the ambulances without too much delay. The ambulance crews are well practised by now. On the first few occasions, when the crews sometimes drove up too close to the Chinook, the hot exhaust would melt the blue lights on top of the vehicles! I accompanied the most seriously injured casualty in the back of the ambulance with the ODP; the other members of the MERT escorted the remaining casualties. Within a few seconds, we were at the emergency department. The trauma teams were awaiting our arrival. They had been waiting a while, and were already aware of the number of casualties and their injuries. The last link in the chain for the MERT is to hand over the casualties to the awaiting trauma teams, one team for each casualty. Clinical information is handed over quickly and succinctly. We use a recognized system, which takes thirty seconds, and as soon as it's complete, the trauma team descends on the casualty simultaneously assessing and treating the injuries. This is a well-practised drill.

The role of the MERT is now complete; it has provided that link from the medic on the ground to the emergency department in the field hospital. It has handed over live casualties.

The trauma teams quickly confirmed the serious nature of the casualty we had handed over. The head injury was the most serious, and required emergency neurosurgery. At this time, in 2006, there was no neurosurgery in Afghanistan. This casualty needed to be evacuated to Oman. The transfer was the responsibility of the embedded RAF critical-care transfer team. These teams are constantly on standby at Camp Bastion to transfer the critically injured from the hospital to other locations around the globe, if required.

The transfer went according to plan and the casualty arrived in Oman within three hours. He underwent neurosurgery within six hours of wounding. Six hours may sound like a long time, but even back in the UK this time line is often not possible. The fact that this is achievable in Afghanistan, in the middle of a war zone, is a testament to the medical system and the people who run it. No one part is more important than another: from the medic on the ground to the MERT, the hospital at Bastion and finally the transfer team of the RAF, it's a chain. And any chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

In this instance, the casualty survived, despite very severe injuries, and he is now back with his family. The two other soldiers injured with him underwent immediate surgery at Bastion and were evacuated back to the UK, where eventually they made a full recovery.

July 2006

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, Royal Marines

I had to take a last-minute visit to Garmsir, down south. They needed a forward air controller – JTAC [joint terminal air controller], as they call it. And there was none available because 3 Para, in their wisdom, had taken everything and everyone with them for their ops. I was in the Ops Room and they were short [of an air controller]. I said: 'Everyone should be able to do this. We've all had basic training of being able to call in air if needed.'

And someone said: 'Can you do it?'

I said: 'Of course, I can.'

He said: 'You've got half an hour.'

I went and packed my kit. We drove down through Nad Ali and via western desert in WMIKs [armed Land Rovers]. It was a big patrol and it was with an OMLT [operational mentor liaison team]. The chief of police [Afghan National Police] from Garmsir had rung up the colonel, the head of the provincial reconstruction team and said: 'Look, there are a thousand Taliban down here about to attack us.' We knew early on that whatever number you were given, you divide it by three at least, because the Afghans do exaggerate just a touch. The colonel wanted to know the true picture – the lie of the land – so he sent some people down to see what was actually going on. This was at the peak [of the 2006 Taliban resistance] because the summer was a lot busier than the winter months. It was hot, 60°C plus on some days. It was horrendous. There was a captain in charge of us. Fourteen headed down in four wagons, all WMIKs. Off we went for what was supposed to be twenty-four to forty-eight hours.

But we came back ten days later because of different things that were happening. We had to have resupplies down there. We got mortared, shot at. We called in Apaches on different targets that we had. We were literally one of the first patrols to Garmsir. We were the 'Dirty Dozen', as we called ourselves. We were there to sneak about and have a look and see what was going on.

We were all senior men. There were a few warrant officers, one colour sergeant, a couple of sergeants, two corporals, and there were a couple of officers and we were just like: 'We're too old for this. What are we doing?' We were just thrown together.

During the drive down across the desert, we were trying to keep out of the way of different villages. The drive took six to eight hours. We took four vehicles from the Afghan National Army with us. We were mentoring these people as well, so we said we'd take them with us. So at night I would put them in a harbour position, a good old-fashioned triangle harbour position. We would be in a small triangle in the middle and then we would stick them on the outside. One, for protection, and two, to mentor them on what a harbour position was all about. We slept in the wagons, or next to the wagons in sleeping-bags.

On one of the very first nights, these lads came running up to us with the interpreters, saying they'd seen someone in the dead ground. And they wanted to go and investigate. We used to take turns to stay up just for questions like this. So, me and my mate said: 'Take five of you and don't go out any further than you can still see us, and then come back.' And this one bloke was notorious for being quite a switched-on kiddie. He was younger. Whereas the others used to group in the evenings and smoke, just like a Cub Scout evening, this bloke actually did want to learn and he wanted to go places. He disappeared and went a little bit further, then he went out of sight. We were watching him through our night goggles and he just disappeared. And I looked at my mate, Tommy, and I was like: 'This is a mistake.' He'd gone. We'd lost him. Then half an hour later he appeared about a K to the left – we'd got our thermal imagery out – and walked back in. A perfect patrol. I said: 'Where have you been?'

He said: 'I saw them [the Taliban]. I just wanted to follow them: they scattered off this way. There were eight of them. They were watching us.'

I said: 'You only went with five men.' So we gave him a bit of a telling-off, and we said: 'Where was your map? Where's your compass?'

He replied: 'I haven't used it.' And he had just walked out a good two K in the desert, turned left, done a big box around with no compass. His local knowledge and his whole background of tribal warfare were amazing. So he came back in and that was that.

Because we knew we were being probed and looked at, we called in air. He [one of the pilots] said there were about eight Taliban and we could see vehicles out on the horizon. There was a B1 bomber in our area. We decided, for a show of force, to ask him to drop a few flares. A show of force, that's all we wanted. We gave them our grid so that they didn't accidentally drop anything on it. But he dropped the flares all over our harbour position. So now we were lit up at three in the morning, like a circus. He'd got the grids back to front. So we had to get up and move quickly because we had completely given our position away.

And the rest of the day went just as badly. We were trying to assess the western side of Garmsir. Every time we stopped, we'd get mortared. They had us pinpointed every time. A nightmare. That's why it took so long. The colonel said: 'Stay there and we will get you some more resupplies.' And the Chinooks came down and dropped stuff, water and food, and we carried on. The mortar positions were dug in. They [the Taliban] would just appear and disappear and that was when we started to learn about the tunnel complex that they had. They were hiding vehicles because we were getting reports of vehicles one minute – we could see brand new Toyota 4x4s – and they would just disappear. In daytime. They weren't scared. Some of them had black turbans and red bands around their turbans. Anything with a black turban and you knew you were against more of a trained force – rather than something just thrown together. Anyway, we concluded there were large pockets of enemy down there. Nowhere near a thousand. But they were fast and well trained: very movable from one day to the next.

10 July 2006

McNab: The government announced that 900 extra troops would be sent to fight the Taliban. The move came at the request of military commanders because fighting had intensified in Helmand. The first of the reinforcements were due to arrive within two days, and the number of British troops would then be bolstered from 3,600 to 4,500. Senior defence sources denied, however, that the move was the direct result of the death of six British troops in a month. The announcement of more troops was made by Des Browne, who had taken over from John Reid as defence secretary. He denied that British forces had underestimated the Taliban threat and said it had been expected that insurgents would put up a 'violent resistance'.

14 July 2006

Flight Lieutenant Christopher 'Has' Hasler, DFC, RAF

It was at night and we were making a five-ship [Chinook helicopters] assault on two compounds in Sangin. We thought we had the element of surprise but somehow they knew we were coming. We were low on fuel too but we had support: three or four Apaches, Harriers, B1Bs [US B1 bombers], F15s or F18s, a Predator and more [all aircraft or unmanned aircraft]. We had aircraft stacked up from ground level to space supporting this one op. But we were holding so long – the commander was an Apache guy. I was the third Chinook in to land. But the two aircraft behind me had to peel off because of [a lack of] fuel. This made the troops very vulnerable – they did not have quite enough men on the ground to defend themselves.

So I was tail-end Charlie going in. By the time the heli in front of me was about fifteen feet off the ground, I was still at about a hundred feet and maybe a half K or a K behind him. The landing site was a dry riverbed. And then suddenly it opened up. There were three or four firing positions on each side [of the riverbed]. I saw an RPG go under and over the heli in front of me. He had landed now so I knew I had to go on. It was a long approach knowing you had to fly through this shit. You can't manoeuvre at all otherwise you'll fuck the landing. So it was just a question of 'slow, straight, steady'. The amount of fire was such that it backed down our nightvision goggles. I couldn't see much at all. It was so bright that the goggles weren't giving much [assistance]. I was mostly flying in on instruments. The aircraft flares were popping up as well and they really backed down the goggles too. There was a second of clearness where my goggles came back in and I saw we were about to land in some water. I managed to pitch up and over that but then I got into the dust cloud. I couldn't see anything. It was a bit of a rough landing and the guys were knocked off balance. We said before that the max we wanted to be on the ground was thirty seconds but we ended up being there for a few minutes while getting engaged. I was sitting there thinking, Oh, fuck, without much to do except look at the view. There were other places I wanted to be at that time. But we got the boys off.

We were on the deck and tensions were running high. Then I started to take off but there were two troops still on who hadn't had time to get off. So we lifted off, but then someone shouted we still had two guys on so I held it there. But the guys had already decided they were going to go for it – leave, jump. I was going to put it back down but they just jumped, not knowing how high we were. We were probably twenty feet off the deck but we could have been 200 and they were going to go for it anyway. They just jumped – that was real balls. The radio-ops guy broke his foot landing. It was a communications problem [in the back of the helicopter], but these things happen.

Then another heavy-machine-gun post opened up behind us. I looked at my co-pilot and these big balls of green tracer were passing close to his head. We were very lucky. But we got out of it. I've never seen that amount of fire before or since. It was good fun. We then got engaged all the way up till we were out of the threat band. But we were lucky. I still don't know how it happened but my aircraft didn't take any rounds. The other two aircraft took quite a few. We were just close to the bank and the fire was coming within inches of the aircraft all around us. We didn't lose any guys, but a guy on one of the other aircraft got shot in the arm.

1 August 2006

McNab: Three Paras were killed in a carefully set ambush as they went to resupply comrades at a remote outpost in Helmand province. The men were in a convoy of twelve armoured vehicles. The ambush was launched by more than fifty Taliban using machine-guns and RPGs. The men who died, along with another soldier who was seriously wounded, had leapt out of their Spartan armoured personnel carriers to engage the insurgents with their rifles. Air support was called in and an Apache attack helicopter killed at least one Taliban fighter. The dead men were named as Second Lieutenant Ralph Johnson, twenty-four, a member of D Squadron, Captain Alex Eida, twenty-nine, of 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, and Lance Corporal Ross Nicholls, twenty-seven, also of D Squadron.

August 2006

Corporal Tara Rankin, 16 Medical Regiment

Corporal Tara Rankin, a combat medical technician currently serving with 16 Medical Regiment, is twenty-nine. She was born in Fiji, the daughter of a teacher, and is an only child. Her uncle, Trooper Talaiasi Labalaba, served in the SAS and was killed during the heroic battle of Mirbat, Oman, in 1972 when nine soldiers from the Regiment fought off a 250-strong enemy force. She was brought up mainly in Britain, and left school at sixteen, in 1996, to return with her parents to Fiji. Rankin had long considered a military and medical career, partly to follow in her uncle's footsteps, so in 2000 she returned to Britain and joined up the next year as a medic. In 2003 she did a tour in Iraq and went to Afghanistan three years later. In March 2007, she married Corporal Simon Rankin, who serves with the Royal Signals. She is based in Colchester, Essex.

I love my job. I've always liked the medical side of things but I thought the Army would be a challenge so I might as well go for it. I like seeing people getting better, being there for sick people, sick relatives or friends. It's the satisfaction you get out of helping them to get better. I do feel I'm a front-line soldier just as much as the men, but sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm female. It's all about how a female member of the armed forces fits into the environment. If she feels at ease amongst her male colleagues, then she'll fit in well and the men will work well with her.

On 6 August, I was a 7 Para RHA [Royal Horse Artillery] medic, part of a patrol that deployed out on a three-hour ground ops known as Op Snakebite with 3 Para. I was involved as A1 Echelon and RAP Rear [3 Para] alongside our Canadian med team. The main aim was to resupply Musa Qa'leh and relieve Pathfinder Platoon. We carried out patrolling and route clearance. We were reassuring the local population and, at the same time, looking out for enemy forces or any enemy activities around the area.

We had to treat a guy who got shot. He had been in a small convoy helping deliver supplies to Danish troops based near Musa Qa'leh. He was doing top cover in a WMIK [armed Land Rover]. It was one of those unexpected events but anything can happen out here. A young soldier had apparently got shot by a sniper, just after three p.m. The bullet went straight through his head and chest. I was sad because he was only young – nineteen years old – and it was his first tour as well. When he was shot, I was in a Pinzgauer. We were only a few hundred yards from him: first we heard an echo [from a shot] and then a lot of shouting in the distance. The casualty was brought to us in the back of a Pinz. Then he was put on a stretcher. We had expected more than one but in the end he was the only one. There were four of us waiting for him when he arrived: a doctor, who is in charge, a med senior, who was a sergeant, and two other medics, including me.

We knew from the start that he was very badly injured. But we tried to do what we could for him for as long as possible. We got information on his condition from those who had accompanied him. But there was no sign of breathing from the chest and no pulse. Eventually, the doctor had to call it a day after about twenty minutes. It was very sad, but there was nothing more that we could do. I had met him before – he was a funny character, with a great sense of humour. I used to see him in the cookhouse with his colleagues at Camp Bastion to say, 'Hi,' and ''Bye,' or to have a cup of tea.

His comrades were in a bad way too. The shock of losing a colleague, a friend, really got to them. Some were in a state of shock, feelings of mixed emotions, as well as being apprehensive for an hour. We had to treat them in the same way as if they were suffering from battle shock.

August 2006

Major Maria Holliday, QGM, Royal Military Police (RMP)

In the middle of the tour, the brigade set up the Security Sector Reform Cell at the Brigade Headquarters in Lashkar Gah. This basically meant that we were helping the Afghan institutions, like the army and the police, get back on their feet. We had already been helping the army for quite some time, but there was a recognition that the police play a vital role in security too and they desperately needed help with training and mentoring. Although the Foreign Office employed some ex-civil policemen to mentor the civil police, they were mentoring at a higher level, the heads of department, and there was nobody really to mentor the police on the ground. So this partly became our role. We set up a cell and formed a team of mentors to go and help them. There was some training going on that the US provided, but this was us setting up the British effort to assist the process. This unit was formed in Lashkar Gah but the boys were going out on the ground starting in Lashkar Gah and then also in Gereshk, Sangin and Garmsir.

I sent a young officer down there to Garmsir: a young lieutenant and a sergeant too. In terms of learning experience, they certainly learnt a great deal because that was a very difficult area to work in. It was full of insurgents, and the only people on the ground in Garmsir were British soldiers, Taliban and Afghan police. All the civilians had long gone: it was far too dangerous. Lieutenant Paul Armstrong and the sergeant did what they could to mentor the police but it was hard work. They had quite a nasty incident where a lot of the guys they had been mentoring were blown up by a roadside bomb. Some died, and others had horrendous injuries. After the incident, the police brought their injured to the British camp. The lieutenant was giving first aid to the guys he had been mentoring and that was quite hard for him because he was only a young guy and, of course, he had formed a bond with them. They had been working together for a few weeks.

The Afghan police are under-funded, under-manned and in a very difficult position. No doubt some may have family ties to elements of the Taliban, but the one feeling I did get was that we were all on the same side, that there was a common enemy. In fact, they were constantly being targeted – and they were losing more police than we were [losing] soldiers. They were targeted on a regular basis, occasionally in their homes but mainly at check-points, small police stations and in their patrol cars. Of course, they didn't have the fire-power that the British had, or the fire-power of the Afghan National Army. They were limited in what weapons they could hold and they were quite vulnerable in a lot of respects.

We started off with just three of us at the headquarters in this new cell. I then detached an RMP section to it and there was also an infantry platoon dedicated to it. There were no Afghans as part of the cell; our team would go out to Afghans. We formed two teams and they would go to the check-points and to the police stations and initially we were trying to establish exactly what was in Helmand province because it was quite difficult to discover how many police actually existed there. Having the chance as a late-entry officer to command a company on an operation such as Op Herrick was fantastic. That sort of opportunity doesn't come along all the time and I just found the whole experience very rewarding.

There were times when we had some near misses. Seeing the boys come back safely off the ground when they had been near to an incident was always a relief. I liked the Afghans, very tough, resilient people. They were generous. They didn't appear underhand or out for themselves as individuals. They were a united entity.

August 2006

Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Parkhouse, 16 Medical Regiment

We treat a lot of civilians out here and it was this that led to the most surreal situation I've been involved in. We had a call, first thing in the morning, from a mobile operating group out on the ground. We were just finishing a shift at about six o'clock in the morning. The call said that a local villager had brought in a severely burnt child. At that time we were trying to unload civilians back into their own [civilian] system rather than have them clogging up the military hospitals but we went to pick up the child. There was no danger to the HLS and we weren't fired upon. The child had quite significant burns. There was no way the local hospital could deal with that so we brought her back [to Camp Bastion]. By the time we had arrived, we had a call from the same call sign saying that the father had brought in another six burnt children for us to pick up.

What had happened was, this villager had had a fire in his house during the night. At first light, he went to the call sign to chance his luck with a burnt child – to see what the Brits would do. Because we went to pick her up, he obviously thought, Right, fine. I'll go back to my village to pick up the rest of them. So he brought the rest of his burnt family to the call sign. Then we decided we'd go back but try to offload them to the local hospitals because civilians are a huge drain on our resources. Now, one of the things we have noticed in Afghanistan is that the locals use gentian violet as a type of antiseptic. You mix it with water and it goes bright purple. They paint it on everything.

But on this occasion, the Chinook landed on its marker, nose first. So when we came out of the back, we were quite disoriented. We didn't know which way the casualties were going to be. So we walked round the back, and suddenly it was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. You had these huge Household Cavalry men – six foot four all of them – walking towards us in a line with these children. Some of the children were walking, despite quite serious burns. And they were all covered in this gentian violet. From head to toe they were blue. They had big blisters on the heads and whatever. There were about six, most of them under twelve, but there were a couple of about eighteen months and a baby too.

I felt I was dreaming. It was absolutely bizarre. We actually got them back to Camp Bastion. We'd had to resuscitate a couple back on the aircraft. We had to intubate this small baby, which is difficult at the best of times, but especially when you are in a Chinook. In the end, those with minor burns we sent out to local hospitals but we kept two on intensive care for – well, they outlived my time there. I think they stayed for about six weeks. Once or twice they were almost switched off [their life-support machines] because they were unlikely to make it and they were reducing our capability for our guys. But we continued to treat them and, in the end, they got better. They were actually discharged – amazing.

29 August 2006

Corporal Tara Rankin, 16 Medical Regiment

On this one occasion, we had deployed out to Sangin on one of the typical twenty-four-hour ops [Op Bhagi]. We usually go out from [Camp] Bastion. It was the early hours of the morning – about three o'clock. I was still a 7 Para RHA medic now attached to C Company [from 3 Para]. We had been doing what normally happens on ops – patrolling, carrying out route clearance, reassuring the local population and, at the same time, looking out for enemy forces or any enemy activities around the area.

One of our guys [3 Para B Company] was shot as he was out on top of a building with his company near Sangin. It was about lunchtime and he had been shot in the neck-shoulder by a Taliban bullet. There was a doctor and medics in the area and we worked as a team. It was my medic colleagues from the Household Cavalry and 3 Para who did most of the treatment. By the time I got to the scene he was already 'packaged' and ready to be flown out. He was drifting in and out of consciousness. Shortly afterwards he was evacuated in a Chinook.

I knew the guy who had been shot quite well. He was Sergeant Paddy Caldwell and he was married to a friend of mine, who is also a medic. I had known him since 2001, when I was doing my basic training. I first heard when he was identified by his call sign over the radio and I thought, Oh, no. He's one of the last people I'd thought would get hurt. He's a lovely man – very family oriented, down to earth and someone who really cares for other people regardless of who they are and what profession they belong to.

I saw him again the next day in the main hospital at Camp Bastion. He was still in a bad way – he was about to be flown back to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham to be treated and to have an operation. I felt very worried for him and his wife and I just hoped he was going to be all right.

We were heading back into Sangin via these wadis, which were filled with water. As we were peeling back into the compound, we came under heavy enemy contact. Normally you have a contact left, right or centre, but this was from all sorts of directions. I realized there was a guy behind me who was taking time to catch up, as you normally do on your first manoeuvre. But I think it was the shock of being in that situation first time round as a young soldier – he had just come out of training – that got to him [and made him freeze].

He was the GPMG [general purpose machine-gun] gunner. But he was in shock. As much as I tried to reassure him and keep him going, it didn't work. I had to take his weapon and told him that we had to do something about it [the situation] because my normal A2 weapon wouldn't do much. Everyone was trying to locate where the enemy firing position was. So the guy holding the GPMG just went: 'Go ahead. Have it.' I set it up [to fire] applying the principles of usual marksmanship, principles that we have been trained in to use the GPMG. It was a quick target identification. I had seen who was firing at us from a compound. After notifying the platoon commander, I saw the guy fire out of the window. He was a [Taliban] sniper.

So I set the GPMG up on a tripod while under fire. Rounds were actually coming from all sorts of directions, left, right. There were so many things that were going on but all I cared about was getting the guys – all of us – back safe and sound. I wanted to make sure that we had actually pinpointed where the enemy firing was coming from – especially the sniper we needed to concentrate on.

From 300 metres, I identified the shooter. I saw his head popping out of the window. He was shooting from a double-storey building. It was the pharmacy building. I shouted to the platoon commander: 'Look out for that second-storey window in the pharmacy.' He looked for about five seconds and he still couldn't see it. At this stage, I thought: Right, something's got to be done about this because otherwise the whole platoon will be wiped out. There was nowhere to take cover.

I did the usual target indication as I used the clock-ray method. I was saying: 'Right, twelve o'clock facing, enemy on second window, double-storey window. Target seen,' and they [her comrades] said: 'No.' So I gave it a bit of time and did it again. I said, 'Target seen.' The reply was the same: 'No.' I said: 'Right, everyone, hold your fire. I'm about to fire to indicate the target.' Then I fired. I don't know whether I was excited or in shock. But the guy came out of the window. I saw him drop out of the window and I held my breath. But he was dead.

We have to abide by the Geneva Convention. As a medic, you're only supposed to carry a weapon to defend yourself and your casualty if need be. But at any given time and place, I have to adjust myself to the situation and the environment. I think for me, at the time when that incident happened, being a soldier came first – before my work as a medic. Women can take a full combat role. There are some out there who do. Not all females can do it, but there are some. Anyway, then we retreated back to the Sangin compound. On ripping back into the compound [still under fire], I thought: I can't run as fast as the bullets are going past me. But by now, the guy next to me had recovered from his little shock period. I handed the gun to him. I said: 'Thanks, you can have it back now.'

30 August 2006 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

Captain Charlotte Cross, of 3 Military Intelligence Battalion (Volunteers), in the Territorial Army (TA), is thirty-six. She was born in south-east London. She is the daughter of an advertising consultant and a schools administrator and has an elder brother. She has combined a non-forces career with service in the TA for more than a decade. A biology graduate from Bristol University, she worked in publishing, then at the BBC's Natural History Unit before becoming a journalist. She joined the TA in 1997 because she was looking for a new challenge, and opted to work in the Intelligence Corps. After TA officer training at Sandhurst, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2006 as part of the PsyOps (Psychological Operations) team. Cross is single, and now works as a television reporter for the British Forces Broadcasting Service.

As you can imagine, the work is pretty full on and tiring. It's literally non-stop from 0630, when I get up, until 2030 or later when we have our final briefing – and no days off. On Fridays the morning briefing is later, at 0930, to give everyone a lie-in. I've already been out on two patrols in Lash [Lashkar Gah] – yesterday we went out to visit the women's centre and girls' school. Nobody's really visited those places before because it's difficult for male soldiers to interact with the women. We also took the Danish CIMIC [Civil Military Co-operation] team because they do reconstruction work and want to carry out some projects at the women's centre and school. So we've decided I'll be the point of contact for the women now, for both CIMIC and PsyOps. We're hoping the women will be more comfortable talking to me.

We went to the girls' school first, a big single-storey building in the middle of a huge open space in the town. But it's incredibly derelict, just grey concrete rooms really, no windows, just holes, and the surrounding area is just rocky, sandy dust. It's guarded by armed ANP [Afghan National Police], but they're corrupt and useless. None of the people trust them – most of them work for the Taliban in their spare time. They pay them more and give them motorbikes. We spoke to the headmistress for about twenty minutes – she's been threatened by phone and by 'night letters' for running the school. They threatened to shoot her or cut her fingers off. She asked for a safe-house, but we can't give her that. It's very sad, really. There are 125 teachers at the school, teaching hundreds of girls in shifts, and they have literally nothing, so we give them radios, school packs, things like that, and CIMIC build them wells and improve the buildings. But we're not supposed to be creating a reliance on us, just facilitating them helping themselves.

The women's centre was equally inspiring – it's run by a woman who arranges English language, computer and cooking classes for about fifty. They get threatened on their way there – two I spoke to were in the back of a car when a man emptied an AK-47 into their driver. Yet they still turn up – they told me all they want to do is learn office skills and be allowed to work. But, again, their facilities are rubbish and they have to put their own guard on the gate. Nobody provides one for them. We gave them a huge supply of sanitary towels and hygiene kits (just things like soap and toothpaste), and they were so grateful. It's amazing what you take for granted.

This morning I was out on a familiarization patrol. We were taken all over Lashkar Gah to see the various buildings of interest, and the shoddily policed check-points, and we drove through the market and waved at the little children who run behind the vehicles. A lot of them stare and point, then collapse in giggles, when they realize I'm a girl ...

On that note, an Afghan gentleman came into the office today. He looked utterly shocked when I told him I'm the new boss! He pointed at me and said, 'YOU?' He runs a school and wants computers for the kids. He did smile and shake my hand, though, so I reckon he sees me as some sort of strange foreign alien from another world. Not quite a woman, not quite a man, but something in between ... That's what my interpreter said. It's gonna be so weird here.

3 September 2006

McNab: The RAF's ageing fleet of Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft was grounded after a crash in Afghanistan claimed the lives of all fourteen on board. It was the worst single military loss of life since the Falklands War of 1982. The end for the twenty-nine-year-old Nimrod MR2, near Kandahar, came during the most intensive period of fighting in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It was carrying twelve airmen from 120 Squadron, one Royal Marine and one soldier from the Parachute Regiment. The aircraft was flying at about 10,000 feet when flames started coming from the tail as it fell to the ground. The accident meant British troops had now suffered thirty-six deaths in Afghanistan since 2001.

September 2006

Major Maria Holliday, QGM, Royal Military Police (RMP)

Sometimes we would escort high-value targets [Taliban suspects] to Kabul on behalf of the Afghans because they didn't really have the resources to do it. Quite often, if we couldn't get the evidence, the detainees would have to be released. But when there was sufficient evidence to support an allegation that they were a member of the Taliban, they would be handed over to the Afghan authorities. They might have been arrested if they were in possession of a firearm or if they were seen to be firing at UK troops, or perhaps if they were in possession of documentation that would suggest they were a member of the Taliban. It was exactly the same sort of evidence that would be required in the UK. But once we had handed them over, we would have to monitor how they were being treated. We would visit the Afghan jails and speak to the detainees to make sure they were being treated correctly. We had a moral duty of care, if you like. There were no examples of mistreatment during our tour. The [RMP] boys, when they first went down there [to Lashkar Gah], expected to find really bad conditions, but they were OK. The jails were very, very basic but the cells were kept clean. Sometimes the Afghans did surprise us – they were better organized than we expected.

One particular incident springs to mind. The chief of police for Helmand province in Lashkar Gah asked me to go and visit a young girl called Leila. She was sixteen and had been put into the prison in Lashkar Gah. The reason she had been jailed was that she had run away from her family and had gone to Kandahar. She was hoping to get married to a young lad there but she had been found in Kandahar, arrested and taken back to Helmand province. The chief of police was concerned that if she was released back to her brother – who was the head of the family because she did not have a mum or dad – she might be subjected to an honour killing because she was said to have brought shame on her family by running away.

I did chat with her in jail in early September, towards the end of the tour. I went to the prison in Lash, and doubled it up with a check on a detainee, caught by the British, who had been sentenced and put into the prison. I asked the prison governor if I could visit the girls in the prison. It is the same prison as the men but the women were held separately. I was led through a myriad gates and compounds and eventually reached the women. There were five girls with some little children because they take the children into prison with them. There was a female prison warder, and they were all dressed in civilian clothes. I was asking, through an interpreter, why they were there. A seventeen-year-old girl had been given a seven-year sentence for adultery and a fourteen-year-old had been accused of adultery. She was awaiting sentence, but she was so shy and frightened, she kept hiding her face. You could see she was a young teenage girl. I remember thinking there was no way that girl had committed adultery or, if she had, it had not been of her own volition. It was awful to see her. In the UK, if everyone got locked up for committing adultery, half the population would be in prison!

There was a female medic who had gone with me to the prison as well – we took some toys and sweets for the kids because we knew there would be children in there. To start with, the sixteen-year-old we had gone to see wasn't there, but while we were chatting, she came back. She had just been in court and I managed to speak to her. She was very feisty: I was quite impressed with her. She talked through an interpreter but you could tell from her tone of voice that she was quite defiant. I asked why she had run away from home. She said she had gone to Kandahar because she wanted to be a policewoman. In Kandahar, there were a number of policewomen but there were none in Helmand province. All police were male in Helmand. She said she wanted to become a policewoman and she wanted to get married but she was adamant that she did not want to be released to her brother. I asked her if she would be in danger and she was quite noncommittal. I went back to the chief of police and I passed on my concerns to him, but he was in a difficult position because it was going to be dealt with by the courts and Afghan law. I often think about Leila because I have no idea what happened to her. I passed the information on to a lady working for the Foreign Office, so she was aware of the case before I left.

September 2006

McNab: Christopher 'Has' Hasler was told that he had become the first flying officer [he is now a flight lieutenant] since the Second World War to be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). This is his previously unpublished CO's report in which Hasler is recommended for a gallantry award:

In May 2006, Flying Officer Hasler was detached with his Flight as part of the Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan), JHF (A) in support of Operation HERRICK. Hasler flew initially as a co-pilot, owing to his relative inexperience, but soon proved capable of fulfilling the role of aircraft captain. Hasler was actively involved in many high-risk sorties and displayed consistently the highest standards of gallantry and professionalism. Towards the end of his tour he was appointed captain for a number of key missions.

At dawn on 7 July 2006, Hasler led a formation of two Chinooks into the area of Sangin. The mission was to provide an essential resupply and extraction for a 3 PARA BG [Brigade] Company. The dangers involved were extremely high. The day before, Hasler had attempted the same mission, but he had to abort because a Paratrooper had been killed by enemy fire while securing the helicopter landing site. To mitigate the risk to the aircraft, Hasler elected to land in an 'unlikely' site in order to achieve surprise. The site was surrounded by buildings on three sides and would make the landing particularly difficult. Undaunted, Hasler displayed great bravery, maturity and handling skills well beyond his experience, in leading his formation into Sangin and landing his aircraft successfully, just after dawn. He then safely offloaded the vital stores before manoeuvring his aircraft quickly, but with supreme accuracy, to allow a number of troops to embark. Again, Hasler needed the highest degree of skill and composure to do this. As he repositioned, he intentionally placed the aircraft's rotor disc just above a single-storey rooftop. Any error would almost certainly have resulted in catastrophic damage to the aircraft. The mission proved to be a complete success.

On 14 July, Hasler commanded the third aircraft of a fiveship Chinook assault into Sangin, a Taliban stronghold and area of recent high enemy activity, as part of Operation AUGUSTUS. Hasler's aircraft was the last of three to land in the first wave; the second wave of two Chinooks eventually aborted their landing due to the heavy weight of enemy fire on the landing site; fire from enemy who were awake, fully alert and expecting the landing. Although a heavy fire-fight against 30–40 Taliban was already under way, and there was a strong possibility of the assault force being split and overwhelmed, Hasler displayed tremendous bravery and commitment and skilfully landed his aircraft, even though small arms and Rocket-propelled Grenades were being fired at his and other landing Chinooks. Whilst under effective enemy fire, Hasler held his nerve and his aircraft on the ground to allow his troops to disembark into the hottest of the helicopter landing sites, before taking off. Hasler's brave decision to do this enabled overpowering numbers of friendly forces to quickly suppress the enemy positions and for the mission to succeed with minimum UK casualties.

Throughout his 10-week detachment, Hasler displayed great courage and composure, despite his relative inexperience. He maintained the highest standards of professionalism and airmanship in what was an extremely arduous, high-tempo flying tour in the most demanding, high-risk environment in which the Chinook Force has operated in its recent history.

September 2006

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, Royal Marines

I was taking out one of the multiples. The intended multiple commander [MC] was still on course back in the UK so, because I was a spare floating MC, I was helping out everyone, showing people the lie of the land. We – a section of twelve blokes – were out on the southern side of Lashkar Gah, the southern side of the airport. We had recently had IEDs handed in so we were looking around the airport making sure there was no suspicious business. Even though we had got GPS [global positioning system] and maps, it was pitch black and nine times out of ten you made a wrong turn – and I did on this occasion.

In and around a built-up area, I came to a dead end. It was around midnight. I said: 'It's my fault. U-turn.' Everyone was giving me numerous shit over the radio so we turned around and started to come back. But as we'd turned our headlights had gone over the horizon at some stage, and this had been picked up by somebody. So we were just about to drive out of the built-up area, a dead-end alley that I had gone down, when all of a sudden there was Dushka fire at our vehicles from the left. A Dushka is a 12.7 Russian machine-gun. A big, heavy, slow thing. So, obviously, we stopped, switched our lights off. I was in an open-top WMIK and we reversed back in. All the lads had broken cover, contact reports had been sent, etc., etc. As soon as it happened, I thought: No, they [the Taliban] do not drive up to you this close in a town centre and have a pop shot. We were on the south side of them – they were closer into town. If it had been the other way [around], they could have escaped into the desert, but they were not going to escape into town. They wouldn't have done that because they knew we could call other people in.

There were three of us in the WMIK: me, a driver and a gunner on the back. Within a minute, I knew it was a police check-point that had fired on us. From the position and knowing where I was, I realized they were ANP. I had visited the check-point days before. All the lads were getting ready to fire back but I held them off. I told them to chill out. We put lots of para illum [parachute illumination flares] up in the air so they could see us. We were four vehicles – two WMIKs, two Snatch [lightly armoured Land Rovers]. We did this but they kept firing at us. We were not firing. The outcome of me firing or killing ANP at that stage would have wrecked all the hard work that 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigade had done. There were about eight of them. It took forty minutes. Every time we went to move, I was stuck. They were firing at us, mistaking us for Taliban even though we had lit up the area. They could see our vehicle. Whenever we moved forward or back, or put up para illum, or flashed our lights – the Snatch vehicles had spotlights on the top – they fired at us. None of the vehicles got hit but we were pinned down. They were 350 or 300 metres away. Not far. But I couldn't go forward or back. I let zero – the Ops Room – know. They wanted to send out more people but I said, 'No,' because it was gonna cause more chaos. Then they [the ANP] were going to think they were getting attacked. So our interpreter – he was at the back of one of the vehicles and his English was reasonably good – he turned the air blue. He was swearing about these 'poxy, useless police'. So we called them on his loudhailer. And I said to tell them: 'We are British servicemen.' I told him that they must stop firing because, if they didn't, we were going to have to fire on them and we didn't want to do that.

So he spoke to them. All of a sudden the firing stopped. You could see the interpreter was irate and I was trying to calm him down. So I got everyone back on the vehicles, put our hazard warning lights on and we lit the sky up with the last of our para illum. Then we drove down. The ANP were all laughing because they thought it was hilarious. I was obviously not laughing. I grabbed their commander, took his name to pass on to the chief of police. And our interpreter was still swearing. We cleared it up and all came back. Thank Christ for that. For forty-five minutes they were regularly firing with their AK-47s, their Dushka. It was a genuine mistake, but that one was a bit too close for comfort.

9 September 2006 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

Sorry I haven't been in touch for a bit but I'm sure you've heard there have been quite a lot of deaths/serious injuries out here, and so Op Minimize has been on ... constantly. Plus there's been a bit of a siege mentality in camp ... We had reports of hordes of Taliban on the horizon getting ready to surge into Lashkar Gah, so everything stopped while we waited to be attacked ... I admit I didn't sleep very well for a few days. My body armour is SO heavy. I don't think I'd be able to run very fast or very far in it.

So life's been eventful since I got here 2 weeks ago. We had our first 'incident' on camp on my first night here ... having had no sleep the night before I was pretty knackered, but was woken up at midnight by my new boss dressed in full webbing and helmet, etc, complete fighting order, telling me the camp was under deliberate attack and could I please get dressed!!! Plus we had a casualty. The medical room is down the hall from my room, and I recognized that strong smell of disinfectant. So I got up, got dressed, and then basically we all spent a few hours hanging around in the corridors wondering what was going on ... Mainly I was worrying about my lack of ammunition, because having just arrived I'd only been issued one magazine [more magazines were due the next day]. Eventually we were all sent back to bed. I slept in my clothes, just in case.

The next morning, we were told the ANA in town had decided to shoot a group of stray dogs. The ANP or some other ANA thought they were being attacked and returned fire in the general direction of our camp – and some bullets came over the wall, went through one of the tents and hit a captain in the leg. Apparently he'd jumped up when he heard firing, but if he'd stayed in his bed he would've been okay!

Workwise, there is so much to do and everything takes so long. Plus we're a bit short-staffed, most of my PsyOps section were sent down to Garmsir with about 17 other Brits and a few Estonians helping about 100 local Afghan forces beat off a Taliban advance. Constant fighting for 6 days. And I mean constant fighting. One of the Royal Marine corporals from my team got sent down there (I rather hopefully gave him a video camera, but he didn't get it out of his bag). He manned a 50-cal gun and fired 1,600 rounds. And a sgt major from my battalion got shot in the arm. Garmsir is incredibly strategically important because it's the furthest south ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] have been and it's the main crossing point down there over the Helmand river.

We had a visit on camp from a woman from a Canadian NGO, who told us about the state of the IDP [internally displaced people] camps on the outskirts of town ... children starving, people being recruited to the Taliban for the price of a day's food, the usual desperate plight of those displaced by war. The politics, though, is phenomenally complicated in that we as ISAF troops cannot be seen to help these people unless they become a military threat. We can't just go and give them food, because they can't become dependent on us. It's up to the Helmand governor to do that, to help his own people. But nobody seems to be doing much about it. Aid, when it's given, often ends up being sold in the bazaars – still in its UN wrappers. We see it as we drive by. What can you do in a country which blocks your efforts to help at every turn? It's very frustrating.

September 2006

Corporal Fraser 'Frankie' Gasgarth, The Royal Engineers

Corporal Fraser 'Frankie' Gasgarth, The Royal Engineers, is thirty-two, He was born in Carlisle, Cumbria. The son of a sales rep for an agricultural feed company, he has an older brother. Both his grandfathers served in the Army during the Second World War. Gasgarth left school at sixteen to start an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering but, after completing the five-year course, gave it up to travel around the world for four months. On his return, he made award-winning cheese while his application to join the Army was considered. He eventually went into the Royal Engineers in 1999, aged twenty-two. During his time in the Army, he went on tours to Northern Ireland and Iraq, before being sent to Afghanistan in September 2006. Gasgarth, who is engaged, is based at RMB Chivenor in Devon. He got his nickname from comrades and was named after Mad 'Frankie' Fraser, the gangster – because he was always volunteering to do crazy tasks.

My arrival in Afghanistan was relatively straightforward – and was, without doubt, considerably less dramatic than an incident shortly after I had first arrived in Iraq, just after the start of the Second Gulf War in 2003. Now that was an adventure: the day two of us accidentally took a wrong turn and ended up being repeatedly shot at as we mistakenly headed towards Basra, Iraq's second city.

In contrast to Iraq, my first few days in Afghanistan were a piece of cake. We went out as a full squadron – as 59 Commando Squadron – and took over from the Paras out there. Our role was to support 3 Commando Brigade. My job was as a fitter section commander, responsible for maintaining and fixing plant kit. I took over twenty-eight bits of kit and, out of that, one bit was 'roadworthy' meaning – back in the UK – you could take it on the road, one piece was 'taskworthy' – you couldn't drive it onto the road but could take it onto site. The rest was 'U/S': unserviceable. Yet we had to get it all up and running. The kit consisted of everything from JCB diggers, medium-wheel tractors (which have a massive bucket on the front), excavators and graders. A lot of the kit gets sent to out-stations and is used for fortification. All the kit would be used for things like putting up Hesco [bastion] walls, building protections for the [Afghan National] police and building new forward operating bases.

I was primarily based in [Camp] Bastion but we went anywhere – on a road-move – where plant went with us. Perhaps you would build a temporary FOB. From there, the Royal Marines would disappear and do strike attacks but they would have a base to come back to in the desert. As soon as they had finished, we would collapse it all and take it with us. In Bastion, we would have fitters in every out-station and they would look after kit in each plant station. Kajaki was where I spent most of my time – two months in all – and that was where the 'hypothermia incident' happened. But that's another story ...

September 2006

Major Maria Holliday, QGM, Royal Military Police (RMP)

I'm a bit of an animal lover. There was a cat in Lashkar Gah that we adopted. She became pregnant and had four kittens. The rumour was that she'd had some during the last tour and they'd all died. Anyway, she gave birth in a cardboard box in the Brigade Headquarters but we had to move them out of there. We moved them into an area where there was an Afghan gardener and he kept an eye on them. She got really bad flu symptoms and she was so weak she couldn't feed them. I was trying to give the kittens some dried milk powder made up. Of course, it wasn't the right thing but that was all we had. I also used a bit of cod liver oil but kittens are notoriously hard to hand rear. I was on the phone to the UK vets to get some guidance on what to do with these kittens but, unfortunately, despite all my best efforts, because I couldn't get any proper stuff for them, they all died one by one. The longest one lasted ten days. The gardener buried them all in the little garden in Lashkar Gah. I felt very sad. They had a harsh existence but that's just life in Afghanistan.

The mother eventually pulled through. I managed to get her some human antibiotics from a local who claimed to be a vet, but I was having to guess on the dosages. She later became pregnant again. She was a skinny little ginger cat. She was quite feisty. She used to chase the search dogs. There was a Labrador who was quite frightened of her and used to run away from her. I called her Nagina: she was a wild cat but she was getting fed. Lots of people's mums and sisters were sending her cat food [in the post]. I managed to move her at the end. I was in contact with a rescue society in Kabul that was run by a female American journalist. They said that if I could get her to Kabul, they would take care of her and try and rehome her. Then the cat became pregnant again and it was coming to the end of the tour so I thought: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I managed to get her to Kabul at the same time as I was also escorting some Afghan police. So I had a pregnant cat in a cat box in a bag. I took her up to Kabul in September, close to the end of the tour. She went on a helicopter from Lashkar Gah to Camp Bastion; it was a really hot day and she was terrified by the noise of the helicopter. Then she went on a Hercules from Camp Bastion to Kandahar and another Hercules from Kandahar to Kabul. I had some help from the RAF and she went finally in a Saxon [armoured vehicle] from Kabul airport to the British camp. Then I contacted the cat rescue place. She almost escaped at the camp right at the end: she made a bid for freedom up the wall and I just managed to catch her. I contacted the rescue society and they came to the camp and collected her. It was sad to say cheerio to her. Much later, I contacted the American journalist lady: Nagina had had another litter of kittens but, once again, they all died. So they spayed her. I have always been an animal lover. The two dogs I have, Alice and Bumper, are from Croatia and Bosnia.

25 September 2006 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

Hello ... Still in Kandahar, but getting ready to leave, which is a relief. I've run out of dollars and clean socks, and I can't put my laundry in because it takes 24 hours to come back, and I don't want to lose any of my clothes when I leave because I don't have very many! Oh, the traumas of living in a war zone. It's been okay here in the HQ, though seeing the politics first hand, sitting in on planning meetings, witnessing the absolute lack of joined-up working this Bde [Brigade] has ... it's been pretty enlightening. My days have been pretty dull too. Originally I was staying in a tent in Camp Faraway, so called because it literally is very far away from the rest of the camp. It has rows of tents called things like 'Albert Square'. The ablutions are in metal containers, with three metal toilet cubicles with metal toilets, and three little tiny showers with metal walls and floors, and three metal sinks. All very functional. At least the water's been hot, when it's working. Sometimes I've had to trudge to the massive fridge and get bottles of water to wash in, which is freezing. So I wake up at 0645, trudge to the metal washing container, trudge back, pick up my rifle and go and wait at the bus stop to get a lift to the HQ ... Honestly, I thought I'd said goodbye to commuting for 6 months.

Once at work, I check my emails, then go to the morning commanders' update briefing, or CUB. Everything military has to be reduced to three-letter acronyms, or TLAs. This is fairly interesting: every branch head stands up in turn and briefs the commander on their bit of the war – operations, intelligence, plans, info ops, joint effects, engineers, you get the picture. It goes on a bit. Once that's over, we all go to breakfast ... I've been stuffing myself here. I usually eat a sausage, some tomato, a Danish pastry AND a yoghurt AND toast. I think it's a case of if it's put in front of you, you eat it.

Then it's time for coffee, and the joint effects meeting – they're trying (at the end of their tour and far too late) to join up the kinetic ops with the non-kinetic, which includes things like media, PsyOps and info ops. Then I spend the rest of the day in meetings, and touching base with the guys back in Lash to feed them information, and get info back from them. We have secure phone lines to do that on, but there's a massive delay so you end up talking over each other. I've also been issued a work mobile, which is good to just phone them up on for morale chats. My boss has had really bad D&V [diarrhoea and vomiting], and was put in isolation for a few days. They want me back there, for their morale, they say, which is nice. At least I feel missed!

Then it's lunchtime (like zoo animals in a cage our days are measured by mealtimes), and at 1730 we have another update brief ... this time we link up by audio with Lash so the two HQs know what the other has been doing. But the HQ in Kandahar and the HQ in Lash don't really get on, so there's often a few sarcastic comments going between the two.

Then, of course, it's dinner-time, and later everyone kind of hangs around drinking coffee and pretending to work until quite late. There's a ridiculous work culture here of see-how-late-you-can-stay, even though you're not really achieving anything and will be tired tomorrow.

The camp is odd too because there are two 24-hour Green Bean cafés, and a Canadian, Tim Horton's, and people get seriously obsessed about going for coffee ... I mean they actually talk about coffee like it's an interesting topic. I cannot wait to get back to Lash.

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