Introduction: Operation Herrick 5

In October 2006, the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade relieved the Paras as part of Operation Herrick 5. The entire force totalled about 4,500 servicemen and women. 3 Commando Brigade had the advantage of coming forewarned and prepared for a fight. They also had a better force package than the Paras, with more troops on the ground and a whole regiment of Royal Engineers to focus on reconstruction and development. The Marines hoped to consolidate their positions in the various towns across the province, reducing their presence where possible in exchange for adopting a more mobile approach. There was also considerable international pressure to make progress on the reconstruction effort. Despite the brutal winter conditions, the Taliban maintained their presence and, like the Paras before them, the men of 3 Commando Brigade soon became engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of modern times.

The main combat power was provided by 42 Commando with 45 Commando taking on the Afghan Army mentoring role. 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, 59 Independent Commando Squadron, 28 Engineer Regiment, C Squadron Light Dragoons and the Commando Logistics Regiment all fulfilled vital supporting roles. Close air support was provided by RAF Harriers, air-transport support in RAF Chinooks and Hercules and 2 Squadron of the RAF Regiment undertook the RAF Force Protection.

10 October 2006 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

I'm now surrounded by Royal Marines. You've probably heard that 3 Commando Brigade have taken over command out here, so pretty much EVERYONE is a Royal Marine. That took some getting used to. I even had to sew the 3 Commando 'flash' – like a Girl Guide badge, or maybe Scouts is more fitting – onto the sleeves of all my shirts to denote the fact that I am part of 3 Cdo [Commando] Brigade. It's an olive green square with a dagger on it. It makes me feel quite hard. Although of course I'm still not, and maintain pink nail varnish on my toenails at all times. But that's slightly ruined by the RSM [regimental sergeant major] who's just arrived with the corps. He's ruled that we're not allowed to wear civvy clothes at all any more – we used to get away with it in the evenings, just sports kit and flip-flops, to give my feet a break from heavy socks and boots (bearing in mind it's still reaching 50°C most days). But now I have to wear my uniform all the time, and my feet are actually starting to rot! The skin on my heels is turning yellow. It's very attractive.

One of the Marines stabbed himself with his morphine the other day, which was quite funny. At least, it will be until I do the same thing ... I just carry it around in my trouser pocket (we all do, seeing as you could be shot at any time), checking every so often in a slightly paranoid way that the safety cap hasn't come off ... They're designed to auto-inject a 4-inch needle straight into your thigh.

11 October 2006

McNab: The first British troops returned home after a summer of fighting in Afghanistan. The Army admitted that the period had seen some of the toughest battles it had faced in fifty years: for more than four months, the task force had been fighting in an intensity not seen since the Korean War. The force in Helmand lost sixteen men, killed, and forty-three were wounded. The amount of ammunition expended told the story of the fighting's ferocity: 450,000 rounds of small-arms fire, 4,300 artillery rounds and 1,000 hand grenades. One senior commander said: 'We went there to carry out reconstruction and we ended up fighting a war.'

October 2006

Lieutenant Rachel Morgan, Royal Naval Medical Branch

Lieutenant Rachel Morgan, Royal Naval Medical Branch attached to the Joint CIMIC (Civil Military Co-operation) group, was born and brought up in the north of England. An only child, she left school at seventeen and joined the Royal Navy in 1992 where she trained as a nurse. She was working in a military medical centre before she was deployed to Afghanistan. She completed a ten-month tour of the country from September 2006, working in the forward operating bases of Helmand and the Civil Military Operations Cell, supporting the stabilization effort. She is now based at the Naval Command Headquarters, Portsmouth.

Random acts of heroism probably take place far more often than are widely reported – and often can be treated as normal. Sometimes offensive operations happen at night. On one occasion a night-time operation was planned near one of the main towns, Gereshk.

The op was to investigate how far the Taliban were coming into town at night in the area. The plan was to go out and watch what was going on. I was travelling in a Snatch [lightly armoured Land Rover]. We had about ten vehicles and between sixty and seventy soldiers. Unfortunately the Taliban were waiting – or, if they weren't waiting, they got their act together very quickly. It was midnight. We had been out for about two hours and we started receiving small-arms fire.

I was quite well to the rear [of the vehicle convoy] going in. We were deployed outside the vehicle and I was in a position on the far left of our location. There was an incident and we were contacted from enemy forces to one side. Appropriate call signs returned fire and after a while the Marines started to push forward but quickly there was a change of plan. In the confusion, one of the vehicles, a Pinzgauer, an open-top vehicle, overturned. It was a hilly area and it got stuck in a stream, or wadi. In the ensuing rescue one of the officers became lodged under it. There was no panic and the Marines were in constant radio contact with what was going on around them.

The Afghan night was as black as you can imagine. Most of the soldiers were operating with night-vision goggles which I didn't have that night but I could hear what was going on around me. In a very short space of time we could hear on our radio that somebody was injured and being recovered.

It was a young Royal Marine officer, not long out of training, who had been trapped, completely pinned down, under the vehicle. It turned out that the driver – who was a Royal Marines' sergeant – in the space of fifteen or thirty seconds got a wheel jack underneath the vehicle to lift it off his chest. The injured officer was so badly crushed he couldn't breathe. They lifted the vehicle up enough for him to breathe and squeezed him out from under it. They rescued their man even though there were bullets flying all around them. They managed to focus enough on getting the jack, making it work, getting to this officer, dragging him out from under the vehicle and bringing him back to the helicopter landing site. Within forty minutes or so he was picked up by a MERT [medical emergency response team]. He was taken back to Camp Bastion, where he was treated in the hospital and lived to tell the tale, and later made a full recovery. The quick thinking of that sergeant, and those Marines around him, undoubtedly saved that officer's life.

30 October 2006 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

We're in the middle of supporting a big operation, so I spent a few hours this morning chatting to a local mayor – otherwise known as 'Key Leader Engagement'. He came in to see us in his full Afghan dress and silken grey turban, with the long end draped stylishly over his shoulder ... He's a Spingiri, which means 'white beard', a reference to his actual white beard, which denotes him as a respected elder. We discussed politics and security for a while, then put him in our radio studio to record a message for local radio, and gave him a can of Coke and some chocolate Hobnobs we bought in the Naafi ... at which point he became very animated, eating handfuls of them and saying he would take some home to show his wife. He also said we should air-drop Hobnobs if we want to win over the local people. We gave him some ISAF freebies, and another packet of biscuits to take home. He told us that his voice on the radio would put his life in danger, and his two sons have to stay up all night with AK-47s protecting him while he slept. But he was happy to do it. He phoned us up later that day to invite us to his cousin's wedding ... Unfortunately, due to the security situation, we had to politely decline.

Other than that, we're really concerned about the schools at the moment, especially the girls' school. Because we keep going on about it, and sending up our reports highlighting our concerns and the impact it would have if the TB [Taliban] managed to blow up a school in supposedly safe Lashkar Gah, finally they're starting to do something about it. They've been doing threat assessments and plans for improving security and teaching the staff what to do if there's an IED at the school. Yesterday we conducted search training at the women's centre, because even if they have ANP guards, men cannot search women. Jen [a friend] put on a burka as part of the demonstration, which made the women giggle. The headmistress of the girls' school gave me a night letter she'd been sent, threatening to kill her for (a) teaching girls, (b) teaching girls infidel subjects, (c) allowing infidels into her school. It's a nasty situation. These women just astound me: they're so brave.

31 October

It's actually been pretty quiet, due to Ramadan, certain 'agreements' being dealt and done by elders, shuras [meetings] and the governor. I'm sure you heard about the suicide bombing and the death of one of the Marines on the camp. That was a surreal experience. When the news came in from the Ops Room, Sky had it flashed up on their screen within 10 minutes, before the family had been informed – the fools. They were told to take it down pretty sharpish. I can't imagine what my poor mother thinks when she hears things like that. My role that day was to phone around locals to find out what their perception of the bombing was, interview people who were nearby at the time, write statements for the press, get on the phone to the radio stations and push out the ISAF angle (the TB reported they'd killed 8 soldiers) ... through our interpreter; hardly anyone speaks English. And through the 'minister for youth culture and information affairs', a chap called Jan Gull, the Alastair Campbell of Helmand province!

I got told later on by an unfeasibly tall and muscular RMP bloke that he apologized if we got any complaints from the Afghan reporters at the scene, whom he had personally grabbed by the scruff of the neck and carried away because they were trying to film it. I saw the footage on Sky, while I was eating my dinner that night, of the burning Snatch. It actually made me feel quite ill. Apparently the bomber was chatting to a stallholder, lots of children were playing in the street, he saw the convoy and just ran at it. One of our interpreter's cousins was killed, a little 10-year-old girl, so he took an hour off in the afternoon to go to her burial in the cemetery just outside camp. He cried when he told me.

We held a memorial service for Mne [Marine] Wright on the HLS [helicopter landing site]. The padre led the service and the commanding officers gave readings and the colonel made the most emotional speech ... The whole experience was very powerful, and unreal, and sad.

10 November 2006 [email home]

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, of The Royal Engineers, is thirty-three. He was born in north Wales and grew up in Hong Kong. The son of an RAF officer turned commercial airline pilot, he is one of four children – three of whom joined the armed forces. After attending Sherborne School in Dorset, Rigg obtained a master's degree in engineering from Oxford University. He initially worked for a venture capital bank but quickly realized it was not for him. Seeking adventure and wanting to travel, he entered the Army in 2001. After officer training at Sandhurst, he joined the Royal Engineers. Rigg did one short tour of Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2006. He left the Army in late 2008 for a career as a civil engineer. He lives in Winchester, Hampshire.

The rolling surf, lazy chai rooms and wild exotic parties were beginning to become a distraction and so the Big Boss has moved us to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. We are now far better placed to direct activity, with a clearer understanding of all the various dynamics. However, nothing comes without a cost. The camp that we have moved to is in the middle of a D&V outbreak, partly because it is already crammed to capacity. Which means that the uplift of 160 people is having to be accommodated in a line of hastily erected tents sited between the inner and outer wall – known colloquially as 'Killing Area Lines' or 'Death Row'. We have been assured that the site is perfectly safe because at either end of Death Row there is a sangar with clear fields of view over the potential danger area. What wasn't immediately clear was that the sangars are manned by Afghans. Apparently these guys have been vetted and are deemed to be on the ball, many of them having been fighters for one side or the other for most of their lives.

There has only been one incident that has caused us concern and that was some time ago now. Early one morning after a particularly peaceful night, one of the sentries must have grown a little restless and decided to shoot a few dogs. On hearing the gunfire, his fellow sentries assumed there was some kind of attack going on, and so, regardless of the obvious lack of targets, they followed suit. At the time the gunfire started, Major Green had just got up and was bent over pulling his trousers on when he was struck in the backside with a stray bullet. From our perspective, the funniest part of this story was that the injury was not deemed serious enough to warrant him being sent home. Now that we live within the firing arcs of our friendly Afghan sentries, we awake each day with a strong sense of relief, then stay as low as possible until within the safety of the galley.

It's not all bad news, though. We do have an al fresco dining area, which gives it a dangerously misleading holiday feel. Of particular note, we also have a permanent goat detachment. Sadly we are currently without any goats, but that is soon to be rectified. The elders from Sangin ate the last residents, and the officer in charge of goats (OiCoG) is in the process of resourcing some more. (Major Cliff Dare had left a successful property-development business and committed to a three-month stint in Afghanistan to pursue his love of goats. He underwent arduous exotic livestock training at a secret farmyard in the Brecons in order to receive the coveted post of OiCoG.)

The goat-acquisition operation, Op BILLY, is now a routine drill. The OiCoG moves downtown in an armoured Land Cruiser with three accompanying armoured Land Rovers and associated personnel. Once at the bazaar, the vehicles take up defensive positions surrounding the livestock section and the OiCoG moves swiftly to the Goat Man to begin negotiations. The local elders are very important in our dealings with the more troublesome provinces and it is important to provide a goat that meets with their approval. Fortunately the OiCoG is UN Goat Authentication, Selection and Screening (UNGASAS) trained, and within minutes of having made contact he has got the goat on its back and made a full assessment of the beast. The negotiations then ensue, and, if successful, the goat is swiftly recovered to its new living quarters.

We are keen to procure two goats so that we can initiate some goat racing now that we have had to forgo attending the weekly camel racing. This is a particular blow to me because the Mustphuk/Mustafette duo proved to be a winning combination. They came in first two weeks on the trot and now the beers are on me. Unfortunately, Club Lash is without booze (a concern with a load of pissed-up squaddies being in close proximity to the town and only a wall to restrain them). Instead we have placed wagers on the peak number of D&V cases. Numbers currently at 41 and climbing. I've gone for 75 but some have gone as high as 140. These are the fellas you don't accept a cup of from.

That's it for now. Off to Death Row, where I hope to sleep soundly until about 0500 when the tone-deaf mullah wakes us. God knows what they're chanting about (excuse the pun). On second thoughts, it's probably best we remain ignorant on that one.

20 November 2006

McNab: Tony Blair admitted that Western leaders had underestimated how long it would take to win the 'war on terror'. His admission came, amid tight security, during his first visit to the Afghan capital of Kabul. He conceded that the West had wrongly presumed in 2001 that, when the Taliban fled, the war was in the bag. At a press conference with President Hamid Karzai, Blair said: 'I think we are wiser now to the fact that this is a generation-long struggle.' He was speaking after the death of eighteen British troops at the hands of the Taliban in six months. Earlier he had visited 2,300 British servicemen and women based at Camp Bastion.

13 December 2006

McNab: It is revealed that Corporal Bryan Budd, a Paratrooper who launched a sole charge on Taliban lines after his platoon was ambushed, will be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. The VC is Britain's foremost gallantry award. Budd was part of a twenty-four-man patrol from A Company, 3 Para, which was sent to clear cornfields in Sangin. The Paras came under heavy fire with several soldiers suffering gunshot wounds. Budd ran at the enemy position with his SA80 assault rifle on fully automatic. He was shot and killed while launching the attack on 20 August 2006. Just the night before he died, he had been talking quietly to Lance Corporal Matt Carse, a Military Policeman, about his wife and the joy of her becoming pregnant again. Carse said the next time he saw his friend was when he helped recover his body. 'He was one of the best and bravest soldiers I had met – he had taken on the Taliban virtually on his own,' he said.

December 2006

Colour Sergeant Richie Whitehead, Royal Marines

During October I had been given another 'Dirty Dozen' mission – to train up a group of Royal Engineers from 64 Squadron. What we wanted to do was have the maximum amount of input on the ground with Royal Marine multiples. I got given these volunteers and these lads who had been pinged in from [Camp] Bastion [to Lashkar Gah]. They all rocked up – they didn't have a clue what they were doing, or why they were doing it. Plant drivers, JCB drivers, graders – all young lads, all given to me, and I had two weeks to train them up to a suitable standard for me to take them out safely on the ground. Which we did. They were my Dirty Dozen and they were absolutely brilliant because they didn't know any better. So, whatever I said, they did, which was great because there were no arguments. It was brilliant.

So we went out at night and during the day and we used to visit the ANP and ANA positions. There was a plan of building eight or ten new check-points, which had once been mud huts. We were going to build a nice one for all of them with services and electricity and paint them pink (the schools were painted yellow) to brighten up the place. Just to protect Lashkar Gah. So off we went one night in December and there were major rains: it was really, really rainy. It was a hellish night but we were touring around the check-points. Now you couldn't see for love or money with the rain and we went out to north of Muktah. There were only so many routes you can take, and in the rainy season these would diminish because the rivers would rise and you would just get stuck – and you don't want to get stuck out there. We were all in Snatches because the suicide threat had gone up and we had already lost one of the lads: Gaz Wright, from 45 [Commando] in October down in Lashkar Gah.

I had been there over six months now and we had not only learnt a lot but they [the Taliban] had learnt a lot as well – about us. The threat of IEDs and suicide bombing was getting a lot higher and there were more incidents downtown – not against us but against anyone who was having anything to do with us. The clerical departments, the ANP, the governor's compound and all of this kind of stuff were getting hit quite regularly. So, sooner or later we were going to have to come across it.

Anyway, I was out at silly o'clock in the night in the rain with my patrol. And we drove up a normal route, which was one of four we could take. Out one way and back in by another. The lads were out on top [of the Snatch]. We were doing our thing. There were moans and groans and laughter because everyone was getting pissed with rain. We were only out for an hour and a half or so. We went through this certain area of Muktah. We stopped to watch the crossing point of the river Helmand.

We chatted with our ANP [check-point] that we wanted to see. I had a quick cup of tea with them. Everything was fine: they did their normal complaining – not enough diesel for the electricity, not enough ammunition – and then we came back on a different route: it sort of ran parallel to the one we went out on. And I had literally been out twenty minutes past this certain check-point in Muktah, when suddenly there was the almighty explosion to my right – towards the back of the patrol. Straight away I am asking for a sit [situation] report. Comms were not as good as they could have been, due to the weather. It felt like the explosion was a couple of hundred metres away – but it was probably more like five hundred. I knew we were in contact, but all my vehicles were safe so I was happy. I quickly drove into camp, reported it, went to the sangars. They reported a big explosion, fire and stuff, and they pointed in the area of Muktah and I was like: 'Well, we've just come from there.' And I'm thinking: Was this a delayed attack, or an attack on the ANP? So we got in touch with the chief of police, who you could ring whenever you wanted, and said: 'Look, there has been an attack in Muktah.'

He said: 'Yes, I'm aware of this, but it's not my check-point. It is south of my check-point.' Which meant it was closer to Lashkar Gah than we'd originally thought.

I told the ops officer: 'At first light I'm going to go back and investigate that because I believe it's something to do with me.'

So we went out the next day, on foot with vehicles as support, and we were asking all around as we retraced our steps. Basically, where we had driven, there were two antitank mines either side of the track, and they'd had the old metal plates underneath dug in – so when they got pressured, they'd come together and form a contact, which would set the two anti-tank mines off. This was all there still. There was a little trench going off to the power pack. It was a well-rehearsed, planned and set IED situation. And we had driven over it. Amazingly – all we could do was put it down to the weather – we had enjoyed a lucky escape. The sand and stones were moving under the rain. It was flooded. And this had actually got in between the two pressure pads. So when we drove across it, it didn't make contact at that point. Yet twenty minutes later – when we were driving back – this had washed away and the contact had then come together with the weight of the mud and the general weather and the IED had gone off. It made a hell of a mess of the area. There were two big craters. The power pack had been taken out but if you pulled a wire out of the soil you could see a line so it was probably on a remote control. We spoke to the locals and they said they had seen people digging it in. And we had to say: 'If you see this, you have to tell us, especially if we're driving around. We're here for you. They wouldn't have cared if it was one of you that had driven over it instead.'

I had been in the first vehicle. I prefer to be the first. I could get hit, but I want to lead the patrol from the front. And I knew the ground so much better than the rest of the lads. It would not have been fair to put them first. We were lucky. It was a close shave but my attitude was 'Fag, quick. I need a smoke and I need one now.' But my mentality is you're there to do a job. If you start losing mates or anything like that, there's no point in getting upset about it. When you come back, that's time for it [contemplation] but if you do it out there, it's going to have an effect on you and possibly cause more casualties. With a near miss like that, I think: Let's turn it around to something positive. We're still here. Let's take photos of it [the device]. You can go home and tell your mates what you want. I tried to make light of it: 'Laugh and joke about it, learn from it if you can and just let it go – worry about it tomorrow. There is absolutely no point in getting yourself tied up about it.' If I'd got myself tied up every time something happened, I wouldn't have lasted six weeks [in Afghanistan] – let alone eleven months.

22 December 2006 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer, is thirty-six. He was born in Colchester, Essex, and was raised in a country pub run by his parents near the town. He has an older brother and a younger sister. He attended St Helena comprehensive school and Colchester Sixth Form College before graduating in philosophy and politics at Liverpool University. After a series of temporary jobs, he worked as a telephone insurance adviser. He became an English teacher in Greece, then a reporter for a local newspaper group. In 2005, he left to take up a job as Ministry of Defence press officer for the Colchester garrison. Mead, who is single, volunteered for a three-month tour to Afghanistan starting in December 2006.

So, then, down to business. You join me on my third night in Stan [Afghanistan]. It is 9 p.m. and I am sat at my desk in the Press Information Centre at Lashkar Gah, home of the Headquarters of UK Task Force in Helmand province, Southern Afghanistan. I have just opted out of the Friday night quiz. Rock and roll.

For all those that don't know, I have taken over the post of chief media adviser to the Task Force, which sounds quite grand. It is a three-month posting and Rolf Harris only knows what will happen.

Stan is so far proving to be a fairly placid host. No gunshots, no mortars and no RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades – the favoured weapon of the Taliban). I have experienced one flight in a Hercules, one flight in a Chinook, had a couple of decent meals courtesy of the RAF, discovered my brand new 3–4 season sleeping-bag, apparently capable of easily withstanding on any normal day temperatures of down to –6°C – can do nothing of the sort – and watched Gordon Ramsay get mauled by a sniffer dog at Camp Bastion. Welcome to my new job.

He's hallucinating already, you're thinking. Possibly on other matters, but not this. Gordon Ramsay was on my flight out here – travelling with two other chefs and the Daily Mirror to cook Xmas dinner for the troops at Camp Bastion. In return the Marines laid on a three-hour display of military bollocks, including allowing Ramsay to fire a few guns, blow up a few things, drive in a tank and, best of all, he got dressed up in an anti-being-bitten-by-a-dog-suit and was told to run in that direction before they set an Alsatian after him. Read all about it in Saturday's Daily Mirror or the Mirror website. And if you look very carefully you might see me in the background of the video footage. I do have a photo of me and Gordo (he's got a very big head) but it was taken after we landed at Kandahar at 4 a.m. and I had been up all night so I was not looking my best.

Double jet lag has set in good and proper as I only got back from Oz five days before setting out here on Wednesday morning. Seems I was lucky as the winter cold has set in back home and all flights from UK were stopped shortly after we took off. Thank chuff for that. I know this cos we have Sky News. We also have Sky Sports – yipppeee!

My new accommodation is a tent along with 6 other media ops chaps, conveniently located in a lane known as Grenade Alley as it is less than 15 feet from the perimeter wall with the town of Lashkar Gah the other side. I am assured, because the wall is 12 feet tall [and] I can't see over it, that we shall be woken at 5ish by the sound of the Imam calling the local faithful to prayer from the nearby mosque.

I shall attempt to send back regular messages while here, and in return I ask only this of you:

Ladies, if you wish to help a man suffering in his long hours of solitude with only a member of Her Majesty's Royal Marines for comfort, please feel free, and I say this out of necessity, to send me regular updates on your daily movements, avoiding the urge to include those from your bowels. Those of a particularly charitable disposition could keep an ageing man more than entertained by attaching to those messages any pictures of you naked, or intimately clothed, in either compromising or uncompromising poses. I'm not fussy. They'll be our little secret. You all know you can trust me. (Think of it as practice should any of you fall on hard times and be forced to make a few extra pennies via the admirable medium of Internet porn. Should any of you subsequently go on to succeed in your new-found side-line profession, don't forget Uncle Robbie, who gave you your start.) (Please disregard this section of the message if you are a member of my family.)

Men, send me any comic ditties, works of Shakespearean prose and knowledge of any Internet porn sites undetectable by the might of the British military IT machine. And bearing in mind the speed of this Internet link it isn't very mighty at the moment.

Hopefully the quality of these messages will improve with time once I have perked up a bit.

It leaves me only to say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all.

24 December 2006

Captain Nick Barton, DFC, Army Air Corps

It was Christmas Eve. A pair of us [Apache helicopters] were on a routine task at FOB Robinson. We knew there was a patrol out in Now Zad, but we were not dedicated to support them. We had an hour and a half of fuel. We got a call from the Ops Room – 'Troops in contact in Now Zad'. We were probably fifteen minutes' flight time tops [from the contact]. So we would have been able to provide half an hour to forty minutes on station with what we had. I was commander of one of the aircraft. As fast as we could, we diverted straight to Now Zad. We were given the check-in frequency, the call sign and their rough grid. We got the spot map out for Now Zad to write down the grid and work out where they were. They had been contacted near ANP Hill. They had a call sign out on the ground and, as they were trying to work their way back, they were contacted.

At the time, there was a high threat in Now Zad. One of our other aircraft had been hit a week or two weeks before. I was the wing aircraft – the lower one – and we were at 2,750 feet. I was doing 102 knots: we knew we were in a high threat [zone] so we had stepped up our speed rather than orbiting at min power speed, which would give us the best endurance as well as hard targeting.

As we arrived, it all went quiet for five or ten minutes. It was the Green Zone but quite mixed [terrain]. They [the troops on the ground] had about half a K to get back in. The next thing we knew was we had a sledgehammer hit on the side of the aircraft. We called 'contact' on each of the [four] radios. We definitely knew it [the hit] was low left. We had a whole lot of aircraft faults. As I looked out of the window low left, I could see muzzle flash still firing at us and called it on the spot map: 'Contact muzzle flash between blue sixteen and seventeen.' They [the Taliban] were lucky that on their first burst they hit us. After being hit, we were in shock. Initially, no matter how many times you have been hit in the simulator, this was slightly different. But then you quickly focus on flying and checking the aircraft. We had lost our electric load centre one, high-power switching module one, we had lost our fire-control radar, we had an anti-ice fail, an outboard rocket launcher fail, as well as numerous other faults.

So we broke clear of the Green Zone by two to three kilometres and thoroughly checked our systems. Both engines were working normally, no over-temps or over-torques and no signs of fires. We worked through it as a crew. Fortunately, I had called where it [the enemy position] was. The other aircraft had got eyes on to the firing point. He [the other Apache's pilot] kicked himself slightly because he waited for clearance to engage from the ground call sign, who was quite a way now from the contact area. He was slightly annoyed with himself for waiting because he saw the firing point and he could have engaged straight away in our self-defence under the Rules of Engagement. So he took a minute and a half, then engaged with rocket and gun – 30mm and PD7 rockets. On the ground there were two guys with some sort of Dushka [Soviet-made anti-aircraft machine-gun]. The other Apache then fired and put 200 rounds and at least eight rockets into it. Neither of us could see on the subsequent video footage whether we had confirmed hits or not. And they [the Taliban] are pretty good at shooting and scooting.

So we took two or three minutes checking the aircraft and it was fine. We had a couple of rocket problems so we elected not to fire them. We picked up the fall of shot from our wing aircraft and ended up firing off 140 rounds. By now, the patrol was safely back in the FOB. We had a slight difference in engine temperatures and pressures and things were starting to settle down on the ground. We had a couple of jets turn up so we handed over to them and came home. We got the wing aircraft to look at our aircraft [in the air] and our whole side panel had been blown open, unknown to us, because you cannot see underneath. So we returned to base and did a very careful landing. Subsequently, we saw a round had hit one of the electronic units, there had been a small fire and it had blown open the door.

Unknown to me, it [the incident] was written up [by a commanding officer for a bravery award]: I guess it was because we stayed, we saw the enemy [despite being hit], and we dealt with them. I still feel humbled by it all and must mention my co-pilot who was very much an equal crew member and a far more experienced pilot than myself. I, however, received the award [DFC] because I was the aircraft commander on that day. Needless to say, I get him a beer every time I see him.

December 2006

Corporal Tara Rankin, 16 Medical Regiment

I had been back from our tour of Afghanistan for about two months. I was working in Colchester [on the Army base] and I bumped into Sergeant [Paddy] Caldwell [whom she had seen badly injured three months earlier] in the corridor. I was shocked but pleased to see him. He was looking really well compared with the last time I had seen him. I told him I had been with him on the day he was shot, but he didn't remember – he wouldn't have been able to remember anyone from the point of his injury to [being treated at] Selly Oak [Hospital]. He's a really popular guy. I read [in a newspaper] how his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, had been to see him in Selly Oak in October [2006]. His CO wrote: 'Sergeant Paddy Caldwell's words came in short, gasping breaths, as he struggled with the ventilator tube in his throat that was keeping him alive. "I regret nothing, sir. I would do it all again if given the chance.'' ' That's typical of Sergeant Caldwell – he's a real fighter.

30 December 2006 [email home]

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Lashkar Gah.

Who wants to spend New Year in Lashkar Gah? Despite all of my invites, not one individual has made the effort to come and see me and now I'm starting to wonder whether my real friends are here amongst the goat traders and camel racers of southern Afghanistan. During the build-up to Christmas, there was much debate about whether Father Christmas and his band of intrepid reindeer would brave war-torn Afghanistan. The other concern was whether or not he would purposely exclude us for having partaken in the extravagant parties that momentarily swayed us from the virtuous path that we had now found. On balance, we felt that Father Christmas was partial to a bit of drunken lewd behaviour – indeed, how else does one pass the long winters in Lapland? The next issue was a practical one: we lived in tents which did not afford him the conventional point of access. Most agreed that he was a resourceful chap and would naturally adapt and overcome. However, the less optimistic built chimneys just in case. Anyway, to cut a long story short, he did make it and I woke up to find a very nice pair of red boxer shorts and matching hat. The local infantry company now use me to draw fire when they need a diversion – thanks, Mum, I mean Father Christmas.

Christmas Day was spent in southern Helmand province visiting the local police and generally spreading a little Christmas cheer. The troops were obviously disappointed at having missed Katherine Jenkins and Gordon Ramsay so the Top Brass deployed me in my red undies instead. Sadly, they couldn't fit a turkey into the ration packs so we made do with pork casserole and biscuits brown, which is actually quite tasty, but more importantly (when sharing the same field toilet with 40 others) acts as a natural blocker. Some bright spark managed to knock up an improvised oven, and so we did manage a hot mince pie with our hot chocolate. As we travelled around the police posts, we doubted that the police were aware that we were celebrating a very important Christian holiday. Although they did hungrily scoff the mince pies we offered them as we tried to coerce them into manning their checkpoints. Then we recognized the over-whelming smell of ganja and realized they just had the munchies.

Anyway, that's enough of that. Time for my cold shower before venturing into town. The locals are throwing a Wet Burka night.

Happy New Year, everyone, good luck with battling with those crowds, paying inflated prices and then nursing those heads – not for me, thank you very much.

3 January 2007 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

Afternoon all, Happy Festival of Eid and welcome back to work.

Some of us – i.e. me – have been at work, defending the good name of the nations' armed forces, at 8 a.m. every morning for the past two weeks, come rain or shine, be it Christmas or New Year, the Muslim new year festival of Eid, or whatever the Islamic world does around Christmas time in order to mourn the birth of a small, devilish, messianic charlatan in a food trough somewhere in glorious and unjustly occupied Palestine approximately 600 years before the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.

Let me talk you through a typical day during that period. The day begins with the annoying beep-beep of one of my MoD-issue mobile phones at 7.20 a.m. I now have two almost identical Nokia models of this little baby. I say almost identical as my Afghan-issue one has the interestingly quaint feature of all the letters being in Arabic as well as English.

I say this is when my day starts, though that would be a white lie as technically my day has already had a couple of early preludes, highlighted by the need to get out of my actually-not-too-cold-sleeping-bag-now-but-cold-enough-to-induce-the-need-for-the-lavatory-at-least-twice-each-night. This is bad. This is bad because it necessitates having to get up and get half dressed to brave the approx. 100-yard walk to the nearest bloody lavs. And it ain't warm at night in winter Afghanistan, I can assure you.

So, the alarm awakens your hero, who stirs heroically in his lair, ready to pounce should the nation call upon him to leap to its defence at the drop of a small incendiary bomb. Leaping with energetic vigour and zest he then towels up ready to make the morning stumble back along the track to the lavs, or ablutions, as they are so formally known in the military.

Any semblance of sleep is evaporated by this cold morning march. Yet it is nothing to the return leg, as one jumps out of the shower (because, yes, there are showers, hot ones at that) and – in order to avoid the need for a manly moment of standing naked in front of your peers to towel yourself down and dress, in what is already a cramped area, coupled with the fact that being Marines these chaps make my already puny frame look like Mr Bean – has to walk with only his travel towel (ex large, my arse) to protect his dignity back to his tent. Yowser. Corduroy sack, anyone?

One thing I don't do in the morning is shave as my one true aim for this tour is to grow a beard. So far so good. Disappointingly there is the odd grey hair poking out but I like to think this merely adds to my distinguished air.

Breakfast then follows. A relatively simple affair of two Weetabix and a croissant. Very continental.

Then the first engagement of the day is the morning update at 8 a.m., all huddled in a tent as the mike is passed around to each dept in turn to report to the chief of staff the night's doings. This can be anything from how much contact there has been with 'Terry Taliban' to a meteorological report. All very rock and roll. Or at least it would be, were it not to be delivered in impenetrable military speak of acronyms, acronyms and more acronyms – or should I say TLAs (i.e., the acronym for three-letter acronym). A few examples are:

TiC – Troops in Contact

IRT – Incident Response Team

IX – Information Exploitation

(and my personal favourite)

FOB Rob (pronounced Fob not F-O-B) – Forward Operating

Base Robinson

Woe betide anyone who isn't down with this lingo, and death was only a whisker away for my colleague, who is RAF, when he made the mistake of calling 29 Commando 'twenty-nine' instead of 'two-nine'. And we just about managed to save him from the gallows when he almost called I Company Ivory Company instead of India Company. Oh, how we laughed.

Bearing in mind that we are 4 and half hours ahead of you there isn't much to do in the media department from then until the UK wakes up around lunchtime other than look at my emails and suchlike and read through all the early editions from the UK papers for the afternoon repeat of the morning's brief.

Still your hero soldiers on until lunch, a relatively impressive affair with a range of choices from curry to burger and chips to salad and pasta and all that gumph.

Then it's back to it in the afternoon. I hope you're all deeply impressed with the bravery being demonstrated on a daily basis.

The afternoon is normally punctuated by a short snooze back in the tent. Ah, yes, the tent, my home for the next two and a bit months. The interior is a relatively Spartan affair but most occupants have brought a little bit of individuality to their corner with duvets, bits of carpet and hanging cupboards. My own slice of individuality is mess, and lots of it. This mess comprises of a stash of empty water bottles (real Nestlé Pakistani tap water), the odd wrapper from an issue bar of 'Italian' milk chocolate (cocoa not included) and the contents of the Xmas box we got from the Govt and you the people of Britain for the bravery we are demonstrating in being out here. Thanks for the flashing red nose and Santa hat. They'll come in useful.

What has perked up things no end is the recent addition of our own mini cinema. We've only just got it but it consists of a super-duper new projector with which we watch DVDs on the wall. Great. You can pick up cheap bootleg copies of DVDs dead easy out here. The Saturday market at Kandahar airfield is a good place to buy them.

This is in itself an experience. Kandahar is a massive base, mainly resembling a building site, which has around 10,000 troops from a mix of nationalities, and wherever the Yanks go so goes commerce. So, there is a big football-pitch-sized dusty playing field surrounded by a wooden boardwalk, cleverly entitled 'the boardwalk', and around this boardwalk is a host of shops selling anything from North Face camping-style clothes and Afghans selling hats, blankets and rugs, but there is also a Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway and Canadian donut chain Tim Horton's. Not to be outdone the Canadians have rigged up a mock ice-rink so they can play dry ice hockey.

To add to this demonstration of rampant commercialism, on Saturdays there is an Afghan market selling everything from knocked-off DVDs, including copies of Rocky Balboa, which isn't even out at the cinema yet, to dirt cheap carpets and pashminas, fake watches of all shapes and sizes, jewellery stalls selling huge lumps of lapis lazuli, mummified tarantulas the size of your hand in delightful display boxes, a man selling old weapons from swords to old muskets and bloody great machete-type knives. There were also enough ancient coins on display to keep an archaeologist happy for a year. Place your orders now.

I could have quite easily spent the whole trip shopping.

I visited Kandahar on my way to a whistle-stop visit to Kabul. After a deeply unappealing delay at the large, tented refrigerator, which doubles up as the waiting lounge at Kandahar, followed by an hour in the back of a Hercules, which is actually much better than it sounds, we arrived at 5.30 a.m. to a bloody freezing Kabul airport, with snow piled up by the side of the runways, to spend two hours in a freezing cold tent before travelling to ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] HQ. This was redeemed by the fact we then drove for ten minutes through Kabul to ISAF HQ so I had my first sighting of actual Afghanistan people in their natural habitat rather than washing my smalls. This largely meant people wandering across a dual carriageway, and shepherds with herds of straggly goats by the side of the road. Lots of goats.

I hope I am painting an accurate picture of a life on operations with the military. And I haven't even started on the dependency I have developed for my daily fix of issue custard and the fact that my hands have begun to crumble because you have to wash them thoroughly before every meal and after each lav break with alcohol-based products for fear of spreading dysentery and vomiting.

Must go now. Meeting the Afghan Minister of Information.

May Allah be praised. Or at the very least not insulted by the infidel while I am within range.

11 January 2007

McNab: Nato forces in Afghanistan claimed to have thwarted a major border incursion from Pakistan by killing 150 Taliban in a night-time operation. It was said that, the previous day, two columns, totalling 200 insurgents, crossed into the Afghan border province of Paktika. This was believed to be ahead of a spring offensive against Western forces. After crossing the border, the two groups were attacked by American planes, which dropped 1,000-and 500-pound bombs on the Taliban. The move all but annihilated the insurgents, according to the Afghan National Army, which found the dead bodies. Pakistan claimed it had also bombed and destroyed Taliban trucks on its side of the border.

15 January 2007

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

The rescue plan to save the wounded Marine had been worked out. It didn't involve me. I had done my bit so I decided to get out of the way and have a 'Hamlet' moment. It had been a long night and an even longer dawn. By now, it was a beautiful day: the sun was out, the sky was blue, it was about 15°C. All was calm and tranquil where we were: it was strange to think that just five kilometres away there was a huge amount of chaos and destruction, bombs were being dropped and people were being killed. But this was Helmand province, Afghanistan: we were used to trying to get our heads round things that didn't make sense.

Having enjoyed some fresh air, I went back into the tented command post. But the mood of relative quiet that I had left had changed: things were once again becoming excited and intense but I didn't know why. The CO [Lieutenant Colonel Rob Macgowan] was on his JTAC's [joint terminal air controller's] radio, which meant he must be talking to one of the pilots. Then, the battle group ops officer said to him: 'Sir, if you need a volunteer, I'll do it.' I thought: Do what? Something strange and slightly disconcerting was going on, but I couldn't work out what it was.

Gradually things started to add up. When I had taken my break, there had been an agreed plan on how to rescue the injured Marine – Lance Corporal Mathew Ford – but this was now changing in front of my eyes. Lance Corporal Ford had been wounded during a dawn fire-fight when Zulu Company attacked a Taliban-held fort close to the river Helmand, ten kilometres south of the town of Garmsir. The assault of Jugroom Fort had been delayed, which meant it had lost its element of surprise and had not taken place in the darkness as originally intended. Eight Vikings [tracked armoured fighting vehicles] had stormed across the river, but as soon as they got to the fort side they came under a hail of gunfire, small arms and RPGs.

The stream of casualty reports coming through on the radio told us that things had gone horribly wrong. Eventually the decision was made to withdraw but, in the chaos, Lance Corporal Ford was left lying wounded against the outside wall of the fort. It was only after the withdrawal was complete that he was spotted from the sky – first by an unmanned aerial vehicle and then by one of the pilots of the Apache helicopters. He was lying wounded but, apparently, he was still alive. Lance Corporal Ford had to be rescued or he would fall into the hands of the Taliban. Before I had taken my tenminute break, the plan had been for four of the Vikings – supported by two Apaches, A10 aircraft and artillery fire – to go back over the river and retrieve him.

Then someone told me that the Apache pilots had recommended they go in as a pair, with two blokes hanging on the sides of each helicopter. They would fly into position, the four blokes would jump off, grab Lance Corporal Ford, and then everyone would fly off again. It seemed an extraordinary, almost unbelievable, plan. For one thing, I had no idea you could put passengers on an Apache. Where were they going to be? Hanging underneath it? Sitting on the side of it? No one knew at this stage how this would pan out. But the Apache pilots had formulated the plan and they seemed quite confident. Without much delay, the CO decided that this was the way to go. He asked for four volunteers. It was then that it dawned on me, and probably everyone else, that not only were they going to go ahead with the plan but that they wanted us, the manpower in the command post, to carry it out.

Without really thinking about it, a handful of people, including myself, volunteered. It was pretty instinctive, really. Then the CO went through the volunteers. He said to one: 'No, you've got to control the reconnaissance force, you've got to do this, you've got that job. Yes, Dave, you will go.' Oh, shit, I thought. It was one thing volunteering, but quite another being selected.

Another Marine, Marine Gary Robertson – Robbo to his friends – who had just turned up, raised his hand and he was chosen too. Then the RSM of the battle group came in, WO1 [Warrant Officer Class 1] Colin Hearn. He'd been dealing with the casualties. He walked in as four volunteers were asked for. 'Yes, RSM, yes, good, you'll go too,' said the CO. The RSM nodded dutifully, oblivious to what he had just become part of.

That gave us three 'volunteers'. Then the 2IC of Zulu Company, which had attacked the fort, was keen for one of his men to join. He found one of his signallers, who'd just woken up and was making himself a cup of tea. When asked, Marine Chris Fraser-Perry, immediately volunteered – but he didn't know what for. So this confused bunch of volunteers gathered around me outside the tent and it was left to me to explain what they were being asked to do. I had been part of the planning for the attack on Jugroom Fort from the start and so was familiar with the lie of the land, which gave me an advantage. But I had also watched [on computer screens in the command post] enemy reinforcements streaming in from the south and suspected that the Taliban were regrouping in anticipation of our return. Going back in was a bold shout: I reckoned our chances of success were about fifty:fifty. It didn't matter; we had to do something to get Lance Corporal Ford back.

I looked at the three men in front of me. Despite being a bit bewildered, they were all raring to go. Everyone wanted to help, but it was the four of us who had been selected to do the job. We didn't want to let anyone down. I said: 'Okay, do you know what we're going to do?'

'No, sir,' came the reply from all three men.

'Right. Well, we're going to get on to two Apaches and we're going to fly to where Lance Corporal Ford is, we're going to collect him and then we're going to fly out.' I tried to disguise my concern, attempting to sound confident and in control.

Judging from the expressions facing me, my fellow volunteers were equally worried. Everyone looked pretty stunned. The silence was awkward so I carried on: 'Right, I'll pair up with Chris. RSM, you take Robbo. Grab your weapon and body armour: the faster we are, the greater the chances of our success here. We've got to get in and out really quick. We'll have loads of supporting fire-power, but we must avoid getting caught in a fire-fight. We just need to go in, get him, and get out.'

Without any hesitation or further questions, the boys ran off to get their stuff. Pretty soon, the two Apaches came swooping over the top and landed behind us. The ops officer stepped out of the tent. 'Right, here they are, everyone. Go, go, go: we haven't got much time! The helos are low on fuel.' So without really thinking about it or compiling any kind of plan, we were sent into action. I had my SA80 with six magazines of ammunition, a smoke grenade, a frag grenade, my Osprey body armour and a helmet. And everyone else had similar kit.

We'd all volunteered, but my main worry was that the lads hadn't been briefed well enough. They didn't know where exactly Lance Corporal Ford was, what precisely we were going to do and, at this stage, I didn't know how we were going to sit on the helicopters. So I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. I asked the CO what the plan was and he told me that the pilots would brief me.

I jogged off towards the two Apaches and the pilots both slipped open their canopies. One of them was leaning out and greeted me as I ran up to him. He gave me the thumbs-up, as though to say: 'Shall we go?'

I thought: Is he mad? Did he expect me to swing my leg over the rocket pod, and off we'd go, do the job and come back and it's as simple as that? As it turned out, he did. But the pilot registered my concern. He shouted a load of instructions at me, gesticulated, pointed at the fuselage, handed me this green strop [to tie Lance Corporal Ford to the side of the helicopter once he had been rescued] but I couldn't hear a word because the helicopter engine and the rotors were still turning. However, I soon got the gist of what he wanted us to do and realized that, with time running out, it was up to us to make it work.

With the other boys, I moved away from the helos. We drew a little sketch in the sand and briefed the others on what to expect: 'Right, here's the large outer wall. Ford's there. You boys form the reserve and cover us. We'll go and get him.' Then one of the pilots joined us and said a few reassuring words. Needless to say, they fell on deaf ears.

Feigning confident optimism, we ran in two pairs to our respective helos and jumped on board. I was on the right, Chris Fraser-Perry on the left, and before we knew it the helos were taking off. We just sat there. The fuselage of the Apache has got a horizontal platform that juts out just below the cockpit – later I was told that it was the fuel tank – and I could get a bum cheek on that. We sat one each side of each Apache. I had my right foot on the Hellfire missile rails and there was a grab-hold on the side of the cockpit that the pilots use to climb in.

It was ridiculous. I almost laughed. The helicopter took off, hovered momentarily, then accelerated over the HQ. I looked down at my colleagues who were waving and photographing us from the ground. I even waved back. I didn't expect to see them again. Here we were, sat on the side of a helicopter gunship, about to fly into a heavily armed Taliban fortress defended by an estimated 200 men. The sheer audacity of it was hard to believe. I forced myself to stop thinking about the possible morbid consequences and instead focused on what had to be done ...

We flew off and the plan changed immediately because our helo, instead of being the first as intended, became the second in the pair. Both helos flew low over the desert, hit the river just south of Jugroom Fort, then followed it. We were only doing about fifty knots, quite low – about 100 feet. You could see everything below as clear as day, camels and shepherds going about their business, and here we were sat on these helicopters about to fly into a heavily armed Taliban fortress. It felt just unreal.

I also realized, just after taking off, that I hadn't fired my weapon since arriving in Afghanistan on 24 August. I thought: Oh, shit. I'd been cleaning it and doing the usual routine, but I thought: What if it's jammed or not working? So I had a couple of test fires from the wing of the Apache. I don't think many people could say they've fired their personal weapon from the wing of the Apache.

But it alarmed the pilots. They must have heard the gun going off from right outside their cockpit. They looked around shocked, wondering what the hell was going on. They saw me and I must have looked a bit like a naughty schoolboy sat there having just fired my weapon. They probably thought I'd had a negligent discharge – when you fire your weapon by accident. I hadn't. I was just test firing it and fortunately it worked.

As we approached the fort, I could see all the dust and smoke, trees burning, buildings bombed to bits, craters. It was just an awesome image of destruction and chaos. The bombing from our air support had stopped just before we got there, but the air was still thick with clouds of dust and smoke. The first helo went straight in and disappeared into the smoke. We hung back and paused. I remember feeling very vulnerable. I sat on the side looking down and seeing this copse of burnt trees but there were still muzzle flashes coming out of them, so there was still live enemy down there.

I was doing my best to blend into this helo so they wouldn't know there was someone sat on the side of it. But basically I'm sat there looking at the gunfire below and thinking: Fuck, I'm completely vulnerable here. I wish he'd just move forward to get this over and done with. And he did. As the smoke cleared, it became obvious that the first helo had overflown the perimeter wall – and had actually landed inside the compound, which was not the plan.

But the two lads on either side of the wing hadn't seen the wall, so they didn't know they were inside – not outside – the compound. They'd been told to run forward to the wall, but what they were actually doing was running forward to the inner wall, and into the lions' den. They were being fired at from point-blank range from little firing holes cut into this inner wall. And, not surprisingly, they were utterly confused. They kept going but in doing so they ventured further into the fort. By now, there were two other Apaches supporting us. One was overhead of the first helo, providing covering fire for the two guys on the ground. The Apache was so close that the empty cases from the 30mm cannon were falling around our lads as they were running around the compound. By now, the other Apache had joined in the fight and their thumping cannons were deafening.

One of the pilots in the Apache that had landed realized the mistake. He jumped out to go and get the two Marines who were now in danger of coming face to face with hordes of Taliban. They were utterly confused after being shot at – and, with the Apache providing intimate fire support right above their heads, the situation was pretty intense.

Fortunately we landed outside the wall, about seventy metres short of Lance Corporal Ford. I leapt from that Apache and sprinted as fast as I could across this horrible, rough land up the hill. My body armour weighed about fifteen kilos, and I also had my weapon and ammunition, so I was pretty weighed down. By the time I got to Lance Corporal Ford I was already out of breath.

He was slumped over. His body position was limp and it was pretty obvious he was dead. But I rolled him over – and the first thing that struck me was how heavy he was. Just rolling him over was a real effort and he was a pasty grey colour. He had been shot pretty much in the middle of the head; it was just a small entry wound.

Lifting a dead body from the ground is not easy, especially as he was wearing all his kit: he must have been a fourteen-stone bloke. He had a radio as well and he was just incredibly heavy. I could not get him off the ground, not properly, not enough to get him onto my shoulder. Panic set in. I thought: Fuck! There's a lot of gunfire going on and I can't move this bloke. I started to do what I should have done immediately and dragged him by his webbing.

But it was a very slow process. I was running backwards dragging him. My weapon was getting in the way. Initially I had him under the armpits, but there was a lot of blood and gore so he kept slipping. And I was alone. I didn't know what had happened to Chris, but I thought that maybe he was disoriented and had run in the wrong direction. I had dragged Lance Corporal Ford's body about twenty yards, when suddenly Chris caught up with me. By now I was absolutely exhausted – and making very slow progress. Together we made better progress, but only marginally.

I think it was because we'd come from a safe environment and we were thrust into a very intense combat zone, then presented with a dead body, and I wasn't psychologically prepared for it. It was bothering me that my weapon kept hitting Lance Corporal Ford's head. We were a bit too gentle and considerate, which was putting everyone at risk. I could hear my heart beating against my breast-plate and feel the adrenalin pumping through my veins, but despite the obvious urgency we were making painfully slow progress.

As we were struggling to get Lance Corporal Ford back, one of the pilots from the Apache saw what was happening. He jumped out and came running forward. He was more tuned in and he said: 'Right, fellows, don't fucking worry. Forget about the gunfire, it's all ours. Let's just get him back.' And it was then that we suddenly switched on, grabbed hold of him and just dragged him back. We all got him to the helo.

By which point the other two from the helo had done their full lap of the Taliban garden. In fact, it was three of them because one of their pilots was with them, and they took up positions around us. But we were pretty much done now: we just tied the strops around Lance Corporal Ford's torso and attached him to the undercarriage of our helo.

I thought I was tired, but the three from the other helo looked absolutely exhausted. They were buggered. But, having survived their unplanned tour, they now had to run to the helo on the other side of the perimeter wall. Which they somehow managed to do unscathed.

Our pilot jumped in, we jumped on the rails again, took off and disappeared. The relief was immense. But it was very sad because, as we flew over the river, all of Zulu Company were lined up on the west bank, waiting and hoping. But they could see our helo flying over with Lance Corporal Ford's body hanging limp from beneath it, obviously dead. It was a pretty solemn moment for everyone. Seconds later, we landed and put Lance Corporal Ford on the ground. Later, the Chinooks arrived and flew his body back to [Camp] Bastion.

15 January 2007

Captain Nick Barton, DFC, Army Air Corps

At this time, I was on a rota: I would spend three days on deliberate tasks, three days on high readiness, three days air testing, three days doing spare work. On this day, I was on deliberate tasks. We were well read into Op Glacier. We had all the sat imagery and spot maps for the Jugroom Fort area. I remember thinking: What are they [the Vikings and men] going to achieve by crossing [the river] and then withdrawing? But my job was just to provide the best support we could. It was a 1.30 a.m. lift and on station for 2 a.m. It was a twenty-five-minute flight down there from Camp Bastion to just south of Garmsir.

It's much harder flying at night, no question. It's much harder to pick up people moving around. It takes you longer to get oriented. You see through thermal imaging but the night-vision system in the Apache is not particularly easy. We make sure we separate each aircraft by 500 feet so we can concentrate.

We were up in the air and initially we were just providing the ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, targeting, acquisition and reconnaissance]. We had offensive Rules of Engagement and it had all been cleared. But then we could see [Taliban] sentries – guys with weapons – out around the fort and we divided them up between the two of us. I was mission commander for the pair [of Apaches]. We were cleared to destroy the sentries under direction and we were talked on to targets. We opened fire with 30mm on to the sentries. I only got one out of the two of mine: my gun was slightly off. Our wing aircraft was bang on every time, whereas mine seemed to be falling off fifteen metres to the left. Once you get that, you just have to adjust. They [the sentries] could have heard us but they wouldn't have known where we were. But when we opened up, they started running so we needed to get first-round hits or second-burst hits. Once a target starts running, it becomes quite hard. But there was quite a lot of fire coming up at us from across the bank. There was quite a lot of activity [Taliban] going on.

Then, shortly after 3 a.m., it started to go quiet. The Ops Room were talking to us throughout and then we went back to refuel. They said they were looking to cross the river at such and such a time – 5.30 a.m. I think. So we were back up [in the air] by then. I remember thinking: This could be quite interesting. I wasn't sure they had tried fully laden Vikings on a major river crossing before.

As mission commander, I concentrated on providing cover for the 'friendlies' as they crossed the river in their Vikings. I watched the Vikings cross from about 2,000 or 2,500 feet. The wing aircraft concentrated on enemy movement in and around the fort. Bear in mind, it was well synchronized before they crossed. There was a B1 dropping approximately five 2,000-pounders [bombs] on all the key buildings there. As soon as they crossed the river, the first of eight Vikings was opened up upon from the three sides at three different points. And I was watching that – there was tracer coming from everywhere. It took a few moments for the lead JTAC to assign us tasks amid the confusion, bearing in mind there were six or seven controllers on the radios, all from various parts. Each aircraft worked to a different JTAC and also monitored the lead JTAC or battle-space manager, as well as talking inter-aircraft and giving updates to our Ops Room.

Eventually, they cleared us to engage. We were probably firing some eight minutes after the Vikings were shot at. We fired 30mm only: it wasn't 'danger close' but it wasn't far off. The 'friendlies' were only 150 metres away from where we were firing, so you have to be pretty accurate. The guys [on the ground] were happy with us: they were getting fired at so they just needed [Apache support] fire. We fired lots. I didn't fire any rockets on that wave, but I fired all my 30mm bar forty [rounds]. I fired two out of four of my [Hellfire] missiles. The other aircraft did the same. At some point in the initial fire, they received four or five casualties, including, unfortunately, Lance Corporal [Mathew] Ford. They [British forces] recovered the casualties, got in their vehicles and went back [across the river]. To start with, they confirmed all 'friendlies' were on the west side of the river. This came over from the JTAC. Then they proceeded to give us targets of all the locations they had received fire from, to put missiles in and fire, which we did. Ten minutes later, with shock we received 'Ugly, Ugly: cancel. Cancel. One man still missing. One man still on the east side of the river.'

You can imagine, my heart was thumping because we had been putting down all this fire. By this time, we were low on fuel and we stepped up the other pair [of Apaches], the high-readiness pair. And [Warrant Officer Class 1, now Captain] Tom O'Malley was mission commander for that pair. I gave him a hand-over, saying we believed Lance Corporal Ford was somewhere in the area. We gave them all the grids. Then they spent their full three hours of fuel providing ISTAR, looking for Lance Corporal Ford. Then they found him. While the Marines were working out their plan, Tom [and other Apache pilots] came up with their [alternative] plan [to rescue Ford using two helicopters]. We got back to Bastion, landed, refuelled, rearmed and shut down. We got out and we were just walking back when we got a call from the Ops Room: 'Get back in, power up.' I had spoken to the OC. He said: 'You may be needed to provide fire support and go back in for one more wave.'

We had already flown six hours and you're only allowed to fly for eight without having an extension. But we couldn't have been better read into the scenario. By this time it was about 11 a.m. We heard the plan [that two other Apaches would fly in with four men clinging to the sides], divided up, worked out a time line: absolute maximum ten minutes on the ground [for the two Apaches], but try and be off in five minutes.

We knew one aircraft would fire to the north of the fort and around, while the other would put suppressive fire down on the south. We were just up high [in the skies] co-ordinating it. It took a 2,000-pounder from a B1 to initiate the surprise. There was a massive smoke cloud, dust – the place was absolutely obliterated, really. The other two aircraft were coming in low at fifty feet and we were on either side. We were close enough to feel the blast from the 2,000-pounder as it went in. I don't think it's anything I'll ever see again.

The wing aircraft put a load of suppressive fire down on the northern compound and around, whilst we fired 30mm, initially to the south of the fort. We didn't fire any of our missiles that time, but the other aircraft did. We then did counter-rotating orbits at various heights. We stepped lower than we should – about 1,400 feet – and the other aircraft was even lower at 800 feet. We tried to vary it a bit.

But it worked. If you'd planned the whole thing for days, you probably couldn't have co-ordinated it any better: to get all the surprise and fire-power there. However, because of all the dust, it meant that Tom had to land slightly further forward. After he landed, Tom was like: 'Ugly Five Two. I am being shot at. My three o'clock, fifty metres.' We were: 'Stand by. Confirm three o'clock. Fifty metres from your aircraft.' By this time, because we were so close, it was hard to target with the sight. It was much easier to look out of the window with your eyes and link the gun to your helmet. So the rear seat took over firing with a manual range on the gun. We called: 'UG Five Zero, This is UG Five Two. Stand by, firing now.' UG50 came back with: 'Good rounds. Just in the corner, thirty metres, just where the wall is, one man.' We repositioned slightly and fired again, this time only thirty metres from our wing aircraft on the ground. Fortunately, they were good rounds. That was probably the most sporty firing we've ever done. The margin for error was not very much.

They were about seven minutes on the ground. Then they got back up and lifted off. The other aircraft went Winchester: got rid of everything. I didn't fire any missiles, but we fired our rockets. We came back with [just] two missiles on board.

We remained on station for a bit before returning to Bastion. It was a good two or three hours before we heard that Lance Corporal Ford had died.

You can always pick things out you could have done better. But I was pretty pleased with how the flight had done. Morale had been high up until the point we had heard that news [the death of a soldier]. When they [the two Apaches] went in, I thought: This is ballsy, this is very ballsy. We had a lot of assets [fire-power] in there, but this was not stuff we had ever done before. This was high risk: there were a lot of enemy in the area with RPG and an aircraft on the ground makes an easy target. It is satisfying to take part in an op like that. I have done two tours since, but I have never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, we did not save Lance Corporal Ford but we had tried everything and beyond to get him back.

16 January 2007

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

At 7 a.m. – some twenty-four hours after Lance Corporal Ford had died – we all had a service in the desert to commemorate him. It was very moving.

By now I had taken in the enormity of what we had done. Some people might wonder why we went to such lengths to recover the body even when I suspected he was dead. But once we had set off on our mission, we never once considered pulling out. Leaving our own in enemy hands was inconceivable; we were utterly determined to bring him back. And quite rightly so. It would have sent a very bad message to our soldiers, had we left one of our own behind to the mercy of the Taliban. They are known to be brutal and despicable in their treatment of enemy bodies. It was also important to deny the Taliban the opportunity to capitalize upon the fact they had a dead soldier for propaganda purposes. And it was important for Lance Corporal Ford's family that we got his body back. It was only right that they were given an opportunity to mourn, to grieve over a body.

By now, I had also had a chance to think about my own role. To be presented with a situation like that, and come through it, is a very satisfying experience. You learn a lot about yourself – it answers a lot of questions you would never otherwise have asked.

There's no doubt that an experience like that engenders a lot of satisfaction: knowing that, when push comes to shove, you can keep your head and produce the goods. But that's different from saying, if faced with the same scenario, I'd be able to do it again. I'm just glad that things didn't turn out worse. But, having said that, I also know that I could have done a lot better. There were times when it didn't go that well because I hesitated. There was a lack of coherent thought and decisiveness, perhaps, which caused more delay than was necessary. But, then, how do you plan for something like that?

I also had time to ponder what would become the biggest regret of my military career. During the process of recovering Lance Corporal Ford's body, my weapon – an SA80 – kept slipping off my shoulder and whacking him in the head. It was bothering me for some bizarre reason and it was slowing us down. So I took it off and put it to one side, intending to go and get it. Well, obviously I never did go and get it – I left it lying in the sand. For a soldier, that's a mortal sin.

So, from that moment onwards, I got a lot of stick. Whenever I met someone it was never 'Oh, you're Dave Rigg, the guy who helped to recover Lance Corporal Ford.' Instead, it was 'Oh, you're Dave Rigg, the guy who donated his weapon to the Taliban armoury.' Weeks later, when one of the Taliban commanders was spotted roaming about with my SA80 slung on his back, I became known as 'Mullah Rigg'. I even had to complete a police report: the RMP wanted to know why I hadn't recovered it. In response, I asked them why they hadn't visited the scene of the 'crime'.

January 2007 [diary]

Corporal Fraser 'Frankie' Gasgarth, The Royal Engineers

Who dares wins – or gets hypothermia trying.

At 3,100 feet high and some 60 miles north-east of Camp Bastion, Kajaki promised to be quite different from the barren, windswept, arid dustbowl that had offered Plant Section a place to call home for so long. So I eagerly joined the long queue to board the Chinook, which was to deliver myself and the rest of my section to the promised land of such mystical things as birds, trees and grass. Indeed, if it was good enough for the now long-extinct Afghan royal family, then who was I to decline?

The RAF's obligatory one-and-a-half-hour delay seemed to still catch us off guard, as we stood aimlessly, resembling a school of six-feet tortoises carrying everything but the kitchen sink into the Tardis, which is my bergen. Now let me tell you a little about the tortoise: the tortoise has scant regard for evolution, has no interest in the latest high-tech air-flow bergen strap-device thingies, but still manages to carry its entire sleeping system on its back and shows no sign of stress or strain for one good reason: it stays put, has no airs of grandeur to travel any further than it takes to hunt down and kill anything more energetic than a lettuce. I think we could learn a lot from the tortoise!

When you think of the official residence of a royal family, the plush and privileged abode of Buckingham Palace or the impeccably managed estates of Balmoral might spring to mind. They did with me too. It quickly became evident that the Afghan royal family had been somewhat further down the status ladder than our own beloved Queen. But as Mr Einstein so correctly put it: it's all a matter of relativity. By comparison to the locals, with our erratically powered 60-watt bulb, running water and outdoor swimming-pool, we were living the high life.

To a squaddie, an outdoor pool is a source of great attraction, even at an altitude of 3,100 feet, even in the depths of an Afghan winter, even when during the hottest of Afghan days the water doesn't even reach the official temperature of 'Oh, my God!' But the challenge had been met by members of the Field sections, who had managed a very respectable 16 lengths before being hauled out with their extremities a pale tint of blue. With the original tasking at Kajaki completed, Support Troop had time on their hands, which is a very dangerous prospect indeed. In fact, let me tell you a little about squaddies. Soldiers are not in the Army to serve and protect, like the well-publicized propaganda would have you believe. It is, in fact, a very handy way for the government to keep like-minded people together and safely away from the rest of normal society. It is the same government's job to keep this 'special' group of people busy – hence Iraq and Afghanistan. The last recorded incident of squaddies being left to their own devices was in Germany back in 1939, when several thousand decided to 'pop over the border' to see what was happening in Poland. And we all know what happened then!

On entering the swimming-pool, I can honestly say it was on the chilly side and, with hindsight, I should have come straight out, there and then. But pride (which has always been overrated) and determination to show that not only is Support Troop better than the Fieldies but also way, way more stupid stopped me.

The following twenty minutes played out as follows:

1. At the ten-length point, I had to stop doing the front crawl, as my head was beginning to freeze and I could no longer actually see where I was going.

2. After 16 lengths, even though looking composed on the surface, underneath I secretly wished I hadn't seen the bloody pool.

3. After 25 lengths, my fingers had morphed into the most inefficient shape for swimming and I was only faintly aware that I had a body to feel the cold with.

4. After 35 lengths, pride was no longer fuelling me. The only thing keeping me going was the fact that I no longer knew what I was doing and swimming was warmer than not [swimming].

5. At the 42-lengths point, I had drunk as much pool water as I could take and, with no significant drop in water level, it was time to get out or drown.

The following 45 minutes consisted of extreme pain, uncontrolled convulsions and lots of gibbering, as three of my section slowly coaxed me out from hypothermia and back to the land of the coherent. The fine line between determination and stupidity had been crossed and redefined in the same instance.

I have subsequently been informed that I might not be allowed to do any of the winter-warfare courses in Norway next year, as I am now more susceptible to cold-weather injuries. So, the moral of this story is: it doesn't matter how stupid your actions might be, there is always a silver lining somewhere. Only summer tours for me – yippee!

January 2007

Lieutenant Rachel Morgan, Royal Naval Medical Branch

I worked with the Civil Military Ops Cell in Lashkar Gar. One of its roles is to help to build relationships with Afghan civilians, and another is to co-ordinate reconstruction and development. The cell supports the people who are not involved with war and tries to help them get back to normality. I was mostly based between Gereshk and Lashkar Gah, but I travelled all over Helmand province. It's quite normal to get embedded with a group of Royal Marines or Army soldiers for the time you are there in this role; it demands a fair amount of adaptability. I am not a war fighter, but it is necessary to go out on the ground with the patrols as much as possible in order to meet locals and build up relationships with the Afghan community. I took my helmet off, wherever I could, so that people could clearly see I was female. This would particularly help when trying to meet women. It was surprising how open Afghan women could be once they trusted you.

I never had any problems in dealing directly with men – I did explain to one elder in a shura [meeting] that I was the only person available to lead it and I hoped he would support me openly in front of the other men who might not feel comfortable speaking to me. He told me he would tell them to put up with it – and that his mother had been a doctor in Kabul in the 1960s and that he remembered her wearing a mini skirt. He openly criticized families who would not let their girls go to school – everybody needs education, he said wisely.

We had a situation where a woman turned up at the gate of the operating base in Lashkar Gah. I was often called to search women [the military always uses a female to search women out of respect]. But when this woman turned up I had been on a three-day operation and was catching up on sleep. She had come in the middle of the night so she wouldn't be seen [by Afghan locals]. In the morning I met her with an interpreter. I was overwhelmed that she had taken the initiative to find me.

I said I was sorry she had been kept waiting, that she was welcome to be here and that I was delighted that she had taken the opportunity to come and speak to me. I tried to put her at ease and said, 'We don't have much but what we have is yours, so come and share some tea with us.'

As the Afghan interpreter was interpreting, she was looking a bit blank and perhaps a bit worried. Then a [British] corporal on the gate took me aside and said: 'He didn't interpret what you've just said. What he actually said to her was: "She [Morgan] says you are a very bad woman and can't work out why you are here. She says surely if you were a good Afghan woman you would stay at home and you would not come out because your husband wouldn't let you be here.''' The corporal had only done a six-week introduction course in Pashtu but he had worked out that the interpreter had not interpreted properly. Later that day the interpreter was sacked. There is plenty of dishonesty amongst the interpreters and it's often so hard to pick this up. You can see what kind of things the Afghan women are up against.

We took the woman into a hardened area and she took her burka off. We gave her a cup of tea and a KitKat and she sat talking to me like any of my friends would. She was in her thirties and had already had ten children – six were still living. She was a teacher and had come to discuss the roof not being finished in her school. She was wondering whether anyone could do anything to support her with this. In fact, we were able to help. Because of recent military successes, the Taliban had been pushed back from near her school and this had enabled a surge of reconstruction and development in her area. Over the next eight months we did all we could because we recognized what an amazing person she was to have taken this risk, and how much it could benefit her community. Her husband was a taxi driver and he was aware of what she was doing. In order for her to get to the operating base, her husband had had to take a big detour out of the area and dropped her five K away [so Taliban supporters would not link them to the British forces]. She lived in a town that was within ten miles of us and walked the rest of the way with her brother and their donkey.

Her bravery was inspirational. If the Taliban knew what she had done, they might have kidnapped her or her children, or worse. At the time, male and female teachers were all getting night letters. These were anonymous letters through their letterbox saying, 'Don't work with the British. They are working for the [Afghan] government. You know what will happen to you or your family if you continue to work.' To the Taliban, the government were as much the enemy as we were.

17 January 2007 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

Forgive me, children, for it has been almost two weeks since my last confession. In that time much and little has happened, though it's still freezing at night and the beard's still coming along nicely, so no need to worry there. But two weeks is clearly too long a wait for you all as at least one person has been pining for my heroic tales and made a personal plea for me to pick up the mighty quill once more.

But let me first say it has not gone unnoticed that there are still several of you lucky people receiving these tales of derring-do who have yet to put finger to keyboard and reply. Now I know this sounds shocking to those who have, not least for those of you who know how self-important I can be. Pull your fingers out. Don't you know how many bullets I had to dodge to make it to the McDonald's Internet café at the end of the road?

So here I am. You join me at the four-week juncture, which means I am just over a quarter of the way through. Yoicks.

The extent of your hero's heroic heroism hasn't gone much beyond a trip to the lavatory cubicle as a beefy Marine just leaves and one is left in the momentary uncertainty of turning round and leaving the man thinking you have only come to perv, or soldiering on and then having to sit on a warm seat engulfed by someone else's noxious vapours. And bearing in mind the dried fruit they give us for roughage, this is not a pleasant experience.

I was due to take a day trip to Camp Bastion last Saturday only for the small matter of a fatality to tie me to the desk instead. As it happens, there isn't much for us to do in the event of a fatality, other than spend the rest of the day in negotiations with the other authorities we have to deal with over who and when should release details.

Lummy, that was a bit serious.

Last Thursday was a long day. A long day. For once it did not begin in the early hours with me being awoken by my bladder wishing to make an entrance stage left. Instead I had to thank a member of the local insurgency as we were woken at 2.15 a.m. when a bomb went off 150 metres from Grenade Alley (you remember Grenade Alley – the delightful walllined avenue in which I live). I say I was woken by the bomb. I wasn't. I slept through it, but was woken by the rest of my tent when the alert was sounded. Was this upsetting? Too bloody right it was upsetting, as I then had to sit out in the mother-lovingly freezing cold for the next three hours in my helmet and body armour huddled in the bomb shelter. I say shelter, it provides possibly slightly less shelter than the average non-stick cake tin. And it provides even less warmth at 2 in the bloody morning after one has only been asleep for an hour and a half. I went dressed for a long night just in case as, thankfully, your hero sleeps in his armour-plated thermal vest and long pants, so I was already half dressed when we had to helmet-up. The first hour or so was OK but, by crikey, I was rigid by the time we were eventually given the all-clear. Next time I shall be sure to take my hat, gloves and MP3 player.

The day perked up with the chance to write some proper war-y stuff after an attack on a Taliban HQ early in the morning allowed me to get my teeth into things.

However, the highlight of the day occurred when Mead received his first post of the tour (take note, family, hang your heads in shame). On this occasion the boys had come good and I was treated to a parcel of porn from EG [Colchester Evening Gazette – his former colleagues], Gawd bless 'em. Well done, the 70s throwback super-group of Clifford, Jones and Palmer.

Then I had gammon steak and egg for tea. Lovely.

What more can I tell you?

I am getting fat, or at least fatter. Coupled with my beard there is every chance I may well resemble Ricky Tomlinson/Jim Royle by the time I return. My feeble state of fitness was exemplified last Wednesday when I was on the verge of free-vomiting. I am told this is a popular sport in Army camps, what with the fear of dysentery and vomiting always being only a squirt away. (Not here but when I was in Iraq – oooh, get me – one camp always set aside a Portaloo for those struck down by the liquid laxative so prevalent was it.)

On this occasion, my being doubled up was all of my own doing. I had agreed to take part in a bit of circuit training for charity, organized by our combat camera team. I started with a 1.5 kilometre cycle ride and moved on to a 500-metre row. Both of these were, I see the stupidity of it now, undertaken alongside a very large Marine with a high volume of muscle definition. Mead being the macho-competitive type and always up for a challenge, decided to attempt to match the pace that this trained killer adopted. After the first two disciplines, in which I was a mere couple of seconds behind our well-honed adversary, I moved on to the floor mats to attempt 60 press ups, made it to 11, stopped, lay down, had my photo taken and lost a fair amount of facial colour as my body went into meltdown and I had to take myself off to a well-ventilated area and collapse. I am now a laughing stock.

You will be pleased to know the deficiencies in my expensive sleeping system have been rectified, thanks to a $15 duvet bought from the camp shop, which provides considerably more warmth than my bloody expensive sleeping-bag.

And I know you liked them last time so let's take a few moments for today's lesson on TLAs (and TLA stands for ...?)

SAF – Small-Arms Fire

PID – Positively Identified

MSR – Main Supply Route

ISTAR – Information, Surveillance, Targeting, Acquisition and Reconnaissance

EF – Enemy Forces

FF – Friendly Forces

Put it all together and you get: 'Using ISTAR, FF PID EF on MSR and engaged with SAF', and so on.

And answers on a postcard as to the definition of today's phrase, 'dynamic unpredictability', which sounds about as far removed from a definition of my good self as one could imagine.

In such an environment, where every day seems strangely like any other, the little things become important. Each day is currently being given meaning by the 'Chick of the Day' poll, conducted by an engineer clerk who sits a few feet away and who, each day, changes the screen-saver picture of a woman on his computer. The few moments, which are often stretched as long as possible, spent looking at the day's picture are important reminders that women who don't dress solely in combats and who aren't disguised as men and, in most cases, it's a pretty thin disguise, do exist.

Next time we speak I hope to have finally been out of camp as I am due to go into Lashkar Gah in the next few days. I might have even had my hair cut by an Afghan who charges $4. I hear he uses one of the rusty machetes you can buy at Kandahar airfield market. These are warrior people after all. Pictures to follow. Grrr.

January 2007

Lieutenant Rachel Morgan, Royal Naval Medical Branch

The soldiers on guard duty at the FOBs [forward operating bases] try to make themselves quite approachable. However, if people come in looking for food or medical support, they are usually turned away. We had a guy who often came into an FOB in Gereshk to give us intelligence – about what was going on with the Taliban in the area. One day he had given us some information and one of the soldiers thanked him and enquired as to whether there was anything we could do for him. He asked if there was a doctor available, as he was suffering from a headache and perhaps he could take a pill to make it better. The [British soldier] explained that we don't provide health care for everyone we meet, but he'd see what he could do. When he [the Afghan] saw the British doctor he told him that there was a piece of shrapnel in his head which he had had for twenty years, since an injury sustained when fighting with the mujahideen. The British doctor agreed to take this shrapnel out of his head. He [the Afghan] did not receive any anaesthetic for this. The doctor just cut his head open and yanked it [the shrapnel] out. He [the Afghan, in his late thirties] just chanted all the way through, praying, and got himself into an almost hypnotic state that most of us cannot imagine. It was an incredible thing to witness. The British doctor gave the Afghan, a Hazara tribesman, his shrapnel in a plastic bottle to take away.

20 January 2007 [email home]

Captain Charlotte Cross, Territorial Army

I went on a really long patrol to an IDP [internally displaced people] camp north of Lashkar Gah the other day. A female elder there has been threatened because she and her daughter work at the school ('school' being 5 UNICEF tents with nothing inside). The woman's very feisty. She's been beaten up before and shot in the leg. Apparently her phone number's been given out to somebody who's now phoning her up and threatening her, and she said she'll drink the blood of the person who betrayed her by giving her phone number away – these people don't mess around. So a colour sergeant asked me to go with him to the camp, to try to find out what's going on, and to speak to any females we might come across. We already know the Taliban infiltrate the camp; it's right next to the Helmand river and they use that area as a crossing point, and hide out in the camp before moving into Lashkar Gah or further south.

It was a really cold windy day, and even in my thermals and body armour and webbing, I was freezing. We drove through Lashkar Gah town, then up through Mukhtar, and when we stopped the vehicles and got out we were in the middle of a maze of mud-walled compounds, some with UNICEF tent material for a roof, some with little chimneys made of hollow tree branches, and smoke pouring out. We went over to where some middle-aged men were sitting against a wall, and suddenly we had about 20 children crowding round us as well ... These were definitely the poorest Afghans I've met so far. The kids all had bare filthy black feet and red, streaming eyes ... and huddled miserably in the howling wind. Some smiled when I spoke to them, but mostly they just looked desperate. So did the men. We asked the kids if they go to school, and they all replied yes, and one older boy held up a little black bag with a school exercise book and a couple of pencils. It was obviously his pride and joy, pathetic though it was. The men denied the Taliban were in the camp and said everything was fine, no security problems here, but we didn't believe them. They said nothing ever happens on this camp it's very quiet ... so we said what about the mine we found here 2 weeks ago ... and they said oh apart from that. And we said what about the fire-fight at the police check-point down the road ... and they said oh yes and apart from that. The CSgt told them he wanted to help them, but while they continue to allow their elders to give what little food aid they get to the Taliban, and shelter the Taliban in the camp, the Taliban will fight us and we won't be able to help them. The men listened intently and looked very sheepish. They didn't argue. We left them and walked through the streets to find some different people to talk to.

The interpreter showed me some long, green leaves he'd taken from one of the little children. Apparently the child had been thinning out the poppy plants somewhere, and had come back with spare poppy leaves to make into soup. That's what poor people do, even though it puts opium in their bloodstream. It's like nettle soup I suppose.

Anyway, we came across another group of men, sitting next to a small, mud-walled building, which they said was their flour mill for making their bread. And again they told us there were no security problems in the camp, no Taliban here. This time the elder sent a tiny child off to bring us some chai and a little dish of colourful sweets, and we stood in that desolate place with the wind howling around us, and we drank chai with them, and I thought even though they have nothing, they give us what little they have ... I felt quite guilty taking it, but it would've been incredibly rude not to, that's their culture. Then one of the men asked us to help his son, who was knocked over by a car and is paralysed in a wheelchair. The crowd wheeled him out to us, and they all stood round expectantly, like we'd have some magic medicine to cure him with. We called over our medic to take a look, and apparently the young man had a huge bedsore on his hip, so he gave him some aspirin and put a dressing on it. The interpreter told the crowd the dressing cost $16, so they were all very pleased and were beaming at us and thanked us. It was as if we'd made him walk again. Eventually, we thanked them for the chai and we moved on.

The next group of men we came across were sitting on a wall by a little shop, which was selling a few apples, and some bread, and that was about it. One of the men was quite old, he was a Spingiri, and he told us he was from the Kuchi tribe. He said before the Taliban he lived in the deserts in the north, near Kabul, but when the Taliban took power, his people were attacked by the Uzbeks and Tajiks, who hated them because they were Pashtuns, like the Taliban. So they moved south, and their livestock was looted by the Taliban. They headed for Helmand, which is traditionally the Pashtun heartland, and they came to Mukhtar and built themselves mud houses and compounds and settled there. But now the government is telling them they'll have to move on, and this old man was saying: 'Where can we move to? We have no land, we have nowhere to go and we're happy here.' Apparently the government stopped the UN providing aid to this camp a year ago, because it wants the people to move on. It hopes they'll leave if they become desperate enough. It's heartbreaking, and you can understand why they end up harbouring and supporting the Taliban. What choice do they have?

And then I come back to the office, and Sky News is on, and I see the world is in anguish about what Jade Goody's said on Big Brother ...

24 January 2007 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

Salaam aleikum, my children.

Peace be upon you all from Muhammad's mountain retreat and all his Pashtun brothers and sisters.

Morning, all.

You join me as the tour-clock ticks into the second third. Irritatingly my colleague to my right has just pointed out that he has 8.72 days to go according to his personal 'chuff chart', whatever the hell one of those is.

This may sound like I am counting down the days but it's all been so far so good: I have not been shot, I have not developed dysentery, I have been out to meet the good people of Lashkar Gah for the first time, I have clean sheets on my bed. All is perfectly average with the world. Apart from having to look at Jade Goody seemingly every minute of every day for the past week.

Yes, my children, the past 7 to 10 days have been exceedingly interesting. No doubt you will have read and seen much about the heroic deeds taking place in this fair and slightly-chilly-at-night country, but more of my antics with the locals later.

In the meantime, I hope you all read the Sunday papers for my exclusive interviews with those daring chaps what risked life and limb to agree to be grilled by me on what was a bit of a hairy situation when they rescued their fallen comrade on the wings of an Apache. I was privileged, and I don't use that word lightly, to speak to five of the eight who took part in the rescue.

As my 'bootneck' colleagues would say, it was 'hoofing'. Yes, as if one incomprehensible and slightly irritating language were not enough, the Marines have two. So in addition to TLAs (all together now ...) I am subjected to such sentences as: 'I'm off to the heads before scran then it's back to the grot to get my head down in the scratcher – hoofing.' Remarkably, this isn't a quote from my 'Five Fucking (sorry, Auntie) German Students' porn video sent by the boys which, incidentally, does exactly what it says on the tin. It roughly translates as: 'One is going to visit the lavatory before the evening meal, then it's back to the abode to sleep peacefully in my bed – marvellous.'

I also have to listen to people talk about 'granularity', telling me to 'crack on', 'talk off line', get things 'squared away', and generally be 'threaders' if things don't go to plan.

In something of a backlash against this brain-washing and in a bid to integrate and enjoy the moment more in this ancient land I have decided to attempt to be at one with the locals. To that end, rather than now, like my heathen infidel room-mates, who bemoan the 'wailing' of the local Imam as he calls the faithful to prayer at 5 a.m. each morning, I now awaken at 4.30, wash with sand, as the Prophet Muhammad would have done, and dress in a simple garment of muslin, a free T-shirt from the Sun saying 'Page 3 stunner', and leftover Christmas wrapping paper. I then scale the wall before venturing out into the streets to take my morning prayer.

I have discovered the one thing that is less enticing in the morning than my regular 100-metre dash with only a small towel to protect one's dignity is doing it in the rain.

One thing the good men of Afghanistan have in common with those in Blighty is how to loaf. Particularly good practitioners are the construction industry, clearly the same the world over. Currently we have many Afghans apparently digging random holes and ditches all round camp. One assumes this isn't a less than cunning plot to join up with Taliban trenches and allow the insurgents to infiltrate the camp under cover of darkness. For every two men digging the hole, there is always at least four times that many stood or sat around enjoying the sun, having a fag or gently discussing last night's nan bread. It's just like being back home.

So what of my tales in Lashkar Gah? Up until last week, apart from a quick 5 mins through the streets of Kabul or looking out the window of a Chinook helicopter, which incidentally is an awesome ride, especially when it whizzes along at low height, I had yet to see what Afghanistan actually looked like up close. I have now not only seen it up close, I have also smelt it, and at times it hums. I went out on what turned out to be a 6-and-a-half-hour patrol with a team of Royal Engineers who were accompanied by someone from PsyOps, i.e., Psychological Operations, i.e., touchy-feely propaganda, and CIMIC, Civil Military Co-operation, who try to identify local projects to spend money on.

Then there was me and our cameraman. The deal is you go out with a convoy of three Snatch vehicles (stop sniggering, children, this is serious). A Snatch is basically a Land Rover with a bit of armour plating. Only a bit, mind, as most of the troops killed in roadside bombings in Iraq were travelling in Snatches – so they provide some protection but not total.

Not to worry, in you pop in the back, which is a bit of a squeeze with four of you, plus a driver and commander in the front. You don't get much of a view, unless you're one of the top cover troops. But for that privilege you pay the price of having to wear a bloody great bit of body armour, which not only covers the torso but also your neck and your arms down to the elbow. Still, nice view, I hear. Especially when the kids start throwing stones at you.

All I can see is what can be made out through a dirty window about 10 inches square with bars across it. But what this Pope-mobile lacks in view it makes up for in scratch-and-sniffability. Then we trot off through the streets of Lashkar Gah, though streets is an ambitious term, being as they are more like dry tracks across a potato field in the height of summer with the only signs of moisture being the human excrement dribbling down the middle. No lumps, mind.

You drive along these 'roads', rocking and rolling all over the shop, and every now and again you can't avoid piling through this mucky stuff, which throws up a truly incredible smell, a viciously potent sulphur-type pong that tastes as good as it whiffs and sticks to your teeth.

Yet local children can be seen running alongside the paths, in a desperate bid to keep up with us and wave, more often than not in bare feet. One particularly unfortunate tyke was caught right next to one of these pungent puddles as we drove by and, like the comedy movie when a car piles through a puddle as you are walking to work in your best togger, this lad got covered up to his bare ankles in black shoot. Nice.

Our intention was to go to a play area so the troops could have a hearts-and-minds-winning game of football with the local kids. The play area was something of a dusty wasteland, the kids weren't expecting us and, upon being handed some balls, clearly had not been taught the rudiments of Association Football by a qualified FA coach. The three balls were hoofed up in the air with packs of kids racing after them. I tried in vain to get some pics but the ball never stayed in one place long enough. Within 5 minutes the first of three balls had gone walkabout and within another 20 the remaining two had been had.

There must have been 50–100 kids running around, many of them bare-footed, most of them looking like they hadn't washed for several weeks. But among the children, not a girl, or for that matter a female of any kind, could be seen.

The CIMIC bloke had got chatting with some elders and we wandered off down an alleyway to what turned out to be a religious boarding school, a Madrassa. Eton it wasn't. I've seen slightly smarter pigsties. The CIMIC man got chatting with the head, and we listened as he told us about his 120 pupils who were basically taught the Koran. But the conditions were wretched. It didn't look much from the outside but there was apparently a basement-type design as grubby boys stuck their heads out from somewhere down below as we spoke to the head. Some of these boys didn't look much older than about 3. Others were in their late teens. We then went inside and down into three classroom/bedrooms. I would have found it hard to believe that 120 boys could stand in the rooms available but apparently they all slept on the floor. Very cosy.

It was not until afterwards that the cameraman, Aidy, a Marine by trade, said we should never have gone into there without first having checked it out and that several rule books were discarded for us just to wander in. Luckily I was oblivious to how death-defying and heroic I was being – 'twas ever thus.

We cleared off and stopped at another spot to generally amble about and engage with the locals. In true Afghan fashion, there was another old chap digging a random hole with a crowd of people stood around. Once again there were masses of kids about, this time with one or two girls. But only girls of at most 5 or 6 because by all accounts any older than that is trussed up and not let out except on official occasions.

Our final stop was a bit of an interesting one: we stopped at Lashkar Gah prison, which is supposedly the current home of the odd Taliban inmate. Though you wouldn't have known as the term 'open prison' could well have been made for this establishment. There was a railed gate. Some turrets and a big wall. Other than that there was a lot of vicious, fairly unhappy-looking chaps being passed several table-sized bits of nan bread through the railings and some equally ramshackle chaps wandering about on this side of the gate who were allegedly the guards.

Bearing in mind that arguably the Taliban are my current worst enemy, I would have had second thoughts before I wished it upon them.

Then it was back home in time for tea. Steak en croûte with onion chutney and veg followed by chocolate pud and custard. De-lish.

And I'd like to leave you with a message from one of the random bits of junk mail that regularly appear in my Yahoo junk box. The subject of the message from Antonio Kelly is: 'with silver, and at the east to their flesh'.

Well, quite.

Now get writing.

February 2007

Corporal Fraser 'Frankie' Gasgarth, The Royal Engineers

In Kajaki, every night you got mortared. You could set your watch by it: it was quite comical. When you were out building the new FOB, you were constantly being shot at too. It was harassment fire: you have Land Rovers with GPMGs [general-purpose machine-guns] or 50-cal machine-guns to look after you. Because you have got them covering you, there is no use shooting back with your pea-shooter [SA80 assault rifle]. So you wait until they've cleared the area [of Taliban], then you get back out again. It was like: they're shooting at us; we'd better stop. The shooting has stopped; right, get back out there. In Kajaki, we built an area there for the police to do road checks and we constantly got harassment fire. It took us two days to build it because they [the Taliban] were just constantly firing at us – on and off – all the time. They would fire and then try and move off. Or some would have the guts to fire and stay there. The lads on the hilltop in the OPs [observation posts] would spot where they were and hammer them. If things got really bad, Apaches would be called in or fast air [support] too.

But, for me, it couldn't have been a better tour. One, you were getting all the incidents – you were getting shot at and all that kind of thing. But, second, everything [the kit] was completely knackered [when we arrived] so I was actually plying my trade. If I had gone there and everything was working perfectly, it wouldn't have been as good. Of the twenty-eight pieces of kit that we inherited when we arrived, twenty-six pieces got fixed. I loved it. Yet as soon as you come home, it's back to normal. It is as if you have never been out there. All you have is the memories.

March 2007

Flight Sergeant Paul 'Gunny' Phillips, RAF

We were doing IRTs [incident response team work with a MERT] up at [Camp] Bastion and at the same time there was a big op going on in the upper Sangin valley. They put a load of troops on the ground to try and clear out a few known Taliban-friendly areas. With the IRTs, you are on thirty minutes' notice to move to pick up injured guys. Anyway, the boss [Squadron Leader Ian Diggle] referred to it later as 'the night of nights' because it was probably one of the busiest IRTs that we have ever had. We had nine call-outs in one night. It was that bad. We had been hoping to get to bed just after midnight but in the end it was just a case of 'Well, I might as well stay up.' Because the minute you got into bed you got another nine-liner [emergency call] coming through. So we just gave up and sat outside the tent drinking Coke and smoking cigarettes all night.

We had been into various places to pick up guys – smallarms injuries or they had fallen over and broken a leg – and then we had the last shout of the night. It was almost dawn when we got a call to go and pick up four Americans in the upper Sangin valley. They were all walking wounded, so they had minor injuries effectively. It took us for ever to find the HLS, because one compound looks pretty much like any other. There were that many friendly troops on the ground you didn't know which [helicopter landing site] was which. So we were flying around for five or ten minutes and eventually found it. We landed in this field – it was an old poppy field. It hadn't been cut back so it still had the old poppies growing in it. I was in the front door [of the helicopter], sat behind the mini gun. So the ramp went down and these Americans start walking towards the back of the cab.

There was a whole load of mincing going on at the back of the cab. People were saying: 'Who's injured? Who's not? Who's coming with us? Who's staying here?' It was one of those times where no one felt particularly threatened. I actually said to the boss: 'This is a pretty good spot actually.' Because we had a compound directly to the rear of the aircraft, a compound either side of us and then quite a dense tree-line to the front. So I thought the only thing that was going to get us there was IDF [indirect fire] really. And there was still all this mincing around at the back of the aircraft and we got three of the guys on and the boss was saying: 'What's happening? What's happening?' We'd been there for about three minutes by now but they were still trying to find this fourth casualty. I was looking out of the front door and literally just underneath the rotor disc there were three American troops that had been put out to give us a bit of force protection. It sounds cheesy and overused but literally the ground in front of these guys just erupted. It [the bullets] must have been about five feet in front of them. You could see the rounds just splashing right in front of their faces. And of course they let rip and all their mates started to let rip and we were like: 'Fucking hell. Contact!' We just got the ramp up and departed. We could see all their tracer going towards this [Taliban] compound but I couldn't tell where they were firing at. So I couldn't use the mini gun, which was incredibly frustrating.

But we got back to Bastion and said: 'We just had a contact.' And they said: 'Yeah, we're just listening to the American comm chat [communications chatter] now.' And what had happened was, from the compound on our right-hand side, thirty metres from our aircraft, some little bad lad had stuck his AK-47 over the top of the compound wall and did the old 'spray and pray' [opening up with fire and hoping for the best]. I couldn't believe that their guy had been thirty metres from me and I couldn't shoot him because the mini gun doesn't elevate very high. If I had been behind an M60 [machine-gun], I could have got some rounds off if I'd known where he was. But in the end, the guy got a proper shoeing from the Americans [who killed him].

7 March 2007 [email home]

Robert Mead, Ministry of Defence press officer

My children.

(Brace yourselves, you may need to get a cup of tea for this one.)

Lawks a Lordy, having just checked the dates, it's been a month, a whole thirty days, since my last update. No doubt those days have been barren, desolate, empty wastelands of sorrow for you all in the absence of words from Mullah Mead. Possibly some of you have even turned to heavy narcotic abuse. If you have, save some for me: I'll be home soon.

Where to begin. Well, let's start with the news that you are going to have to wait just that little bit longer to welcome home your hero. This is because I am so irreplaceable that those blighters at the MoD have extended one's tour for a few weeks. Return date has slipped not once, not twice, but three times, from 20 March to the dizzyingly late 10 April. That's a whole extra three weeks. Cripes, I'm glad I'm getting overtime for this. But, as you can see, the timings of these things change so bloody often that I've got more chance of pissing my name in the sand on a beach and it remaining unchanged.

Now the good news – the beard has gone. The fair to middling news is it will be back by the time I return. One shave a tour is enough for any respectable man. Frankly I did not have enough favourable comments from the ladies to make it worth my while keeping, so serves you right if you liked it and didn't reply to my email, which in fairness was practically all of you.

And speaking of non-replies, while my perfectly decent and not-in-any-way-questionable-or-lurid request for naked photos from my lady-friends was well and truly ignored or, worse, earnest promises were made which have been proven to be total dogs-droppings, one of my colleagues then received a collection of gratuitous happy snaps from some lady doing personal things in personal places. Bloody cheek. He showed us all, of course, but I won't – honest. They'll be just for me.

Instead, to add a slap in the knackers with a wet towel to injury, I have had to make do with naked bloody Marines. Let there be no doubt, there is nothing more tiresome and disturbing than, after having been woken at an indecent hour and having stumbled to the bathroom, to open the door to see a butch Marine standing stark bollock, proudly towelling himself down with one leg casually hitched up on the sink. Every bleedin' morning. This is no way to start the day. What is it with men who profess to be more butch than a bulldog with three penises that they display more woofter tendencies than a team of Kenny Everett impersonators?

Right then, what can I tell you?

What has happened? Pah, what hasn't happened?

Let's be honest, not a lot. Well, not a lot warlike anyway. At least not here. Plenty going on out and about as you can probably tell. Having said that, one day seems largely like any other so it's not easy to keep tabs on events. What hasn't happened is I still haven't been shot at yet, though I am repeatedly and reliably informed this is a good thing. This is largely because I haven't really been anywhere where I could get shot. Most of my past month's activity has taken place firmly behind the walls of camp Lashkar Gah. But, goodness, hasn't it been exciting?

I've visited one of our sentry turrets, for some reason called sangars, which is quite curious, because they don't in any way resemble a sausage, and when you look out of the gaps in the walls you see the town of Lashkar Gah is about 10 feet away and only succeeds in reminding you how close you are to potential nasty people.

What else? Well, we've had some visitors, and mildly famous visitors at that. A few weeks back we were treated to the delights of Jim Davidson and 'Forces' Favourite' opera singer Katherine Jenkins. A right incongruous duo those two were. But this was put in the shade by a follow-up show two weeks later. Not by the two male laddish comedians, whose names escape me, but the lovely Claudia, Megan and Jane, the CSE [Combined Service Entertainment] dancers. Grrr, woof and bark.

As I was beginning to pine, Media Ops arranged a game of football and duly beat the hapless plum-duffs of 28 Engineer Regiment in a rousing game of five-a-side. This was followed by several sharp pains in the lower-leg region for days after, due to the large gap between this game and my last, the poor footwear available, and the utter unsuitability of the playing surface, i.e., a rock-hard square of concrete more commonly used for the landing of helicopters. And, indeed, a halt was called 45 mins into the match for two of the cheeky overblown Flymos [helicopters] to drop their load. Normal service was soon resumed and we smashed the sappers. Huzzah.

This was followed only days later by an unexpected late entry into a six-a-side tournament on the same surface. This time it was against a number of sides from the Marines and a few local Afghan sides. Flushed from our recent victory, and buoyed with, what turned out to be, hopelessly overblown overconfidence, we imagined lots of Afghans rolling up in even more unsuitable clothing for football than ours; namely those long shirts and pyjama bottoms that everyone seems to wear, blankets wrapped around the shoulders (despite it being blazing hot) and either sandals or perfectly normal shoes, which they all seem to have the strange habit of wearing as slip-ons, i.e., not bothering to unlace but just flattening down the heel. (My mother would be livid. She never would have stood for this. I can hear her now: 'Undo the bloody laces!')

We stood waiting on the pitch, all quiet save for the standard friendly banter of 'Give it here, you fat poof', and the distant twang of hamstrings snapping after months of unuse. Media Ops already looked hugely out of place. Most of the Marines, as I have explained before, are, to a man, massive, or at very least, considerably fitter than most marathon runners. Still no sign of our local opponents, though there was a hefty crowd forming. Then, slowly shimmering over the horizon, came a large number of athletic-looking youths resplendent in dazzling bright yellow Barcelona away kits, juggling balls and looking a lot like they knew exactly what they were doing, which was preparing to give our arses a sound kicking.

The first game began. Thankfully we weren't in it. India Company 42 Commando vs the Afghans A side. Seven-minute matches. Hectic stuff. The whistle blew and they were off. Quickly a pattern emerged – the bandy-legged Afghans running absolute onion rings round our hapless Marines. Within two minutes the Afghans were 2 up. The Afghan half of the crowd was going wild. The UK side was either shatting itself among those braced for future games, or falling about in hysterics for those only spectating. The Afghans won. Much cheering and indefinite Islamic praises to Allah followed.

We were third up, also playing a team of Afghans – though, not wishing to be in any way politically incorrect, it could just as easily have been the same 6 players as the first game as to a man they all looked the same. (Is this conjuring up images of the match in Disney's Bedknobs and Broomsticks? As well it might.) In the words of our photographer, every time we got the ball it was like being surrounded by a swarm of locusts, so quickly were we smothered by the opposition. How we only lost 1–0 Basil Brush only knows. I think I touched the ball in those 7 minutes for approximately 4 seconds and that was only to retrieve it when it had gone off the pitch. We left with our tails between our legs.

In amongst these latest acts of dare-wing-do, and following on from the pasting my lungs received in the above games, I have arrested the decline of my body shape and taken to the gym on a daily basis. I shall therefore return a lean, mean media-ops machine. Grrr. Though currently everything aches massively.

(This is a long one isn't it? Don't complain: it has been four weeks, you know, you ungrateful lot.)

That's not to say there hasn't been some warlike activity. Only the other day we were minding our own business at about 2 p.m. when a rather loud explosion went off. The ground wobbled a bit. Cor, that was quite loud, I thought. Probably a controlled explosion. Then a major (it's OK, it wasn't me) who knew a bit about these things came scampering into our HQ tent looking more perturbed than was healthy for us all, saying to no one in particular: 'Is there any planned controlled explosion today? Does anyone know?' He came back seconds later saying, 'Put your helmet and body armour on, ladies and gentleman,' in a very dignified fashion, presumably having found the answer to his question. Now I was quite excited as it gave me my first opportunity to wear my new blue-cover Osprey body armour, the stuff troops wear. Until now I had been wearing the version which anyone who has visited my home in the past year will have seen and probably tried on. Bit snug, isn't it? Not to mention the breast plate being somewhat small. The Osprey is the new super-duper one with larger bullet-repelling bits, and now I have one of my very own. So, we toddled back to the tent to pick up my helmet, when another explosion, this time a 'kin' loud one, feeling altogether closer, louder and explosiver, went off. Lummy. Make for the hills. The best we could offer was the safe-haven office of the combat camera team for a can of 7Up, thumb through this week's Zoo mag and a game of Shithead – which irritatingly I keep losing and had to get up early the other day to bring everyone breakfast in bed. Knobs.

As we toddled off, someone came from the other direction, looking considerably less armoured, who told us it had been a false alarm and it was a controlled explosion after all. Excitement over.

However, this is not your hero's only scrape with certain maiming in the past week. No, sirree. After being holed up here for the best part of 4 weeks, trying all I knew to find a reason to get out on the ground (I offered to cook dinner for the governor, unblock the questionable Lashkar Gah plumbing, sleep with a variety of members of the local hierarchy, you name it) finally I was unleashed for a trip to see two new bits of road, one that has been built, one that is being built. However, upon visitation, the first road was in no way similar to anything you, I or next door's gerbil would call a road. Having said that, most major paths of transport have a closer resemblance to the bottom of a gerbil's cage, hardened and then smashed into lumpy pieces before being doused in more lumpy stuff, with extra lumps in, and hardened again, so any improvement that possesses the basic property of simply being flat is a considerable bonus. This road had that going for it – it had little else. It was a raised dirt/gravel track not much wider than a car's width, which fell away steeply for about 2 metres on either side; a field on one, a river on the other. So we stopped at this road, which I expected to be a bit of a bustling country route, and instead saw ... one old chap come bobbing along on his rickety old bicycle. And possibly a goat in the distance, though it was some way off so we couldn't be sure.

The man agreed to talk to us. It didn't look as though he had much else to do that day. Abdul was his name, and he told us he was 55 but he could have easily passed for 85. Nice bloke, but turned out not only did he not have much to do, he didn't have much to say either.

We bade him farewell as the traffic began to build up and two men in the distance rolled up on a motorbike. They were a bit more enthusiastic telling us how this road had cut their journey time from 1 hr 15 mins to 30 mins as this chap had to go to the doctor and it had been very useful, etc. (See how my sophisticated tactics of subliminal messaging is seeping the MoD mantra into your feeble minds without you knowing. You are all under my power, yesss, under my power. These aren't the droids you're looking for, ooooh.)

After this peak of excitement our convoy of three Land Rovers rolled off along this road heading back to town. I was in the front vehicle, looking out the back, when slowly but unmistakably, the middle vehicle veered gently off course. Its front left wheel went over the edge of the gravel road, slowly followed by the left back wheel. As if in slow motion, the vehicle leant slightly before it found itself on the bank of the road, and decided the best course of action was to roll over onto its side. I tapped gently on the gunner who was sticking his head out of the roof keeping top cover.

'Um, the vehicle behind has rolled.'

'RTA [road traffic accident]!' he shouted.

Oh, the irony. Here we were coming to see a new road to benefit the Afghans and the first time we use it we roll a military vehicle and block it for all the Afghans. Ace. But the irony didn't stop there. Oh, no. Thankfully no one was injured bar a bump on the head for the driver. Anyway, standard procedure here is for all to leap out and form a protective cordon while the emergency response team is called to get us out of here before the Taliban get wind of it and come and get us – or if you're a civilian, huddle down in the back and keep well out of the way. Yoicks.

However, your hero couldn't stay low for long and he clambered out to get a good view, and essentially to take some pictures. We ended up being there for about half an hour, the busy local traffic of a couple of battered 4x4s, a goatherder and some raggedy children creating a devil of a bottleneck. Until along came a chap in a tractor and, irony upon irony, he kindly offered to pull the Land Rover out of trouble. Phew, dangerous stuff, hey?

In fairness I came closer to facing death a few weeks ago when the chefs decided Friday night should be fish-and-chip night and served up such an artery-busting deep-fat-fried menu, including deep-fat-fried Mars bar (which, incidentally, tastes better than the real thing) that I'm not sure if their intention was to feed us or kill us.

(Nearly there, not long to go now, into the home straight ... Yes, all right, I do go on, yes, I know.)

A few weeks ago I sent some of you the fantastic website www.alemarah.org, otherwise known as the Taliban website Voice of Jihad. Most of this esteemed organ and bastion of exemplary journalistic principles is involved with concocting fantastical stories of Taliban victories over the infidel. (Not unlike my job in reverse you might say. Yeah? Well bog off.)

One of our Land Rovers gets a puncture, they say they've blown up seven tanks and killed five foreign invaders. It really is a cracking read. Most of it is in Pashtu, but for those not versed in the local lingo, one section is in English, or rather the most comic attempts at 'Allo 'Allo!-style 'Good moaning' English you will ever read.

A particularly fine example of this garbling of Eengleesh was 12 February when, following an attack on a Taliban leader, the website denied their man had been 'martyred'. Instead it said: 'In airstrike only civilians including women and Chileans martyred.' Which seems a bit unfair on the Chileans.

And finally, this week's instalment of Marine-speak is a short yet suggestive affair. It has become common to hear in the evening briefings (you remember those, full of absolute nonsensical military shag-pile) reference to: 'The Marines left Charlotte this morning before moving onto Beatrice and Annabelle tonight. They will take up positions in Frances on Friday.'

Fnar, fnar. This, though, is not a reference to sexual deviancy, but the naming of certain areas of the AO (that's Area of Operations) by giving them girls' names. Thus, one large irregular shape of land approximately 10 sq km is called Beatrice, another is called Annabelle, and so on. One curious observation. Should the Marines continue their journey, they will come to AO Thrush. Sounds painful. Perhaps it is sexual deviancy after all.

Titty bang.

PS I have a month to go. Therefore you stinking weasels who have yet to write to me have a month in which to redeem yourselves. Get to it.

20 March 2007 [email home]

Captain Dave Rigg, MC, The Royal Engineers

Letter from Afghanistan

Shortly before I departed Afghanistan, two Artillery men were killed, Lance Bombardier Ross Clark and Lance Bombardier 'Paddy' McLaughlin. They had both been through training together and were good mates. The day they died was another fine, clear one in northern Helmand. As the sun set over the Helmand river, the observation post that they were manning was targeted with a rocket-propelled grenade. The rocket penetrated the fortifications around their position and ripped them apart with exploding shrapnel. They had no chance of survival. They died together. I had previously worked with Lance Bombardier Clark: he was the sort of bloke that would have done well in any environment, a genuinely decent bloke.

Having spent the previous seven months working on the reconstruction and development effort in Helmand province, I have been disappointed and frustrated by the lack of balanced reporting within the press. Not surprisingly, the majority of the world's press seem only interested in generating sensational stories: the plight of the poor Afghan farmer who, when not caught in the crossfire, has to stand and watch while his poppy crop, his only source of income, is burnt to the ground. The deliberate ISAF [International Assistance Security Force] operations, which are conducted to flush out, and kill insurgent forces. These are stories that have to be told, but on their own they have no context, and do not do our soldiers the credit they deserve.

The events outlined below are not quite as headline-grabbing, but when viewed against the complexities of rebuilding a nation that is teetering on the brink of anarchy, they are far more newsworthy.

We are told that Helmand province is the most dangerous place on earth. There are certainly lots of people in the province intent on killing us; our soldiers get shot at from Garmsir, in the south, to Now Zad in the north of the province and everywhere in between. When we are out of contact with the enemy and moving through the desert or patrolling up the valleys, we are vulnerable to mines and other improvised explosive devices. Generally the large towns are more permissive, enabling us to patrol with relative freedom, but this is when we are most at risk to a suicide-bomb attack.

Barricading ourselves in our bases would be far safer, but would achieve nothing, and ten years down the line we would still be peering out from our sangars, wondering where the next rocket was going to come from. We have to venture out in order to develop a rapport with the local people; to understand what it is that makes the process of establishing a stable system of governance so difficult. Once we understand the issues we can start to address them.

It would be far simpler if we could just go in search of the insurgent and kill him. This is an insurgency: the vast majority of the fighters in Afghanistan are from abroad – Pakistan, Iran, Chechnya, Turkmenistan and any other nation that provides disillusioned young Muslim men who have little to lose and a violent urge to prove themselves. There are local fighters, but generally their allegiances are questionable and they fight for the highest bidder.

The vast majority of the Afghan people simply want to feed their family, send their children to school and generate a little income through trade or farming. Sadly, this majority is dominated by a minority who are motivated by a variety of conflicting causes. There is a highly complex array of interwoven dynamics that make the matter of uniting these people under one government a hugely challenging problem. Tribal feuds, the blossoming narcotics trade, a despised local police force, a system of governance that struggles to produce literate ministers, 30 years of conflict, a civil infrastructure system that is medieval, and, of course, the Taliban and the associated insurgency.

So, with all of that in mind, where do you start? Being military, it is not surprising that we focus much of our resources upon finding and defeating the enemy. Where we can isolate and engage the Taliban without causing substantial collateral damage, we do. Before doing so we spend a great deal of time and effort positively identifying targets and developing our knowledge of who the key individuals are and what their weaknesses are. Then we hit them hard.

However, despite the careful targeting process our activity inevitably results in the destruction of innocent people's homes and sometimes their death. The enemy often move into local houses or mosques to fire upon us and we retaliate. The Taliban then exploit these incidents; their propaganda campaign is generally more persuasive than ours. It is therefore extremely difficult to avoid the undesirable second order effects of our war fighting operations.

As it stands, the majority of the Afghan people do not support the Taliban; they are generally as foreign to them as we are, and certainly a lot less merciful. They want NATO forces to provide them with security and it is vitally important that we capitalize upon this local support. This is where the classic 'hearts and minds' stuff comes into play. In a place as primitive as Afghanistan, it is not difficult to impress or win the consent of a local. Maintaining that consent is a greater challenge.

In the last 6 months we have invested over $4m on reconstruction and development projects, our engineers have been involved in building police stations, roads and maternity wards to name but a few. We do not actually build them; we identify the need, recce the task, design it and then contract the project out to a local company. Giving these projects an 'Afghan face' brings a number of benefits. It generates the impression that it is Afghan led, which builds consent for the local government, helps to develop the capacity of local industry, provides employment and fuels the local economy. The building piece is not difficult. There is no shortage of demand, plenty of international funding but, more surprisingly, a surplus of capacity within the local building industry.

The Americans are very good at building stuff: they don't mess about, they just get it done. They have plenty of experience, having been engaged in multi-million-dollar projects all over Afghanistan since the early 1950s. However, what they seem less proficient at is ensuring local buy-in. Unless the new infrastructure can be manned and maintained by the local system, it soon ends up as a decaying memorial to foreign investment. Southern Afghanistan is a graveyard of failed reconstruction projects.

Afghanistan has been in turmoil for so long that the people live for today and perhaps tomorrow. Planning beyond that is seen as futile; investing in next year is simply incomprehensible. Therefore nothing gets maintained. The fortunate few who hold the purse strings perceive their time to be limited and therefore why invest in something that may not bear fruit for some time and bring them little benefit when they could invest in their family now? This short-term mindset breeds corruption, and it permeates every strand of Afghan society. Unfortunately this psyche is probably too well engrained in the average adult Afghan and therefore the next generation are seen as the key to providing a secure and stable Afghanistan.

We recently completed the construction of a school for an orphanage in Lashkar Gah. When we returned to the school to visit what we hoped to be satisfied customers, we were surprised to discover that all of the children were now living in the classrooms. Metal beds, most without mattresses, had been crammed into the new school buildings, there was urine on the floor, and the Asian-style toilets that had been provided were covered with excrement. The patrol commander quizzed the director of the orphanage about the unexpected findings and it became clear that he had moved the children out of the orphanage in order to provide himself with more spacious living accommodation.

In the same vein, we have stopped building police infrastructure until the police demonstrate an ability to look after what they have got and professionally man the existing check-points. Police stations barely a year old have no power because the generator starter battery has been robbed, none of the plumbing works because the copper-pipe work has disappeared, and they seem to take a pride in systematically defecating around the toilet before moving into the next room. The police have other far more distasteful habits that are not uncommon in Afghanistan. But it is their general abuse of the civil population that is at the heart of many of the problems faced by Afghanistan.

In the Garmsir district, southern Helmand, it was the foul behaviour of the Afghan police that prompted the local elders to send a delegation to Baluchistan to request the support of the Taliban in freeing them from the daily humiliation of the national authorities. Subjugation to a strict fundamentalist code enforced by foreigners was preferable to being ruled by their own authorities.

Our exit strategy in Afghanistan hinges upon enabling the Afghan to govern himself and therefore they must be taught to do for themselves all of what we are doing on their behalf. Significant progress has been made with the formation and training of the Afghan National Army and steps are being taken to consolidate and professionalize the police force.

Each construction project we engage in has been vetted by the Afghan provincial council and measures are taken to ensure that the local people have the capacity to sustain the project without foreign intervention. The tribal leaders are now beginning to lobby the provincial government for assistance and the very embryonic provincial departments are starting to address the people's needs by employing local firms to carry out development work. This system is closely mentored by British civil servants and military engineers. It is a slow and frustrating process, but without it everything else we do is futile. Racing ahead with grand reconstruction projects would probably suit the average Afghan and appease the international press but it would do nothing towards creating enduring peace and stability.

It is the slow pace of this critical development work that will cause the international community to be committed in Afghanistan for many years to come. In the meantime there will be an enduring requirement for our military to have a presence in Afghanistan in order to reassure the populace and disrupt the activity of the Taliban. Sadly, more men like Lance Corporal [Mathew] Ford, Lance Bombardier Clark and Lance Bombardier McLaughlin will die fighting in remote corners of this alien country. But without their efforts none of the other capacity building activity would be possible; Afghanistan would continue to be a failed state and a breeding ground for fundamentalist activity, led by individuals that despise all that we stand for in countries such as ours.

Given the enormous area of terrain, much of it far from hospitable, and the difficulty in distinguishing between insurgent and civilian, defeating the Taliban with military might is probably not achievable. We must make the Afghan people believe that their future under the Government of Afghanistan banner is better by far than anything the Taliban can offer and compel them to take charge of their own affairs.

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