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Glad to be back with stories to tell
RABID dogs, some very close shaves and shocking weather have been just another day on the job for the county’s hard-bitten soldiers fighting the Taliban in the Afghan badlands.
Since October, the 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) have been at the sharp end of fighting in Afghan’ as the troops call it – in the now infamous Helmand province.
In recent weeks, the battalion’s fighting companies have been returning to barracks in Northern Ireland in what is the unit’s fourth tour of the battlezone.
They are glad to be back, but most will be happier with a pint in their hand and the five weeks of home leave they are now due – a day off for every nine served in the theatre.
Politicians will argue for years to come over the worthiness and the success of the Afghan mission.
But it will have been the work of the soldiers on the ground which have secured any success, among them the mainly young men of Worcestershire.
For them the end of the long journey to get home comes with a silent relief that can be read in the flinty stares and the assured stances that only men who have seen the face of war can carry.
For them it is a case of getting on with the next job, hearing about the next billet and leaving the politics to the politicians.
It has been the boys of 2 Mercian slogging 45kg loads, in the sapping heat of the Afghan badlands, helping to train the Afghan National Army and Police, while getting on with the daily grind of patrolling what can be a land of changing allegiances.
Among them Private Phil Gilham, of Malvern Link, who describes how he and his fellow soldiers in A (Grenadier) Company were “constantly in contact” – being shot at – for the majority of the tour.
“By about December the Taliban had all gone and to be fair we had killed a lot of them,” he said frankly.
The unit has taken casualties, but there were at least two “lucky escapes” by soldiers who inadvertently stepped on buried bombs.
“Fourteen guys went through the river and up the bank on the opposite side, and the sniffer dog had gone over the ground and found nothing,” said Pte Gilham.
“And then as the last man went up the bank he put his knee on the ground – and the pressure plate just went off, straight up in the air. The bomb it was attached to never went off because the battery had not been connected – the wire was hanging by a few millimetres.”
A Company were in patrol bases in the Nad e-Ali, working with the ANA and police.
Unit commanders say the Afghans – recruited mainly from the north of the country – have improved, with Captain Duncan Hadland, Afghan forces development officer, saying they “are becoming increasingly independent, executing operations by themselves.” But the more frank appraisal of the Mercians serving next to them – and often having to rely on them in firefights – was of a force still getting to grips with soldiering.
“We’ve had a few slips,” said Pte Gilham. “We had one shoot a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) at his feet as he was walking.
“He did it around the corner of a compound, so it didn’t catch anyone else in the blast but it left him badly knocked about – we thought we were under attack.”
The RPG has a five-second arming fuse, but for whatever reason the ANA trooper did not react and was left badly hurt.
“Some are in it for the money, because it’s a job,” he said.
Another more unusual problem has been Afghan’s propensity to have dogs – usually rabid – guarding their property, leaving soldiers to deal with them.
With daily attacks or IEDs, the Mercians have also dealt with the changing Afghan weather, by turns; sucking heat, deep cold and three-day downpours depending on the month.
However, members of the Cornflower Club in Kempsey village will be glad to hear firsthand praise for their knitted winter woollie hats which appear to have got through to local troops in Helmand, and kept heads from completely freezing.
Improvements on the postal service have been matched by what WO2 Humbert said had been a shift from a more "kinetic" or shooting war during the previous Mercian tour, to a role where security is increasingly being handed over to Afghan forces and the focus more on their training.
Ptes Ben Hughes, of Warndon, and Robin McDermott, of Inkberrow – both recce platoon in D Company – were on patrol in Nar e-Saraj patrolling roadways, and protecting builders laying a new road – allowing ordinary Afghan villagers to use the roads unmolested by the Taliban.
Pte Hughes, 20, said patrolling on a daily basis meant chatting with locals “and some were for us and would talk, and some villages they don’t want to know”.
WO2 Humbert said it was what was known as “the absence of normal, and the presence of the abnormal”.
Asking the soldiers what they miss most brings familiar answers of home, family, and favourite meals and snacks.
But what they never want to hear when they get home is ‘did you shoot anyone?’.
“If someone says that to me I just don’t answer,” said Pte Lee Bott, of Redditch.