Wednesday, March 4, 2009
SOLDIERS from 38 Engineers based at Massereene Barracks in Antrim were part of the biggest deployment of troops from Northern Ireland since World War II when they deployed to Afghanistan on Sunday morning.
The local unit - part of 19 Light Brigade - set off for Helmand Province from RAF Aldergrove to Kandahar in the first tranche of departures for the six-month tour. 38 Engineers will be responsible for establishing base security and infrastructures ahead of the arrival of the remaining units.
19 Light Brigade will take over from 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, as the lead formation of UK forces in Afghanistan.
Along with 38 Engineers, soldiers from the Brigade's Northern Ireland-based units - 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, Ballykinler; 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, Palace Barracks; 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, and 19 Combat Service Support Battalion, both Thiepval Barracks - and the English-based The Light Dragoons; The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland; 1st Battalion The Welsh Guards, will face combat in searing temperature of over 40 degrees as the height of the Afghan summer approaches.
Despite the challenges of the arid conditions in Helmand Province and a rising insurgency, 19 Light Brigade will be the "best equipped UK brigade in Afghanistan" with a new range of devices designed to detect deadly roadside bombs.
"I've no reason to doubt that we will be the best equipped brigade to go out to Afghanistan; we've a lot of great equipment coming on line when we're out there," Brigadier Tim Radford OBE, of 19 Light Brigade, told the Antrim Times.
The equipment includes metal detectors which help uncover IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices], and wiring in bombs, as well as ear defenders that block out all the main noise that could affect hearing, but at the same time allows the soldier to listen to the orders that are being given on the ground.
Brigadier Radford added: "All soldiers will have upgraded body armour. We also have nine new variants of vehicles including the Ridgeback coming online, and the Mastiff to provide protective mobility."
Brigadier Radford takes over as Commander Task Force Helmand in April leading the British Battle Group of around 8,000 British forces. The backbone of the deployment comprises the units under his command in 19 Light Brigade – the majority of them now based permanently in Northern Ireland.
He said: "It has been an intensive and focussed training period over the past six months and we are all now ready, willing and eager to get on with our jobs in theatre. The tour will be physically and mentally demanding. It will also be long but in many respects very rewarding. Of course we are all very aware of the dangers and threats ahead but we are also trained in how we respond and indeed deal with those threats and consequences."
There will be several main themes for 19 Light Brigade in Afghanistan which include counter-narcotics, developing the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, improving equipment, and providing support for the country's presidential election in August.
Brigadier Radford is confident that 19 Light Brigade's intensive training over the last 12 months serves them in good stead to cope with what may lie ahead, with exercises both at home in Northern Ireland and in Germany, Belize and Kenya, completed in anticipation of there deployment to Afghanistan.
"We've been training for the last 12 months within the units and as a brigade. It's taken that time to get us where we are now and to plan for our time in Afghanistan," Brigadier Radford said.
He added: "We'll be there at an interesting time - the Americans will be coming into southern Afghanistan, there's the election in August, Taliban insurgency, and the challenge of the arduous conditions and high temperatures in the country.
"We will be ensuring that election is delivered in a safe environment and prior to that, giving the Afghan people the confidence to support the election."
Brigadier Radford is well aware of the stresses that his troops will be under but is confident that their families back home in Northern Ireland will get all the support they need when their love ones are away.
"It is very difficult being away from your loved ones but we've got a very good welfare package which is being run by 38 Irish Brigade back in Northern Ireland," he explained.
Lance Corporal Mark Allen of 38 Engineers is all too well aware of the dangers facing him and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan and how it feels for family members left behind.
The 32-year-old has already done a tour of Afghanistan with the Grenadier Guards in 2007, where he came into hand-to-hand combat against the Taliban.
This time the local man "knows what to expect" but is still nervous about what awaits.
"I'm with the engineers this time so have a specific role, rather than as infantry soldier the first time," Lance Corporal Allen said.
He added: "This time it will involve things like building bridges, that sort of thing."
Lance Corporal Allen, who is due to get married next March, admits leaving his fiance and family behind is difficult but that this time they are more prepared.
"We've gone through this before and they know what went on the last time so they know what to expect but it's still a nervous time," he said.
One thing he's not prepared for is the Afghan heat.
"Last time it was temperatures of over 50 degrees so with a typical Northern Ireland complexion they're will be plenty of factor 50 slapped on," Lance Corporal Allen added.