Sunday, May 17, 2009

Helicopter squadron back from Helmand

An army attack helicopter squadron from East Anglia will make the most of being back home after completing its third operational tour to Afghanistan in three years.

The 130 men and women of 656 Squadron, 4 Regiment Army Air Corps (AAC) started returning this week to Wattisham Station, near Stowmarket, after a four-month deployment to Camp Bastion, the UK's largest base in Helmand Province.

Before their tour of duty, they trained for two months in Arizona to acclimatise to Afghanistan's harsh desert conditions.

The squadron is flying the army's most sophisticated weapon system, the Apache AH-MK1 attack helicopter.

L/Cpl Richard Barrett, 36, is a TA soldier from 677 Squadron, 6 Regiment, Army Air Corps (Volunteers) based at Bury St Edmunds and has been attached to 656 Squadron for this operational deployment in Helmand as an arming landing point commander, responsible for refuelling and re-arming the aircraft.

He works for St John Ambulance in Norfolk teaching first aid and health and safety. He said: “This is my first operational tour and it's been an awesome experience - really second-to-none.

“Out here on operations in Helmand Province we're putting into practice, on an hourly basis, all the training we've done in the UK.

“I knew that I'd be mobilised at some point in my career in the Army Air Corps. We are given a lot of advanced notice, almost a year. It allowed me to plan ahead, and allowed both my family and my civilian employer to be comfortable, and plan for me being away for four months.”

Cpl Mike Smith, 27, from Norwich, is also a TA soldier from the same squadron. Born in King's Lynn, he is a lorry driver for Veolia in civilian life. He is an ammunition representative for the army, accounting for all the squadron's ammunition stocks in Camp Bastion.

“I also load, arm and refuel the Apache with the arming landing point team. We make sure the aircraft is ready for action again,” he said.

“I've served over six and a half years in the TA and this is my first operational tour. I volunteered because I felt that as a TA soldier it's something that one should do. It's part of the job, and it's putting that job into action, for real.

“I'm looking forward to getting back to Norwich and catching up with family and friends, and the latest local news. I'm going to take at least a week off, not plan anything, relax and have a pint or two.”

Squadron quartermaster Sgt Darren Nunn, 39, of Lowestoft, said: “I've served on operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan once before. Out here in Helmand Province the tempo of operations is faster than on other operations. We work long hours and often have to deal with the unexpected.

“I'm very much looking forward to going home. I'm going to take a short holiday to Frankfurt to see my favourite band, Depeche Mode, and also enjoy a bit of down time.

“But on the first weekend I'm back, we're holding the annual Player of the Year awards for the Waveney Gunners, the football team that I run in Lowestoft - I'm the manager/secretary and a player.”

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