Friday, June 12, 2009

Our part-time soldiers who give their all in war-torn Afghanistan

Reporter Martin Naylor spent eight days in southern Afghanistan with soldiers from Derbyshire, who battle daily against the Taliban. In the second part of his series on life in Afghanistan, he reports on the bravery of the Territorial Army.

AT the age of 20, David Buckley admits he has already seen heartbreaking sights in his life.

The former Sinfin Community School pupil is an infantryman with the Territorial Army now fighting in Afghanistan alongside the "regulars" of 2 Mercian Battalion.

His job is to accompany medics when they are sent out by helicopter to attend to British or Afghan casualties of the fierce fighting in tough Helmand province, heartland of the Taliban.

In his role, he sees the worst effects of war on the human body – but also takes pride in helping injured people get the help they need.

Within minutes of a casualty being reported to their base, 100 metres from the hospital at Camp Bastion, David and comrades can be on a Chinook helicopter and out in the field to collect the wounded soldiers.

It is a role he relishes.

As soon as the helicopter lands, he and four of his comrades are jumping out, assault rifles cocked to back up their "regular" comrades.

Speaking with maturity well beyond his tender age, Private Buckley calmly talks about the atrocities he has witnessed since he landed in Helmand on March 17.

He said: "When the call comes through and you hear it's British casualties, the heart does go a bit. It makes you that bit more determined to get there and help them out.

"We act as force protection – essentially infantry soldiers the same as the boys on the ground, but there are times when you are dragging injured soldiers on to the helicopter to help out because there are so many injured.

"There are some things I have seen that are certainly not too pleasant but it's what you do. A butcher doesn't freak out when he sees blood from a dead animal, so why should I be any different in what I do?

"The best bit about what I do is knowing that without your help that person could have lost his life or have been really seriously injured."

Pte Buckley said the downside to his role was sitting on the helicopter back to Camp Bastion with either dead or seriously injured on board.

He said: "We bring back both British and Afghan soldiers as well as civilians.

"Seeing the kids either dead or so seriously injured you just know they're not going to pull through is heartbreaking.

"That's definitely the worst part of the job."

Calm, assured and speaking thoughtfully and with great passion about his love for the TA, Pte Buckley is a young man as brave as any of his full-time comrades. He has already helped push back insurgents in Iraq on a previous six-month tour of duty there.

Now, among the unrelenting dust and blistering heat of scorched Helmand Province, the former cadet, a member of the TA's 4 Mercian Battalion is now on call 24 hours a day seven days a week, ready to go into action to help his colleagues in the 2 Mercian Battalion (Worcesters and Foresters).

Back home in Derby, Pte Buckley has two sisters: Elizabeth, 25, who works for the NHS while studying at Derby University, and Linda, 21, full time mum to his two-year-old nephew, Aiden.

When Pte Buckley returns home, he stays with them at their home in Pear Tree, although he was born and bred in the old family home in Carron Close, Sinfin. He said: "I think my sisters get a bit fed up of me when I get back from a tour because I tend to just drop off my washing and go out with my mates for a few days catching up with them in Derby. But I know they are proud of what I do and they send me parcels of stuff out all the time."

Fighting on the front line is a far cry from Pte Buckley's former job as a legal secretary at Derby firm LAK.

When he was first called for a tour of Iraq in November 2007, he said he gave up the job with every intention of returning to it.

But within weeks of flying back in June 2008, he was told by the TA to prepare himself for Afghanistan a few, short months later.

He said: "The firm were great with me but when I told them after Iraq that I would be soon off to Afghanistan they just told me to get back to them about returning to law when I got back from here. So I got a temporary office job working for Anglian Windows until this tour came around.

"I was only actually given around three-and-a-half hours' notice to pack and get ready for Afghanistan as I had changed my mobile number and the TA were ringing around all the family trying to track me down. That was a mad dash, saying goodbye to everyone, packing and getting to the TA centre in Mansfield."

Major Jim Turner, second in command at 2 Mercian, said the vital support 4 Mercian and the TA as a whole offered to soldiers in Helmand was critical to achieving success in the region.

Maj Turner, from Long Eaton, said: "People who volunteer as a TA soldier play a vital role in helping the effort here in Afghanistan and across the world.

"Without people such as these men and women, the work we do here trying to improve the country and help the Afghans would be far more difficult. The efforts they put in are immeasurable and should be applauded."

Camp Bastion, where Pte Buckley is based, is a 1km by 1km square army base in the middle of the southern Afghanistan desert.

It is currently home to 4,800 of the 8,500 British troops stationed in Helmand Province, as well as 9,000 American soldiers, 700 civilians and pockets of Danish and Estonian troops. Surprisingly, despite the unforgiving summer heat, when temperatures can top 50 degrees Celsius, the camp sits above a huge aquifer from which 70,000 litres of water are pumped, purified and bottled each day.

With the average soldier drinking anywhere between six and 10 litres a day to keep themselves hydrated, it's a handy spot to be stationed.

A recent curry night in the cookhouse saw 240kg of rice and 1.2 tonnes of meat devoured by hungry troops.

Air and land vehicles based at Camp Bastion drink 100,000 litres of diesel each day – enough to drive a Ford Mondeo saloon car around the world 35 times.

Located almost exactly 4,000 miles from Derby, it sits 3,000ft above sea level in the foothills of the Taliban-controlled Hindukush Mountains.

For about 100 part-time – but equally committed – soldiers from the 4th Battalion Mercian Regiment it will be home until October.

Pte Buckley, who freely admits he joined 4 Mercian "because the cadet training school was five minutes' walk away from my old home in Sinfin" said he had been fired on a number of times in the past two-and-a-half months.

He said: "You almost treat it like a training exercise, you don't think it's real.

"I have done this for four years and I'll probably do it for another four years.

"Some people think the TA is just a drinking club, but that's not the case at all. You just have to see the work 4 Mercian are doing our here to see that."

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