Saturday, October 31, 2009

VIDEO: 2 RIFLES parade through streets of Croydon

Hundreds line the streets of Croydon to welcome the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, who paraded through the town on return from their Afghan tour of duty.

Crowds out to welcome home troops

Tracey Jennison poses for a photo with some of the soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles (2 RIFLES) during a parade following their return from Afghanistan in Liverpool today.

Soldiers returning from the Afghan war zone have been given a rapturous welcome home as thousands of supporters cheered and applauded them through the streets of Liverpool.

Well-wishers looked on for an hour as soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles stood at ease meeting civic and Army officials outside Liverpool's historic St George's Hall.

The setting was the focal point for the Rifles' homecoming parade which moved from the hall on Lime Street before the soldiers, wearing deserts combats, paraded through the city.

Before they set off they marched into formation and proud onlookers clapped and sang You'll Never Walk Alone.

A wreath was laid at the nearby war memorial in memory of the 24 soldiers from the Rifles' extended Battle Group who were killed in action during the six month operational tour in Helmand province - none were from Merseyside.

The parade, which culminated outside the city's town hall, was watched by thousands of supporters, many waving Union Jack flags and shouting messages of support.

Tony Kearns, 62, had travelled from nearby St Helens to watch the parade and support the troops.

He said: "I feel absolutely fabulous about them and wish they were betted looked after, I don't think they have the best equipment.

"We read stories about them not having equipment that's up to scratch - but it's a good job they're up to scratch.

"I think it's very important to come and support our boys and girls."

43 nations in ISAF

ISAF - International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a very broad international commitment made up of a coalition of 43 nations, with every member operating under a UN mandate.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is not there to fight the Afghans, it is there to fight alongside them against insurgents who are rejected by most people in the country. Afghan forces have paid a heavy price in casualties and have borne a substantial part of the fighting.

Who else is there apart from UK forces in the 71,000 ISAF?

There are 35,000 US; 4,365 Germans; over 3,000 from France; 2,800 Canadians; 2,800 Italians; over 2,000 Dutch; 1,500 Australians; and nearly 2,000 Poles.

UK forces in Helmand work alongside 690 Danes and 150 Estonians.

Countries across the world from Norway to New Zealand make a contribution.

There are troops from Muslim nations - Turkey, Albania, the UAE, Jordan and Bosnia.

Many contributors have increased their forces over the last few months - for example Germany, the Netherlands and Australia by about 300 each. New Zealand has almost doubled its commitment from 160 to 300. Click here for a full list.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bang on Target

ICE-COOL RAF pilots launched a pinpoint attack on the Taliban to save Our Boys.

They fired on guerillas lurking just 100 metres from British troops.

It was the first time such a high-risk mission had been carried out in Afghanistan and one tiny slip would have been fatal for the UK forces.

The Top Gun team swooped in their Tornado jets after getting a mayday call.

Brit squaddies were pinned down near Lashkar Gah in lawless Helmand province.

Squadron Leader Tim Lindsay, 33, told the Daily Star Sunday: “It’s what we call ‘danger close’, meaning it’s close enough for our fire to provide a hazard to the friendly troops.”

But Tim and fellow flier Wing Commander James Linter used a combination of the latest weaponry and old-school skills to ensure they didn’t hit their own men.First the pilots zoomed in with state-of-the-art Raptor targeting pods.

They provided real-time TV and infra-red images on screens in the jets’ cockpits.

Pictures were beamed down to the troops to ensure they had the right targets.

The squaddies then fired green smoke canisters to mark their own positions.

Tim said: “If you rush in there may be a risk you put ordnance where it isn’t meant.” He and W/Cdr Linter put their 990mph jets into shallow dives and opened up with 1,700-rounds-a-minute Mauser 27mm cannons.

It was the first time UK pilots had used them in anger in Afghanistan.

Dad Tim added: “I’ve never strafed danger close before.

“To be firing your gun with friendlies 100 metres away is something you never see – it’s certainly something you cannot do in training.

“We were able to make them break contact and stop the enemy forces firing. Our troops were able to get back safely to base another way. You are trained to cope with all these pressures and the training does kick in.”

It was one of a series of firsts for the Tornado Wing, which replaced Harriers protecting Our Boys in the spring.

The force, from 12 (Bomber) Squadron with elements of 617 Squadron – the historic Dambusters – and 14 Squadron, battled 50C heat to fly six missions a day.

They were extra-busy during the Afghan elections and watched over UK soldiers battling in the huge Panther’s Claw offensive.

They were also the first to use the brand-new Brimstone guided missile in action, destroying a Taliban sniper position.

The missile has a smaller blast area, lessening risks to innocent bystanders.

W/Cdr Linter said: “We have got a range of weapons we can use and the gun was particularly good.

“There are British and coalition soldiers who owe their lives to the work we have done.”

PICTURE of the day: Workhorse of the RAF

An RAF C130J Hercules bringing in supplies to Camp Bastion.

South Korea planning troop deployment to Afghanistan

South Korea announced plans today to send troops to Afghanistan to protect its civilian aid workers, two years after withdrawing its forces following a fatal hostage crisis.

The South Korean government intends to expand a reconstruction team now helping to rebuild Afghanistan and will dispatch police and troops to protect them, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said.

The decision to dispatch troops is subject to approval in parliament, where the ruling Grand National Party has enough seats to guarantee passage.

The announcement comes about two years after South Korea withdrew some 200 army medics and engineers from Afghanistan. The pullout, though previously planned, followed a hostage standoff in which the Taliban killed two South Koreans after demanding that Seoul immediately withdraw its troops.

Moon stressed that the troops would not take part in combat operations.

"Our security troops will not take part in any battle other than" defending aid workers, he said.

The spokesman did not say how many troops will be sent or when, or how many more aid workers would be added to the current team of 25.

However, local media reports say the government is considering increasing the number of aid workers to 130, and plans to send about 300 troops. The troops likely will be deployed early next year, the reports said.

Many South Koreans oppose sending troops to Afghanistan because of the 2007 hostage crisis, which dominated headlines here for six weeks. The Taliban kidnapped 23 South Korean religious workers and killed two of them before freeing the others after Seoul promised to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.

The main opposition Democratic Party said it does not yet have an official position on the plan. Secretary-general Rep. Lee Mi-kyung voiced concern Friday that South Korean troops could come under attacks if redeployed to Afghanistan.

South Korea, a key U.S. ally, also dispatched troops to Iraq from 2003-2008, part of efforts to bolster its alliance with Washington.

Humbled by his riflemen - Lt Col Robert Thomson, CO 2 RIFLES

Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson with Major Karim of the Afghan National Army

When we were told in 2008 that we would become the Battlegroup responsible for the town of Sangin and the Upper Sangin Valley, we were only too well aware of the challenge that lay ahead.

Having deployed each and every year over the last ten years, we had the right operational experience but there was not one iota of complacency as we headed out to Afghanistan on our toughest assignment yet.

We have a saying in the Battlegroup that one is only as good as the next operation so, as we grabbed our rifles, body armour and packs, we knew we would be called upon to strain every sinew over six hard months. We were not wrong.

Our area of operations, the patch, was about the same size as Dorset, approximately 2,225 km2, a massive area for a Battle Group numbering 1,100 soldiers; there were over 25 different cap badges represented in our ranks including the RAF and one sailor! A Company 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers joined the Battlegroup to make us five Companies strong.

The Battlegroup was focused on the town of Sangin which has a population of 20,000 people, all living on the equivalent of about $2 per day. Life for the Afghans is harsh. Most are farmers or bazaar stall holders. Electricity, while limited, is improving and water all comes out of a well.

But the people of Sangin are as clever and committed as anywhere else and are determined to build a future for their children, free from the Taliban and its horrific threats.

For the full report click here for the Frontline bloggers site

Soldiers honoured for Afghan service

A medals parade has been held in Northern Ireland for soldiers who lost two colleagues during fighting in Afghanistan.

It was staged at the Lisburn base of 40th Regiment Royal Artillery on Thursday.

Bombardier Craig Hopson and Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton from Yorkshire were killed this summer in Helmand province.

Commanding Officer Lt Colonel Owen Adams said: "We have all been devastated by the loss of these fine young men who died in the service of their Battery, their Regiment and their country.

"They died on the battlefield leading soldiers in the most challenging of situations, they were both exceptionally brave, proud and professional soldiers who relished the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan and were an inspiration to us all."

Lance Bombardier Hatton, 23, from Haxby, North Yorkshire, died in the explosion in Sangin on August 13th.

Bombardier Hopson, 24, of Castleford, West Yorkshire, died while on a vehicle patrol in the Babaji area of Helmand on July 25th.

Lt Col Adams said the Regiment saved fellow soldiers' lives daily through their firepower and completed over 1,500 missions during the six-month deployment.

"It has been unbearably hot, reaching upwards of 45 degrees celsius, highly pressured and frightening," he said.

"They have lived among the ever present Improvised Explosive Device and small arms threat while knowingly putting themselves in danger right at the front, or at the extreme edges, of the advancing forces to ensure that they gain positive identification of the enemy."

"They died on the battlefield leading soldiers in the most challenging of situations, they were both exceptionally brave, proud and professional soldiers who relished the opportunity to serve in Afghanistan and were an inspiration to us all."

Lance Bombardier Hatton, 23, from Haxby, North Yorkshire, died in the explosion in Sangin on August 13th.

Bombardier Hopson, 24, of Castleford, West Yorkshire, died while on a vehicle patrol in the Babaji area of Helmand on July 25th.

Lt Col Adams said the Regiment saved fellow soldiers' lives daily through their firepower and completed over 1,500 missions during the six-month deployment.

"It has been unbearably hot, reaching upwards of 45 degrees celsius, highly pressured and frightening," he said.

"They have lived among the ever present Improvised Explosive Device and small arms threat while knowingly putting themselves in danger right at the front, or at the extreme edges, of the advancing forces to ensure that they gain positive identification of the enemy."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The heroes who survived 'one day, one hour of tragedy': Battalion that lost 13 men in Afghanistan enjoys homecoming parade

By Daily Mail Reporter

A brave amputee hailed the public's support of the Army as 'phenomenal' as he watched his fellow soldiers take part in a homecoming parade today.

Hundreds of people lined the streets of Croydon, south London, to welcome home the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, which lost 13 men in Afghanistan this summer.

The 100 members of 2 Rifles, based in Ballykinler, Northern Ireland, were invited to parade through the centre of the town by its mayor after the loss of their colleague Rifleman Danny Simpson, who came from the town.

Based in Sangin, the 600-strong battalion endured fierce fighting during their tour of duty, including what was described as 'one hour of tragedy' on July 10 - the day five riflemen were killed in two connected blasts while on foot patrol.

Lieutenant Alex Horsfal, 26, of Chitton, Wiltshire, Platoon Commander C company, lost his left leg above the knee as a result of his injuries suffered that day and suffered damage to his left arm.

Friends from the battalion who had not seen him since that day surrounded his wheelchair as they prepared to march from the Territorial Army Centre.

Speaking ahead of the parade, Lt Horsfal said: 'I've got to say that the general public have been awesome.

'The change there has been in the last few years, the understanding and the sympathy felt towards the Army, and especially those who have been wounded, is phenomenal.'

He praised his colleagues, saying: 'I think what we have managed to achieve is fantastic, although the casualties have been fairly high. It's been a tough tour.

'While I was there, everything was going to plan as it should have been but there was one day, one hour of tragedy.'

He said it 'felt like years' that he was recovering in Selly Oak Hospital, and that it was good to see his fellow soldiers again.

Lt Horsfal said: 'It's quite emotional in a way. It's a lovely feeling to be back, but a strange feeling at the same time.'

Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rob Thomson, said it had been 'the campaign of their lives' and added: 'I'm hugely proud of the extraordinary courage that's been shown.'

Sangin is a notoriously volatile area because it contains a patchwork of rival tribes and is a major centre of the country's opium industry.

He said the Battalion was leaving it in a better state than when they arrived, and added: 'For me, progress in Sangin has not been dramatic but we have moved forward, indelibly so.'

What they had achieved was at a 'huge cost', however.

'That cost is utterly painful to me,' Lt Cl Thomson added. 'Each of the 13 heroes killed left a hole in our hearts and we mourn them deeply.

'As I've come home to my missus and my kids, there are wives, kids and parents out there who won't be seeing their husband, father and son again.'

He said the Army would hold those families close to their own hearts, and added: 'In some ways, I see those 13 standing behind me and telling me to keep on fighting, keep going for their sake.

'Those who have been wounded, we will march step-by-step with through their journeys of recovery.

'Their grit, their resolve and their determination reflects the way we do business as a regiment and as the British Army.

'It is with great honour, huge pride, and not some inconsiderable humility that we march through the streets of Croydon to show what we have achieved and to thank those people in every corner of our nation who have stood by us.'

As well as the 13 deaths, 14 soldiers in the Battalion suffered 'life-changing injuries' to their limbs or eyes, he said. He praised the courage of all the soldiers, saying it was 'the level of courage I have never seen in my 20 years of service.'

Read more on the Daily Mail Web site here

Navy divers swap the depths of the sea for frontline Afghanistan

Four brave navy divers have swapped the ocean depths for the Afghan desert as they try to save soldiers' lives on the frontline.

The bomb disposal experts – all based at Horsea Island in Portsmouth – will deal with hidden explosives meant to injure or kill British troops.

Petty Officer Jai Gardner, Leading Seaman Ian Higgins as well as Able Seamen Chris Collins and Les Cockerton are part of the first navy team to ever serve in bomb disposal in Afghanistan.

They have been sent out to work with army teams to deal with a rise in the number of bombs planted by the Taliban.

Between April and October this year, 24 soldiers were killed and 137 wounded in the Sangin district of Helmand alone.

Explosives were responsible for more than 90 per cent of those casualties.

Meanwhile more than 400 bombs have been found – almost three times more than in 2008.

Peter Greenwood, in charge of Portsmouth's Fleet Diving Squadron, said: 'This is a major new role for the Clearance Diving Branch.

'Although we have operated from Basra in Iraq for the past two years, Helmand is a completely different environment. It's more intensive and there is a higher level of threat.

'They have to be as good on the ground as soldiers – competent with personal weapons and how to operate as war fighters on a patrol.

'And they also have to keep cool heads to deal with ordnance that the squad encounters.'

The navy divers will be based in so-called 'forward bases' on the frontline.

The deadly threats they have to tackle include bombs, mortars and grenades, used by both coalition and Taliban forces. But they will also be ready to deal with the notorious Improvised Explosive Devices – IEDs – if the army is not available.

By finding and removing the IEDs, the team hopes to reduce the severe injuries that blight servicemen's lives.

While their first role will always be to make bombs safe, the navy team will also try and find out more about the weapons the Taliban use.

PO Gardner said: 'If we come across something really new we will call for the army experts and stand back to allow them to maximise the forensics. There is no value in us just going in and trying to blow everything up.'

A wife of one of the navy divers working in Afghanistan has called her husband 'a real hero'.

Sue Cockerton said Les had a wicked sense of humour and was keeping spirits up during a tough mission.

The 40-year-old mother-of-three said she was speaking with AB Cockerton, 30, as often as possible.

She said: 'I have nothing but praise for Les and all of the team, they are a group of heroes to me.

'They are doing an incredibly brave job and my only hope is that they all come back safely.'

The Cockertons married in April in Portsmouth Naval Base, a month earlier than planned because of the deployment.

After their honeymoon in Los Angeles he went to train for the bomb disposal work, before leaving Portsmouth at the beginning of this month.

Mrs Cockerton, from Locks Heath, said: 'Since he has been in Helmand we have spoken on the phone and he has asked me to keep positive.

'We have special messages we pass to each other, and I do my best to let him know as much as possible about normal, everyday life.

'We have an 18-month-old son and he is always really keen to find out how he's doing.

'It's very hard not to talk about your fears, but you know the best way to help someone you love is to be strong for them.'

Statement by the Secretary General on Kabul attacks

On behalf of NATO, I stongly condemn the attacks that took place in Kabul yesterday, in which a number of international and Afghan UN staff were killed and injured.

The victims of these terrorist attacks were devoted to helping the Afghan people build better lives. In targeting them, the Taliban has demonstrated once again that it is truly an enemy of the Afghan people.

I express my condolences to the families of the victims, and to the United Nations.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On The Hunt For Roadside Bombs In Afghanistan

Marines from an explosive ordnance disposal team detonate a homemade explosive device, which was discovered near a compound outside of their base.

by Tom Bowman

The Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment — known as "America's Battalion" — have been fighting the Taliban in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province since July.

They have set up numerous outposts along the dusty roads and cornfields. And now they are moving farther south, looking to extend their area of operation and avoid the deadliest of threats just outside the wire: roadside bombs.

On a recent morning, a platoon of Marines from Fox Company leaves the remote patrol base, a small patch of sandbags, camouflage tents and gravel. Within minutes they're cutting through a cornfield, walking in single file.

It could be any cornfield in Iowa, except for the Taliban radio chatter the Marines are picking up on their radio. The Marines intercept a radio transmission from the Taliban that says the militants are "ready for the guests."

"Guests" is Taliban code for the Marines. On this patrol, the Marines are searching for roadside bombs, commonly known as IEDs.

"We're lucky if we find them. Better than when they find us, I guess," says Lance Cpl. Dan Leary, from Boston.

Leary will be going back to the United States in just a few weeks, and he's worried his luck will run out.

'They're Always Watching Us'

"We had like one week where we found like 21, 22 of them. They were everywhere. We went back two days later. They were everywhere again. They were putting them — like everywhere they put them were places that we had stopped and taken cover," Leary says. "They're watching. They're always watching us."

The Taliban plant bombs everywhere — along dirt paths, in the fields and especially along the main roads. The insurgents are brazen, placing the explosives in the middle of the day.

They have either intimidated the local population, or they have support among them.

The Marines walk on patrol for about two hours, cutting through cornfields, hopping over irrigation canals and trudging along dirt paths.

At the front of the patrol, a Marine sweeps the ground with a hand-held minesweeper, a flat green, angular version of what people use on a beach to find coins.

Before long, he finds a bomb at a dirt-road intersection just outside a compound of mud houses. It's a perfect example of why they call these devices improvised. It is a 5-gallon yellow jug stuffed with a mix of fertilizer, diesel fuel and metal.

The Marines set some plastic explosives to detonate the IED. They call out a 10-second warning, and the Marines take cover in a ditch beside the dirt road. The explosion propels a wave of dirt over the squad.

The Marines talk about the unsettling feeling of walking along the trails and fields, slopping through canals, just waiting for an explosion.

For the full report click here

'Bittersweet homecoming': Mixed emotions for troops back from Afghanistan

Seven-month-old Jaden and mum Carol welcomed back Fusilier Jonny Rodgers

Cheers and tears of joy greeted soldiers as they returned from Afghanistan into the arms of loved ones.

A Company, The Second Battalion The Royal Regiment Of Fusiliers (2 RRF) arrived home at their Hounslow barracks yesterday after a gruelling six-month tour of the country’s Helmand province, during which the unit lost seven soldiers.

Applause erupted from their Beavers Lane headquarters when two coachloads of homecoming troops were spotted by family and friends, who decorated the camp with bunting and ribbons and waved Union Jack flags.

Fus Steve McCowliff said: “It’s actually quite a daunting experience.

“It’s quite intimidating coming through the gates but it’s unbelievable coming back and seeing the family.

“I’m not normally emotional but the tears were starting to flow.”

He was reunited with daughter Lexie, two, and wife Alison, who added: “I cannot describe it, just seeing him was everything I wanted for the last six months.”

Company commander, Major Jo Butterfill, said: “It’s fantastic to be honest but it’s a bit bittersweet.

“It’s been a long seven months - more like a year with the training.

“We’ve not brought some people home with us who we went with and we all bare in mind the families who are not here.

“But the boys have done incredibly well and I’m proud of all of them.”

Maj Butterfill, dad to three-year-old Tabitha and 18-month-old Archie, added: “I’ve been away for over a quarter of my son's life now.

“When I was deployed Archie could not talk and now I’ve just had a conversation with him.”

A spokesman for 2 RRF said their prayers remained with the families of the seven soldiers who died during the tour.

They were: Fus Petero "Pat" Suesue, 28, from Fiji; Corporal Joseph Etchells, 22, from Mossley, Greater Manchester; Sergeant Simon Valentine, 29, from Bedworth, Warwickshire; Fus Simon Annis, 22, from Salford; Fus Louis Carter, 18, from Nuneaton, Warwickshire; Lance Corporal James Fullarton, 24, from Coventry; and Fus Shaun Bush, 24, from Coventry.

On the ground and in the air - brothers deployed to Afghanistan

While Army Warrant Officer Class 2 Mark Boardman is helping to improve the infrastructure in Helmand province, his brother, RAF pilot Flight Lieutenant Richard Boardman, is flying overhead in the Tornado GR4, providing tactical reconnaissance to troops on the ground.

WO2 Mark Boardman, aged 36, is in the Royal Engineers. He is currently based at Lashkar Gah with the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team where for the past six months he has been working as part of a multi-national group to improve everyday life for Afghans; from constructing schools to installing an oxygen generator in a hospital that supplied oxygen for 20 beds.

He said:

"The effect you can have on ordinary people's lives is massive. The highlight of my tour was enabling a contract to improve Bost Airport. Its development will create local jobs and improve trade, and in so doing help with Afghanistan's reconstruction."

Flt Lt Richard Boardman, aged 35, is from 14 Squadron, based at Royal Air Force Lossiemouth, Scotland.

While the Tornado jet he flies over Afghanistan is capable of delivering a wide variety of weapons including Brimstone and Paveway IV with breathtaking accuracy, it is in the role of tactical reconnaissance in which this aircraft excels.

Using RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado), the aircraft can provide high resolution images from distances in excess of 25 miles (40km), allowing intelligence to be gathered unnoticed. The aircraft's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role is vital in the battle against deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Flt Lt Boardman said:

"Supporting the troops on the ground is the key reason why we are out here and, for me, that is what makes this tour rewarding: being able to identify IEDs, preventing our guys from getting killed, and being there when needed to provide close air support for troops engaged with the enemy."

Both brothers went to the Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester. WO2 Boardman joined the Royal Engineers in 1989, straight from school. He said:

"I was in the Army Cadets and always wanted to join the Army; whereas for Richard, it was the Air Cadets and a life as an RAF pilot."

Flt Lt Boardman joined the Royal Air Force in 1997 and was the first pilot to fly with RAPTOR, trialling it in the Middle East in 2002. When an aircraft is required for close air support, the pilots sometimes have to scramble and get airborne within minutes. He said:

"It takes me back to the Battle of Britain era, running to your aircraft and taking off moments later; it is the reason why I joined in the first place!"

Corporal Thomas Mason, 3 SCOTS, dies of wounds in Selly Oak

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm the death of Corporal Thomas 'Tam' Mason from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, Selly Oak Hospital, on Sunday 25 October 2009.

Corporal Mason was injured when an improvised explosive device detonated during an operation in Kandahar province on 15 September 2009. Despite the best efforts of medical staff, both in theatre and back in the UK, over a period of nearly six weeks, he sadly died as a result of his wounds.

Corporal Thomas Mason, The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS)

Corporal Thomas Mason, known as Tam, was 27. He was born in Bellshill, Glasgow, and brought up in Rosyth, Fife. He joined the Army in February 2005 and, after completing basic training, he joined the Battalion in Warminster, Wiltshire.

He deployed to Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK in 2006 before returning for a promotion course. He qualified as a Mortar Fire Controller in 2007 and was promoted to corporal. He deployed again to Afghanistan in March 2009.

Corporal Mason's wife, Kylie Mason, paid the following tribute:

"I have thought long and hard to find the right words to describe how Tam was and what he meant to me. But there are no words in the world that would even come close to describe what a great husband Tam was. He was the most genuine and kindest man I have ever known.

"He was my best friend and my wonderful husband. I am distraught that this has happened and still finding it extremely difficult to come to terms with the fact that I have lost my honey.

"I am also aware what a great soldier Tam was and how passionate he was about his job. The reason he loved his job so much was he had such fantastic friends in the Army who are equally as courageous as Tam was.

"I have so many happy memories of Tam that I am finding it difficult to pick out my most memorable or joyous occasion. However If I had to select one special day it has to be the day we were married which was the best day of my life.

"I know that I had struck gold with him and even though I am devastated and hurt that he has been taken from me I value and greatly appreciate the time we had together and will cherish these memories forever."

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

RAF nurse treats mental health issues in Helmand

RAF mental health nurse Warrant Officer Mark Woodhead is coming to the end of a three-month deployment to Helmand province where he has been helping treat soldiers exposed to acute stress.

WO Woodhead is one of the leading specialists in operational mental health within the RAF. He is normally based at Selly Oak Hospital where he lectures on the subject.

His job in Afghanistan is to assess and treat any soldiers that may be suffering mental health problems.

This can either be at the hospital in Camp Bastion or, where possible, he will travel to a Forward Operating Base (FOB) to meet a patient.

While at the FOB, WO Woodhead will also provide briefings to soldiers and their commanders on mental health issues and how the soldiers can identify and deal with the issues at platoon level.

WO Woodhead explained:

"We see people who have experienced traumatic events. We give them time so that they can settle down so that we can work with them to get them back to their unit as soon as possible.

"If you can identify a problem straight away, it gets dealt with sooner and helps the soldier get better quicker and helps the soldier stay with his unit. We help the soldier develop skills and strategies for dealing with the stresses they may encounter. These skills are transferable to their life outside theatre."

It was a busy summer for the British forces on the ground and consequently a busy summer for WO Woodhead. He said:

"We arrived at the start of Operation PANTHER'S CLAW; we needed to hit the ground running. It was an extremely intense operation and the British forces were heavily engaged.

"We were getting a significant referral rate from acute stress reactions caused by what the soldiers had been involved in. Only a very small percentage didn't return to their units.

"The high point for me is when guys come in and say thank you and then go back to their unit. That thank you means so much; especially when they first come in they may feel totally broken."

WO Woodhead joined the RAF in 1993 and has previously seen operational service in Bosnia in 1998, the Middle East in 2000 and 2001, and in Iraq in 2005.

Summing up his tour at Camp Bastion, he said:

"It has been a mixture of busy, exciting and sad. I'd like to think I have contributed to helping individual soldiers get back on their feet and get back on with their job."

VIDEO: Brigader Cowan in Babaji, Helmand Province

In his first interview since assuming command of British troops in southern Afghanistan, Brigadier James Cowan has struck a cautiously optimistic note. He believes that where British and Afghan troops are now able to hold territory support for the Taliban appears to be waning.

The Brigadier made his comments in an area that was only secured after fierce fighting over the summer.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Guards make strong start improving security for Nad e-Ali

Grenadier Guards, Royal Engineers and soldiers of 2nd Battalion Duke of Lancasters Regiment have built a new bridge on the fringes of Nad e-Ali, near the new patrol base they have built.

Soldiers of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards Battle Group, in Afghanistan less than a month, have taken over the area around Nad e-Ali from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.

Their tour, under the newly formed 11 Light Brigade, builds firmly on the work of the previous battle group and operates in a particularly volatile area known among the soldiers as ‘The Wild West’, due to the amount of insurgent activity.

Already, two major achievements highlight the progress being made in this region. We rarely hear of these results following difficult fighting and the ongoing battle against improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However, green shoots of development are appearing in this central, southern district of Helmand province.

Firstly, the guards’ battle group has installed a new patrol base north of the district centre at a key crossing point. Built by Royal Engineers attached to the battle group the patrol base houses separately, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and a British Army Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (OMLT), who guide and train the Afghan soldiers, serving alongside and supporting them.

Working as one force

The new patrol base, which has yet to be named by the ANA ensures the positions from which Taliban insurgents can engage the town are further away from the population centre. It also protects a vital bridge used by local farmers every day.

Commanding Officer of 1 Grenadier Guards Lt Col Roly Walker is keen to develop the relationship between ISAF troops, the ANA and the Afghan National Police (ANP) further. He is working hard to ensure they are seen locally acting as one force rather than three separate ones.

Reopening of a local school

Secondly, this new patrol base has been built as part of a long term plan to improve the security around Nad e-Ali, and a giant step forward has been made with the re-opening of a local school, in the district centre.

Helmand Province Governor Gulab Mangal visited the school and cut the ribbon to declare it open talking to the children and teachers. Governor Mangal was also well received at a Shura with local elders to express his commitment to the Food Zone Programme in the region, and he met with ISAF and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) to discuss the progress of security in the region.

Proud to be making a big difference

The school had previously housed the British forward operating base (FOB), known as FOB Argyll and home to the battle groups operating here. The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards have however taken over the newly built FOB Shawqat just down the road which has allowed the school to be re-built and re-opened.

The soldiers of the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards are relatively new to Afghanistan but are already proud to be making a big difference for the local Afghans here.

Marine turned RAF pilot battles IEDs over Afghanistan

Ex-Royal Marine Flight Lieutenant Phil Rossiter has switched services to go from the ground to the air in Afghanistan where he is helping the fight against improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Flt Lt Rossiter is on his first operational tour as an RAF officer but is no stranger to Afghanistan having served at Bagram Air Base in Parvan province as a Royal Marine.

He is now a Tornado GR4 pilot in 14 Squadron, based at RAF Lossiemouth.

Flt Lt Rossiter, who joined the Marines as a 'boy soldier' in 1996, explained:

"I joined the Royal Marines for the physical and mental challenges, but after several years of service I decided I wanted to be tested in a totally different environment.

"The Royal Air Force offered me this challenge and I joined in 2003.

"I had a fantastic time in the Marines and wouldn't change my time with them but flying a Tornado GR4 is as exhilarating as you would imagine it to be!"

While the Tornado jet is capable of delivering a wide variety of weapons, including Brimstone and Paveway IV, with breathtaking accuracy, it is in the role of tactical reconnaissance in which the aircraft excels.

Using RAPTOR (Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for Tornado), the aircraft can provide high resolution images from distances in excess of 25 miles (40km), allowing intelligence to be gathered unnoticed.

The aircraft's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance role is vital in the battle against improvised explosive devices.

A system called Litening III provides real-time imagery to soldiers on the ground enabling them to see round corners and over the walls of Taliban compounds.

Flt Lt Rossiter has found his tour in Afghanistan rewarding:

"It feels good to directly support the troops on the ground. I have an enormous sense of pride in what I do and I know I am doing something worthwhile.

"The intensive pre-deployment training has prepared me well for flying in this challenging environment. There is a sense of accomplishment having completed my first operational tour and supporting the Afghan people to achieve security and peace."

Flt Lt Rossiter returns home this month and said:

"I have missed my family and friends. Rather strangely I have even missed the Lossiemouth weather! After six months in blazing sunshine I hope to go skiing when I get back."

Speaking about his experience over the last few months, he said:

"I want to continue flying on the front line; after all, that is what I joined to do!"

BFBS Radio Afghanistan goes live

British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) Radio Afghanistan went live on air at 0630hrs local Afghan time this morning, broadcasting from Camp Bastion to British forces across Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The family and friends of personnel on operations in Afghanistan will also be able to hear the service in the UK on DAB digital radio.

'Good Morning Afghanistan!' rang out in the cookhouses, corrimecs, tents and ablution blocks as British forces woke to face another day on Op HERRICK.

At the time the first Bastion breakfast show went on air, forces' family and friends were safely tucked up in bed as it was 0200hrs in the UK, but the opening will be reprised on BFBS Radio worldwide, including on DAB digital radio in the UK, at 0900hrs GMT when the BFBS network joins up around the world and, for the first time, connects the UK live with the station in Bastion.

BFBS Radio listeners across the Forces world were asked to choose what should be the first song played on the new station, and they e-mailed and texted their suggestions for two weeks until the poll closed at midday on Friday.

'Dusty' Miller, the first presenter on BFBS Radio in Afghanistan, said:

"Mindful of the very particular brand of humour amongst our listeners, we were worried what they might foist on us but were braced to play whatever they asked for!

"The first song played on the ground in any operational theatre tends to get a bit of an iconic status, and becomes a tune that in some ways sums up a particular tour."

And the winner was... 'Wake Up Boo!' by The Boo Radleys.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

PICTURE: of the day, Helmand Province

Royal Engineers conduct survey tasks in Helmand as they build new patrol bases near Nad-E Ali for ISAF "International Stabalisation and Assistance Forces" and ANA"Afghan National Army" and ANP "Afghan National Police"

Soldiers from 1st Bn Grenadier Guards and 2nd Bn Lancashire Regt provided security during the construction.

'Bittersweet return' for soldiers

Soldiers from a Northern Ireland-based battalion which lost 13 men during a six-month tour of Afghanistan have returned to their base in County Down.

The troops, from the 2nd Battalion The Rifles, are based at Abercorn Barracks in Ballykinler.

On 10 July, five men from the battalion lost their lives within 24 hours in what turned out to be one of the worst days for the Army in Afghanistan.

About 70 soldiers were reunited with their families at the barracks.

Major Alistair Field, who was wounded in the attacks on 10 July, said it was a "horrendous" day which was "pretty traumatic" for him to recount.

He described how his unit was caught up in an explosion while on their way to carry out a joint patrol with the Afghan national army.

'Lethal tour'

"One rifleman was tragically killed outright and several others injured, of which myself was one," he explained.

"And then about a half and hour later, as another call sign came to help with the casualties, they were caught in another "daisy chain" is the expression we use - lots of explosions joined up together - and another four riflemen were killed.

Major Field said the returning troops would be relieved to get back to their loved ones after a "very dangerous and lethal tour".

"Inevitably they're going to be extremely grateful to be home safe.

"The feeling of being reunited with your family, knowing that everything is going to be all right is just brilliant," he said.

Officer inspires Afghan school

A new school in Afghanistan initiated by a major in the Welsh Guards has opened its doors, although he did not live to see it completed.

Major Sean Birchall started the renovation project in Basaran.

Maj Birchall, 33, who was described as an "instinctive leader", was killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) while on patrol in Helmand province.

He hoped the school would address local concerns about a lack of education for their children.

The Ministry of Defence said: "Villagers explained how the headmaster had been executed by the Taliban and the school had fallen into a state of disrepair."

"Maj Birchall promised to turn the situation around, but the Guards were rocked by the tragic death of their company commander in mid-June."

His troops vowed to complete the officer's work while soldiers from 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment provided security so local workers could renovate the school.

The school can accommodate more than 370 pupils.

Major Birchall was born in South Africa, and moved to the UK as a baby, growing up in Guildford, Surrey.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Helmand drugs cache goes up in smoke

Governor Mangal sets light to 14 tonnes of opium, heroin and precursor chemicals.

FOURTEEN tonnes of opium, heroin and precursor chemicals went up in flames in Helmand on Thursday as Governor Mangal, governor for the province, lit the spark to the seized substances.

The cache was recovered during pro-active counter narcotics police operations in the Lashkar Gah District of Helmand by Afghanistan specialist counter narcotics police and MoD police.

For Governor Mangal, who has been touring Helmand to promote his Food Zone Programme, the drugs-burn was one of a number of events taking place across the province. The programme, which is backed by the UK, is aimed at showing local farmers that there is a viable alternative to growing poppy.

The UK is supporting the Governor's programme with £10 million as part of its commitment to restoring the legitimate agricultural base in Helmand province. All farmers receiving the subsidized wheat seed sign a commitment not to grow poppy.

Around 70,000 farmers have benefited from the programme in the past year.

The last year has also seen a 33 per cent cut in poppy cultivation, with an even higher target set for this year. The programme is being expanded to cover eight districts including Kanashin for the first time where US Marines have helped stabilise the area.

Detective Superintendent Dave Wright EU Police Advisor was at the event, having worked alongside the Afghan National Police:

"The money that would have come from the sale of the opium would undoubtedly have funded insurgents' activities, extending their presence in the region and increasing their ability to launch deadly attacks on the local population and coalition forces.

"This show of force hits at the heart of the insurgency because it significantly reduces their capability to continue the fight. With fewer numbers and diminished resources, they are simply less effective."

UK helps boost economic growth in Helmand

Like any self-respecting businessman Nah Sarang wants to expand.

With 30 people in his family, including parents and grandparents, the 25 year-old farmer in Gereshk, Helmand province, makes regular trips to sell his wheat and corn in the Mayors market in the centre of Lashkar Gah.

The province is one of the country's most fertile areas but has until now been dominated by illegal opium production to keep the economy afloat.

In the fight against the drugs trade in Afghanistan, the UK is helping to provide farmers with the means to grow other crops, providing the region with much-needed food and the farmers with a legitimate and sustainable income.

Twice the harvest

Now, thanks to DFID-funded loans, Nah will soon double his harvest in size and the family will also boast a new bakery run by two of Nah's brothers.

He has received 100,000 Afghanis (£1,250) to buy seed, fertiliser and materials to expand his business.

Nah says, "The loan I have received allows me to farm twice as much land as before, so I grow more food to sell in the Mayors market.

This years harvest has been good but I am expecting next years to be even better.

With the loans that my brothers and I have received we are in a better position than ever to provide for our family."

To date, DFID has helped provide loans to over 1441 microfinance clients, including farmers, in Helmand, totalling $832,800.

Money is provided via the Afghan government to the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) and is distributed via Islamic Investment and Finance Cooperatives (IIFCs) to members, incuding farmers.

The loans are part of a package that will boost counter narcotics work by giving farmers incentives to plant legal food crops rather than illegal poppy.

DFID's partnership with WOCCU is one part of a broader package of support from the UK to boost agricultural and rural development in Helmand.

Other activities include:

- Support for the production and marketing of local produce such as fruits, nuts and vegetables.

- Increasing access to safe drinking water and irrigation.

- Building roads so that farmers and entrepreneurs can get their goods to market.

Shoots of recovery

There are signs that the economy of Helmand is growing. This year saw the opening of the third branch of the first national retail bank and development of the UK-funded Shamalan Canal has improved irrigation for 10,000 farmers.

DFID's activities in Helmand are closely coordinated with USAID's. Earlier this year USAID turned a gravel airstrip at Bost Airfield into a tarmac runway creating the only completely civilian airstrip in Southern Afghanistan and opening up the province for trade.

DFID will continue to build on USAID work and will pay for access roads, security fencing and a new administration block for a business centre alongside the airfield.

The centre will host the processing of farmers' produce from Helmand valley for delivery to markets across the country.

Scrap the Santa-suit gifts, say soldiers

Armed forces in Afghanistan are planning to sort out the massive tide of presents in the Christmas post

By Terri Judd

Inundated by parcels at the British headquarters base in Helmand last December, Regimental Sergeant-Major Don Hayes did wonder what on earth he was going to do with hundreds of Santa suits. His team, knee deep in well-meant Christmas parcels from home, joked that it might confuse the Taliban if they sent out an entire company of troops in the scarlet outfits, but decided it probably would not be considered appropriate kit for combat.

And RSM Hayes debated whether the burly Royal Marines in Afghan-istan's frontline bases would really want the gifts of brand-new bras and pants, Tampons, eyeliner, lipstick, perfume and cuddly toys they had been sent.

"We had everything from elephants to hippos," he said. "The smallest were keyring size but the largest was a teddy bear that had been squeezed into a box and was 2ft high and 1ft across. I know some of our guys can be soft but they don't tend to want cuddly toys. And I am afraid make-up is useless unless it comes in brown or green [camouflage colours]."

Soldiers and Marines on Helmand's front line have been overwhelmed over the past few years with the number of parcels sent by strangers. It is a dramatic and appreciated contrast to the early days of Iraq when they felt ignored.

"The heartfelt support is absolutely fantastic," said RSM Hayes, of the UK Landing Force Command Support Group. "The change is tremendous but it has escalated to a scale you can't envisage. There is only so much shower gel you can use."

Every effort is made to get personal mail out to troops in the remote bases but last Christmas so many unsolicited parcels arrived that packages from friends and family were lost in the mountains of mail and delayed for weeks. Some of the gifts were inspired – wind-up radios or towels that pack into tiny pockets – many well-meant offerings were inappropriate for the harsh environment: chocolate that turned to liquid in the blazing summer sun, hundreds of fans sent during the freezing winter, fancy bath-salts for men who wash with solar showers, coffee for non-existent percolators and microwave meals for troops who cook over open camp-fires.

A handful of women do serve in the forward bases but the number of parcels aimed at females far outweighed the need for them. In Helmand's lethal territory, where roadside bombs make every resupply a dangerous mission, essentials take priority. A couple of the Santa suits, Christmas puddings and treats were sneaked in to the supplies as a morale booster for the men of 3 Commando Brigade on the front last year but to set up extra resupplies would have risked lives.

Instead, the military has joined forces with the charity, SSAFA, to set up an Operational Welfare Fund which, unlike some commercial organisations that offer to send packages to soldiers, makes no profit.

Vice-Admiral Peter Wilkinson said: "This fund enables commanders on the ground to bid for those items which they judge will have the most impact in enhancing the morale of their personnel."

RSM Hayes added: "The support is greatly appreciated but if you still want to send something, send a letter and donate to the fund."

*Donations to the troops in Helmand can be made via

3 SCOTS thwart Taliban to recover US Chinook

Soldiers from Alpha (Grenadier) Company of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS), have fought off Taliban attackers in order to facilitate the recovery of a US Army Chinook helicopter.

When the helicopter of the US 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade suffered a hard landing on difficult ground in the Upper Sangin Valley, troops from 3 SCOTS were mobilised at short notice to secure the crash site.

A number of UK and Afghan troops had been on the troop-carrying aircraft but thankfully, although it was badly damaged, no-one was injured.

In a bid to secure the area, recover the airframe and to prevent it falling into Taliban hands, 120 men of Alpha (Grenadier) Company were flown to the desert site.

However, as a specialist US recovery team set to work to prepare the Chinook for extraction, insurgents began to mass.

Air cover was called in and devastating strikes by US attack helicopters and A-10 jets killed and injured several insurgents; one badly injured insurgent was subsequently treated by 3 SCOTS' medics and evacuated by helicopter to an International Security Assistance Force medical facility.

This was sufficient to discourage the attackers and the rest of the day passed off without major incident.

With the crash site secured the helicopter was extracted just as the light began to fade; it was underslung beneath another helicopter and slowly lifted away to the safety of Kandahar Airfield.

An hour later the men of Alpha Company followed on and returned back to base.

Major Matt Munro, Officer Commanding Alpha (Grenadier) Company, said:

"I'm delighted that this operation went so well.

"Given that we have worked so closely with the American aviators of the 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade throughout our seven-month tour I'm pleased that we were able to play an important part in the recovery of one of their airframes.

"It was a team effort that highlighted our high levels of preparedness and combat-readiness."

Major Neil Kugler, Operations Officer of Task Force (TF) Tallon, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, said:

"The troopers of TF Tallon and the Jocks of The Black Watch, 3 SCOTS Battle Group, developed a great professional relationship over the past four months during the conduct of numerous combat air assault operations.

"It was fitting that the final combat mission in Afghanistan for The Black Watch was to recover one of our damaged aircraft."

Lance Corporal Aaron Graham, aged 20 from Kirkcaldy, and a Section Second-in-Command in 1 Platoon, said:

"This was unlike any other job we have done out here. Once again we produced the goods and were pleased to keep the Taliban firmly on the back foot."

3 SCOTS have been based in Kandahar where they took over as the Regional Battle Group (South) in April 2009. They are now coming to the end of their deployment and returning to the UK in the next few weeks

Corporal James Oakland RMP killed in Afghanistan

It is with deep regret that the Ministry of Defence must confirm that Corporal James Oakland of the Royal Military Police was killed in Afghanistan yesterday, Thursday 22 October 2009.

Corporal Oakland died after being mortally wounded by an improvised explosive device on a foot patrol in the Gereshk region of Helmand province. He was conducting a route search to clear devices to allow the Battle Group freedom of movement.

Corporal James Oakland RMP

Corporal James 'Jim' Oakland deployed two months early as a Battlefield Casualty Replacement, prior to the rest of the Company for Op HERRICK 11. On arrival he was deployed to a Forward Operating Base as the Weapons Intelligence Detachment Commander in the Gereshk area of Helmand Province.

Embedded within the Battlegroup, his duties included direct support to Improvised Explosive Device Disposal teams, scientific exploitation of devices and support to Battle Group patrols.

Corporal Oakland was an outstanding Junior Non-Commissioned Officer with excellent prospects. He joined the Army in January 2002 and passed out into the Intelligence Corps. In 2003 he transferred to the Royal Military Police and attended phase 2 training at the Royal Military Police Training School, Chichester.

His first posting was to 156 Provost Company RMP in Colchester, where he conducted General Policing Duties. From there he deployed with the Spearhead Lead Element to operations in Kosovo and Beirut. Following this Corporal Oakland immersed himself in pre-deployment training for OP HERRICK 8 where he deployed with the Force Protection Company in KABUL.

After this highly successful tour he was posted to Weapons Intelligence Specialist Company and soon sent on his Level 2 Investigational course, qualifying him as a Class 1 RMP Investigator. He passed with a very high standard and a recommendation for the Special Investigation Branch.

On return to his unit he again became involved with pre-deployment training prior to deploying as the Weapons Intelligence Detachment Commander in the Gereshk area of Helmand Province.

Corporal Oakland was a personable, motivated and intelligent individual. He nurtured those under his Command whilst constantly striving to better himself by learning from his superiors. He was enthusiastic and energetic about his work.

Corporal Oakland is survived by his parents Steve and Christine and a brother, Daniel, who is in his final term at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He had a long term girlfriend, Lauren Bowyer, whom he loved dearly and enjoyed travelling the world with; Corporal Oakland was very close to his family who are from New Moston in Manchester.

Corporal Oakland's family paid the following tribute:

"We are immensely proud of James, the person he was and the job that he did. He was a true friend, loving son, grandson, brother and boyfriend, who will be dearly missed and never forgotten."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Afghan troop reduction 'by 2014'

The head of the British Army, General Sir David Richards, says it will be "about 2014" before UK troops numbers in Afghanistan reduce.

He told the BBC's Caroline Wyatt the war in Afghanistan was "a war very much worth fighting for".

He said the army's equipment "is as good as it possibly can be and we continue to address that all the time".

Gen Richards replaced Gen Sir Richard Dannatt as Chief of the General Staff in August.

Gen Richards was speaking on the day Royal British Legion launched its 2009 Poppy Appeal.

This year's appeal is focusing on supporting troops wounded in Afghanistan and their families.

He said the armed forces in Afghanistan were currently in "a period of risk" where there were not enough troops to perform the required tasks.

He called for a bridging force, to contain the Taliban, while we "much more aggressively" grow the Afghan army and police.

Gen Richards said: "If we get it right, our estimation is that by about 2011, 2012 we'll see an appreciable improvement, and by about 2014 we will ramp down our numbers as they ramp up and you'll start to reduce the overall risks of the operation.

"It is an ambitious target, which is why... I caveated slightly by saying I'm expecting Nato to ask us to put more into the training pot to allow that force to grow more aggressively.

"But if I'm half-right we've got five years of declining violence as we get that formula right and then we'll go into what might be called a supporting role."

And he added that the war was "very much worth fighting for all our sakes and for our children's sakes.

"The price of failure hasn't really been properly understood in my humble estimation."

He also said extra helicopters were needed, and that the aircraft must be used more efficiently.

"I won't say we've had that right in the past but I think we're on track."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

British Army heroes dicing with death in Afghanistan

It's all too easy to think of Afghanistan as being another world – a place that only exists in news reports and in the epic pictures of war photographers.

But it all comes to life when the phone rings on my desk, and a satellite call comes through from Camp Bastion.

At the other end of the remarkably clear line is Captain Andy Edwards of the 33 Engineer Regiment. He is a long way from his Brislington home.

The 29-year-old, who has recently trained as an explosive ordnance disposal officer, is in the British Army's Helmand province headquarters, awaiting the time in a couple of months when he will complete his training duties and head out into the heart of the conflict.

Andy, who has been in Afghanistan for just over a week, will soon be joined by a new wave of soldiers, as Gordon Brown has announced plans to increase British troop numbers in the troubled country by an extra 500 – bringing the total number of British soldiers serving in the region to 9,500.

As a bomb disposal officer, Andy will be dicing with death on a daily basis.

But he sounds remarkably calm about the prospect.

"I'm looking forward to it," he says. "It's what I've trained to do, so I can't wait to get out there on the ground, and start putting all my learning to good use. I'm not nervous, because the training has been so thorough, I feel I know exactly what I need to do.

"It's an important job to be doing, and that's a great incentive.

"At the moment the biggest obstacle is the heat – it's very hot indeed here, and that's going to take some getting used to."

Kent-born Andy first came to Bristol to study geography at the University of Bristol in the late 1990s. He settled in the city after graduating.

"I joined the Territorial Army while I was still a student at Bristol University," he says. "Then when I graduated, I decided to join up to serve as a professional soldier.

"Then I was given my commission in 2004, and was made a captain just a couple of months ago.

"I made the decision to train as a bomb disposal officer, because it seemed like such important work.

"The action in Afghanistan is unlike anything the British Army has seen before, in the sense that the majority of action we see involves IEDs – or Improvised Explosive Devices – that is, makeshift bombs.

"Whereas in previous conflicts my job might have involved disarming traditional grenades and landmines, here you're working with handmade pieces of equipment that have been left by insurgents."

Andy says there are essentially three forms of IED.

"There is one that is placed on the side of the road, for example, and is set off by remote control," he says. "It effectively uses the same sort of equipment that is in the key fob that opens an automatic garage door.

"Then there is a more crude form of IED that acts more like a traditional land mine – what we call a victim-operated device. It is basically two pieces of metal that will be pushed together to make a circuit when a vehicle passes overhead.

"Then there are suicide bombers and booby traps, which are likely to be more difficult to tackle."

Andy will lead a four-man team, disarming devices across Helmand – a war-torn desert area roughly the size of England in the southern part of Afghanistan.

"We will respond when devices are found by our troops across the region," he explains.

"That's why I'm not particularly nervous about my role. It's the troops who are out there stumbling across these IEDs that I would be more concerned for.

"When I go out to tackle a device, at least I know it's there, and can calmly work out the best way to disarm it."

Andy arrived in Afghanistan for the first time just two weeks ago. It's his first experience of a warzone.

"I'm based in the relative safety of Camp Bastion for the next few months," he says.

"The atmosphere in the camp seems upbeat as far as I've been able to tell. Everyone's just getting on with their jobs."

As a single man, Andy does not have the additional concern of leaving a worried wife in the UK.

"My parents are back in Kent. They're bound to have concerns of course, but they're very supportive," he says. "At the end of the day they also know that I have an important job to do here. I'm actually looking forward to getting out of the relative safety of Camp Bastion and putting all that training to good use."

To see a video of Capt Edwards click here

Sean Power: In Harms Way - Photographic exhibition in London

Sean Power relaxing having completed a patrol with the Viking Group in Helmand.

Photo-journalist Sean Power visited British troops in Helmand two weeks ago.

With the help of the Royal British Legion he is showing his photographs at Gallery 27, in Mayfair. The show opens on the 18th of November and runs for six days.

Denmark's engagement in Helmand Province

The overall objective of the Danish engagement in Helmand is to contribute to stable and sustainable development through a comprehensive and fully integrated civil and military approach.

The Danish engagement will address radicalisation and aims at ensuring the active support from the local population to the government. The Danish assistance is implemented in close cooperation with the Afghan government, the international society and our allies in Helmand, first and foremost UK, in accordance with the agreed structure of the international presence in the Helmand province.

The Danish plan contains strategic objectives for the longer term as well as benchmarks for 2008. The planning and implementation of concrete activities will take place locally and take the evolving situation on the ground into account. The plan will be monitored on an on-going basis and will be updated annually in light of developments in the province. The one-year time horizon ensures the possibility for frequent adjustments in a situation with significant uncertainty and instability. In 2008 Denmark has prepared a strategy for the entire Danish engagement in Afghanistan for the period 2008-12 to replace the existing agreement, which comes to an end.

The plan for Helmand contains three focus areas: Security and stabilization, education and counter narcotics. The Danish security and stabilisation engagement, which is implemented through ISAF – should continuously contribute to assist the Government of Afghanistan in extending its authority across the Helmand province. Increased stability will pave the way for quick and visible reconstruction projects – and for long-term development.

Denmark and Afghanistan have jointly agreed that Denmark’s main focus should be on the educational sector, as it is at the national level. As such Denmark aims at ensuring synergy between national and local efforts making it possible for the Afghan government to become far more visible to the population in Helmand with regard to education.

Fighting the opium economy in Helmand is significant to the stabilization of the province and the possibilities for creating sustainable development effects. The Danish engagement in Helmand will therefore contribute actively to fighting the opium economy.

For the Danish Embassy website click here

In Helmand, a model for success?

Influx of Marines and focus on security bring peace to a southern Afghan town -- at least for now

Before a battalion of U.S. Marines swooped into this dusty farming community along the Helmand River in early July, almost every stall in the bazaar had been padlocked, as had the school and the health clinic. Thousands of residents had fled. Government officials and municipal services were nonexistent. Taliban fighters swaggered about with impunity, setting up checkpoints and seeding the roads with bombs.

In the three months since the Marines arrived, the school has reopened, the district governor is on the job and the market is bustling. The insurgents have demonstrated far less resistance than U.S. commanders expected. Many of the residents who left are returning home, their possessions piled onto rickety trailers, and the Marines deem the central part of the town so secure that they routinely walk around without body armor and helmets.

"Nawa has returned from the dead," said the district administrator, Mohammed Khan.

Nawa provides one ground-level perspective into the debate over U.S. force levels in Afghanistan among members of President Obama's national security team. In this district, the war is being waged in the manner sought by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan: The number of troops went from about 100 to 1,100, and they have been countering the insurgency by focusing on improving security for local people instead of hunting down the Taliban.

The result has been a profound transformation, suggesting that after eight years of war the United States still may be able to regain momentum in some areas that had long been written off to the Taliban. Insurgent attacks on civilians and NATO forces, once a near-daily fact of life here, have almost ceased in Nawa and are far less common than they were in surrounding areas, a turnabout reminiscent of what happened in Iraq last year after a sharp increase in American forces there.

But even if Nawa remains peaceful, replicating what has occurred here may not be possible. Achieving the same troop-to-population ratio in other insurgent strongholds across southern and eastern Afghanistan would require at least 100,000 more U.S. or NATO troops -- more than double the 40,000 being sought by McChrystal -- as well as many thousands of additional Afghan security forces.

Nawa also is blessed with stable social dynamics -- the three principal tribes in the area largely get along -- and it has a district governor whom the Marines regard as unusually competent. The Helmand River valley contains some of Afghanistan's most fertile land, enabling reconstruction workers to improve livelihoods through agricultural assistance programs.

"We have to be very careful when we say we want to use Nawa as a model," said Ian Purves, a British development specialist who advises the battalion. "First off, will Nawa work as we want? And even if it does, there's no guarantee what we're doing here will work anywhere else."

For the full article on click here for the Washington Post

TA soldier turns war artist to report on Afghanistan

Territorial Army soldier and illustrator Matthew Cook has been continuing the long tradition of artists recording events on the battlefield. In collaboration with the MOD Art Collection Team, his work from Afghanistan and Iraq has been displayed at the MOD's Main Building, London, this week.

Matthew joined the TA in 1991 shortly before the first Gulf War and served in Iraq with 7th Battalion The Rifles. His insider knowledge of the Armed Forces is something which he believes has had an influence on his work - allowing him to record equipment and uniforms with an accuracy that others may miss.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Memory of Welsh Guards' officer lives on in Helmand school

A lasting tribute has been paid to an officer killed in Afghanistan after a new village school which he had vowed to build opened its doors to youngsters in Helmand province.

Major Sean Birchall initiated the renovation project in Basaran earlier this year but died in an improvised explosive device blast before it could be completed.

He led 9 Company, Welsh Guards, into the village near Lashkar Gah in April with the aim of establishing a firm presence and driving insurgents away.

Following the operation's success the area was transformed into a thriving community and Major Birchall and his team soon discovered that the biggest concern for locals was the lack of education for their children.

Villagers explained how the headmaster had been executed by the Taliban and the school had fallen into a state of disrepair.

Major Birchall promised to turn the situation around, but the Guards were rocked by the tragic death of their Company Commander in mid-June.

His troops vowed to complete the officer's work and soldiers from 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment provided security so local workers could renovate the school, allowing more than 370 pupils to register to attend the new-look facility.

Major Alex Corbet-Burcher, the new Officer Commanding, said:

"The locals were initially cautious about our presence in Basaran, but the atmosphere now is great. I think Sean would be proud of the lads' achievements. It makes us all feel better that some good has come from his sacrifice."

3 RIFLES take over from fellow riflemen in Sangin

3rd Battalion The Rifles have deployed to Afghanistan and taken over from 2nd Battalion The Rifles as the Battlegroup (North), based around the strategically important town of Sangin in the Northern Helmand Province.

3 RIFLES took over control on Monday, October 19 during a ceremony at their Headquarters at FOB JACKSON in Sangin, where they will remain until April 2010. This is the first time during Operation HERRICK that an Infantry Battlegroup has handed over to a sister battalion. Indeed, the RIFLES have had a presence in Sangin for the past three tours with 1 RIFLES providing training and mentoring to the Afghan National Army over a year ago.

3 RIFLES Battlegroup is part of 11 Light Brigade, which took over responsibility for Helmand Province on Saturday, October 10. The Battlegroup consists of five fighting companies, including A Company, 4 RIFLES and B Company, 1 SCOTS who are attached for the duration of the tour. It is also supported by 42 Sqn, 28 Engineer Regiment and The Chestnut Troop, 1st Royal Horse Artillery as well as a variety of other specialist organisations.

The Commander of Battlegroup (North), Lt Col Nick Kitson, said:

"It is great honour to take over from our fellow Riflemen and maintain a RIFLES presence in the Sangin Valley and Kajaki.

"We have spent over a year training hard and preparing for this tour. It is an environment which will undoubtedly challenge us all but we are well equipped, well manned and well placed to succeed in bringing progress to this important part of Helmand"

The Commanding Officer of 2 RIFLES commented:

"Handing over to another Rifles Battalion has been a huge privilege and a lot of fun. HERRICK 10 has been the campaign of our lives and we now leave Sangin, confident that we have handed over the town and the valley to a tough and operationally experienced Battalion. The District Governor was delighted to find that we are all from the same Regiment and a continuity of approach bodes well for Sangin. We wish 3 RIFLES a hugely successful tour – we will keep them in our thoughts and prayers."

Danish troops close off the battle zone for Brit allies

Danish reconnaissance troops from the island of Bornholm checks a tunnel running under a canal. Hundreds of locals and Talibs used this tunnel every day, on foot or motorcycle, to get in and out of the Green Zone.

Danish and British commanders met frequently during Operation Ring of Steel, coordinating the course of the fight. "The British are polite people, but also we could feel the real respect for us rise as they gradually saw what our units are capable of achieving," says Danish officer

An important phase in Operation Ring of Steel was recently concluded. Platoons of Danish 2 Light Recce Squadron have been in numerous firefights with the Taliban during the past weeks. The battles have been hard fought and there have been casualties on both sides of the front. But together with British and other allies they have stood their ground, the soldiers from Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Ocean and the most eastern part of Denmark. The islanders took part in laying an iron circle around an isolated pocket of Talibs. The enemy has been clearly aggravated and annoyed with this.

A base was quickly established by the Recce Squadron. From here the Danish soldiers regularly lashed out at the Taliban.

Jakob Bjerborg, the Officer in Command of the Squadron, explains:
- We pressured the enemy to shift some of his focus to us. Because of that he had to thin out the forces facing the Brits. At the same time we disrupted his supply routes, making him run low on food, water and ammunition.
The OC points out that the enemy never knew when and where the Recce Squadron would strike.

For the full report click here

Afghan elections - an uncertain future

It was a decision that Western leaders had waited to hear for days. At the presidential palace, the Afghan leader, Hamid Karzai, finally accepted that he had failed to win an outright majority, and that this election requires a second round.

It was no coincidence that a host of ambassadors and the UN special envoy, Kai Eide, were in attendance.

The man who did most to end the political deadlock, US senator John Kerry, stood alongside President Karzai during the announcement.

The Afghan leader has been the subject of a fevered round of diplomacy, receiving phone calls from world leaders urging him to accept a second round.

President Karzai believed - and perhaps still does - that an election victory had been stolen from him.

But his position was weakened by the publication of report by a UN-backed panel on Monday, which showed that a third of the incumbent's votes were fraudulent.

That meant that President Karzai's share of the vote had dropped below the 50% mark, meaning a second round was constitutionally required.

Two option scenario?

Mr Karzai had known the report's findings since last week.

And finally on Tuesday, he caved in to the overwhelming international pressure to accept this.

What will happen next is still not clear: there appear to be two options.

The first is that President Karzai and his challenger Dr Abdullah Abdullah could agree to form a national unity government.

For the rest of the report click here for the BBC website

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Afghan election goes to run-off

Afghanistan will hold a deciding round of its problem-hit presidential poll on 7 November, pitting Hamid Karzai against his rival Abdullah Abdullah.

News of the run-off vote follows weeks of mounting international pressure.

It comes a day after a UN-backed panel said it had clear evidence of fraud in August's first round, lowering Mr Karzai's vote share below 50%.

Mr Karzai told a news conference that he accepted the findings, adding they were a "step forward" for democracy.

Mr Abdullah, speaking to the BBC, also said the move would "help democracy in this country and strengthen the faith of the people in the democratic process".

Initial results suggested Mr Karzai, the incumbent, had received 55% of the vote, and ex-Foreign Minister Mr Abdullah 28%.

But the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) ordered that ballots from 210 polling stations be discounted.

This meant Mr Karzai's total was reduced to below the 50% plus one vote threshold for outright victory, indicating a second round was needed.

Since the disputed first round of polling, there has been intensive Western lobbying of Afghanistan's leaders to resolve the weeks of political paralysis.

The White House - debating a request for 40,000 more US troops to be sent to Afghanistan - warned at the weekend no more soldiers would be deployed until a political resolution was reached.

Correspondents say it was therefore not surprising to see Mr Karzai give his reaction to the run-off, at a news conference alongside UN envoy Kai Eide and US Senator John Kerry.

"This is not the right time to discuss investigations, this is the time to move forward to stability and national unity," Mr Karzai said.

"I call upon our nation to change this into an opportunity to strengthen our resolve and determination, to move our country forward and to participate in the new round of elections."

For the rest of the story click here for the BBC website