Thursday, October 22, 2009
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