Thursday, October 29, 2009

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.'

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