Saturday, November 28, 2009

The volunteers under fire on Afghan front line - BBC

By Sophie Hutchinson
BBC News

For six months they patrolled the desert around Camp Bastion, protected bomb disposal teams and assisted medics evacuating seriously injured soldiers.

Now, members of an infantry company made up entirely of Territorial Army soldiers have received Afghanistan campaign medals from their colonel-in-chief, the Prince of Wales.

Around 80 soldiers from Normandy Company of 4th Battalion The Mercian Regiment were honoured for their role in Helmand province.

It was a gruelling six months but their commanding officer, Maj Chris Carter, said they had been able to draw on their "remarkable" experience.

"For half of my company they were on their second or more operational tour - those with more experience helped those with a bit less."

The soldiers, whose civilian jobs range from postmen to teachers, also helped reopen a school in the Basharan area, which had closed after the Taliban killed the principal.

The company, made up of volunteers from the Midlands and the North West, trained together for three months before being deployed to Afghanistan in April.

All of the soldiers returned home safely to their families, though not all had escaped injury.

Pte Anthony Myers, 19, joined the TA straight after leaving college. The Liverpudlian was shot in the shoulder while on patrol, but it took him less than two weeks to recover.

"We knew it was dangerous anyway - we were getting the news from people it was a bad tour. We were quite lucky because I was the only one injured.

"It did make it a little bit more real but it didn't scare me or make me not want to do the job. If anything it made me want to get back, back with the lads."

There are currently 9,000 UK troops serving in Afghanistan, the majority of them - like Normandy Company - in Helmand.

It has proved to be the most dangerous area for soldiers and 80% of British deaths have occurred in this southern province.

But despite the huge challenge faced by troops, one of the soldiers, L/Cpl John Mason, a 24-year-old trainee teacher from Stockport, has not been put off and is now hoping to join the Royal Marines.

He joked that being a soldier was easier than being in the classroom, dealing with adults rather than children.

During his time in Afghanistan he twice came under attack from the Taliban and was with Pte Myers when he was shot.

"You just have to take every day as it comes, especially when you're driving around on roads with IEDs (improvised explosive devices). You know there are dangers, but you reduce the risks and just get on with the job."

On Thursday the soldiers marched through central London, from Wellington Barracks to Clarence House, where they were honoured by Prince Charles.

After receiving their medals, they are now returning to their civilian lives, but all of them know that they could be asked to return to Afghanistan in a year's time.

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