Tuesday, March 23, 2010

If you think the 3 Rifles heroes of Afghanistan are brave, meet their families

By Robert Hardman

Captain Craig McBurney quietly leaves the room, his mobile phone pressed to his ear.

A mother is on the line, understandably distraught having just learned that her son has been shot.
Keeping busy: Kim Harrison and daughter Brooke, four

The young man will pull through and has been well enough to call her from his hospital bed in Afghanistan.

But she is in shock. 'The poor woman was on the floor in pieces,' says Capt McBurney when he returns.

He introduces me to a group of Army wives who can now dare to contemplate that longed-for moment - next month's reunion with their husbands.

Are they ticking off the days? Some shake their heads.

'Tempting fate,' says one. Deborah Fleming, on the other hand, tells me she is counting down to the two big stars on her calendar. One marks Rifleman John Fleming's return home. The other, days later, is the due date for their baby.

Capt McBurney has to slide out of the room again. It turns out that a recuperating double amputee needs help with a hospital appointment. His phone rings once more.

The parents of a dead Rifleman are desperate to retrieve their son's camera and its precious images from Afghanistan.

In fact, Capt McBurney's phone hardly stops. It might be a soldier's wife having a late-night panic attack. It might be a dawn alert from a Casualty Notifying Officer at the door of a family whose life is about to fall apart.

Capt McBurney, 41, treats every caller with equal concern; he's off to Afghanistan himself next year.

But in his 25 years in the Army, he has never known a six-month spell like this one. And nor has anyone else round here, for that matter.

Capt McBurney is the welfare officer for the 3rd Battalion of The Rifles, known as 3 Rifles - the most battle-scarred unit in the British Army.

Little wonder that they will shortly receive the ultimate accolade for an English battalion - a homecoming parade the full length of Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

And if you think these troops are brave, then just meet their families.

We have heard a lot about The Rifles and their work recently. All too often, though, the reports have concluded with the same heart-sinking phrase: 'The families have been informed.'

Just last night, we learned that another member of 3 Rifles had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Back in Britain, Capt McBurney and the battalion's rear operations team have become horribly familiar with the rituals of RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett.

This is because 3 Rifles are currently based around Sangin, the most dangerous place on Earth for a British soldier.

That is, in no way, to diminish the threat faced by so many brave men and women elsewhere in Afghanistan. Only last week, the Royal Anglians, based in Musa Qala, lost three of their finest.

But since deploying in Sangin last autumn, the 3 Rifles Battle Group (which includes troops from other units, like posthumous bomb disposal hero, Olaf Schmid GC) has seen 28 men killed and many more horribly injured.

Their immediate predecessors in the same place, 2 Rifles, endured similar losses last year. Military chiefs have described it as 'the most kinetic tour' of the entire Afghan campaign. A civilian translation might be: 'a bloody nightmare'.

Yes, The Rifles have unquestionably made great strides in ousting the Taliban and restoring a semblance of normality to their corner of Helmand Province.

But, as a regiment, they have now lost more in Afghanistan (44 men) than any regiment, including the Paras, lost in the Falklands. According to the National Army Museum, you have to go back to the Korean War to find a sadder regimental casualty list.

One band of Riflemen - A Company's 2nd Platoon - arrived in Sangin with 27 men last October. Of that original number, just 11 are still there. In the first week of this month alone, six Riflemen gave their lives for Queen and country.

The atmosphere is summed up by one recent visitor who describes the sight of elite, battle-hardened troops throwing up their breakfasts as they set off on patrol. And there is still another month of this tour to go.

None of us can comprehend what it is like to be in Sangin right now - except through the powerful dispatches of BBC2's Newsnight's Mark Urban - so I have come to battalion HQ to see the other side of the regimental story.

John Milton observed: 'They also serve who only stand and wait.' And here at Redford Barracks in the Edinburgh suburb of Colinton, they are doing just that.

As one young mother says: 'Just the sight of a strange car in the street turns you cold. You think: "Have they come to knock on my door?".'

Most of the huge Edwardian facade stands empty today. But there is plenty of activity in a converted blockhouse off to the side. Known as 'Sharpe's Retreat', named after the fictional 19th century Rifleman of book and television fame, this is the new battalion welfare centre.

Opened last month by the battalion's Royal Colonel, Princess Alexandra, it is buzzing with young children playing in the family room, while a local cook does a cake-making display.

It's fantastic to have a place like this because there are times when you suddenly don't want to be at home on your own,' says Kim Harrison, 31, wife of Regimental Serjeant Major Robert Harrison.

Ellen Longmate, 32, wife of Serjeant Major James Longmate, is arranging a sale of 3 Rifles sweatshirts ('My Daddy My Hero') for the battalion's charity appeal.

Every week or two during the tour, they get brief, garbled telephone calls from their loved ones but they admit that it is never easy.

'The families always just want to reassure the men that all is well even if it's not,' says Ellen, 'and the men want to do the same at their end.'

'It's good to give yourselves projects,' says Kitty Kitson, 38. 'It doesn't matter if you don't get it all done. But it keeps you busy.' Kitty has plenty on her mind.

Not only is she looking after three young children (and expecting her fourth) but she is the wife of Lt-Col Nick Kitson, 40, the inspirational commanding officer of the 550 men of 3 Rifles.

When two of his men were killed intercepting a suicide bomber outside Sangin's bazaar, Lt-Col Kitson was out patrolling the same spot himself the following day to reassure the locals that the Rifles would not budge.

Kitty's big project is raising funds for the battalion's 'Swift And Bold' wristband appeal to help the bereaved and injured - see www.swiftandbold.org. Boris Johnson and Jean-Claude van Damme are among the latest to adopt the must-have, green bracelets.

As the CO's wife, she is also an ambassador to the local community. This is particularly important because The Rifles are so new.

Created in 2007 through a merger of gallant names like the Royal Greenjackets and The Light Infantry, their military DNA goes back to Pegasus Bridge, Flanders, Waterloo and beyond.

But they are a fresh creation - and an English one to boot. While their permanent home is Scotland, most of 3 Rifles have been recruited from Yorkshire and the North-East.

However, Kitty Kitson and all the other wives on 'The Patch' have been bowled over by their Scottish neighbours. 'There is a real love for us in this community. It's very touching,' she says.

For the full story click here for the MailOnline


  1. Thank you for sharing this story. We at Angels for Hope www.angelsforhope.org would love to send Angels to the 3 Rifles, if we knew an address to send? God Bless and you will be in my prayer.
    Cindy, President, Angels for Hope

  2. I'd like to see a parade through London too.

  3. This was a lovely blog, although 'gut wrenchingly sad'. My words will never be able to express how I feel when I hear of another death, no matter which regiment (may they R.I.P) - and one always knows that there is a good probability that there will be injured troops as well; we as a nation can offer support, but in reality, they have to face another battle - Prayers and Thoughts are with All our Troops - Proud of You All.

  4. LTC Kitson, great job of leadership.