On duty in Helmand Province, dreams of R&R are interrupted by a deadly blast

 

SOLDIER'S DIARY:An Irish soldier and his platoon are shaken by a loud blast and the call: "Contact! Mine!", writes Lt Paddy Bury

IN THE 50 degree-plus temperatures, rest and recuperation, or R&R, and the thoughts of a cooler home that go with it, can become an obsession for any British army Rangers with time on their hands in Afghanistan. For the officers it is less so, as the constant cycle of planning, orders and briefs keeps us busy. Nonetheless, in the days before my R&R is due, I find myself in countdown mode.

The night before we leave, it emerges our flight out has been postponed. The news is greeted with grins and jokes from those in the platoon who aren't due to go and silence from those who were. I tell them not to worry, we'll still get out.

The next morning I am sitting in the operations room monitoring the radio net. A royal marines armoured convoy has been ambushed in a valley a few kilometres from our base. As their armoured vehicles hurtle toward our location with bullets clanging off their armour and RPGs detonating all around them, we sit tensely, hoping they'll make it through. They do, and we are just starting to relax when I hear a loud bang outside.

"Contact! Mine! Wait out," comes over the net.

The lead vehicle, as it was crossing the Helmand river, has been blown up. The noise brings the Rangers out on to vantage points to helplessly watch the drama unfold. Four hundred metres away, a huge plume of black smoke and flame is leaping from the stricken vehicle. The ammunition inside is exploding, keeping the rescuers at bay.

Bravely, the fire is extinguished quickly and, miraculously, survivors are pulled from the wreckage - but a courageous marine, whose tour had been extended so he could carry out this final mission and who was in sight of safety, has died. It hits us all.

The injured are extracted by medical helicopter and the convoy makes its way into our base. Its crew, faces matted with dirt and sweat, are in a state of shock. It becomes apparent there will be another flight after all, to collect the fallen marine. We will also be extracted on it.

As we frantically pack our kit, an honour guard is formed up on the helicopter landing site. The chopper lands and in the swirling dust and debris, the honour guard stands to attention with heads bowed, lining the route on to the aircraft. We leave Sangin in solemn mood, watching the desert drop beneath the rear door of the helicopter and the Union Jack covering the body billowing in the breeze.

Arrival in Camp Bastion, or Camp Butlins as it is now known by the frontline troops, with a healthy disdain for those in the rear, brings many creature comforts.

A cooler climate, fresh vegetables and meat, internet and even ice cream await us. Things taste sweeter, crunchier and life is definitely calmer, safer. No sooner have we arrived than the commanding officer apologises for extracting us in such circumstances.

But once we are safe in our air-conditioned tents, thoughts turn back to Sangin. The Rangers, once so keen to get away, now say they want to return to the platoon, to their comrades. For myself, an almost paternal instinct for those I am responsible for preoccupies my thoughts.

Both officers and Rangers alike realise, now that they have left Sangin, just how much they were enjoying the soldiering, despite the danger and hardships. Moreover, they miss the camaraderie of the platoon. Each of us now somehow feels helpless should anything happen to 7 Platoon while we are at home.

To see family and friends in the middle of an operational tour has a special quality to it, made all the more sweet by the surrealism that in 14 days you will be back in a war zone.

Two weeks later and I'm back with the platoon in another compound in the Green Zone. This one is not like our last. Built of mud and thatch, it has been previously blasted by Hellfire missiles and heavy calibre cannons that have left their mark on the walls. I share my cardboard bed with a small snake, cockroaches, frogs, hornets and flies.

As we prepare to leave, Taliban radio intercepts indicate they are in position and "ready" . . .

...

Lt Paddy Bury from Wicklow remains on duty in Helmand Province, Afghanistan