Page last updated at 12:17 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

'I always wanted to save lives'

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Captain Judith Gallagher
Capt Judith Gallagher defused nine devices on her first night in Helmand

Members of the Army's bomb disposal unit describe the task they face.

Little more than 5ft, Capt Judith Gallagher probably weighs about the same as the backpack and equipment she carried on the long, hot marches through Helmand province that can last most of the day.

The marching in the heat and the dust is only a prelude to her real job - defusing the Taliban's roadside bombs.

On her first night in Helmand last July, working with Estonian forces in the dark by a canal, she defused nine.

"I always wanted to do a job where I could save lives," she says, in a matter-of-fact way.

"I don't find it scary. I don't think you could do this job if you were too scared - you are conscious of the risk to yourself, but you put it to the back of your mind and do what you have to do in front of you."

Elite unit

Capt Gallagher wanted to be a bomb disposal expert from an early age, joining the Army at 18.

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Army bomb expert Martin Laverack shows examples of Afghan bombs

The mathematics graduate is one of an elite who have passed the improvised explosive device disposal (IEDD) No1 (High Threat) course. Only four women have, and she is one of just two deployed to Afghanistan.

She admits her husband is not keen on her returning to serve in Helmand.

"Our families are only too aware of the risks."

The high-threat operators of 11 EOD Regiment, part of the Royal Logistic Corps, the British army's specialist unit responsible for counter-terrorist bomb disposal and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), must pass more than 200 exams during their training before they can wear the coveted badge of the ammunition technical officer (ATO) or ammunition technician (AT).

When you do the job for real there for the first time, you've got one under your belt
Captain Judith Gallagher

It is a process that can take anything from three to eight years.

It also requires the right temperament - an ability to face risk, work logically and methodically under pressure, and master any fear you might start off with about walking towards rather than away from a bomb.

So how did Capt Gallagher feel after defusing those first devices in Afghanistan, where British troops face some of the greatest threats they have ever encountered from what many describe as low-density minefields?

"Relief in a way," she says.

"When you do the job for real there for the first time, you've got one under your belt. The last thing you want to do is die on your first device."

Growing threat

Coalition forces in Afghanistan are encountering more than a thousand bombs every month, some 40% of them in Helmand.

Because of the intense training and experience needed to reach the highest level, there are still too few bomb disposal experts to deal with a threat that has grown faster and more lethally than anyone predicted when British forces first went into Helmand in 2006.

"Why I loathe the people who set these bombs"

Those who can do the job are in high demand. The unit is keen to recruit more people with the right temperament.

Capt Gallagher is part of a close-knit team who wear their other emblem with pride - Felix, the cat with nine lives.

The 30-year-old and almost all her colleagues admit to believing in luck, and to a certain degree of superstition.

The regiment's members are split between bases from Northern Ireland to the Rhine but almost all know each other or have served or trained together.

Losses

It is, they say, like a family - a family still dealing with the loss of four of its members since September 2008 in Afghanistan.

Their memory is kept alive, and for their comrades as well as their families, the losses are still raw.

WO2 Gary O' Donnell died in 2008 defusing a bomb in Helmand, leaving a widow and four children. He was awarded a bar, or second George Medal, after his death for his immense bravery, the first to be given in 26 years. His first had been won in Iraq.

Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid
Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid had made safe more than 60 bombs

Capt Dan Shepherd was killed last July defusing a device. He too had dealt with more than 50 and was described by his commanding officer as composed, compassionate and utterly unflappable.

Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid died in October 2009, exhausted after tackling more than 60 bombs in his five-month tour of duty. He is remembered by the soldiers he worked with as ''better than the best of the best".

Capt Dan Read, who insisted on returning to the front line despite his injuries from an earlier blast, was killed this January.

His comrades say they will remember his commitment, loyalty and deep-seated courage, as they prepare for his funeral on Thursday and a wake, which they will attend either in uniform or dressed as pirates, as he had wished. Almost all plan to go as pirates. It is that dark humour and the knowledge of the dangers the job entails that binds this unit so closely.

The 'long walk'

WO2 SQMS Colin Grant is just as understated about the perils of his work, although he says the job in Helmand was "mentally and physically very draining".

For six months, the 37-year-old and his team lived out of their backpacks, rarely knowing where they would sleep on any given night, as they were sent across the province to deal with the work of the Taliban's bomb-makers.

IED after being made safe
Bombs are often cheap and crudely built

"I loathe them, because it's not just us that are being attacked," he says.

"I've seen it with my own eyes - Afghan kids, women and children injured when these IEDs [improvised explosive devices] function.

"I loathe the bomb-makers totally and utterly. I don't even have any respect for their technical skills, because they've been misapplied completely."

He and his colleague Capt Liam Fitzgerald-Finch were awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for their exceptional courage during their tour of duty in Helmand.

So what is it like to walk towards a bomb, the so-called long walk?

"You're very, very focused. There's very little peripheral thought," says Capt Fitzgerald-Finch.

"I'm really focused on dealing with the device, and not becoming a risk for anyone else, because while you are dealing with the device, a lot of other people [soldiers] are looking after you.

"So it's just a case of going down the road and getting the job done as quickly and safely as possible."

Liam Fitzgerald-Finch
Liam Fitzgerald-Finch survived being blown up

The high-threat operators are targets in themselves. The insurgents are well aware their work threatens the effectiveness of the bombs sown under cover of darkness, constantly in some areas of towns such as Sangin or Nad Ali.

It is a cheap, often crudely built weapon that relies as much on the insidious fear it generates in the soldiers and civilians it targets as for its often lethal effects. So how do the bomb disposal experts deal with fear?

"Fear is about the unknown," says Capt Fitzgerald-Finch.

"We work out exactly what the threat is, how you're being targeted, and then - when you walk down the road - you have 90% of the information you need, so you are very rarely surprised when you reach the target."

He, like some of his comrades, has been blown up but survived to tell the tale - in his case when the armoured vehicle he was travelling in drove over a bomb.

Felix was looking after them that day - there were no severe casualties.

Elevated risk

On the training area not far from their base at Didcot, Cpl James Cutting, 21, still bears the scars of his recent experiences in Afghanistan.

Dragon runner remote counter IED kit
Remote-controlled robots are used to assess and help deal with bombs

His shrapnel injuries and a right thumb that will not bend are the legacy of the explosion in November that killed Cpl Loren Marlton-Thomas, a Royal Engineer Search Team Commander from 33 Engineer Regiment (EOD), and wounded another soldier from 11 EOD Regiment, who is being treated in Selly Oak hospital for severe injuries.

But Cpl Cutting remains keen to return to Afghanistan.

The team demonstrates the hi-tech remote-controlled robots such as the Dragon Runner, used to assess and help deal with bombs.

Critics say there are still too few in Afghanistan, despite a drive to send more equipment and specialist teams to deal with roadside bombs, as well as to gather more intelligence on the networks and financing behind the bomb-makers.

Yet defusing the devices is still all too often down to a man or woman advancing to face the bomb close-up, often without the usual protective clothing or visors, because they are simply too hot, heavy and cumbersome to carry for long distances through the unforgiving deserts of Helmand.

So how do the men and women of this unit deal with their losses, and continue their work?

Capt Fitzgerald-Finch looks down for a moment before he replies.

"We work in a situation of elevated risk and when it happens we look after each other and just work through it."



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