Page last updated at 04:44 GMT, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Soldier 'threw back hand grenade'

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Rifleman James McKie: "I dived forward, picked up the grenade and threw it off the roof"

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Defence correspondent

A British soldier has described how he picked up a Taliban hand grenade which landed at his feet and threw it back towards the enemy.

Rifleman James McKie was on a tiny rooftop in Sangin. He and two of his platoon could hear the bullets fired by the Taliban below bouncing off the roof.

The 29-year-old soldier had just finished firing back when the grenade thrown by the insurgents bounced off his platoon commander and landed just a foot away from him.

He heard a small pop, "like a fire-cracker", before he saw the grenade land.

The young soldier, originally from New Zealand, made a split-second decision that was to save his life and those of his two comrades on that roof. He picked up the grenade, and threw it back.

"I saw the grenade, and my first thought was that I knew I had to get it away from us. And my second was 'I hope this doesn't hurt too much'," he says, with a wry smile.

"As I picked it up, my thoughts were for the other guys with me - Capt Graeme Kerr and Rifleman Holtman. We had lost Cpl Green the day before.

"I didn't want to go through that again, and I wasn't prepared to see another guy from our platoon get hurt. I'd rather that it was myself than someone else. So I got my body behind the grenade and managed to throw it off."

Friends lost

Capt Kerr was injured in the back of his leg by a piece of shrapnel. Rifleman McKie and his comrade managed to carry him and their machine-gun off the roof, with Capt Kerr continuing to talk to the rest of their unit on the radio despite his injury, working out how to get them back to their patrol base as they came under fresh fire.

Remarkably, Rifleman McKie's only injuries on 3 March were from shrapnel to his arm and face. Two sticking plasters on his left cheek are the most visible scars of that day.

He insisted on staying with his unit and carrying on his work, before his commander told him to go to Camp Bastion for medical treatment.

Over the past six months of taking the fight to the Taliban, he and his colleagues have had to deal with the deaths of several of their closest friends.

"I wish I could say it gets easier. My reconnaissance platoon have had four killed and I'm the eighth wounded," he says.

Corp Richard Green
Corp Richard Green was killed by small arms fire on 2 March

"That's a company's worth of casualties in one platoon. But you just crack on. It's really good when you're around everyone else. When the team is together it's like nothing can touch you."

Yet the thought of those they have lost does not go away.

"You get this strange feeling that if you get back to the UK, they'll still be there and they'll just walk in the door, and it's like they're not really gone. But when you're by yourself, it's horrible. And you know that they're gone then," he says quietly.

He will carry the coffin of Cpl Richard Green up the ramp of the C17 plane that will fly his comrade's body home. Cpl Green was just 23 when he was killed by small-arms fire in Sangin on 2 March. Rifleman McKie will also read the eulogy he has written for his friend and comrade.

The quietly-spoken soldier pauses as he remembers him, his voice cracking slightly.

"Soldiering was his passion, and he was such a good friend to everyone. Greenie was uncompromising, but if you were a hard-working soldier he'd look after you. He was passionate about his friends and family. He loved them to bits, and he always talked about his brother Daniel," he says.

"He loved Tottenham Hotspur. As a New Zealander I don't care too much about football, but as a tribute to him I'm going to support them."

'Ready to fight'

Rifleman McKie has only been in the British Army for a year, but his unit 3 Rifles - like their predecessors 2 Rifles - have probably seen a lifetime's soldiering in their six-month tour.

Now he has just three weeks left before the end of his tour but he is keen to return to Sangin after the repatriation ceremony - to rejoin his friends and continue their work.

"Some of the people in Sangin are really glad we are there to help them. Maybe 50% of them. But then you have the others, the insurgents and the people who are hostile, or do drug-running, and they don't want us there."

So why is the fighting once again so fierce in Sangin? He believes that as British forces try to secure fresh areas further from the more secure centre of town, the insurgents are pushing back, and making the most of the unseasonably warm weather.

"They are like us in that they don't want to fight in the cold, wet or dark. The guys we are fighting now are not the same we were fighting at the end of the summer. They've had a good rest, they've re-equipped and they are ready to fight. And so are we," he says.



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