Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 16:02 UK

Afghanistan bomb disposal experts return to UK

Soldiers receiving medals
Soldiers were presented with medals at the end of the parade

Residents lined the streets of an Oxfordshire town to welcome home 200 British Army bomb disposal experts.

The Counter Improvised Explosive Device task force held a homecoming parade through Didcot on Friday.

The soldiers, who lost seven colleagues during a six-month tour of Afghanistan, were later honoured with campaign medals.

Their commanding officer, Lt Col Gareth Bex, said it was a "huge relief" for the troops to be home.

The C-IED task force has been at the forefront of the battle to regain control of areas of Afghanistan from Taliban fighters.

Improvised explosive devices, or home-made bombs, have been the main weapon used against coalition forces in the country and have caused scores of deaths and injuries among British troops.

'Incredibly dangerous'

The last six-month tour saw the loss of Captain Dan Read, Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, Warrant Officer David Markland, Corporal James Oakland, Sapper Guy Mellors and Sapper David Watson, who all died while working to clear devices.

BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt
Caroline Wyatt, BBC defence correspondent, in Didcot

The 200 specialists of the unit are acknowledged by their Forces colleagues in Helmand as 'the bravest of the brave' and 'an extraordinary group of people'. It is no exaggeration.

Countering the threat from the Taliban's deadly IEDs or roadside bombs is one of the most urgent - and dangerous - tasks in the campaign in Afghanistan today, with improvised devices responsible for more than 75 per cent of British deaths in Helmand. The bombs also kill and maim Afghan civilians.

The unit's task is to help search out those bombs. Then the bomb disposal experts must walk towards the bomb to defuse or destroy it, the so-called 'lonely walk'.

It is a job that takes many years to train for - and nerves of steel to perform day in, day out in some of the harshest and most hostile conditions any Army has faced.

Two of the team have been awarded the George Cross, the highest award for gallantry. One was given posthumously to Staff Sergeant Schmid and the other to Staff Sergeant Kim Hughes.

At noon on Friday, the soldiers of the 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, Royal Logistic Corps, paraded through Didcot in front of thousands of applauding residents who had turned out to line the streets and officially welcome the team home.

The task force carried on to the civic town hall where they were presented with campaign medals for their work in Afghanistan by the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire Tim Stevenson, Lt Gen Chris O'Donoghue, Master General of Logistics, and the director of the Royal Logistics Corps, Brig Chris Murray.

Lt Col Gareth Bex, commanding officer of the C-IED task force, which is made up of personnel from all three services, said his team had dealt with almost 2,000 separate devices in six months.

He said: "It is incredibly dangerous work but it's a vital role we play. My men and women are incredibly motivated knowing that what they do saves lives."

"It's a huge relief and it is wonderful to be back with our families. I am enjoying the simple pleasures in life like spending time with my children and walking the dog.

"It's a relief for the families to have their loved-ones back safe and sound."

Fellow soldiers in Afghanistan's Helmand province lauded the task force.

Brig James Cowan, Commander of Task Force Helmand, said: "The men and women of the C-IED Task Force are an extraordinary group of people.

"Selflessly committed to their dangerous work and utterly professional, there isn't a soldier in Task Force Helmand who doesn't hold them in the utmost respect for what they do and the way they do it."

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