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Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Wednesday, 27 January 2010
Afghan frontline diary

British soldiers in Afghanistan

Behind the headlines, what is it like to fight in Afghanistan?

Major Richard Streatfeild
Major Richard Streatfeild who has been on active duty in Afghanistan

The 3rd Battalion of the Rifles Regiment recently returned from a six-month tour of duty in the country.

Among their number is Major Richard Streatfeild. During the tour, he commanded "A Company" 4 Rifles, attached to 3 Rifles in Battlegroup North, from a base in the upper Sangin valley where the heaviest of the fighting has been so far. We have been be following his progress over the past months.

I SALUTE YOU

I salute you:

Ricky, Ginge, Sonny

Legs, Owens, V, Ed, Smudge,

Rolfy, Archy, Cam, Hitch, Eddie, Lips,

Monty, Bobby, Sam, and Thorpy,

Kristian, Ronnie, Craig, and Dave

Bethan, Jodie, Colette, Hayley

Fish, Morgs, and Murph.

Two Toms, two Tells, and a couple of Macs

Ash, Cat, Gaz, Bremner, Danso, Fletch, and Hoyley

JD, Louie, Michael, Nash,

Sakiusa, Ollie, Pan, and Ratty,

Tapps, Vinny, Will, Woody, and another V

Topsy, Robbo, Preecy, Pete ,

Guy, Furgy, Ruby, Cunny, and Coxy,

Browny, Axel, Bab, Cadell, and Nathan

Mike, Niall, Knighty, Johno

Waka, Patch, Gumbo, Compass, Cookie

Cameron, Anthony, Jovilifi, Nash,

Ken, Ray Ray, Tommy T,

Grevo, Grandad, Gorm, Goody, Gonzo, Ginge

Vinny, Trev, Tony, Toby, Bertie

Reading, Payney, Paul, Martin, Mark

Needs, Ned, James twice, Pablos and Picker

Chico, Chip, Chase, Charlie, Coxy, Coyne

5 Dans, Dave squared Dudley, Dole, Dicky, Devo, Decks, Dean, and Daz,

Stuart, Stripper, Steven, Stephen, Stan, Spencer, Spence

Smithers, Slumdog, Sin, Si, Scouse, Sarg, Bridgey, Borth, Bertrand, Bags

Ben, Pat, Fred, Charles, Michael, Tom, Ed, and Jessie, Jonna, Jimmy, H.

These are the men and women who I have had the privilege to lead'

Mothers, brothers, husbands, sons and daughters , I salute you.

Carlo, Martin, Tom, Sam, and Pete, for our tomorrow you gave your today.

Age will not weary you nor the years condemn,

At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember.

A QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP

"It's a question of leadership Richard."

The words of one former commanding officer to me on a previous operational tour. It induced an internal eyeball rolling at the time. I was in a situation entirely of someone else's making that I was being asked to resolve with nothing other than the words that would come out of my mouth.

During this tour that question has been posed on a daily basis. Persuading people to do things they would not undertake in normal circumstances.

There is a certain amount of personal example in all this but it only goes so far. It doesn't help if the example is a bad one! It has to be coupled with mutual trust and a common understanding of the approach.

From each according to his ability; to each according to his need
Maj Streatfeild on leadership

Team spirit, respect, collective ownership, and personal accountability are powerful catalysts. This is achieved in a structural way by a long period of training before we go and living together in garrisons and messes.

My personal leadership maxim is a Marxian one: From each according to his ability; to each according to his need. I try to treat everyone equally by treating them all differently.

What I know for sure is that if ever things are a little difficult, and there have been a few of those days, I look no further than Riflemen.

Common sense, a bit of humour and to be trusted by them to make the right decision despite the associated risks has inspired me.

THE RITUALS OF WAR

I am not a superstitious man. Before this tour there were no little foibles about the order in which I do things. A few bad habits maybe but no rituals.

As the tour has progressed I have noticed that there is an increasingly superstitious element that has crept in. I have listened to the same piece of music every night for the last three months less for the time I was on R and R.

I have no idea why it appeared but now it will live with me forever. Riflemen are not usually a religious bunch but I can guarantee more prayers have been offered in the last six months than ever before.

Early in the tour I heard a section praying before they went out. "Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…" it was moving and frightening at the same time. One of our soldiers who was killed in action had a prayer found in his helmet.

No one carried or wore a crucifix in UK, now they are as common as not. One doesn't find too many atheists on the battlefield.

And from the religious to the ridiculous. I have a platoon commander who puts his boots on in the same order every day, inexplicable beyond the fact that it has become his ritual. There are a hundred more, the small rituals of those who need everything to be on their side.

TO KILL A MAN

As a commander it is rare that you fire your rifle. But with the technology at our disposal there are plenty of other ways to neutralise the insurgent. A strange euphemism that does not do justice to the act.

For Riflemen it is a matter of professional pride to be able to shoot straight. The trick with the other methods is to fuse the information available and set up those controlling the weapon to be in the best situation to fire.

According to our rules of engagement, the legal framework that allows us to use lethal force against the insurgents, the final judgement is the responsibility of an individual.

This is often a very difficult judgement to make based on profusion of factors.

The most important aspect is to make sure that we only kill those who are positively identified as insurgents. Pity the Rifleman with the child laying an IED in his sights.

The responsibility for that process and the judgement that comes at the end of it has been mine on a number of occasions.

Additionally, as situations develop, those in command can guide the firer, helping him to think of factors that are important but may get lost in the excitement.

Be under no illusion those moments are some of the most adrenaline fuelled of the tour. The imminence of the threat, fight or flight, producing the strongest of physiological responses.

Finding the mental space to make the right decision has become easier, but the aftermath still leaves me a little cold.

KIT ISSUES

But have you got the right kit?

One of the questions that came up repeatedly during my stay in UK concerned kit. That, and where did I sleep?

Well; I sleep in a sleeping bag on a camp cot. Not in great quantities but pretty comfortably. The hot water bottle became a vital companion during January.

As an infantryman I have never been better equipped whilst I have been in the army

Now it is 35 degrees during the day we are into lightweight bags. Spring has turned into summer in a month. But back to the kit. The question even turned into a statement: "Well of course you're not properly equipped!"

I have an excellent rifle with a brand new sight; a new helmet, winter and summer kit that does the job and more. We travel in a range of vehicles and I generally get the choice of whether I send people out with the balance in favour of protection or mobility.

And it is a balance. The laws of physics are difficult to bend. The relentless march of technology means that kit needs constantly updating but as an infantryman I have never been better equipped whilst I have been in the army.

Of course we could do more with more but we will not fail here for lack of personal equipment. General McCrystal put it bluntly last summer, we are only in danger of defeating ourselves.

It is the human touch, the politics - not the technology - that will make the difference.

THE BARREL OF A GUN

The time since I returned to Afghanistan has been swift, bloody and bold. We mourn Martin Kingett, Carlo Apolis, and Tom Keogh.

But in the midst of grief the Company has continued to take the fight to the enemy.

New areas under our control, new levels of partnership with the ANA new levels of appreciation and consent from the local population.

To succeed in this mission the power that comes from the barrel of a gun must be exercised with clinical discretion

We do not confuse taking casualties with a losing battle. Every one is a tragedy for family, friends and comrades. To a man they died fighting for their friends and doing the job they volunteered for.

Volunteers not victims. I was with a section of one my platoons hours after the death of one of these men. "How are you all?" "Oh you know …we're fine." "How are the others?" A shadow in the eyes but there is determination and satisfaction of another hard earned step in the right direction.

If you are an actor you derive satisfaction from a fine performance in a difficult role, a lawyer revels in a winning argument.

If you are a soldier there is a satisfaction in achieving a mission when the enemy has to be out thought and out fought. In counterinsurgency that also means bringing the local population with you.

To succeed in this mission the power that comes from the barrel of a gun must be exercised with clinical discretion if the battle for consent is to be won.

It is a complex game but one that I and the rest of the company and the battle group have played for five months. This period will have been a greater knock for the insurgent than it will have been for us.

At the end of the week one Lance Corporal was finishing his tour. His parting shot was "yea the casualties have been bad but most of us have actually enjoyed it". That is our reality.

WASHING DAY

What gets the headlines is the bombs and the bullets, the politics and the heroism, but there is quite a lot about operations that is a good deal more mundane.

Today is washing day. The signal for washing day is that my hanging shelves in the hesco hab only has one pair of socks left.

The washing repartee is a bit of a break from the bombs and the bullets

The bulging washing bag gets a hot soak with a bit of dhobi dust.

Hot water will be taken from the most dangerous piece of equipment in the army - the Puffing Billy. Essentially a metallic dustbin water heater.

Lighting it is very likely to induce cartoon explosions and face blackening.

Then in an innovation probably not peculiar to this part of Afghanistan - the Royal Engineers' cement mixers provide the mechanical power for a 20 minute wash.

Change of water and a 20 minute rinse.

Quick soak and if you're lucky most of the dirt is out.

In the summer with temperatures of 50 degrees un-wrung washing takes an hour to dry.

In January we look for two fine days together on the forecast to be sure.

Morale raised a month ago when the shell of a new laundry unit arrived, but the plumbing is yet to arrive.

I am not ashamed to say that the novelty of this particular experience has now worn off. But like most domestic activity here it is a social event and the washing repartee is a bit of a break from the bombs and the bullets.

HOW DO YOU FEEL?

The other day we had a visit from the field mental health team; an advisory visit rather than one out of clinical need.

It is quite difficult to explain to those outside the military how the cocktail of emotions is mixed.

The army is getting better at identifying and treating psychological issues early.

We keep people as far forward as possible with people who better understand the individual and the event.

Stress and its effects are now well known. After every event in which soldiers are exposed to trauma they are interviewed collectively and individually.

We have a good system but culturally in the army we struggle to answer the question and so do I. It changes from day to day.

It is quite difficult to explain to those outside the military how the cocktail of emotions is mixed. A drop of fatigue with a slice of excitement, a splash of adrenaline with a measure of boredom, add fear, relief, elation, frustration and pride and stand well back.

Quite honestly soldiers don't want to explore all of those when the mixture may be more potent tomorrow.

Those returning from two weeks rest and recuperation talk of neither an ability to explain nor a desire. They enjoyed themselves in a way only soldiers know.

The support is immeasurably better than it used to be. I am constantly impressed with young men confronting the most difficult events and strongest emotions. They tend to prefer dealing with them amongst colleagues rather than friends.

THE PARADOX

It's a paradox. Having achieved relative control of our new area the fight is now on to keep control.

The insurgent is tenacious as well as brutal. We treated a local who had stepped on and partially detonated a roadside bomb. He was flown by us to the hospital in Lashkar Gar.

The presence of a patrol base may bring explosions and fighting but people feel safer.

During his stay there his family came to the patrol base where he had been treated to see if we had any news. As they departed they were followed.

We found out that the insurgent intended to question them and stop them ever talking to us again. The unveiled threat of the bully. We paid for his father to take a taxi to the hospital.

Our man now is back, down a foot unfortunately but extremely grateful for his treatment and speedy evacuation.

The Platoon Commander who organised the evacuation is now a family friend. An invitation to supper has been extended.

Of particular interest to the Afghans is the presence of a female medic. She provokes confusion and admiration in equal measure.

In this conflict the front line is not a line in the dust. It is waged over the human geography. It is politics with an admixture of other means; the battle for trust and support over coercion.

However, in Afghanistan people trust what they can see.

The presence of a patrol base may bring explosions and fighting but people feel safer.

The greatest paradox of all is that in our area, as the casualties in the security cordon continue, the centre of Sangin is as safe and prosperous as it as ever been.

RIFLEMAN PETER ALDRIDGE

Rifleman Peter Aldridge was a mighty fine Rifleman.

He had joined the Army straight from school and trained for a year at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate. He had brains as well as brawn. Fit, strong and brave he gave his life trying to make sure that the path was safe for his section.

We trusted him and he would now trust us to live up to his example.

He had been trained in specialist weapons. He wanted to be a Sniper. Like all those who had been trained and educated at the College he was a future leader. He aspired to be a section commander.

He will be sorely missed, and the Army will be much the poorer for the passing of his talent. But it will be his family friends that will feel his loss most deeply and our thoughts are with them.

He had all the qualities of a true Rifleman. He held no fear of rank; admirably direct; an appetite for adventure; a quick tongue; an easy laugh and broad shoulders.

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I have enjoyed his company on adventure training tearing down a Welsh hillside on a mountain bike and on operations over a brew putting Afghanistan to rights.

On operations he carried the fight to the enemy but was mature enough to understand the requirements for restraint.

In England he shared his room with his mountain bike and all his extra kit. In Afghanistan he has helped to wrest control of an area from the insurgent.

He was always to be found at the front.

Trusted by his superiors and his peers in situations where only those with his qualities can be trusted. We trusted him and he would now trust us to live up to his example.

NEW FRIENDS

The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy. Busy tends to be a euphemism for violent.

We have taken control of an area that used to be held by insurgents and made several new friends in the process.

Initially we were assisted by an American team whose job is find and explode the roadside bombs that make this part of the world so dangerous.

Uncle Sam is a great friend to have and it still comes pretty naturally despite the language barrier.

The L T was a relative new boy, his platoon Sergeant was in the finest tradition of US forces. Utterly committed to the mission, he reassured me that if there was anything that needed clearing then he and his team were the men for the job.

For three days they helped us out non-stop. He was seven weeks away from completing a tour of duty that had lasted 10 months and taken him from Iraq directly to Afghanistan.

His fourth child had been born during his time away. In three days they blew up over 20 improvised explosive devices.

At the other end of the scale we were delighted to welcome General Rodriguez to the base on Christmas Eve.

The five letter abbreviation for his job title was unfathomable but he is basically in charge of the coalition assistance to the Afghan National Army.

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I relayed our generally positive experiences of working with the ANA and pleaded the case for more warriors in this part of Helmand.

He came with an international entourage including a Belgian Colonel. The level of commitment and enthusiasm of the US Army for the mission in Afghanistan is infectious and energising.

There was a trip round the base to grip and grin with the troops. Each stop was peppered with stirring words and heartfelt thanks.

Uncle Sam is a great friend to have and it still comes pretty naturally despite the language barrier.

But better than this, two days ago close to one of the new patrol bases an Afghan man took one of my platoon commanders to show him where insurgents had laid a device.

We were able to render it impotent. A small but immensely significant step on the way to success.

MESSAGES FROM HOME

Due to various administrative constraints the Christmas mail very nearly did not arrive on time. Then to obvious relief vast quantities showed up on Christmas Eve.

The level of support that we have received from families, friends, anonymous donors and well wishers great and small has been outstanding.

I opened a "to a soldier" card from a primary school and a dollar fell out. The message inside simply read "get yerself a cup of tea".

Tea is about the only thing that comes for free out here, but it was deeply touching.

I have been the lucky recipient of many parcels from family and friends but it is the oddest gifts that catch you off guard.

One parcel came with a bag of autumn leaves and lavender. One of the warrant officers inhaled deeply declaring "that is England it's bloody England".

Even so there are some gifts that don't quite make it. Either my sister could not bear to part with the Christmas truffles or they got snuffled somewhere along the line.

And it looks as though Merv's plum preserve will have to wait until R and R.

I have been inundated with puzzles to fill my copious amounts of free time as well as a fine selection of cake, confectionary, cheese and meats. We have all had our parcel from the charity UK4U thanks!

It is an incongruous name for a charity that continues the fine tradition of sending a gift box to each soldier serving on operations at Christmas.

The arrival of mail and parcels engenders depression for those who have been forgotten and ecstasy for those with news from home.

Those with the post mail blues are often to be heard damning all those involved in the transit of mail. They are often the first to laugh when the boot is on the other foot.

In an electronic age it is still hand written words, read on a camp cot, that bring most happiness to a soldier on operations. That, and a full stomach.

CHRISTMAS

There is a tradition in the Army that at Christmas the Officers, Warrant Officers and Sergeants serve Christmas Dinner to everybody else.

It is a chance to recognise that for the majority of time it is the Riflemen who do the hard work. In the base because I have many different cap badges under command the team served not only to Riflemen, but to Signallers, Policemen, Gunners, Chefs, Engineers, Mechanics, Medics, Dog handlers and a trooper.

The last effects of the Brussels sprouts are long gone

A meal of three courses and two sittings. Soup, a selection of fresh meat and fresh veg, with Christmas pudding. Christmas cake to finish.

Shrunken stomachs ached with the pleasure. There is a lot of good-natured chat that goes on with the boot well and truly on the other foot.

The doctor made an entrance as a Christmas pixie. The black bin bag dress, what there was of it, inducing whoops and cheers as well as multiple photo calls.

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And once the world outside is forgotten the banter starts. No talk of ops or loved ones just a few moments out of the game. Then the applause for the chefs and a stumble into the cold night, a cigarette for some but a return for the sentry post for others.

This event took place in my base over 10 days ago.

The last effects of the Brussels sprouts are long gone. Since then we have been deployed into Platoon Patrol bases paving the way for ANA expansion. There will be no time to celebrate together on Christmas Day.

There will be visits and a shared meal. Local produce from Afghans pleased with the security we now offer close to the new bases holds the promise of a Christmas meal that most will not forget.

A memorable Christmas will be celebrated amongst friends but away from loved ones.

It is for them that we will spare several thoughts. We are volunteers but there are many conscripts to this army. Families who will be spending Christmas without their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, husbands or wives.

We will be thinking of them this Christmas.

SOUNDS, SIGHTS AND SMELLS

The comfort of the sleeping bag in the chill of the morning air. The invigorating shock of the occasional cold shower. Clean combats dried in the dusty air.

Hot coffee, bacon slice, beans and porridge. The acrid ammonia of the desert rose and the rich odour of the deep trench latrine. 80 pounds of armour, ammunition, kit and clobber.

The crackle of radio communications, clipped and terse.

Bravado, banter, humour, laughter. Grief like a stone.

High walls, narrow alleys, open fields, dusty roads and clothes; heat shimmer, rain on hot stones, mist in the green zone.

The Somme like suction of the irrigated poppy field. Waist deep ditch water bobbing with excrement.

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Sweat and steam on protective specs. Careful steps. The adrenaline injection of imminent action. The crack and thump of lead through the air, the fizz of a rocket propelled grenade.

The hornet drone of the helicopter spitting fire. The high octane, low pass of the jet.

Sweat, mud, blood, fear, bravery. Calm after the storm. Eerie calm. Tobacco spat, bines puffed, the smoke of dung fires.

Bravado, banter, humour, laughter. Grief like a stone. The IED explosion, the slam of a metal container door too similar to distinguish. Nervous relaxation.

Sunset on jagged peaks, bright stars, crisp nights, moon shadow. Noodles, meat and boiled tinned carrots, chocolate sponge.

The tapping of the keyboard reporting to commanders. Late nights and gentle snoring of men at rest.

THE AFGHAN GAME

If you want to understand the Afghan then look no further than Buzkashi. Not my words but still relevant.

The national Afghan game is called Buzkashi. The translation of the name is "goat pulling".

It involves two teams of 15 setting off from a single point on horseback. They race towards a dead goat placed in a circle. The goat is grabbed and they gallop towards a second marker. The teams must get the goat round the marker and back into the circle.

The game is violent. The peculiarly Afghan element is that once a team has the upper hand the goat will often be stolen by players within that team in order to get the final glory.

The game is played in the barren desert with distances of over a mile between the markers and the circle.

The playing surface leaves a little to be desired, which makes the occasional LBW hotly contested

I have asked our interpreters whether Buskashi is played in this area. The answer is yes but that was before the fighting.

The cultural point is that, faced with a common enemy the Afghans unite, but quickly argue amongst themselves when the external catalyst is gone.

Perhaps our answer to this is cricket, where the game is played over five days, a good tea is very important, and the most likely result is a draw.

Cricket is also played in Afghanistan courtesy of our imperialist past. We have had several six-a-side games in the FOB. Our interpreters are generally from Kabul and are archetypically good slow bowlers or wristy batsmen with a good eye.

The playing surface leaves a little to be desired, which makes the occasional LBW hotly contested.

The common ground is found in football for which we have enough room for a small five-a-side pitch.

Again the surface is a bit dodgy. But after work, if there is still enough light, I will often find a group of Tiger Team Afghan troops mixed with Riflemen, interpreters, and our locally employed civilians enjoying a kick about that more often than not turns into an international friendly.

Sport doing its bit to turn colleagues into friends.

DONKEY ATTACK

There is no such thing as a normal day in Afghanistan.

One of my platoons has begun to partner a Platoon from the Afghan National Army. The Afghans have already got a small team of UK mentors in their camp, but this move is part of the renewed effort to help the Afghan National Army take on the insurgency with more vigour.

All the planning and conduct of patrols is done jointly. The platoon has worked extremely hard in the last forty eight hours to give their new home enough protection.

The insurgents have responded in a number of ways but today they out did themselves.

Swift appropriate action had saved them from an unusual attack

The Afghan Army Platoon had received some information that the insurgents were going to try to strap an IED to a donkey and send it towards the camp. Donkeys do not have the reputation of being the most compliant animal, so it was treated with some scepticism at first.

Then in the afternoon the gate guard realised there was something suspicious going on. A group had just let go of a donkey a short way from camp and hurried off. He tried to divert the animal with flares and other warnings.

Obstinacy not being the best quality in that situation, the beast of burden eventually had to be stopped by a rifle shot.

The team went out and established there was something very suspicious under the bundle of hay carried by the donkey.

Eventually one brave ANA warrior set fire to the hay with a flare from a distance, and 30 seconds later there was a considerable explosion. No one was hurt.

Swift appropriate action had saved them from an unusual attack. But it is impossible to report a donkey IED up the chain of command without either a wry smile at the ridiculousness or a feeling that the world is slightly off its axis.

FOOD

For all soldiers in Afghanistan, the basics of living assume much greater importance.

Food, drink, sleep, cigarettes for some, press-ups for others, or a visit to the deep trench latrine, are all important rituals in the day.

Food is by far the most important element of this. There is an army joke that the chef's course is the hardest in the Services because no chef seems to have passed it.

The best days are reserved for when fresh rations come in

Whilst variety and taste has improved immeasurably in recent years, the staples are still there - bacon grill, sausages, tinned tomatoes, powdered egg and beans for breakfast. Generally with porridge. Noodles and soup for lunch with a couple of rice or pasta choices for supper.

Military efficiency being what it is, the food is chosen for its nutritional value and ease of preparation. In this base we are particularly lucky that the chefs are doing an outstanding job.

Given limited ingredients the four chefs from of the Royal Logistic Corps have done us proud. The processed cheese cheesecake, tinned fruit crumble, pizza, spam balls in sweet and sour sauce, chicken jerky and fresh bread have all been added to the daily fare.

We all eat together on bench tables in the cook house. Cardboard plates and plastic cutlery are the order of the day in order to prevent the spread of illness.

But whilst there is much that is functional about the food the best days are reserved for when fresh rations come in. Steaks to order were a particular highlight, as well as fresh fruit in place of the processed fruit bar.

Being well fed is probably the single most important aspect of a soldier's morale. We still march on our stomachs.

BATTLE OF WILLS

The start of a tour is always incredibly busy. Every day is a new experience.

Yesterday we held a Shura at the base. Or more accurately, we had a Shura come to us. A large group of elders arrived to protest the innocence of a man who had been arrested in a security operation. There was no doubt that they had been sent by insurgents, but they were a notable gathering.

In Afghanistan, age, gender, and facial hair are all indicators of seniority in open society. Inside the compound there is alleged to be a matriarchy, outside, in Helmand, mature men with long beards get respect. It was as an impressive bunch of beards as you are likely to find.

I will not describe the full extent of their injuries but horrific barely does the scene justice.

We talked for about two hours. They are good talkers and the conversation moves at a sedate pace. "You have the watches but we have the time" is a popular Afghan jibe.

We sat on our haunches until my western joints creaked and we moved to benches. Green tobacco is taken with care. Small globules of spit form a circle of dust balls on the ground around each chewer.

Afghans often suffer myopia alleged to be the result of a lifetime of dehydration. They break into your personal space to look closely from behind a beard and leathery skin tanned by a thousand Afghan suns.

At one point I was told that we both believed in the same God. "There is only one god," he assured me. We had been going for an hour an a half at that point and I felt we might have only just warmed up if the theology continued. So I felt inclined to agree and left it at that.

We arranged to meet again in three days to see if their issue had progressed.

It all appears to be a caricature and a slightly idyllic one, but it is not. The Shura had been delayed for an hour because two children, both nine, had been brought to the FOB having stepped on an IED. Innocent victims in the battle of wills.

I will not describe the full extent of their injuries but horrific barely does the scene justice. Our doctor, medics and medically trained Riflemen worked for 35 minutes to save them. They were alive when we put them on the Chinook helicopter to the hospital in Camp Bastion with relatives. They died of their injuries there.

It is hard not to believe it was a small mercy. Their uncles returned later in a taxi with the two coffins. They were buried today.

We are left with the moral dilemma of having found, marked clearly and avoided that device only for two children to detonate it.

REMEMBRANCE

This week has been a bloody one. Our thoughts are with the family and close friends of those who have died, especially for us in A Company of Philip Allen and Sam Bassett.

I am here, I step out of the gate because I am part of a team

We have held a memorial service in the base - their names and their memory will not be forgotten.

At Remembrance their names were called at Services across the world and we were exhorted to remember them. In this base I led that service.

Officers have a pastoral role in the lives of their men and I have spent many hours of my professional life in a position that is more social worker than tactician.

The sacrifices of soldiers over the generations for the sake of our freedom and security should be cause for thanks as well as remembrance.

The efforts of the British Forces Broadcasting Service mean we are all aware of the current debate.

My interest in the politics of this debate has waned considerably in the last month. Whilst I have engaged in many discussions on this campaign - I am here, I step out of the gate because I am part of a team.

Whilst some Riflemen have a sense of higher purpose, most have a sense of loyalty, "mateship", and professionalism that motivate them to continue.

For me the act of remembrance is a manifestation of mutual respect for those who have laid down their lives for their friends in the service of their country.

As my Company Sergeant Major said, "They will grow not old as we that are left grow old, age will not weary them nor the years condemn, at the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them."

ON PATROL

It has been a challenging week. It was a pleasure to lift off from Bastion and see the jagged horizon free from dust. The noise of the helicopter renders conversation impossible so one is left with one's thoughts for half an hour as the helicopter flies high over the desert.

The helicopter was packed to the gunwales with men, material and post. It ended with a plunge into the landing site at the FOB (forward operating base).

The quad bikes buzz around disembowelling the chopper of its cargo. Fully kitted and armed we made our way into the gates to unload our weapons and greet the smiling faces. Always good to meet the relief.

The temperature is cooler than in Bastion with a top end of the low thirties. It is not as dusty and the nights are cool. When the moon is not up the night is black, but the stars are an astronomer's dream. No light pollution here.

The following day the group I came up with went on patrol. Pre-match nerves to which I previously referred miraculously disappear after a few minutes.

We went into the local village. Not far, but we were out for four hours.

I had a good chat with a local farmer, through an interpreter. The maize harvest is starting and he has much work to do. He asked whether he could borrow me and a few others because we looked as though we would be strong enough to carry his crop.

In the dark of the night I followed a pair of them along a path in the FOB. "I am going to miss it" confided one to another almost guiltily.
He told me how the insurgents impose a curfew in the village so they can lay IEDs but he did not know where they were. On the way back we found out.

Being close to an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) explosion has nothing to recommend it. A member of 2 Rifles lies very seriously ill in Selly Oak Hospital as a result.

Time slows. Fear, adrenaline and then training kick in almost simultaneously. Watching the lads from 2 Rifles go to work for one of their own was inspirational. Rapid effective treatment, a lung-bursting stretcher carry and a slick handover to the doctor, he was away as quickly as possible to the best trauma facility in the world, giving him the greatest chance.

Next day we were all out again in the Green Zone. I have been seriously impressed with the fortitude of the young men of 2 Rifles. In the dark of the night I followed a pair of them along a path in the FOB. "I am going to miss it" confided one to another almost guiltily.

Handovers can be fractious affairs as equipment is assiduously accounted for by quantity and serial number.

Differences in tactics are discussed in detail as what has been taught in training has been adapted by six months of practice by the in place unit. None of that this time.

I am lucky to be bringing more troops than have been here. It will give us greater flexibility. The outgoing unit has been a fund of advice and information. They have taken personal risk at the end of a long tour to give us the best start.

Tomorrow their company commander will formally hand over responsibility to me and my men and women. I hope we can match their effort to protect the people of Sangin.

ONWARD

All organisations have their own lingo but the Army does acronyms like no other organisation I know. There are three, four and five letter abbreviations for everything. Our period spent in Camp Bastion is known as RSOI - Reception, Staging and Onward Integration.

We came into camp Bastion late at night. There was a cool dust-filled breeze that felt really good after an hour cooped up in the darkness of the tactical flight in.

It is heartening to hear of the progress made and opportunities for future progress at first hand. Better news from those who have been on the ground rather than those who have been reporting it.
In the middle of the night the glare of the floodlights illuminate the dust, giving the camp a fluorescent halo. I came in on a recce a couple of months ago when, even in the middle of the night it was almost unbearably hot for someone acclimatized to Britain's BBQ summer. This time there were many favourable comments amongst the party, their last tour being in the heat of an Iraq summer.

After a late start, the briefs begin. Being unacclimatised means that we can do little physical activity as our bodies get used to the midday heat - which is still in the upper thirties. So the time is filled with the latest intelligence briefs and a myriad of other subjects. Twenty-one in all. All reminders of subjects briefed during training but more urgent now.

The package continues over a number of days. The time passes quickly because the days are full, starting early and finishing late. We have found the time to call home, mainly because the time difference of three-and-a-half hours makes a late call here into a reasonable time at home. There is a deal of administration to be done as our carefully packed kit gets used and repacked.

We got the sharpest of reminders of what we face with a day on IED training. Carrying out the drills in the midday sun until we were totally confident with the latest equipment, tactics and procedures.

Whilst I understand the value of our stay here I want to be in the Forward Operating Base. I want to continue, together with the Afghans, to try for a safer future in Sangin.
My Company are swapping with fellow Riflemen from 2 Rifles. I know many of them well and some are here in Camp Bastion.

It is heartening to hear of the progress made and opportunities for future progress at first hand. Better news from those who have been on the ground rather than those who have been reporting it. Undoubtedly their story is one of bad days as well as good days, but this is certainly in better balance than I had previously thought.

And that is what Bastion is like. Arid, hot and dusty. The smell of a port-a-loo in the midday sun and the taste of the best food anywhere I have been on operations.

An unlikely combination of emotions - happiness of those going out after a hard job well done, tinged with grief, relief and the anticipation of seeing friends and relatives. For those coming in it is the desire to get on with the job in hand, determination, with anticipation and a few pre-match nerves.

All around the mechanics of the vast operation to get the units changed over continues. The helicopter noise is continuous, providing the drumbeat of the operation.

Whilst I understand the value of our stay here I want to be in the Forward Operating Base. I want to continue, together with the Afghans, to try for a safer future in Sangin. I have to be careful what I wish for but right now, I and the rest of A Company are living on the verge of and in anticipation of that challenge.

HOPES AND FEARS

It's finally here, day one on Operation Herrick. It's been some time coming as I was first told that A Company would be going to Afghanistan in early January. A Company is usually part of 4 Rifles. For this tour we are under command of another Rifles Battalion, 3 Rifles. We are to form part of Battle Group North in Helmand which is based around Sangin.

Every father has hopes and fears. It is part of having children. I am no different from every other father in the land in that respect.
A Company is over 100 strong and with attachments from other branches of the army is considerably more than that. We have been training together since Easter.

As I look back it seems like an incredibly long period of training for the mission we are going to undertake. That said I've never heard anyone in my position say we were too well trained for the task.

The training has many aspects. Everyone going to Afghanistan needs to know how to operate safely. They need to know enough about the culture to avoid inadvertent offence.

We learn a bit of Pashtu to be able to break the ice and give basic instructions. We all do first aid training and the majority of the company are trained to a more advanced level.

And of course there is the requirement to keep people physically fit and healthy.

The collective training has been a tour of all the most delightful parts of Britain. Kent, Northumbria, Norfolk, Wiltshire and Wales - twice.

We were the second group through the new Afghan village complex in Norfolk. At times on Army training areas it is hard to replicate a civilian population this however was about as realistic as it gets, manure and straw with a number of the Afghan diaspora.

I got put through my paces in a post mission Shura trying to convince the local population that we had done something that would increase their security. Not an easy sell.

I also found it amazing how much of Norfolk is irrigated in the same way as the valley of the River Helmand. Good practice manoeuvring around the ditches, wet feet, deep mud and not much commander's dignity.

We don't generally deal in fears. We harden our hearts against the prospect of some very difficult decisions.
After the bulk of the training was complete we were able to take a couple of weeks leave. Whilst the training is vital there is nothing as dangerous as fatigue. Tired minds and bodies are prone to bad decision making.

We have had the chance post leave to do some refresher training and get the administration of the company in order. We will get our final training top up on arrival in Afghanistan just to get the latest from the guys who are already there. Then we'll be good to go.

Every father has hopes and fears. It is part of having children. I am no different from every other father in the land in that respect.

My greatest desire in this regard has crystallised round the hope that I will be able to take my son to the first day of an Ashes Test at Lord's. My greatest fear being that I will not be there to go with him.

This fear may be no different from other parents' but it is perhaps brought into sharper focus by the prospect of six months in the Upper Sangin Valley.

On a professional level it is rather different. We don't generally deal in fears. We harden our hearts against the prospect of some very difficult decisions.

My personal hopes and fears are wrapped into the same moment. Making the right decision. Through training, experience, character and enough thought I hope I make good decisions.

I will spend a good deal of time planning and conducting operations. During that process and over the course of my tour there will be plenty of decisions to make.

Most of the time the result of a bad decision will be rectifiable, yet in my profession and very obviously in Afghanistan it is sometimes about life and death.

My final hope is that the Company Group can do a difficult job in the right way.
It is an incredible privilege to command a company of Riflemen and all the soldiers and officers who will be part of the Company Group. I have got to know some of them and their families extremely well.

I know from friends and colleagues that the worst moments of their professional lives have been in the moments of grief following the death of a soldier for whom they feel totally responsible.

I hope that I can face that with stoicism and sensitivity. It is easy to get fatalistic about operations in Afghanistan but there are Companies in Battlegroups that all come back. I hope we all come home.

The summer has been sobering in that regard and the families and comrades of those serving in Afghanistan this summer have barely been away from my thoughts.

There will be many factors involved but I certainly feel that the decisions I make and have made during training will play their part. It is a good pressure if used properly.

My final hope is that the Company Group can do a difficult job in the right way. I hope we can understand, persuade and influence as well as clear, secure and protect.

I hope we can hold and build on ground that we clear of insurgents. I have no doubt that this is not just a six month project but I hope we can make a positive difference.


Major Richard Streatfeild commands A Company 4 Rifles, currently attached to 3 Rifles with Battlegroup North in Helmand. Richard joined the Army in 1997. He has served in Germany, Bosnia, Kosovo and Northern Ireland. He is married with two young children. Prior to that he used to enjoy cricket, cycling, skiing, the occasional trip to the theatre, West Ham United (armchair only) and the odd Wilbur Smith novel.


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