Women taking on the Taliban
Three extraordinary girls left their Lisburn barracks to serve at the frontline in Afghanistan. The BBC’s Michael Price joined them on their tour of duty
It sounds like a bonfire night rocket being launched. The sort of sound you would have whooped at as a child. But crouched down in the drainage ditch beside Lieutenant Fiona Aitchison, the rocket propelled grenade coming our way evoked only terror.
“RPG! Down!” shouted Company Serjeant Major Steve Tisbury, who refused to flinch as the rocket tore past us. He fired a grenade back, and then he and Fiona opened up with their assault rifles.
Welcome to the Green Zone in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Welcome to ‘Girls on the Frontline’, a BBC Northern Ireland commission to be screened tonight on BBC Three. According to official British army policy, women are still barred from joining the frontline combat units of infantry and cavalry. But since 1998 they have been able to join the artillery that fire 105 mm guns in support of the patrols.
The BBC had sent producer/director Marc Perkins and myself to catch up with three women who had been pushed as far forward as they could be in the war against the Taliban: Lieutenant Fiona Aitchison, Bombardier Adele Sharrock and Lance-Bombardier Zanna Bateman, all of 40th Regiment Royal Artillery whose barracks are in Lisburn.
Fiona, or Fi to her friends, is something of a paradox. It’s difficult not to sneer at the next 'blonde joke' you hear after meeting her, because this is one blonde who combines femininity with glittering inner steel. Before a night out with friends she may apply the make-up, wriggle into a little black dress, but every morning in the base she would be up to complete her 45 minute run.
With responsibility for a section of men, she saw her authority as resting in part on being as tough as them physically. When we arrived in May she had started doing pull-ups, determined to do one more each week. By the time we left she had added a gruelling regime of sit-ups in the dust as well. Fiona averages 73 press ups in two minutes.
Adele, or Shaz as she is known, is from Wigan. In her own words, it was the Army for her or the local supermarket, and she chose to escape into the artillery. A natural with people and fluent in squaddie banter, Shaz has risen quickly through the ranks to be second-in-command on the gun line responsible for the ammunition. We were very lucky with Shaz because she’s one of the funniest people I've ever met. It's a very demonstrative humour, a northern England, Peter-Kay type humour she refuses to repress whatever the situation.
Zanna had originally joined the Army to work with horses in the horse troop, but her craving for excitement and challenge saw her join the artillery, and this would be her first tour of a war zone. Like the others, when you first meet her you're struck by how feminine she chooses to be in this world of guns and machismo and testosterone. But spend any sort of time with her, hear her recount her love of powerful motorcycles, horse jumping trials and nights on the town, and you soon realise she is not to be judged on appearance.
All three had been stationed at Forward Operating Base Inkerman, 8km north of Sangin, and temporary home to the soldiers of B Company 2 Rifles, 6/36 Battery 40th Regiment Royal Artillery and soldiers from 38 Engineer Regiment. All had deployed from their barracks in Northern Ireland in the spring of 2009 to complete their Afghan tour of duty.
Fiona was single, and focused purely on excelling at leadership, but Zanna and Adele had to balance out relationships as well. Adele was planning to get married on her return to her fiancé, Mark, a serjeant major also in the artillery but based back in England. Zanna had the mixed blessing of having her fiancé, Chris, actually in the base with her. Base rules meant there could be no public displays of affection between them, but they spent hours just talking, something most young couples would envy I suppose.
But the worry for them both was when the base was attacked. FOB Inkerman has the nickname of ‘FOB Incoming’ so often has it been come under fire. It sits right beside the Green Zone, a corridor of lush, irrigated land that runs alongside the Helmand River.
Imagine a strip of farmland from Wicklow and you’re close to it. It’s beautiful. But look at it from above and you’ll see it’s studded with farmhouses. And they’re not farms as we understand them; the Army calls them compounds.
Each one could easily double up as a miniature fort, with a perimeter wall and a platform on the roof. And that’s what they are designed for. The Afghans are so accustomed to wars and feuds, they need homes they can defend.
It was from this Green Zone that attacks on the base were launched: rockets, mortars and gunfire, causing Chris and Zanna to live with a constant worry for each other. Chris would have to rush to the artillery guns to respond, whilst Zanna with her cool head would work out the coordinates in the operations room.
And it was deep into this Green Zone at 3am on May 16 I accompanied Fiona on foot patrol.
According to Army rules, women cannot join the frontline units but if they do find themselves out on patrol with the infantry, as they often do in Helmand, they are not supposed to be expected to be close with and kill the enemy face-to-face.
But they carry the SA80 assault rifle, and the Taliban isn't too picky about who it attacks. Fiona volunteered because the infantry were low on manpower and she carried a special radio that took the total weight of her kit to something approaching her own body weight. Like I say, inner steel.
She joined another woman on the patrol who we met and filmed, the medic Holly Percival who was attached to 6 platoon B Company 2 Rifles. This is the close combat platoon whose job it is to mix it with the enemy. Some of their guys carried gas-powered shotguns.
Holly’s job was to rush forward to treat any casualties, stabilise them as best should could and then help get them on to the helicopter.
This meant Holly was patrolling roughly twice every three days.
Holly is as hard as nails. So we went out as a column of 88 men and two women deep into the Green Zone.
Holly with the guys at the front who would search some compounds, and I was with Fiona at the rear. Adele and Zanna were back at the base on stand-by were we to run into any trouble: Adele on one of the guns and Zanna in the operations room. Producer/director Marc stayed back with them to capture any of the action there.
And there was action. Plenty of it. Our section of the patrol was surrounded and attacked from multiple firing points.
Air burst RPGs shot in. Machine guns, hidden in the tree line and behind walls, opened up. It’s a peculiar fear that uncoils within you. I found it difficult at first to work out how close the bullets were. But RPGs whooshing by overhead were simply terrifying.
Fiona slotted into an improvised front line formed along a drainage ditch and was given an arc of land to watch for movement.
Back at the base, Marc captured Adele and the rest of the artillery putting down one of the biggest barrages of the war in our support.
High explosive shells from their artillery guns and mortars whizzed by overhead, crumping into compounds and ripping along the tree lines from where we have taken fire. The patrol extracted back, the artillery shells our shield.
It began as a cautious wade down a river, and developed into a sprint across open ground as Taliban snipers flanked us, doggedly looking for a kill.
Fiona did all this with her enormously heavy pack dragging her down. Adele lugged shells in the 45 degree heat back at the base as her gun boomed, firing every 20 seconds at times. Zanna kept her nerve and calculated the coordinates. There were some close scrapes. I saw one machine gunner, Rifleman Michael Bird, put his head over a wall, and a bullet missing his face by a couple of inches. We all dived for cover. He stumbled back dazed, and went down to one knee.
“Who’s got heavy weapons, machine guns?” called out a serjeant. “Yes sir,” and Rifleman Bird went back over to the wall, put his head over it and sprayed the tree line opposite with gunfire.
We all made it back to the base somehow, our only casualty being one (male) soldier who went down with heat exhaustion.
And this was only six weeks into the tour, which was to last another five months or so.
A tour of duty that tested all of our girls to their limit, both physically and emotionally.”
Girls On The Frontline tonight, BBC Three at 9pm