Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

An uneasy silence on the flight to Afghanistan

The Belfast Telegraph’s Lesley-Anne Henry takes a nerve-jangling trip to war zone in Kandahar to meet the local soldiers on the front line

“GOOD MORNING, good morning, the time is 3.45am and this is your wake up call.” It was time to go into war. And as I peeled myself out of bed at Gateway House — the lodgings at RAF Brize Norton base near Oxford — I was more than a little nervous.

Having never been to a war zone and being too young to have seen the worst of the Troubles I had no idea what to expect.

Still half asleep I boarded a coach for the terminal which was packed with gruff Scottish soldiers returning to Afghanistan after two weeks ‘R&R’. At the check in we were greeted by the sight of tanned soldiers, plucked fresh from the desert, still in their sand-coloured combats being welcomed home by relieved family members. Their weathered skin and bright white smiles stood out against the grey Oxford sky.

Brize Norton is a surreal sort of a place — while it has all the hallmarks of an ordinary airport — the check in staff (dressed in combats) ask all the questions about packing bags yourself and on board the cabin crew are dressed in beige boiler suit-style attire.

For much of the flight the soldiers — who had made the most of their last night on civvy street — slept, not knowing when they would get their next shut-eye.

There are no fixed-wing flights into the busy Kandahar airfield during daylight which meant en route we had a two-hour stop in Cyprus so our arrival would be under the cover of darkness.

We were about 50 minutes from landing when a voice came over the tannoy — “Sirs, mams, this is your 10 minute warning — we are in Afghanistan airspace and are approaching Kandahar airport, you will be required to be strapped into your seats with your body armour and helmets on”. Those sitting beside windows — which I was — were ordered to close the blinds and “Not to open them at all”.

The soldiers |suddenly fell silent and you could have heard a pin drop. Then everything went dark

And it was then that the nerves kicked-in. The chirpy soldiers who had been ribbing each other throughout the flight suddenly fell silent and you could have heard a pin drop.

Then everything went dark and in the eerie silence it was easy to think you were completely alone. I guess the soldiers were all alone with their thoughts of their families and what might be.

It took about half an hour from that point before we touched down in Kandahar airfield and even though it was about 10pm at night — the heat literally smacked us in the face. Apparently it had been the hottest day of the year and it really was like a sauna. Weighed down with body armour, helmet, rucksack, laptop — I could only imagine how the soldiers cope with their 90lb kit while out on patrol.

On arrival at Kandahar we were bussed to the base and then after a lengthy wait piled on to a Hercules plane which would take us the 100 miles to Camp Bastion.

As I and the 30 plus soldiers piled into the Hercules I was asked “Would you like to sit in the flight deck for the trip? It’ll be a comfy seat.”

So while the rest of the soldiers slummed it in the back — I had a first class view of the trip — in the cockpit with pilots Brendan and Brendan.

I was given night vision goggles, offered a cold drink and had a spectacular view of the journey.

Below me spanned the ‘Red Desert’, I saw Kandahar town and Lashkar Gah. I also caught a glimpse of the scraggy mountains that make Afghanistan so inhospitable — and the stars — I’ve never seen so many stars in my life.

And then what seemed like minutes later the vast Camp Bastion which spans four miles by two miles sprawled out in front of me.

Just minutes after landing we then piled into a snatch wagon — similar to those previously used in Northern Ireland — only with desert camouflage, and again I was given the front seat and snaked our way through the vast Camp Bastion — past the rows of Chinook and Apache helicopters, miles of soldiers’ accommodation huts and into Camp Shorabak or Camp Tombestone as the Americans call it. This was to be my home for the week and I was told the first class facilities are the “best kept secret in Afghanistan”.


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We are making a real difference in Afghanistan, claims British commander

Soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment are making a big impact in the war against terror, their Commanding Officer told the Belfast Telegraph last night.

The troops who have spent five hard and dangerous months in the depths of the Afghan desert are now more than half way through their tour of duty in Helmand Province and according to Lieutenant Colonel Ed Freely are making significant advances in helping the Afghans to help themselves.

The troops have made their home at Camp Shorabak — a small base adjacent to the sprawling Camp Bastion — which at four miles long by two miles wide is the biggest military base to be constructed since WWII. They share the site with a small number of American troops and are beside the Afghan National Army (ANA) base — where the soldiers they are mentoring and liaising are housed. The location is just north-west of Lashkar Gah — the capital of Helmand Province.

The primary role for the Royal Irish, who have almost 500 soldiers in Helmand, is training and mentoring the ANA.

However, others from 1 Royal Irish, including 120 soldiers from ‘C’ company, are stationed at Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s) across Helmand and are taking the fight to the Taliban from remote frontline outposts such as Musa Qal’eh and Sangin.

Meanwhile, men from the Royal Irish second battalion are providing security at Camp Bastion while 62 doctors and nurses from the TA’s 204 Field Hospital have recently taken over responsibility of the base’s medical facilities.

The Belfast Telegraph caught up with Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ed Freely, at Kandahar Airfield as he prepared to leave Afghanistan for the UK. He said his men have proved they are “well up to the mark”.

“We are having a significant impact on the development of the Afghan National Army. That’s absolutely clear to me.

“Just in the four months that I’ve been here I’ve seen those developments in so many different

areas. For instance, they are getting used to patrolling at night, dominating ground and supporting local national people whereas formally they didn’t have the confidence to do that.

“They have now expanded into two more districts. Two more, that is, beyond when we arrived in April, March. They are now taking greater responsibility for administration, logistics and planning. They are also taking responsibility for joint operations and seizing the initiative with the Afghan National Police and indeed the National Directory for Security.

“Most definitely I see a capable Afghan Security Force emerging. I see a few years from now where we will be able, with confidence, to hand over security responsibility to the Afghan National Army and, indeed, beyond that to the Afghan National Police.”

Searing heat and the constant threat of Taliban attack make living and working in Helmand a major challenge.

Added Lt Colonel Freely: “It’s difficult because of the environment conditions. You are either operating in 50 degrees heat during the day, in arid desert conditions or alternatively, if you are close by the Helmand River in what we call the ‘green zone’, the agricultural, irrigated area of about 1km east and west of Helmand it is extremely humid and hot. In addition to that we carry up to 90lbs as we patrol. And then you’ve got the threat. The threat consists of a brutal, oppressive Taliban force that is determined.”

He recalled an incident just weeks ago when the Taliban used a 15-year-old boy as a suicide bomb and ordered a nine-year-old to act as trigger man. The explosion killed two Afghan soldiers and injured a further five — all are now being treated at Camp Bastion.

Support from home is helping keep morale at a high. And the CO praised the soldiers’ families as well as organisations such as Women’s Institutes and schools from Ulster who regularly send parcels and well-wishing letters.

He said: “Communications home. That is important because the support of the families is so important to us as we do our work out here. We are very well served.”

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