The Co Down man in charge of British forces in Helmand Province has spoken of pride at his troops' achievements during one of the military's most difficult tours of duty.
Brigadier Tim Radford, head of 19 Light Brigade, the first full-sized brigade to deploy from Northern Ireland since WWII, paid tribute to the bravery, courage and sacrifice shown by the 3,000 soldiers who left bases at Antrim, Holywood, Lisburn and Ballykinler for a six-month stint in one of the world's most dangerous places.
Speaking during a rarely given media briefing, the Thiepval-based Brigadier said: “The soldiers in my brigade have worked extremely hard over a hard summer and they have fought with resilience and fortitude at every turn. And when the Taliban have tried to take them on with force we have won every time.
“I think what's really important is how they have done it in terms of the judgement and measure they have shown on the ground during very trying conditions.”
He added: “19 Light Brigade is the first brigade to deploy from Northern Ireland since the Second World War. It is a reflection of military bases in Northern Ireland being treated the same as those in England and elsewhere in the UK, rather than as an operational theatre for the British Army. On a personal level I am very proud to be commanding a Task Force that has left the place where I grew up and where I still have many friends.”
But Brigadier Radford, who is a former Methodist College student, also warned that peace could not be achieved by the military alone.
With the death toll soaring to 207 and casualty figures undisclosed it is the military who are taking the biggest losses.
“Afghanistan, like Northern Ireland, will not find a solution by purely military means. But the physical environment in Afghanistan is very different and the fighting here is much more intense,” he said.
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion The Mercians, 2 Rifles, 38 Engineer Regiment and Combat Service Support Battalion, deployed from Northern Ireland back in March, have been the lead forces in Helmand.
Few regiments have escaped without serious casualties or losses but for the Ballykinler-based 2nd Battalion The Rifles it has been a particularly devastating tour. The unit is based at Sangin — a Taliban stronghold in northern Helmand — and have lost 12 men to date.
For the engineers’ deployment was made even more difficult after the shooting of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in a RIRA attack at Massereene in March.
Brigadier Radford said: “We have had a tough tour but morale remains high. In many cases the loss of a colleague only serves to harden the resolve of the soldiers to continue the fight in their name.
“I speak to the Commanding Officer of 2 Rifles, Lt Colonel Rob Thomson, on a daily basis and I visit them in Sangin and the outlying stations as often as I can. Whilst they have taken some big hits during the tour the commanding officer has led them brilliantly.
“I am full of admiration for them and what they have achieved.”
Asked about whether the threat from dissident republicans made it more difficult leaving family back at base in Northern Ireland, the brigadier said his soldiers were looking forward to finishing the operational tour and returning to their bases.
He added: “Everybody who leaves home for six months misses their family and friends but I think we are extremely well looked after by the home team and it will be great to be able to go back home at the end of the summer.
“I believe the public in Northern Ireland are fully behind the soldiers serving in Afghanistan, judging by the letters we receive and the send-off we received when we left back in April. We are very much looking forward to returning to Northern Ireland in October.”
Pte Lee Davison
My vehicle overturned and rapidly began filling up with water
Lee Davison: dangerous job
A teenage soldier from Northern Ireland who cheated death in a freak accident has said he feared returning to road patrols in Afghanistan.
Private Lee Davison, who is on his first tour of duty with the Kinnegar-based 19 Combat Support Service Battalion, almost drowned when his Panther vehicle plunged into a canal during an operation to deliver essential supplies to an outpost in Helmand Province.
The 19-year-old from Portadown had been knocked out and was just minutes from death when he was pulled to safety by an eagle-eyed sergeant who noticed the Panther wheel spinning in the water and dived in to the rescue.
The accident happened almost two months ago, but recalling the terrifying ordeal from his base at Camp Bastion the young soldier said he is still haunted by the tragedy that could have unfolded.
He said: “I was the second last vehicle in the convoy. Just before we came to cross the canal we went down on the front to watch vehicles coming across and when the last vehicle went past we sped off. That's the last thing I can remember.
“The next thing I woke up and we were upside down and the vehicle was flooded. Whenever we were turning over the fire extinguisher clipped my head and knocked me out. It was pretty scary.
“I woke up and we were flooded with water.
“I was worried going out again at the start after it happened. And the last operation that I was on it was actually the same route that the accident happened and I sat on the roof of the vehicle for the whole way down the canal.
“At least if you're on the roof you have a hatch to jump down into if you come under attack.”
Pte Davison is part of the Combat Logistics Team which travels in convoys of more than 75 vehicles delivering goods such as food, fuel and water to the dozens of outposts dotted around Helmand.
It is one of the most dangerous jobs in the military — as the convoys, which can stretch up to 5km long, are a prime target for insurgents as they snake their way through the dangerous and inhospitable Afghan desert.
He has only been in the Army for two-and-a-half years but the young communications specialist has already seen a lot of action.
“I've seen rocket-propelled grenade attacks, small arms fire and improvised explosive devices going off just a few vehicles in front of me. Luckily I've not been injured.”
L/Cpl Alan Strain
I heard a whizzing and a mortar round landed near my truck
Among the thousands of soldiers serving in Helmand Province are 30 Northern Irish Territorial Army volunteers who have been tasked with keeping the vital supply convoys on the road.
The part-time unit, which has taxi drivers, post men and truck drivers in its ranks, has one of the most important jobs in Camp Bastion and can often see at first hand the devastation caused by improvised explosives devices.
One of those who has put his civilian life on hold is Lance Corporal Alan Strain (33), who has swapped his job as a Royal Mail truck driver for six months at war.
The 33-year-old from Belfast has even put his wedding off until he returns home and is planning to tie the knot this autumn.
He said: “It was a bit of a shock for my fiancee when I said I was coming out here but she's coping really well. She would speak to her friends about how much she is afraid. She doesn't say too much about it to me because she wants me to keep my head straight.
“We have four kids and so they, and planning for the wedding, are keeping her going. Hopefully she'll have everything organised by the time I get home so that all I'll have to do is put on my uniform and said ‘I do'.
“She had said about getting married before I went on tour but I preferred to wait until I got back. It's something that will keep you going.
“You'll always get days when you want to lift your bags and walk away from it. But all the guys round you help. Everyone knows how everyone feels so you get each other through it.”
L/Cpl is attached to 4 Squadron Combat Support Logistic Corps which delivers vital supplies to the outposts across Helmand and has come in close contact with the Taliban on numerous occasions.
He added: “I have had a few encounters with the Taliban but the worst was when I was down in a place called Patrol Base Minden where they were building a new Forward Operations Base. My job was driving down to a wadi, which is a dried up river to collect stones and sand to fill the Hesco bags.
“I did five wadi runs and was contacted every time but the worst was when I was sitting in the driver's seat, I was shattered and exhausted, and was waiting on the guy filling the container behind me when I heard these two rounds whizzing past the window.
“I just ducked out of the way and the next thing a mortar came in and landed about 30ft from the truck. It was very close. ”
Massereene had a ‘dreadful effect’
The Real IRA gun attack at Massereene Army barracks had a “dreadful” effect on soldiers deploying to Afghanistan from Northern Ireland, a senior soldier has said.
Lieutenant Colonel Mike Campbell (right), whose Kinnegar-based troops flew out to theatre along with comrades of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, said they were left shocked and deeply concerned by the shooting which happened on the eve of their deployment almost six months ago.
Speaking from his base at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Lt Colonel Campbell recalled: “I can't say it didn't affect us. It did. It was obviously a dreadful time for everybody involved.
“We deployed at the same time as 38 Regiment and we had people on that aircraft that those lads were due to go on.
“It was probably worse for our families than us because we left our families behind. It really had the dual edge there, of us not being able to look after our families and our families being concerned that we were away. But the rear party of both our team brigade, 38 brigade, have worked tremendously hard and their part in the whole campaign shouldn't be overlooked.
“I think you worry about your family wherever they are but obviously that issue just before we left just exacerbated it.”
During their time in Afghanistan Lt Colonel's troops have faced many dangers of their own as they travel to every corner of Helmand taking vital supplies to the men in remote outposts. Snaking through the desert in convoys of over 100 vehicles, which can stretch as far as 10 kilometres, the truckers from 19 CSS Battalion provide a lifeline for the battle groups posted on the front line.
Their role is to bring much-needed supplies such as food, water, fuel and ammunition to troops at the forward operating bases dotted across Helmand Province. But during their long and dangerous journeys they too become prime targets for the Taliban.
“I think it has been recognised that this summer has been a particularly demanding one and we have taken our fair share of insurgent activity,” he said.
But Lieutenant Colonel Campbell is confident that they are making a difference.
He added: “I think so.
“But it's not going to happen overnight and people are going to have to accept that we will go forward inch by inch rather than mile by mile.”
Michael’s miraculous escape from a blazing vehicle
By Victoria O’Hara
The father of a Belfast soldier who survived an explosion in Afghanistan after dragging himself from the burning vehicle despite being severely injured today said he is “lucky to be alive”.
Queen’s Royal Hussars soldier Michael Stoker (22) suffered a broken pelvis and 30% burns after the vehicle he was in hit a mine and overturned at the end of May.
His father Councillor Bob Stoker — a former Lord Mayor of the city — told the Belfast Telegraph that just minutes before the explosion Michael had changed places in the vehicle with a colleague who died.
He immediately found himself trapped and covered in burning motor oil.
His army colleagues frantically tried to get Michael out of the vehicle but couldn’t reach him.
Finally they managed to cut his armour off, but he still remained trapped.
Mr Stoker said “somehow” his son found the strength to drag himself free despite suffering from a broken pelvis.
He and his wife Hillary flew to Birmingham to be with their son at Selly Oak military hospital, where he was treated.
They kept a vigil at his side, not knowing how serious his condition was.
During his treatment he underwent skin grafts and continued to receive 24-hour care.
Despite his injuries Michael is now undergoing intensive rehabilitation in England and according to Mr Stoker is doing “brilliantly”.
He said: “They were going to a base, and hit a mine or improvised explosive device, as they call them.
“Ten minutes beforehand Michael had been on the turret of the vehicle and stopped and changed with the driver.
“Unfortunately the guy who took over from him was killed in the explosion, Michael was extremely, extremely lucky.
“When the vehicle overturned Michael was trapped in it.
“It is coming back to him in bits and pieces. He still can’t remember how he managed to get himself out of the vehicle, because he was trapped in it with the burning hot oil over him.
“His colleagues couldn’t pull him out either. But they managed to cut away his armour, and he managed to pull himself out of a very tiny hole.
“From what his colleagues were telling me they were just amazed at how he was able to get himself out with the injuries, including a broken pelvis.
“It was just miraculous,” he said.
Mr Stoker said his son is hoping to return to light duties following his rehabilitation which he is expected to complete by mid-September.
He said he and his family will always worry about Michael but are “100%” supportive of him.
“All family of serving military personnel always have concerns but it doesn’t stop us from being supportive and extremely proud of what he does,” he added.