It was only a short walk. But, for the soldiers of the Mercian Regiment, 2nd Battalion, their first-ever homecoming parade in Holywood, Co Down, was a giant step forward in building relations with the local community.
Crowds of people, including primary school children, lined the streets as around 450 troops — who have recently returned from Afghanistan’s frontline — marched through the town.
The largely English regiment — which lost two soldiers, Captain Rupert Bowers and Private Matthew Haseldin, during their six-month stint in the desert warzone — is based at Palace Barracks and was parading at the invitation of North Down Borough Council.
And yesterday, after months in the dust and heat of the desert, they lapped up the opportunity to be the pride of their host town.
Cheers, wolf whistles and loud applause resonated through the streets as the tanned soldiers in their desert combats snaked their way through the town centre.
Unlike at previous military events in Belfast, security was minimal.
“It was a fantastic parade,” said Major Gregg Bayliss (38), second-in-command of the regiment.
“I was surprised by how many people were in the town centre. I could barely hear the band — it made marching in step very difficult! It is a great reflection on the battalion and how well we enjoy the community.”
The unit formed part of 20th Armoured Brigade and was based in the southern districts of Helmand province, tasked with training and mentoring the Afghan National Army.
The majority of soldiers were deployed to the upper Gereshk Valley, a Taliban stronghold.
Lieutenant Colonel Colin Marks said it had been a tough tour.
“Our mission has been to stand behind the Afghan forces and make sure they are fully supported as they take a greater role in providing security for their own people,” he said. “Route 611 is a vital link between the commercial centres of Sangin, Gereshk and Lashkar-Gah and as such has huge operational significance.”
Major Bayliss also acknowledged the difficulties soldiers face.
“It was long and it was hard-fought,” he added. “I think the battalion in itself probably covered some of the most kinetic areas across Helmand. Certainly our A company had a very difficult area to come into and dominate.
“It was a tough tour and our casualties, and, sadly, our deaths bore that out. But, elsewhere outside of our area, there is much going on with regards to transition. We took on a very complex and kinetic area. We had to do the job with certain constraints on the battalion, largely manning numbers.
“But, Helmand province will always be a tough nut to crack because of the narcotics in the area.”
Among those taking the salute in Holywood yesterday were North Down MP Lady Hermon and Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry.
She said: “As one of the MPs in the Commons when then Prime Minister Tony Blair resolved to send soldiers to Afghanistan all those years ago, I could not have imagined that we would still be welcoming troops home.
“It is a day of enormous pride for these young British soldiers.
“I am very proud of them and what they have achieved.”
Among those cheering in the crowds was Army wife Melanie Coughlan (25), who is originally from Germany.
She said: “I am so delighted that he is home safe and sound. There has been a great turnout from the town. It’s lovely to see.”
Vicky Johnston (21) from Co Down said: “My husband was a mechanic in the Gereshk Valley. We have two kids and one on the way, so it has been tough without him. We’re just glad he is back.”