Commander of Royal Irish’s pride as troops prepare for Afghan tour
For 600 soldiers in the Royal Irish Regiment, Kabul in Afghanistan will soon be home for the next eight months.
Around 90% of the regiment is recruited from Ireland, and the new deployment will be the first tour of duty for many of the young soldiers.
Commanding officer Lt Col Graham Shannon (43), a native of Co Tyrone, is preparing for his third trip to Afghanistan.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he told of the pain of losing troops, the changes to life in Afghanistan, and how he's looking forward to St Patrick's Day in Kabul.
"There's a really different mission here. You can see how Afghanistan has developed across the ages," he said.
"I was with them when we deployed in 2008 and again in 2014 during the closure of Camp Bastion in Helmand. Through all that time we were patrolling the streets, on the ground doing combat operations."
He pointed out that it was Afghan forces who were now taking the lead on the ground.
"They're doing a good job of it," he added.
A typical day in Kabul will focus on protecting and transporting important Nato personnel while remaining alert for attacks by the Taliban.
"It's challenging, but our boys and girls are really looking forward to it. To say there's no threat in Kabul would be wrong, there's still a pretty significant threat of attack," he explained.
"In training we made sure to guard against complacency. There's a lot of responsibility put on a young soldier.
"But your ability to communicate is as important as the weapon you carry to defend yourself."
Recalling his 2008 tour, he said: "There was a great deal of sadness because we lost a young soldier (Ranger Justin James Cupples from Co Cavan was 29 when he was killed on patrol in Helmand after an improvised explosive device exploded).
"We also lost a number of American Marines who were serving alongside us and others in the Afghan security forces. It was a challenging tour but very rewarding; the pride I have for the soldiers I served alongside is incredible. They're an amazing bunch of people.
"Whenever I see the way we've been supported back home, it's absolutely fantastic."
He added: "When it comes to our jobs we're absolutely focused, but we also have a good bit of craic. We were in Kuwait in 2002, about to cross the Iraq border, and held the most amazing St Patrick's Day parade, chariot racing in the morning and a shamrock parade afterwards.
"So Paddy's day in Kabul is probably going to be pretty similar to Ireland- just without the Guinness!"