Exclusive: Royal Irish soldier who survived siege of Musa Qala recounts 40-day Taliban battle that has embarrassed MoD
‘My friends were killed defending that outpost and I would have died before handing it over to the enemy...but the top brass really let us down’
Ten years ago a Chinook helicopter lowered Paul Johnston into hell. The earth was scorched, the agents of evil were waiting. In time, there would be 500 of them, determined to destroy his soul and end his life.
He was 20 years old, and had never fired a gun in anger.
The odds against survival were overwhelming, but Paul Johnston remained calm and resolute.
That resolve would be severely tested over the next 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness.
Ill-equipped, deprived of sleep, burned by the unforgiving desert sun, and hundreds of miles from the nearest military hospital, the Co Down man and his colleagues were continuously pinned down by heavy machine-guns, rockets and grenades.
Courageously, they stuck to their thankless, exhausting task of defending a remote, godforsaken outpost in Afghanistan against a relentless Taliban onslaught.
And Paul's concentration never wavered, even when Royal Irish Regiment pals were dying just yards away from him.
In all, the young machine-gunner helped thwart more than 100 attacks on the Musa Qala compound.
In the end a near-skeletal Paul had to be coaxed away from this post after a superhuman effort. But there would be no medal of honour for the former Lance Corporal, or any of those whose bravery in north Helmand Province throughout the late summer of 2006 is now the stuff of legend.
And that's because the siege of Musa Qala - and the ignominious way it concluded - remains a source of considerable embarrassment for the Army.
The only thing Paul, now aged 31, feels embarrassed about is being called a hero.
To him, he was merely following orders, doing his job.
And he was "too young to really understand fear".
The only things he felt were anger and frustration.
This is a man born to be a soldier, who spent his youth reading about fellow Newtownards native Blair Mayne.
Even so, his path to the Army's 'Alamo' in Afghanistan was more a case of fate than design.
"I wasn't actually meant to be in Helmand," said the married father-of-two, who left the forces in 2011 and is now working in private security.
"I was a young Ranger in the Royal Irish, on a routine training exercise in Jamaica, and our CO (commanding officer) came out looking for volunteers.
"I was the first to put my hand up. I had to go because this was what I'd been waiting for; it's why I joined the Army."
Paul, who now lives in Portavogie, enlisted when he was just 16.
"My dad (Paul snr, 55) was always telling us stories about his time in the Army," he recalled. "And Blair Mayne (founding member of the SAS) was, in my eyes, the greatest of all war heroes.
"He even went to the same school as me, Regent House, and his house was across the road from where I lived, on the Scrabo estate. I wanted to try my hand at being a Blair Mayne."
Such wide-eyed aspirations, however, were soon dispelled in Afghanistan.
Shortly after their arrival Paul and the rest of the ironically-titled 'Easy Company', predominately members of the Royal Irish, were airlifted to Musa Qala - just 88 men sent out to defend an Afghan police compound surrounded by 200 Taliban fighters who would later be joined by 300 more.
It was a lamentable, ill-fated, blood-soaked mismatch, recently billed by Channel 4's Heroes Of Helmand documentary as the story the forces "didn't want you to hear".
It will certainly never challenge the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk on the Army's 'honourable retreat' order of merit.
Yet, even now, it's still not clear why a dusty concrete outpost - a place seemingly more of symbolic than strategic value - was deemed worthy of defending in the first place.
In that respect, the hellhole that is Musa Qala may well be a microcosm of the 13-year, 9/11-inspired conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. The toll included more than 1,400 coalition soldiers, 456 of them British.
There's no doubt that what Paul and his courageous colleagues did - a 'sleep-watch-shoot' existence for weeks, exposed, neglected, starving, with only limited and sporadic air support, literally, under pain of death - was exceptional.
But the anticlimactic end to the mission - an awkward, negotiated truce with their Islamic fundamentalist enemy via Afghan civic elders, followed by a withdrawal in dilapidated cattle trucks - does not make for the type of derring-do breathlessly recalled in the officers' mess. It's more a tale of tragic futility - and Paul, who contributed to the programme, can identify with that. "The Army wants to forget about it because we were under-manned, under-equipped, ill-prepared," he said.
"At the end we were running out of food, water and ammunition.
"Even so, we didn't want to leave, didn't want to hand it over to them. Our friends had been killed out there.
"We fought for weeks to keep it. I certainly didn't want to depart in the manner that we did.
"The Army also wants it forgotten because of the way they shooed us out; a decision made high up because they couldn't resupply us."
It was good to get home, though.
"I had my family, I was starving to death, I was like a skeleton," he said.
"Even so, I still didn't want to leave Musa Qala on those terms. Winter was coming, but I'd rather have stayed and froze to death than left in the manner that we did.
"I understand why they did it but I didn't like how they did it.
"And, as far as I was concerned, three of my colleagues had lost their lives for nothing."
Today, when Paul is relaxing with his wife of four years (who requested not to be named), sons Preston (nine) and five-year-old Kalen, memories of Musa Qala, thousands of miles away and many years ago, feel almost surreal.
He insists that, unlike some of his colleagues on that mission, he was never affected by PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but his first real combat situation - when he missed the chance to take out four Taliban at once - still jars with him.
"I was too young to understand what fear really was, but I was nervous. It was the first time that I ever fired my weapon at anybody," he recalled.
"If it had been a few days later I'd have let them come closer and I'd have got all four, but I was too eager to get the rounds off."
Paul hit two of the enemy, killing one, but said: "It still haunts me that I didn't get all four."
To most of us, it must seem strange to regret not killing someone, but, as Paul explained: "What keeps nagging at me is, was one of the ones I missed the one who shot dead young (Lance Corporal Peter) Hetherington?
"Or did one of them fire the mortars that killed Moonbeam (Corporal Paul Muirhead) and (Ranger Anare) Dravia?"
Paul, who tended to those doomed colleagues - and has no idea how many enemy soldiers he ended up killing in Musa Qala - admits he wasn't the same person when he got back to Northern Ireland at Christmas 2006.
"People told me that I came across as more aggressive, although I didn't realise it at the time," he said.
"I had a lot of anger left over from 2006 because of the way we were treated by the Army - my badly injured colleague, Paul Muirhead, for instance, having to wait six or seven hours for a helicopter back to (Army HQ) Camp Bastion.
"The MoD (Ministry of Defence) later said it was three hours; it wasn't. I'm not saying that he would have been alive, but he'd have had a better chance.
"We weren't asking for anything special. All we wanted was to know that if we got injured, we'd be taken back to Bastion, but we never got that.
"We had one doctor, two medics and limited supplies... just enough to keep you alive if you weren't mortally wounded."
He added: "I was also really angry about the Taliban standing laughing at us, smiling and waving when we were leaving Musa Qala in those old trucks.
"They had promised to pull out if we left - but what happened a few weeks later? They came back, killed all the elders and took the compound over. So, what was the point?
"It took about 2,000 of our men to take it back in 2008, and now it's under Taliban control again."
His understandable rage didn't, however, put Paul off two more tours, and he still looks back on Musa Qala as providing some of the best, as well as the worst, moments of his life.
"People might find this difficult to understand, but if I could go and do that tour over and over again, I wouldn't have left the Army," he said.
Paul recalled the regiment being an influential melting pot for someone who grew up in a Protestant estate and had little interaction with Catholics.
"It wasn't as if I didn't like them, I just didn't really know any," he said.
"Now I have as many Catholic friends as Protestant. Back in Afghanistan we had the Royal Irish, Ulster and (Irish) tricolour flags side by side. Where in Northern Ireland would you see that?
"I'd have died for any one of my Catholic mates out there, and vice versa."
The decision to quit the Army came just before Paul's third tour. "My wife was pregnant with our second child. I wanted to go back one more time - the last hurrah - but when I was out there (in Nad-e Ali) I got a bit disillusioned," he said.
"People were worried about how we looked - our uniforms, the badges on our arms, our haircuts - after some American general said we resembled what the Yanks looked like in Vietnam ... a defeated army.
"They were more worried about appearances than how we were doing our job."
He added: "I'd served in Northern Ireland and Iraq, and did three tours of Afghanistan. Enough was enough.
"I remember thinking that I'd been a bit lucky, and that there's only so many times you can cheat death. It was time to go."
After Afghanistan, even Paul's first experience of Civvy Street, defending ships from pirates in the Indian Ocean, seemed relatively mundane.
He later worked in Iraq and Nigeria but is now a lot closer to home, commuting to RS4 Security clients in Scotland.
As for the rest of the family, Paul snr is still doing maritime security in the Indian Ocean, brother Karl (33) is an environmental cleaner and 28-year-old sister Cherith is in the Army.
"Mum (Paula, 51) sits at home and worries about us," said Paul.
Best, then, that Paula Johnston didn't know about the incident with her son and the suicide bomber in 2008.
"He stood up beside me, some 20 metres away, and blew himself up," recalled Paul.
"One of his legs landed close to me; then a donkey appeared out of nowhere and started eating it..."