NI soldiers backbone for operations
Northern Irish soldiers are providing the backbone for major operations against insurgents in the heart of Taliban territory.
Cavalrymen from the Royal Dragoon Guards (RDG) drive 20-tonne armoured Warthog trucks across the bomb-littered desert of Helmand Province to give a £1.7 million protective shield for the boots on the ground.
They also deliver soldiers and essential kit to the dozens of remote outposts that make up Afghanistan's disjointed frontline. As a result, the Warthog boys are among the most in-demand units in the war zone.
Trooper James McCrossan, 21, from Co Antrim, who is on his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, said: "We are normally stuck in the middle of everything because it is a great asset to have - the Warthog. We are very busy. Sometimes we are on the tank park to two or three in the morning just trying to get them ready to go the next op."
The twin-cab, four-tracked Warthog, named because of its sheer ugliness, was introduced to the British Army just over two years ago when the Viking and Vector vehicles were pulled out because of 12 fatalities. They are able operate anywhere and can traverse the notorious terrain of Helmand's green zone as easily as its arid desert plains.
Commanders claim they have driven over IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and entire crews have walked away uninjured.
Corporal Thomas McQuade, 26, from greater Belfast, who followed his father into the military nine years ago, said: "Our job out here is very much a support element to the other battle groups such as the ops company or reconnaissance forces. We are more or less just a support for them providing them with the armour when the threat depends on it. Our other job is screening them to make sure no one is coming and trying to minimise the threat to the boots on the ground.
"I think anybody who says they are not scared would not be human. You are on edge when you are out there, you know there is a threat but it is about trying to protect yourself and make a tactical decision to minimise that threat to yourself and other people around you."
Warthog commander, Trooper Ross Mawhinney, 23, from Co Antrim, said: "We had a fairly busy start to the tour. It has started to quieten down over the winter months but with the spring coming in I imagine it might pick up again. "We have done a whole spectrum of different ops - everything from big ops with the Afghan National Army like pushing across massive areas and small intimate ops with the brigade reconnaissance force and ops company on to specific compounds to search them or going after a certain target."
The Royal Dragoon Guards have swapped their Catterick base in North Yorkshire for tented accommodation at Camp Price on the edge of Gereshk - the financial capital of Helmand. Although the tempo of battle has decreased compared with previous years as Afghan National Army takes the lead, the Warthog group have to be in a constant state of readiness.