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Royal Irish who held off Taliban against all odds 'should be honoured'

Campaign to honour valour at Musa Qala siege

By Claire McNeilly

Published 24/08/2016

Ulster Unionist Party MLA and former soldier Doug Beattie
Ulster Unionist Party MLA and former soldier Doug Beattie
Co Down man Paul Johnston today
Co Down man Paul Johnston in action in Afghanistan

Ulster Unionist MLA and Military Cross winner Doug Beattie has called for the Royal Irish Regiment soldiers who defended a remote outpost in Afghanistan against an unrelenting enemy onslaught to be officially recognised as war heroes.

For 40 days a few dozen men - many from Northern Ireland - somehow managed to fight off up to 500 Taliban in what became known as the Siege of Musa Qala.

The astonishing bravery of the hemmed-in group, who lost three soldiers and had many others badly injured in the fierce battle, became the stuff of legend among coalition forces.

But it was also a source of embarrassment for the Army, who pulled out the troops during an uneasy truce because they couldn't replenish their equipment and ammunition.

Now, on the 10th anniversary of the battle, Mr Beattie - a former Royal Irish captain who won his MC in Afghanistan in 2006 - is demanding that the Ministry of Defence awards retrospective decorations to the unsung heroes of Musa Qala.

He says such a move would right a "scandalous" wrong that has festered for a decade.

"I was still serving in Afghanistan when the 3 Para Battle Group honours and awards came out at the end of 2006 and I was shocked - absolutely shocked - that not a single member of the Royal Irish was mentioned," said the veteran, who helped supply the Musa Qala detachment with food and ammunition during the early days of the siege.

Today the Belfast Telegraph is backing a campaign to Honour our Heroes of Helmand by publishing an in-depth interview with Newtownards native Paul Johnston.

He is just one of the Royal Irish Regiment soldiers overlooked for battle honours after facing down the Taliban in the wilderness of north Helmand in August 2006.

"I thought there must be some citations about what Paul and his colleagues went through at Musa Qala and elsewhere, but no," said Mr Beattie.

"It was truly disgraceful... scandalous."

Mr Beattie, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, first complained five years ago about the myriad of battle honours given out during the Iraq conflict compared with the paucity of those for service during the conflict in a vast Asian country regarded as being considerably more dangerous. But he added that it was in the Army's gift to correct that anomaly, and award retrospective battle honours to those who survived against overwhelming odds.

"It can happen whenever the military decide to do so - and so far they haven't," he said.

"But those men who served in Musa Qala deserve to receive the battle honour for what they did out there."

Mr Beattie said he found the recent Channel 4 documentary about the Siege of Musa Qala "hard to watch".

"It brought back lots of memories," he said.

"To hear those men speaking, to hear the mother of Moonbeam (Paul Muirhead, one of the fatalities), really brought it home. It laid bare what our soldiers were expected to do."

He added: "Paul Johnston was only 20, and the programme didn't mention that one of its other contributors, Philip (Barney) Gillespie, who survived Musa Qala, lost a leg on a later tour.

"And it didn't mention (Sergeant) Ally McKinney, who was shot in the head and is now in a wheelchair, completely paralysed down one side because of brain damage."

And war hero Mr Beattie recalled: "I did three tours of Afghanistan, and 2006 was especially brutal."

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