End in sight for UK Afghan troops
UK troops who have served on the front line in Helmand Province have welcomed the latest milestone in Britain's drawdown from Afghanistan.
Yesterday the Ministry of Defence announced the closure of three forward bases in Helmand, leaving just one remaining outside Camp Bastion.
The move is part of the ongoing drawdown of British forces - by the end of this year all combat troops will have left Afghanistan.
Soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Staffords) have spent seven months in one of the recently-closed bases, Patrol Base Lashkar Gah Durai, and are back at Camp Bastion before going home.
For many from the regiment, some of whom are on their second tour of Afghanistan, the end cannot come soon enough.
Private Josh Burt, 24, admitted the departure from Helmand would bring a range of feelings - especially since his regiment has lost two lives on its two tours.
In June 2011 Private Gareth Bellingham was shot dead during a patrol in the Upper Gereshk Valley, while in November last year Warrant Officer Class 2 Ian Fisher died when the Warrior armoured vehicle he was in was hit by a vehicle-borne suicide attack.
Pte Burt said: "Obviously there's feelings here, because we've lost blokes since we've been here.
"Obviously it's always going to be in the back of our minds that we lost this person here, we lost that person here.
"But on the other side, everyone just wants to go home and it's a job well done for us.
"I'm going to remember Afghan all my life, it's going to be in the back of my head all my life.
"Is it going to be one of the proudest things of my life? Probably. Is it going to be a happy memory? This tour, no.
"It comes in swings and roundabouts, there's happy sides, but there's also the fact that in two tours we've had two fatalities.
"So you have to weigh it up where it stands in my thoughts."
Pte Burt, from Stoke-on-Trent, said the tour in 2011 was more about disrupting the enemy and pushing them back, while in the latest tour they mainly provided route security for Combat Logistic Patrols (CLPs) - the huge convoys that return equipment to Camp Bastion.
"I preferred Herrick 13/14 because it was more kinetic and that's what we joined the infantry for really, to go there and fight," he said.
His regiment's latest role has been to gradually take the patrol base apart and close it, making conditions even more austere than usual.
"For the last 10 days we've been sleeping underneath a poncho hoping it didn't rain," he said.
"It's hard, but it's satisfying knowing that no-one else is going to have to come out here and potentially we're going to have no more casualties and no more fatalities - the end is near.
"Bastion is just like a big camp with nothing in it now, it's just empty.
"From Herrick 13/14 Bastion was more like a town or a city, everywhere you go there was people and places, whereas everywhere you go now there's a lot of empty hesco bays, there's nothing left in the Naafis.
"It feels like it's done. I would say mission success, but how successful it will be, time will tell. But it feels like the end is here."
For Lance Corporal Aaron Doyle, also from Stoke-on-Trent, it is also his second tour, having served in 2011.
He said he had seen his regiment's role change from a "ground-holding role" protecting local people, to protection for convoys as bases are closed in Helmand, and the area had changed beyond recognition.
"It doesn't seem real that we could have shut so many places, everywhere's gone where I was last tour," he said.
"It's just unbelievable - we've been here 13 years and we're coming to the end of it now.
"All I've known from my Army career is Afghan and soon it's going to be no more."
But the 24-year-old, who was a close friend of Pte Bellingham, said: "I'm glad I've seen active duty. I joined the infantry to do the infantry job, to go out and do the things I've done.
"On the downside I've lost a close friend and we've lost WO2 Fisher.
"But when we sign up for this job we know the risks, we know what it can entail. It still doesn't make it easier or a nice feeling to lose people, but it's part of the job."
Of his feelings about tearing down a base that had been his home for seven months, he said: "For me personally there's no sentimental feelings ripping Lash Durai down.
"As soon as we started ripping it down it meant we were leaving, I was getting out of there.
"I couldn't rip it down quick enough and get back here and get back home."
And of leaving a country where he had lost a close friend, he said: "On the one hand I'm serving and just following orders but on the other side I wouldn't have wanted to leave here without doing a decent job.
"Because every life that's been lost here, if we've left without leaving this place in a good state, they would have lost their lives for nothing.
"But I think we've done a good job, it's not been for nothing."