A window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

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Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

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Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

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In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public. 

Royal Welsh soldiers see progress in Basra

First published 12th Nov 2007 on Ministry of Defence website.

As Armed Forces personnel around the world were preparing to remember their fallen comrades on Remembrance Sunday, soldiers from the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh were out on patrol in Basra Province looking for ways to help local people prepare for the winter.

C Company deployed to the Al Qurna district in the north of Basra Province, visiting projects set up by the British Army in neighbouring villages. The convoy carried a JCB digger, which was used to dig irrigation ditches for date palm plantations in one village and excavate land for a new school in a neighbouring settlement.

Major Richard Crow, who oversees the projects on behalf of the Multi-National Division (South East), explained the importance of such visits:

“We’ve come to the village and, following advice from the last time, we’ve brought a light-wheeled tractor. We’ve been digging some irrigation ditches so they can grow some cash crops and crops for feeding themselves.

“The reaction has been very positive, we’ve been welcomed in and seen lots of smiling faces. We’ve been able to discuss with the leaders what we can do to help them.”

The 2 Royal Welsh soldiers endured a difficult first few months of their tour in Iraq. Having the opportunity to meet ordinary Iraqis and see the difference they have made to their living conditions and prospects gave the soldiers a considerable boost in morale as they near the end of their operational tour.

Private Read, from C Company, who was mobilised from the Territorial Army to join the Royal Welsh on tour, said:

“This operation has been really good. I’ve been here before on other tours and it’s very different now; we can actually talk to the locals, where we couldn’t before. We actually feel as if we’re achieving something so it feels brilliant. We’ve really moved on.”

2 Royal Welsh returned to their base in time for their Remembrance Sunday memorial service. They were planning to remember, in particular, the three friends and colleagues they have lost during this operational tour. Having now seen the positive result their efforts have had on the ground, many of the men from 2 Royal Welsh will go home feeling the last six months’ sacrifices may not have been in vain.

Mixed fortunes for RAF officer hit by stray bullet

First published on Ministry of Defence website on 24th Dec 2007.

Quick thinking medics have helped save the life of an RAF officer after he was hit by a stray bullet while working on his base in Basra, southern Iraq.

Flight Lieutenant Neil Lawrenson was walking along the road at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra when a bullet quite literally ‘fell’ out of the sky and lodged in his arm. The stray bullet had been fired by local people just outside the base where celebratory gunfire is a common occurrence.

Although getting hit by the bullet was a stroke of misfortune Flt Lt Lawrenson’s luck then changed when he realised that help was close at hand. The RAF officer was lying just a few feet away from the Incident Response Team’s crewroom. The Incident Response Team, or IRT as they are referred to by most personnel on the base, are the emergency medical team who are dispatched to incidents involving UK troops deployed in the region.

The medics were straight on the scene and quickly moved the casualty into cover. As the sirens warning of indirect fire attacks began to sound across the camp the medical team were already treating their patient as IRT nurse, Sgt Leanne Kirkwood RAF, explained:

“We got alerted to a casualty nearby, just outside the IRT accommodation,” she said. “It was a gunshot wound and we immediately picked up the standby equipment, made our way outside and found the casualty sat on the blast wall. He had a gunshot wound to his upper arm, no obvious other injury and was conscious at the time.”

Flt Lt Lawrenson was quickly evacuated by ambulance to the Field Hospital on the base where surgical staff operated immediately and removed the bullet. A second operation the following day cleaned up the wound and patched him up. Consultant anaesthetist, Surgeon Lieutenant Commander Kate Prior (Royal Navy), explained:

“What we’ve done today is a second operation. He’d had his emergency surgery but today was a planned procedure to have another look at the wound, to make sure it was clean, that there were no signs of any infection. The wound has been sutured closed and dressed and he’s gone back to the ward. The nursing staff will look after him and make sure that he’s comfortable.

“The plan is to get him back to the UK. He’ll probably have a couple of weeks of sick leave and then he may well come back out as he’s got another two months of his tour.”

The round went through Flt Lt Lawrenson’s upper arm but, by yet another huge stroke of luck, it entered his arm at such an angle that it left almost no damage, not hitting the bone or any muscle. Had it gone in at a different angle, the clinical staff believe he may well have lost his arm.

Flt Lt Lawrenson spent a few days recovering on the ward before being flown out of Iraq and back to the UK. He described the strange turn of events:

“I was in the Force Protection Operations office where I work; my colleague and I were going to go for some lunch. I was standing waiting to cross the road and it just felt like someone had punched me in the arm. We were looking around and thought someone might have thrown a stone or something. I grabbed my arm in pain and started to feel it was getting wet. Because of what had been going on outside, we knew there was celebratory fire, we realised I’d been shot.

“I sat down and my colleagues got the medics, who are based just round the corner. I wouldn’t say it was blur, I can remember what happened, but there were lots of people around. They patched me up and I was brought here. It didn’t feel too bad at the time, it was just constant aching, a painful aching feeling that wouldn’t go away.

“From the X-ray, they realised the bullet was still in my arm. They were more concerned about the chest X-ray, because a bullet can go anywhere and there was no exit wound. It was lodged in my arm though. I waited a while and then went into theatre, where they removed it. I went to theatre again to get it checked out, make sure there was no infection and close it up.

“I told my wife over the phone, she didn’t believe me and thought I was joking. I think the shock hit her when I spoke to her after the operation.”

Surprisingly Flt Lt Lawrenson was somewhat philosophical about the whole experience:

“It’s just one of those things. You might think you’d be shot outside the base; I was out on patrol a couple of days before and we had the usual gunfire. But no, I get shot back on the base. Just one of those things – what goes up must come down, as they say.”

Iraqi soldiers beat Brits in New Year’s football match

First published on 3rd Jan 2008 on Ministry of Defence website.

Iraqi Soldiers have beaten their British military trainers and mentors from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment in a friendly five-a-side football competition held to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

The British soldiers from 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment are attached to the 1 SCOTS Battle Group and members of 14 Division of the Iraqi Army. They have been training and monitoring their Iraqi counterparts in military fieldcraft, weapon handling and patrolling skills.

But during the football match, held on 31 December 2007 at the Contingency Operating Base in Basra, the Iraqi soldiers taught the Brits a few lessons of their own despite the British lads being determined to make up for their last meeting when they were trounced by 22 goals to 3.

The soldiers from 1 Lancs put together five teams against three from the Iraqi soldiers and after several good natured but hard fought games, the tournament was finally won, after a penalty shoot out, by the Iraqis who promptly celebrated with their flag.

Major Hamish Cormack from 1 Lancs said:

“Today we’re playing football against one of the Iraqi Army units that we’re responsible for mentoring, monitoring and training. We’ve played them in the past when we’ve been out down at their barracks and that was part of the fun side of our job down there.

“So we decided that we would invite them back here to celebrate New Year’s Eve and have a rematch, and give ourselves a chance to recover some glory after they stuffed us. I think it was 22 – 3 in the last game.”

The fun of the football match also gave the Iraqi and British commanders the chance in a relaxed environment to reinforce links and discuss future plans:

Major Cormack added:

“Anything that gets us to build a closer relationship with the Iraqis that we work with is a good thing. Football is one of those great levellers and it really managed to break down a lot of the barriers.

“For example, today we’ve got the Brigade Commander who’s come down from the City, we’ve got the commanding officer with the battalion here, so it gives us an opportunity in a very relaxed environment to talk about where we’re going next with supporting them and how we can be of more assistance.”

Lieutenant Colonel Saeed from the Iraqi Army said:

“The British forces have trained my Battalion. We have learned so much from the training in military skills. My relationship with the British Officers has been very good, and the instructors have been great with the soldiers.”

“Today we came here to play football with the British Army but we also wanted to say Happy New Year.”

C Company: the Royal Marines who mean business

First published on Sky News on 29th May 2010.

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It is the middle of the night as the men from C Company march down to the Helicopter Landing Site on the Forward Operating Base in Sangin.

The last time these boys left camp, they came back without one of their most popular and experienced Royal Marines.

As the two Chinooks roar out of the pitch darkness, the tension is palpable.

These men mean business – loaded with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, bridging equipment and mine detecting kit, they move swiftly and efficiently onto the aircraft.

We’re crammed in, hanging off ceiling straps as the aircraft lurches over the hills just feet from the ground.

Then suddenly we’re off the ramp and piling into a huddle on the ground in the hope that our chosen landing spot is clear of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

Mine-detecting kit is deployed and we set off gingerly across the fields. Every marine is quite literally checking his every footstep, staying low and wading through rivers on the way.

C Company is heading for a suspected Taliban compound a few hundred metres away. Just last week a local teenager struck up a friendly conversation with a passing patrol here.

Having identified the commander, he ambled off to collect his suicide vest from a neighbouring compound. He then walked back over to his new ‘friends’ and blew himself up.

The young Taliban recruit failed to take anyone else with him on his suicide mission, but C Company know there are more where he came from.

Assisted by soldiers from 1 Scots, the marines watch over the Afghan National Army as they clear through a series of compounds and question locals.

And all of this in the face of an intensely frustrating challenge – “courageous restraint” dictated by their rules of engagement.

This means using as little force as possible, sometimes staring an insurgent in the face and letting him walk away.

The idea is to protect the surrounding local population, win them over, and strip the Taliban of support.

But when your best mate has just been killed by an IED set by an enemy who doesn’t play by the rules, that’s a very big ask.

Today the mission was a success; the Royal Marines with the men from 1 Scots put “boots on the ground”, disrupted Taliban activity and reassured the local population.

But most importantly for the Marines from C Company, everyone came back.

Safely on the ground, Troop Sergeant ‘Smudge’ Smith gathers his boys into a huddle.

As every man remembers the mate and colleague they’ve lost, he tells them how proud he is of them.

They’ve held it together and teamwork has got them through a horrific couple of days.

They’ve got a job to do and giving their friend a proper send-off will have to wait until they get home.

Rite of passage on an Afghan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 28th May 2010.

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He only has to shave once a month, is desperate to learn to drive and has a chilled pint – his first legal drink – with his name on it down his local pub in Dumfries.

But Private Anton ‘Ando’ Anderson will have to wait another three weeks for all that; first he has a job to finish in Afghanistan.

The young soldier from 1 SCOTS Battle Group is based in Helmand Province.

He is among a handful of British soldiers who have set up a home of sorts in a Patrol Base near the town of Sangin, and is one of the youngest.

Just a month after his 18th birthday, Anton was sent out as a Battle Casualty Replacement for a few short weeks.

He has now served almost four months after he volunteered to stay on.

And what a rite of passage.

Nicknamed ‘Bacha’ – ‘young boy’ in Dari – Anton holds his own on patrol.

In charge of the life-saving and cripplingly heavy Electronic Counter-Measures equipment, at a skinny 5ft 7in, he carries more than his body weight in kit patrolling the Green Zone in temperatures in the 50s.

Bacha takes the unrelenting army banter with a chuckle and says he hides when the older lads try to put him on latrine-emptying duty one too many days in a row.

“It doesnae help when I look like I’m 12 years old!” he grins.

His mother may be worried about him, but it is fairly obvious the more senior soldiers have taken him under their wing and created a family environment in the small dusty compound in this dangerous part of Afghanistan.

His patrol buddies do however draw the line at eating the teenager’s food after his toxic attempts at making porridge and his own home-cooked favourite “mince and tatties”.

That is no doubt something his mum will gladly give him a few tips on when he gets home next month.

An Afghan country garden: life on a Helmand base

First published on Sky News on 30th May 2010.

Bright pink magnolias, deep red roses, lush green grass, pergolas that Charlie Dimmock would be proud of and even the odd water feature.

No, this is not a lovingly manicured English country garden, this is thousands of miles away in one of the most dangerous places in the world – Sangin, Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

In 50C heat, British troops are doing their laundry in basins by the river during a few precious moments of “personal admin” time on the Forward Operating Base.

Others are catching up on reading, preparing for their next patrol or having a blissfully refreshing dip in the Sangin river.

But for their Afghan National Army counterparts, it seems nothing beats a spot of gardening.

Just a few metres away from rows of armoured vehicles and pockmarked buildings stuffed with sandbags, the Afghan soldiers have created an incongruous oasis that stands out from its hard, dry, dusty, beige surroundings.

They are meticulous about watering their flower beds and lawns and coaxing creepers over gateways and walls.

And it seems civilian Afghans are no less green-fingered.

Roads and tracks through Sangin are bordered by large allotments of intricately irrigated land.

One soldier told me as we patrolled past an embryonic orchard that they are also streets ahead of us at genetically combining different fruit trees.

So it seems the English may have competition in the gardening stakes… and an unexpected hobby in common with the Afghan people.