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.”

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Meeting Mogadishu

Roaming the streets of Mogadishu for the first time, my eyes are on stalks, my ears pricked; trying to take everything in and start to discover the city that has until now been just another news report about an attack or a bomb.  What I find is a sprawling city, much bigger than I had imagined, bustling with people getting on with their lives.Image

Central Mogadishu

I’m travelling in a three-vehicle ‘Casper’ convoy of Ugandan soldiers from the African Union mission here in Somalia.  This particular patrol usually accompanies the Force Commander around but as he’s out of the country, we have the use of it for the day.

We’re off to Maslah.  It’s a drive North-East, about twenty kilometres from central Mogadishu up the coast, and where the Ugandan Battle Group have their Headquarters.  Once we’ve negotiated the crowded centre of town, I’m told by the patrol commander that we’ll have to go through the district of Sokoro, on the outskirts of the city.  Here houses become more sparse, the dirt road widens and we’re heading out towards less built-up bushland.  Sitting next to me, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye and a broad grin that this is the district where they always get hit.  “They like to attack us here, this is where Shabaab still think they have a bit of power, they try small arms fire and sometimes IEDs, so we are prepared”.  “But we’ll be fine” he says, and chuckles.  As it turns out, Al Shabaab must be out for lunch as the locals continue to carry their shopping and push their carts of straw up the road and there’s not so much as a dog barking.  My friend seems almost disappointed.

We are welcomed like old friends at the camp at Maslah and taken on a brief tour of the basic but well-protected HQ, before meeting the newly arrived commander, Colonel Kimbowa.  Over sweet juicy orange segments and digestive biscuits – huge treats that we do not get on our camp – he describes his area of operations and jokes that he feels quite at home as the countryside is very similar to that in his native Uganda.  He’s optimistic about the improvement in security and while admitting there are challenges ahead, is confident that the war in Mogadishu at least has been won.  He’s looking forward to his year-long tour here and believes he and his men can bring invaluable experience to help, since their own country was itself “at war for so long and had its own similar problems”.

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Maslah

It’s a symbolic place for the African Union troops to have control over; Maslah used to be one of Al Shabaab’s main bases on the outskirts of Mogadishu.  They planned and launched their operations from this high ground surrounded by bush.  I’m shown a row of eucalyptus trees and told this is where enemies and defaulters were hanged as examples to the rest of the community.  Urban myth or fact; the soldiers are proud of their achievements in Mogadishu and from my first impression rightly so.  From the street corner gunfights and bloody battles a couple of years ago, this city has come a long way.  The only obstacles to our patrol were vendors taking their produce to market, long lines of trucks queuing to deliver goods to the port, and an unruly herd of goats taking their young minder for a walk.