Posted by: TheAuthor | 29/01/2011

The cheat

The following is a cheat of a blog, in fairness. I was searching through the internet, found this and wanted to share. All credit goes to the intrepid pairing of reporter and photographer, from ‘The Mirror’ English Newspaper (www.mirror.co.uk).

IN the baking heat, British soldiers advance through a poppy field in the wilds of Afghanistan towards the Taliban.

Dark rings under their expressionless eyes show they have been through hell. Their cheeks are hollow from weight loss. They wince from bleeding sores on their bodies caused by carrying more than 70lbs of kit for up to 10 miles in 50C heat.

The grim toil of war makes them look like battle-hardened veterans with at least 10 years’ service – but their average age is just 19.

Suddenly the peace is shattered by screaming rockets and the ugly chatter of small arms fire. These young men, once dismissed as the PlayStation Generation, are now fighting for their lives for real.

Hours later, with the Taliban dead or on the run, the men from B Company The Royal Anglian Regiment flop to the ground to rest. They bicker about rations and girlfriends.

Among them is Pte Gareth White, 18 in May but, like so many of his comrades, old beyond his years. Ribs protrude from his skinny frame which is covered in mosquito bites and his cheeks are gaunt. “The battles are unbelievable. In one 11-hour contact three rocket-propelled grenades flew past [me]. I dived into a ditch and saw poppy heads being smashed above me from rounds fired at us. That’s how close it was. But you’re not terrified when you’re fighting. We’re trained for that. You’re terrified when you’re waiting to be attacked and you know they know you’re coming. That’s the worst bit.”

The Mirror has spent the past fortnight with frontline British troops in enemy-infested Sangin Valley, in the southern province of Helmand. In that time the 1st Battalion of the regiment, advancing with bayonets fixed, has killed around 100 fanatics in face-to-face combat in Operation Ghartse Gar.

This is not now a counter-insurgency operation but a full-blooded war of devastating intensity. Attacks can last for five days. Battles can last for 12 hours.

British troops have not been involved in fighting like this since the Second World War.

It is paying dividends although at a cruel price. For the first time since 2001 the Taliban are being pushed out of their enclaves.

The Mirror joined B Suffolk Company as it made a gruelling 11-hour forced march.

Machine gunner Pte Dan Smith, 19, was a baby-faced teenager on his internet profile three months ago. Now he is skinny and hollow-cheeked like his war-hardened mates. He said: “This has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I never thought anything could be so hard. Back home nobody understands what it’s really like out here. Your heart beats like mad and you can’t move or breathe. You think you’re dying”.”Basically we patrol into an area where we know the Taliban are. Then we wait for them to attack us before we counter-attack. It’s like an advance to ambush. And when we’re caught in open ground, honestly it’s terrifying. There’s all this noise, RPGs whooshing past you, bullets screaming past your head and then we’re firing back. “Why am I doing it? Because I’m fighting for my best mates who are standing next to me. That’s why. It’s nothing to do with politics.”

Pte Ian McIlroy, 21, has fought in Iraq. But he said: “It’s proper war-fighting out here. We’re doing stuff you only see in Vietnam films. What really gets to me is the smell of bodies. We had to bury these five dead Taliban the other day. “In this heat it’s not pleasant. It was horrible. Then my mate got hit and he was screaming in agony. That sound will stay with me forever. “I was on leave recently and I don’t think people realise what it’s like here. It’s as if Afghanistan is a massive secret. Nobody talks about it”

“I’m still young and don’t know what effect this has had on me. But so far I’m all right.” Gallows humour is everywhere. Lance Cpl Ben Blewett added: “In a battle some of us were laughing the other day, actually laughing. It might be nerves.”

They suffer gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well as heat exhaustion, trench foot, water poisoning and any number of diseases.

In a break in the fighting Commander of Five Platoon, 2nd Lt Ben Howes, 25, told me: “Some of these young men have killed for the first time during this operation. “They’ve been deep in enemy territory clearing compounds. Yet many are teenagers. It’s impressive.”

Close by, two squaddies lay motionless with drips being fed into them.

They were badly dehydrated from vomiting and water-poisoning after drinking from a fetid Afghan well. In a corner three young soldiers cleaning machine guns bizarrely argued about the children’s story The Wind In The Willows. One shouted: “No, muppet, Toad was the a******e in the show, not Mole. Mole was the geezer everyone liked. You’re f*****g wrong, mate”

Sgt Stephan Martin, 30, a veteran of Northern Ireland and Iraq, said: “The lads have done brilliantly. “This has been some of the hardest fighting I’ve seen. Yet some of the boys only recently turned 18. You’re constantly fighting, sometimes in ditches with water up to your waist, sometimes fully submerged while taking cover.”

As the men set off on patrol Company Commander Major Mick Aston, 37, shouted at them individually.

He joked at Pte Green: “You all right, mate? Let me know if that GPMG is too heavy for you and I’ll take it off you for a while. “Sweat pouring off him, the young private yelled back over his shoulder: “No chance! That’ll never happen.”

Major Aston said: “These guys have fought hard. In 20 years of soldiering I’ve never seen close up fighting like this.”

In civvy street young men of 18 can legally buy their first pint. In Afghanistan they can legally kill and be killed in some of the most gruelling conditions on earth.

As Brigadier John Lorimer, Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, said: “This is toe to toe fighting, solid infantry soldiering.

“I am humbled by what these young guys have achieved.”

Again, I cheated this time. All credit to ‘The Mirror’ for following us over there.

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