My Day Of Days

Posted: April 6, 2012 in Military, Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

It was just over the half way point of my first tour of this country as a young Rifleman in the British Army that an event happened that would not only change me as a person but it would also change my life and that of everyone else that was there forever. I am not writing this account of my version of the events that followed to gain any kind of sympathy for myself or any of my brothers that were there, or for the loved ones at home that were left behind. I think that I am writing this so that people who read it can get some kind of insight into what drives men like me to become who we are and also that you may gain some kind of understanding of the war that we are in and the effects that it has on the young men and women that fight in it.

In the early days of the war the British Army was mainly based in the north of the country committed to peace keeping operations, stabilisation projects and some anti-insurgency operations. We arrived in country about a year after the initial invasion that had seen the hard line Islamic Government removed from power, with most of their forces fleeing to the south of the country. The city was a bustling hive of activity, a new government was in power and despite the obvious signs or poverty and decades of war it appeared that the place was slowly starting to get itself back on it’s feet and attempt to begin at living again. We were there in a peace keeping capacity, tasked with providing security for our area of the city, support for the local forces and and as reassurance for the local population. Our tour was expected to run smoothly, the main threat was from Improvised Explosive Devices and the Suicide Bomber of which there had been a few incidents with over the past few months but nothing regular as the previous governments forces were still, at that stage, on the back foot and staying put down south. We adopted and non-aggressive posture, we patrolled with berets on as opposed to helmets and when in vehicles we used stripped down Land Rovers with little or no armor. The next few months passed relatively peacefully as we got to know our area of operations. The locals, although wary at times, seemed to appreciate our presence and we soon got to know the local faces and business owners. We would get mobbed by children on patrols, trying to get us to part with sweets or pens while asking us our names and trying to impress us with any English that they had learnt so that we would give them an extra chocolate or two. In some areas of our part of the city people would come up to us and give us small glasses of Chai or a pieces of their home made bread. And I remember being invited into countless homes by people to sit and drink Chai and meet their families. People would shake our hands and say in broken English ‘thank you for coming’. We were made to feel welcome. It felt like we were part of something good that had happened and we were proud to be there.

Just over half way through the tour and things were going good, everyone was still in one piece and we were accomplishing our mission. Morale was high and the platoon that I was in had become close, we had become a family. The winter was coming to an end, the snow was now turning to slush and we were starting to get bouts of sunshine through the snow clouds. This for us was a good sign as the winter had been exceptionally bad that year, snow was deep and everything became iced up. Patrolling in vehicles had become a nightmare because of the fact that they were stripped down and the crew were open to the elements. It wasn’t unusual for patrols to come back with kit frozen solid to the wagons and the crew with thin pieces of ice formed on them. Throughout this jobs carried on as normal, so when things started to clear late in the first month of the year we all breathed a sigh of relief. The only downside to the snow melting and the winter ending that we could see was that it would put an end to snowball fights that had become the norm when on our downtime. But I guess that we couldn’t have it all. Patrols were conducted daily, either on foot or by vehicle. Every time, before heading out we would have a brief which would include an updated intelligence report. Sometimes we would just head out and conduct a reassurance patrol to maintain a presence on the ground, other times we would be given a task by the ops room or by the intelligence cell. These tasks could be anything from; going to get the grid of a specific building, maybe finding out the name of a local mullah or even going to check on some reports of disturbances in certain neighbourhoods. One thing that was always certain to come out in these briefs was a threat warning of some kind. It could be anything from a report of armed men been seen in our area to a possible IED being placed on one of the route that we used. But nine times out of ten it would be a report of a possible suicide bomber driving around in a car looking for a military call sign to hit. We heard these reports everyday, they were two to a dozen and even though we took them all seriously nothing ever came of it. It was enemy propaganda to keep us on our toes, to let us know that they were still out there. Somewhere.

Then our day of days came.

That morning as we were finishing our brews at the end of the briefing and waiting for the patrol commander to tell us to get our arses down to the vehicles and mount up the intelligence officer raced back into out communal room. He said that they had just received a verified report from a trusted source that there was a suicide bomber in our area driving around looking for a British call sign to hit. The source had even gone one better, he knew which road the attack was planned for, what vehicle the bomber was in and what colour it was. The problem with his info was this: the road was the main route through the city, so it was the busiest road and used by military call signs day in and day out. The vehicle was a Toyota and for some un-known reason to me, eight out of ten cars (even to this day) in this country are Toyota. Last of all he had told us that the car was painted yellow and white to look like a taxi. Every car in this city at that time, if owned by a local, was painted yellow and white to look like a taxi due to the previous government banning anyone from owning a car unless it was a taxi. After passing this law the rulers of that time woke up the next morning to find the streets filled with hastily painted yellow and white cars with taxi signs stuck to them. These people aren’t stupid. So, with that information being passed onto us our tasking was changed and we were told to drive out to this particular road and set up a vehicle check point and just wait to see what happens. The intelligence officer had come up with the genius idea of us acting as bait and if his plan worked out, we would see the suicide bomber before he got to us and be able to take him out before he said his finale prayers and took us into the after life with him. Easy for him to say, once we were outside of the base he would head back to his comfy office with a hot drink and the latest copy of FHM and wait out to hear what happens. The Boss thanked him for the update, we finished our brews and headed out into the now overcast day as the first bits of sleet started to fall from the sky.

A Vehicle Check Point was something that we could set up by positioning our vehicles on a road so that we created a ‘bay’ that we could direct a civilian vehicle into to be searched and their occupants questioned. The purpose for these VCPs’, for us, was to try and keep the enemy on their toes. With any luck we would hidden weapons in the vehicle, maybe narcotics or even components used to make the IED’s. The reason that we didn’t have permanent check points and used our vehicles instead was to give us a slight edge in these taskings – because we were mobile no-one knew where we would be setting up and therefor couldn’t plan in advance to take a different route around us. The other important thing about the VCP’s was timings. We never stayed in a spot for longer than 10 minutes. This is a golden rule. One reason is that there is no point in being there any longer as no doubt if anyone was heading your way they would of received a phone call by then letting them know that the Infidels were conducting vehicle stops on that route and that they should find another way round. The other reason, the main reason for us, was that if there was a young brainwashed man out there driving around in a giant explosive device on four wheels he would of had a call telling him about us and unlike the other guy that gets a phone call he will be heading our way on a mission from God. So we move every ten minutes to be on the safe side. On this particular day we were told to stay in the same spot until we were given permission by the ops room to wrap it up and head back.

We hit the road and set up our check point. It was the busiest part of the day for this road – try to imagine the M25 on a bad day and then add some. Everywhere we looked there were vehicles, and a majority of them were Toyota’s and most of them were painted in the colours of taxi’s. We put ourselves into our positions and set to work. Any vehicles that had more than one persons in them we would allow to pass and any vehicle with one person in, depending on various factors, we would direct into our improvised bay and start a very cautious search. It’s nerve racking work for all those involved. Some of us watch the traffic, trying to spot that one person that could give of a signal that says he has a date with 40 virgins in a few minutes time if he is lucky. Others watch the guys searching the vehicle and passenger. The guys searching the vehicle watch nothing but the vehicle and its passenger. The passenger watches us. Everyone watches someone or something. The vehicles get searched, the id of the driver checked and as long as he hasn’t gone bang and killed the searchers and probably injured everyone else he is sent on his way. The we start the process again. Ten minutes comes and goes and we swap around roles to give the searchers a break. We keep this up for 45 minutes. The Golden rule has conveniently gone out of the window for the guys back in their cosy offices. The weather is cold and the sleet is now coming down hard. Despite this we are all hot and sweaty and tempers are starting to fray. This is fucking stupid, even if the intelligence was wrong we have been here too long now. If there wasn’t a suicide bomber there will be one now. Fuck it, there probably an army of the bastards on the way. We need to move. Now. The patrol commander gets hold of the ops room and says that we need to move. They say wait out. We’re not even searching vehicles now, we have just taken up defensive positions and are waiting. Cars drive past us, everyone now looking like a suicide bomber, the passengers staring out at us as they go by wondering what the infidels are doing stood out in this weather just staring at vehicles. We get the call. The intelligence is wrong and we are to return to base. We all curse under our breaths about the shit int and what we would like to do to the officer that tasked us and his informer and then mount up. We move of quickly and head back.

We rock up to the vehicle bays in our base to find another section from our platoon waiting to head out on task. They are heading out on an escort tasking and are going to use our vehicles as they are warmed up. That suits us as we don’t have to close them down and clean them out. They start mounting up almost straight away. They have a medic with them, not one of ours, a Navy guy from the med centre. His Boss has told him that he has to go out on at least one patrol before his tour ends and as he is due to go home in a couple of weeks he is to go on this one. He actually doesn’t want to go out, his job isn’t to be out on the ground and even though he knows not much has happened he doesn’t want to temp fate. He Boss doesn’t give him a choice and makes him go. It will be good for him apparently and give him something to tell the folks back home. One of the drivers heading out is moaning about the fact that he has been up all night ill with a bad stomach and can’t believe that they can’t find another driver. He says that if he shits himself while driving no-one better take the piss. He is a well liked individual, a bear of a man with a heart of gold and a passion for engines. He isn’t one to moan and as such we know that if he has actually spoke up about being ill then he must be feeling fairly bad. One of our drivers, a young guy who I have known since training steps up and offers to take his place. The gesture is half heartily refused and it takes another offer before he gives in and heads of at a quick pace for the nearest toilet block. His replacement is well liked by everyone in our platoon and joined the Army during break from university as he wanted a challenge and to gain some kind of life experience that he didn’t feel that he’d get from the civilian side of life. He wasn’t a career soldier, this was something that he felt he would gain from before he went back to finish his education, once his time was done that would be him. I remember he once said that he was looking forward to this tour, not for the same reasons as the rest of us which was to carry out our peace keeping task with the hope that we would get to test ourselves and all that we learnt throughout training against the enemy at some point , but because he wanted to experience another culture, meet new people and hopefully be able to play a small part in helping the people of this country get back on their feet. He didn’t want to kill the enemy, he wanted to help the people of this land. This is something that he was proud off. He was a quiet man, who in the evenings would lay on his bed reading a book while the rest of us shot the shit, watched films and smoked cigarettes. He always had a smile on his face, talked fondly of his family and would give you the clothes of his back if you needed them. That’s why that morning he offered, despite how tired and weary he was from the previous task, to take over as driver for the other guy. Five minutes later they were in the vehicles and out the gate. The rest of us heading up to our rooms to sort our kit our before getting the brews on.

The patrol was out for about 30 minutes or so before we heard the blast. It was close enough to shake our doors and windows. They had gone to another location to pick up a truck that needed an escort and when they were hit they were passing the base about 500 metres away. The car was a yellow and white Toyota taxi and was been driven by a young man with a British passport. He drove straight into the drivers side of my friends wagon before detonating. The medic who didn’t want to join them lost the best part of an arm and suffered shrapnel wounds. He got to go back to the UK early and had that story to tell folks that his Boss had wanted for him. Another friend of ours had his eardrums burst and is now permanently deaf. The other soldier in the back suffered shrapnel wounds to the head, lost the use of one arm and was in a coma for a while. The vehicle commander lost an eye. My friend, one of my best friends, that I had trained with for months, drunk with, laughed with, a soldier that the entire platoon loved took the brunt of the blast on his exposed upper body. His wounds were traumatic and even though the medic from the Quick Reaction Force that arrived on scene tried to keep him with us it was hopeless. He was gone.

The intelligence had been right.

The aftermath of this involved a huge clean up operation. Body parts had to be collected, bagged and tagged, as well as our guys some civilians (including children) had been caught in the blast. One of my friends tells me that he walked over to what he thought was some kind of animal laying on the floor and moved it with is foot. It turned out to be the top of the suicide bombers head. Another fella had to pick teeth out of the soles of his boots that had got stuck there as he walked the scene. The wagon had to be bought back to base and once looked over washed clean of blood and anything else our friends had left in there. The medic that tried to keep our friend alive came to us and just kept apologising for not keeping our man alive. The original driver with the bad stomach was in bits. Myself and two others were, the following day, given the task of cleaning three weapons that had been recovered and were apparently still serviceable. I was given my dead friends weapon and spent the next few hours trying to make it sparkle by cleaning out what my friend had left all over it for me.

A couple of days after that we said our goodbyes to him as he lay in his coffin waiting to go home. The day after that he was repatriated to the sounds of bagpipes as units from a score of different countries formed up to see him off. The day was beautiful, the sun was out and it was clear blue skies. Everyone there saw the Eagle that appeared to glide over the procession of coffin bearers until he was carried onto the ramp of the plane and into the darkness. A month or so after getting home we all went as a unit to his grave to pay our finale respects. And then we all went back to our lives.

That day changed every single one of us and affected us all in different ways. I have completed a number of tours and now work as a contractor over here. Other people from that platoon got out of the Army after that. Others stayed in and still serve. And a few do what I do. The injured get by the best they can. We all come together for a few drinks every now and then to toast, shoot the shit and remember the friend that we left behind. Since that day I have lost another good friend and seen many others lost or injured. And I am sure that there will be more. They say that the scars that people can not see are sometimes the worst ones.  Some of the lads that I know drink too much to deal with whatever demons that they have, some fight, some give up and some carry on. Me, I keep on coming over here and can only hope that one day I find the strength to come away and go back to my family.

Apparently only the dead have seen the end of the war. This may be true.

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