When life is reduced to the barest necessities in the cloying dust of the Helmand summer – eat, sleep, fight, survive – certain, otherwise everyday things take on a special significance. Imagine our disappointment when we realised that the Taliban were ranging their mortars in on the makeshift lavatories in the corner of the compound. When a man can’t even relax during his ablutions, nothing is sacred. Much has changed since I came home at the end of 2007 and some progress has been made, but few can have escaped the knowledge that British, Afghan and now American forces are sustaining ever heavier casualties.
I was perhaps fortunate that when I was in Afghanistan the Taliban retained suicidal aspirations of simply defeating Isaf troops in open fighting. With fewer men and resources (although proportionately not that much less than spinning politicians would have us believe), we launched nothing on the scale of Operation Panchal Palang (Panther’s Claw, the current push in central Helmand). But over seven months we engaged in a series of smaller, concurrent set-piece operations against the Taliban, and sustained casualties in every one. On one gruelling, 72-hour slog north early in the tour, we lost 12 men over 100km through injury and one was killed – less than 10km per man. In another op some months later (which, even in the context of the current campaign in the region, was grossly under-resourced), my unit lost a third of its fighting power in less than a week, two young men killed and another elsewhere in the province in simultaneous operations.
It is not easy for those back home to gauge the effect such casualty rates have on the troops still fighting. The domestic news media tend to concentrate on fatalities, which come in sudden bursts during the early kinetic phases of deliberate operations or in single mass-casualty incidents, as claimed the lives of five men of 2 Rifles in Sangin. What often goes unreported is the further casualties, the scores who, in the same time frame and in similar incidents, have lost limbs and eyes and who are also removed from the battle, and the slow but sure effect on those who remain behind – the last glimpse of their comrades being the sight of the medical evacuation Chinook carrying them away, and then getting back to the task at hand, only that bit more difficult than it was before.
My experience was that soldiers cope remarkably well in the midst of an operation. Units are galvanised by loss, bonded even more closely by the shared experience and more determined to fulfil the mission. The emptiness, the draining combination of fatigue, hunger and adrenalin comedown that gnaws at the tail end of every infantryman’s slog can be magically held at bay that bit longer by the motivating memory of the guy who just got injured, or worse – but only for so long. It is in the quieter, more reflective moments that grief and anger and loss intrude. Back at camp, exhausted after one such operation and having thought nothing would be more welcome than my cot bed, I couldn’t sleep a wink between the two empty bed spaces that had belonged to my fellow platoon commanders, both by then tucked up in hospital corners in Selly Oak recovering from their injuries.
Perhaps the hardest moments on tour are the repatriation ceremonies, life in the otherwise safe and comfortable Camp Bastion coming to a respectful stop as the flag-draped coffins are solemnly loaded on to the Hercules to begin their long journey home. Standing to attention by the runway, ranks of soldiers – some of whom have known the dead in private grief, others who have never met them sharing in the corporate loss – will stand immaculately to attention and squint into the sunset as the pilots perform a final, mournful fly-past.
Grief is a particularly private emotion and there are few private spaces in a hastily prepared defensive compound. I noticed that the younger soldiers, often the more fearless in battle, found it hardest. The average age of my team was maybe 22. Some had never known death and retreated confused into iPods and long silence. In such moments, the smallest of brotherly gestures, the shared last packet of sweets, the unexpected brew, made all the difference.
Up in Sangin, our tour drawing tantalisingly to a close, we spent the most difficult months of all not on an operation, but almost under siege, losing both British and Afghan National Army comrades in the frustrating, oppressive, morale-sapping drip, drip of the defensive battle. A fellow captain, a few years older than myself, with whom I’d been sharing cigarettes hours earlier, in fractionally the wrong place
on the roof during a later attack. The youngest guy in the team, barely 19, and only a few steps behind me and the interpreter as we charged forward and were all sent sprawling by an incoming rocket. The anger and frustration mount, but so, with each loss, does the haunting thought: “Why not me?”
And then, hardest of all, back home. Trying to joke with friends over new prosthetic limbs, raising pints in pubs to guys you promised you’d be sharing them with. We harden ourselves for what may come on tour; soldiers know and accept the grim bottom line unique to their profession. But no matter how rough and tough most of us no doubt think we are, there can be few who have fought and lost who don’t, as I invariably do, fight back a tear every time we hear the “Last Post” played.
Patrick Hennessey is the author of “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club” (Allen Lane, £16.99). Between 2004 and 2009, he served as a platoon commander and then company operations officer in the Grenadier Guards, making tours to Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007