The Luckiest Man In Helmand…
It wasn’t as loud as I had expected. But it was clearly an explosion. Just a few yards away to my left.
‘UGL!’ shouted a voice from closer to the site of the expanding dust cloud that I was already able to taste. It quickly stuck to the sweat on my the skin of my face and particularly my wet lips. It tasted foul as I licked them. A UGL is an Underslung Grenade Launcher Round – sort of a portable mortar that is fitted under a rifle and can throw a small explosive charge further than a man’s arm.
The shout was echoed a couple of times, as we all dropped to the ground. The obvious place for us to go would be into the irrigation ditch that was behind us – obvious to the enemy too. A good idea from them would be to fire a UGL at us and then run off, whilst we took cover in a ditch that was seeded with IEDs. No, we just fell to the ground where we were.
The dust still swept across us.
The worst words. Repeated over and over. Across to my right I heard the commander of the ‘multiple’ I was working in, speak into his radio. ‘Contact – Man Down’.
‘I need two men over here,’ shouted another voice.
Without thinking I was on my feet and running. ‘It’s not a UGL,’ said the rear man as I ran past him, and then he shouted ‘CONTACT IED.’
I turned and stopped and saw…nothing. There was no-one there. There was a lot of dust in the air, and in the cutting through the fence across the irrigation ditch there was a small mound with two thick white wires exposed. IED.
I looked down. Already the other man who had run with me was in the ditch with a further rifleman who were frantically pulling at something deep in the ditch. There was a man down there. Silent.
The only words spoken were by the Medic who was already on the scene. In his soft Geordie tones he said ‘Lift him up over there. Gently mind. Head your way…Reet…’
He set to work straight away, but I refused to look down that way. I stared into the face of the young lad. ‘Okay. The medic is already here. Be cool. It’s all going to be Okay.’
The injured man spoke for the first time. ‘Fuck. My foot. Fuck. I fucking knew it. I had a bad feeling about today. What’s it like? Is it gone? My fucking foot…’
‘Easy, easy, easy. What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘Well, Cpl Jones, unless your Mum is in the military, I bet she doesn’t call you that. What’s your first name?’
‘Right then John. It’s all okay. You are gonna be just fine. The medic is working on you right now. In fact the other medic has just turned up. There’s two of them now. You are in the best hands you could ever be in.’
‘I stood on it. It was an IED wasn’t it…’
‘Looks that way John. It’s okay. You’ll be in out of here really soon.’
‘What’s it like? It is gone?’
I turned to expect the worst. But the worst just wasn’t there. John was the luckiest man in Helmand. The medic had already cut off the boot on John’s right foot and had peeled the sock off. Yes. Cut off the boot and peeled off the sock.
By some miracle – be it that it was a badly made IED, or that it had been buried too deeply, or just that it hadn’t gone off properly, John was officially the luckiest man in Helmand. There was no blood. There were 5 pink toes and one white foot there at the end of his leg. There was bruising and reddening around the ankle and heel, but…his foot was still there. He’d stood on an IED and yet…
‘What does it look like?’ he said again.
‘What do you think, Vinny?’ I asked the medic.
‘He’s a lucky bugger. Looks like the partial det of the IED just broke his ankle.’
John’s head was back, his eyes were closed in pain. ‘I want some morphine.’
Vinny nodded, and the rifleman to his left administered a shot of Morphine to his uninjured leg. Meanwhile John gripped my hand tightly. ‘Well?’
‘Mate, you are lucky. I can see five white toes and no blood. Your foot is still there. The blast just broke your ankle. Look – here’s your boot.’
I grabbed it from the floor and showed it to John. Clearly the blast had ripped into the boot, but it had protected his foot. It was ripped from the centre of the instep up about an inch and across towards his toes about two more inches, but that was it. In fact Vinny had probably caused more damage to them by cutting them off.
‘See? Good boots those, mate.’
‘I was gonna throw them away after this tour.’ He replied.
‘Well don’t.’ They’re something for you to put on your mantle-peice.’ I tied the fractured and ripped boot – the boot that had probably saved his foot – to his belt using the lace.
‘You’ll be in Bastion in an hour having Ice Cream and a cup of tea. Mate, seriously. If you ever wanted to stand on an IED – that is the way to do it. You lucky bugger…’
‘People from the Multiple rolled up. They were quickly briefed and radio messages sent. John was rolled onto a stretcher and we sat under the trees in the grass as the medic splinted his legs together to keep them immobile. He was still in a lot of pain and held my hand really tightly.
‘It’s there isn’t it?’ he asked again.
‘John…I want you to phone home today and tell your mum 6 lottery numbers, ‘cos it is your lucky day. You have a foot, with 5 toes. I am not lying to you. It’s all there, man.’
I lifted his head up and put his helmet under so he could see. Vinny, the medic slowly lifted John’s feet. John saw. And relaxed.
We chatted for a few moments whilst we waited. He was from Holloway in London. Used to go out in Camden. I told him I used to catch the night bus home to Enfield with an ex-girlfriend from Camden. ‘Actually, you are probably safer out here than catching the night bus in Camden…’ I joked.
He smiled, but it was a weak joke and the morphine was kicking in. Then the best sound of the day…a ‘Wokka Wokka Wokka Wokka.’ The sound of a Chinook. The medivac.
‘That’s the MERT coming for you John. You’ll be in Bastion in about 20 minutes. Nurses all over you.’
We lifted the stretcher and ran through the gap in the fence. Past the site of the explosion and into a field where a quad bike that had followed our patrol was ready to take him to the HLS for the evacuation to hospital. He was still holding my hand, and it made carrying the stretcher difficult. But it was only 30 feet or so.
‘There you go, John. Go on home. Have a cuppa for me, and a beer when you get back to the UK.’
He looked me in the eyes. ‘Thanks. Thank you.’
‘No worries. Just go on home and get better…you lucky sod. You really are the luckiest man in Helmand…’
Before you say it, I am not a hero in this story. John – not his real name – is the hero. As is Vinny, and Tom, the other medic, and the MERT crew, and everyone else who helped John get through the most terrible and yet, possibly the most luckiest moment of his life. If you are unlucky enough to stand on an IED then the best you can expect is a partial detonation of the device and the blast to just break a bone or two. And then have two combat medical technicians within 30m of you when you do it. The very best. That is what happened and it made us all very happy knowing that although one of our own was injured, he was fine and had an injury that he could have gained whilst falling off the Night Bus in Camden, but he actually got in a ditch in Afghanistan.
After I left him at the quad, and walked back to my Multiple, I stood at the site of the explosion. Two bare ends of wire were clearly sticking out of the ground. They looked like speaker wire that you’d wire your stereo up with…and over there was a plastic bottle damage by the blast, in a similar way to John’s boot. The bottle had housed the main charge of the IED. It looked like just the detonator – the part of the IED that initiates a larger explosion had gone off. And not the larger explosive. It was a partial det. And John was very, very lucky to come out of it with just a broken ankle. He is home now and making a good recovery. Best wishes to you, ‘John’.