Another Thing Ticked Off The List…
After due consideration, crunched up against the wall of the school compound, with sweat dripping down my face and blood trickling from my knee, I decided that being out here, in Afghan, is a young man’s game. Why did I come to that decision?
Well, it came after two and a half hours of putting up an extra defensive screen of razor wire around a corner of the Check Point, which, we had noticed was in a dead spot and couldn’t be seen by the guard tower, and in which I had lost count of the number of times that I had been stuck in my hands by the sharp (yeah, razor sharp!) barbs on the wire as we bounced it out from the stacked pile.
And as we did this I managed to bounce the wire onto my leg and one of the barbs dug deeply into my knee, producing quite an impressive stream of blood that stained my trousers red. ‘Bugger’ I said, and remembered a quote from an old mate of mine who’d had a mountain biking accident once ‘A bit of claret on the old pins!’ I said to no one in particular.
I walked over to the quad bike that had brought our equipment out from inside the CP. In the trailer was a few bottles of water. Standing by it I necked a good half a litre of the cool liquid and stood to look over the countryside.
We were standing outside the check point on a slight rise that over looked the small village. The road twisted and turned itself over the irrigation ditch that ran along the wadi that split the CP and the village. The new school, still un-opened, and still being built stood a few feet away from us on my right. The ground was a hard sun-baked stony soil and it had been difficult to drive the stakes into. These stakes would hold the razor wire up.
Down behind the village the land was different. It was the lush, deep green of the Green Zone of Helmand. The corn stood in massive fields, 6 foot high. Going into those on patrol is like entering a green version of hell. By early afternoon they have absorbed the suns rays. The ground needs to be constantly irrigated and is often very, very wet – the soil becoming soft and muddy. You slog through the tree-like stems of corn, trying to stand on the actual corn itself rather than on the ground, sweating as if you are in a sauna without a thermostat. Your body armour and helmet and kit only add to make it more humid. Sweat pours from you. The mud cloys at your boots. The humidity and heat saps your strength. It is the worst place in the world. Then, of course there is the cover that this provides the enemy. Once in the corn you are lost to the view of the world and can only see a few feet around you. You could move within feet of people and not know they were there. The enemy know this. They use the cover provided by the corn. We can’t wait for it to be cut and harvested.
Thankfully we wouldn’t be going down there today. But up here on the bank it was bad enough. The early afternoon sun spanked us as we took a few minutes rest to try and re-hydrate. As ever if you do anything outside a camp you are fully dressed in helmet and body armour. I sat dawn for a second and removed my helmet to get some air. The local kids were around. If you do go out of a camp out here, immediately you become a magnet for the local kids. There isn’t a lot to do here and so we became their entertainment for the day. They chatted away to us trying to teach us a bit of Pastu, asking for pens and chocolate as they always do…and then when I took my helmet off asking to try it on. I went to pass it to one of them and suddenly…
BANG BANG-A-BANG-BANG-BANG came from down in the fields. I pulled my helmet back and stuck it on. Off in the distance there was a lot of shooting. An explosion and then the un-mistakable sound of a light machine gun (LGM) from one of the other check point guard towers firing. A lot of rounds were going off.
‘It’s to the south. Insurgents having a go at the southern Check Point in the other village.’ said one of the guys who’d been on his radio to the guard commander inside our check point. ‘The sanger tower says that the CP down there had a grenade fired at it and a lot of small arms fire.’
Tentatively I stood up and brought up the sight of my rifle to look towards the south. The firing was still going on and I could see smoke from the firing of the LMG – or maybe it was from the grenade. Either way the firing went on for a good minute or two. And then stopped. Silence.
‘Best we get this fence done sharpish.’ And so we went back to work. Bouncing out the wire, lifting it into position, swearing as it got snagged on other wire, clothes or gloves and hands. With another length of wire in place I walked back to the quad and searched for another bottle of water. I was tired and we’d come out just as lunch was starting. It was now 2pm and I was really hungry, almost shaking with hunger and exertion.
I tipped the water back… BANG-BANG. PTCHEW. A round flew over head. SWISH-CHUNK another cut through the trees at the bottom of the hill about 30 foot away and impacted on the Hesco wall of the camp.
Now, I’ve never been shot at before (with rifle rounds anyway – a scud missile is slightly different I guess). And had very little frame of reference. But instantly I knew what the sounds were. These were rounds coming in on us. It took me about a millisecond to swivel my head across to the fields. Another millisecond and I was on my knees behind the engine block of the quad bike, with my head down. I looked up and over and saw my rifle leant up against the wall of the school, with the lad who was our guard, on his belt buckle on the ground.
BANG. CHEOEEWW-THUD. Another over my head and into the wall. BANG. PFFFFFFEWWWW a final one over the camp this time. I stayed still for another second or two and then was running across the open ground and picked up my rifle. I threw myself into the cover that the wall provided. The rounds had seemed to come more from the south west than due south and the wall facing slightly to the north-east gave a bit of protection.
I cocked my rifle and swallowed, panting as I did so. I noticed two things. One. My heart was beating very rapidly. Two. I was no longer fatigued. I guess the burst of adrenaline that the shooting had initiated in me had over come that… The Company Sergeant Major was out with us and was shouting across at the sanger tower: ‘Stop getting your head down and try and find the firing point!’ I crawled to the corner of the compound and scanned the fields with my rifle sight. It’s magnification acting like binos.
Nothing. The Insurgents could be anywhere in those fields and tree lines. We’d never be able to see them. We kept low.
‘Well, that’s another one ticked off your list then’ said the Sergeant Major. ‘Getting shot at…’
‘Yeah. I guess so,’ I replied.
‘The rounds seemed to be pretty ineffective, they were fired from a fair distance away. Still someone tried to kill you!’
‘You know what?’ I said back. ‘This is a bloody young man’s game.’ What was an airman…a 41 year old airman doing out on the ground in the green zone getting shot at? Hmmmm, right now, there was a lot to be said for that safe, warm office back at RAF Benson…but then…you certainly know you are living when someone is trying to kill you… I gulped a little.
Someone was trying to kill me. After 5-6 minutes there had been no more fire and we tentatively stood up and, still carrying our rifles we went back to work. The kids who’d heard the first rounds fired at the southern CP and had moved round behind the school came out and stood near to me. One of them raised his hands like he was holding a gun.
‘PHEWWWW’ he said and motioned across the sky and then pointed at me. Yes. They were shooting at you he was saying. I nodded and went back to work. Just one more length of wire was needed to finish our job and we set about it quickly. This time not really caring if the barbs caught our hands. We threw the bottles of water to the kids and without saying much more walked back in to the Check Point.
Talking to the Battle Captain later that day by the main map board, I’d asked him what he thought had happened. He said that it seemed that a group of Insurgents had ‘had a pop’ at the other checkpoint about one and a half kilometres away and had been engaged by the CP’s guard tower. They had melted away into the fields and moved out north. He said that they must have been moving through the fields and had seen us working outside the compound and thought…we could have another go…and had taken a few pot-shots at us. He said they had probably fired about 6-8 rounds at us (according to the guard tower) – but I’d only heard four.
‘It was from a fairly long way out so I guess it was pretty ineffective fire, but still…that’s another one of the Afghan experiences you can tick off your list…’