Sonntag, 4. November 2007

Nine fewer and under fire until the end

by Audrey Gillan
The Guardian Weekly, 02.11.07, p. 11


The fiercest, longest and most lethal firefight took place in the early hours of Saturday September 8 south of Garmsir in Helmand province.

Corporal Ben Umley, 26, fingered a hole in his helmet where a bullet penetrated and fell out inside.

Some time before, he had drawn a smiley face in white marker just next to the hole. It may have brought him luck but the corporal doesn't like the word; his friend died in the attack and later, a sergeant died trying to bring out the friend's body. "I can smile, but he can't," he says. "It's not about luck."

The corporal's platoon was crossing open ground when it came under fire from the Taliban. In the chaos, it was difficult to work out who was hit and where they were, and where the enemy would attack from again, and when.

Two soldiers were shot, one in the head and one in the leg and stomach. Then Private Johann Botha, a South African soldier, was hit and could not be found. Screaming could be heard over the radio: "They're coming to get him," and "Don't leave me."

Sergeant Michael Lockett, 27, extracted his injured men and knew he would have to leave his fatality behind. "I got them behind a position called the three walls and I radioed Brels [Sergeant Craig Breslford] and told him about Botha, that I didn't want to go anywhere till I had got him out. He said 'No dramas, I'll get him back for you'. He was moving forward in sections and Brelsy got shot in the neck. [He died in the attack]. They had to extract him." After stocking up with more ammunition and water, the men returned to the combat zone. "We had to find Botha and extract him," said Sgt Lockett.

"When we got back that night we felt like shit. Everyone was crying for six to eight hours solid. I'm still not sure that it has really hit me yet."

Brigadier John Lorimer, commander of 12 Mechanised Brigade, of which the Mercians are a part, said: "Over the last six months, 30 UK soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, all but two in Helmand.

"Our main effort now is to look after those who have been injured - both physically and psychologically - and their families."

He added that the brigade had "a quiet sense of professional satisfaction that we had done a good job", though there was a "hell of a long way to go". He said: "It has been worth the effort and the sacrifices the brigade has made."

But one soldier, who preferred not to be named, disagreed. "Did we make a difference? Yes, we have killed Taliban but the worst thing you ever want to do is lose a man and at the moment I don't think it's for a valid reason or a cause."

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