Op OMID CHAR The Perspective of Lt Stuart Girling RHA
When I was told that I wasn’t going to be working with my Battery for the upcoming tour, but instead would be working in Lashkar Gah’s Media Ops cell, it would be true to say I felt a little frustrated. The chance to work alongside those that I had spent the last year training with, was gone and an uncertain future awaited.
So it was with great pleasure that I received the news that I would be off to Artillery Hill in my second week on the job, working as a minder for an embedded journalist from The Times. This would allow me to escape the Headquarters atmosphere of Lash and get out and see the guys who were part of the Brigade Advisory Group mentoring the Afghan gunners on the D30.
My role would be to facilitate the access a journalist who had been living in and reporting from Afghanistan for the past four years, ensuring that he got the access he needed whilst at the same time ensuring the young soldiers on the ground weren’t asked questions they were not able to answer.
I was keen to get to meet some of the Afghan National Army (ANA) gunners; firstly to see what their training was like and see how it differed to that I had received at Larkhill a la year before, and secondly I was also keen to practice some of the Dari (one of the two official languages of Afghanistan) I had learnt on a course. It turned out my language skills were in need of some serious work, and the Afghan’s gunnery skills were a lot sharper.
The lads from the Regiment had established a training programme that covered not only skills such as gun drill, command post drills and fire discipline, but also basic soldiering skills such as small arms training, counter IED, basic patrolling and first aid procedures. Building on the solid work of 4 Regt RA, the mentoring team from 7 Para RHA had the Afghan gunners training really hard, a fact that was good to know when they night-fired soon after my arrival.
Witnessing the firing of the D30 was awesome. The Russian-made gun kicked up a huge amount of dust and seemed louder and more violent than any other gun I’d seen before. The Afghan gunners though were efficient and allowed for an excellent rate of fire. Sgt Challoner, one of the experienced number ones involved in the mentoring, commented on the difference he has witnessed from first working with the ANA on Herrick IV in 2006 to working with them now on Artillery Hill: ‘the improvement is vast and as gunners they are very good.’
My job, however, was to take me into the field with 3/215 Brigade of the ANA, mentored by the Irish Guards. The mission was to clear a suspected insurgent stronghold north east of Gereshk and facilitate the building of a new PB and supporting check point. The journalist and I were transported around the area of operations and spent a number of nights out with troops on the ground, where I came across members of 25/170 Bty (Imjin).. They were responsible for the use of Desert Hawk 3, an asset that is proving invaluable in theatre at the moment; allowing commanders excellent information, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance capabilities.
My embed experience though was to come to a sudden and dreadful end, when both the journalist and I were present for the contact IED that killed a Royal Engineer search team leader. The tragic death of Cpl Barnsdale occurred on a piece of ground being cleared by Royal Engineer search teams for use as a Check Point. It was the same piece of ground that the journalist and I had spent the previous night on and had returned to, and the same piece of ground that had seen an IED strike on a Mastiff the night before. Immediately after the explosion it was my job to ensure the safety and good conduct of the journalist. It was his instinctive reaction to photograph everything, but in a situation such as this it just wasn’t appropriate. The journalist and I were lifted, along with the Engineer call sign, back to Artillery Hill and steps were already in place to help those present to come to terms with what had just happened.
The journalist, after his first hand exposure of the awful event, now had a huge story on his hands. He spent the next day filing copy back to London and going through the process of having his photos cleared for security breaches by Task Force Helmand. For three days running my journalist companion had significant coverage in his paper.
I had seen things I would never want to see again, but at the same time I had learnt a lot and seen aspects of theatre I never would have if I had been working with my battery.
Written By: Lt Stuart Girling RHA