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Afghanistan visit magnifies pride in troops

Tuesday 1st November 2011 (Andrew Griffiths)
Afghanistan visit magnifies pride in troops

BURTON MP Andrew Griffiths has just returned from a trip to Afghanistan to visit British troops, who have been fighting the Taliban there for more than a decade.

Here, in his own words, the Conservative describes his extraordinary experience and how he feels inspired by our armed forces’ ‘courage, determination and sacrifice’.

I have never experienced a landing like it.

I am sitting in the back of a C17 military cargo plane, it is the middle of the night, and I’m about to touch down at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan.

The 12-hour flight in the early hours left Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, and, after a stop at a military airbase in Turkey, is about to make its final descent into the home of British forces in Afghanistan.

It is then that we get a captain’s message that I will never forget: ‘Can all passengers don your helmets and body armour? In a few moments we will be extinguishing all of the aeroplane’s lights for landing’.

And that’s it. Seconds later we are crouching in the darkness as the plane drops like a stone.

As I sit there, I think about the immense set of emotions that the small number of soldiers on our flight and the many flights that have landed here since operations began will be going through.

Some of them know what a tour of duty in this harsh desert country consists of. Others will be nervous about the unknown.

All must surely feel a sense of apprehension; all have left wives and husbands, children and loved ones behind them.

The darkness, the body armour and the sharp descent are designed to frustrate the chances of Taliban fighters taking pot shots with missiles and machine guns as this huge transporter plane lands on the massive airstrip.

These are Britain’s finest pilots and they take no chances with the precious cargo — our troops.

As we land, the back of the plane opens to provide a ramp and we run off, for security reasons, and into the waiting vehicles.

“Welcome to Camp Bastion,” says a tall female naval officer, smiling.

This was my start to an inspiring, tiring but hugely rewarding visit to our troops stationed in Afghanistan.

The first thing I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer size of the base — Camp Bastion is bigger than the town of Reading.

It is home to 9,500 British servicemen and women from the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force.

The second is the dust, which covers everything, is forever clogging eyes and ruining engines, and which I was finding in unmentionable places days after my return.

Like the troops, we were billeted in huge tents filled with bunk beds and housing 30 or more.

The one comfort was the air conditioning, helpful in the 25C I experienced, but lifesaving when the temperatures reach more than 50C at their height.

Bastion is where these brave men and women live, work, eat and rest. Most are there on six-month tours of duty, although some rotate in four-month stretches.

It houses communications, repair workshops, a state-of-the-art trauma hospital and every other facility the allied forces could need.

Based in the middle of the desert, it is from where the bodies of fallen soldiers are repatriated to their loved ones, and where every item that our forces need, from Biros to mastiff armoured vehicles, pass through.

Yet it wasn’t the camp or the helicopters or the weaponry I flew thousands of miles to see. It was the troops themselves — the brave men and women who take incredible risks to keep us safe and to bring stability and freedom to Afghanistan.

I have to tell you, I was bowled over. It is so inspiring to see what they go through every day, to witness the bravery and the sacrifice, and to experience the sense of camaraderie they share in one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

While I was in Afghanistan, five British troops lost their lives. Each and every soldier I met knew the names of each of them, understood that but for the grace of God it could have been them, and yet remained valiantly determined to honour their memory by finishing the job they started together.

The morale is fantastic, not least because they all know that back in the UK the British public are so very proud of the courage they are showing.

Nowhere was this more obvious than when I witnessed the work of the team who seek out and dispose of the most vicious killer of our troops in Afghanistan — the IED.

Improvised explosive devices, to give them their full name, can be constructed from plastic bottles, some weedkiller, a few batteries and a bit of wire for no more than a dollar.

Yet buried on a road or path they can blow up an armoured vehicle or destroy the legs of those who step on them.

I saw the new breed of sniffer dogs, trained to use their sensitive noses to seek out the hidden explosives.

I also witnessed what I can only call astounding bravery.

I saw how one soldier carefully and painstakingly edged forward, metal detector in hand, waiting for the faintest beep to give him some indication that an IED is almost below his feet.

Then a colleague crawls on their belly, making inch by inch progress until they reach the device, outstretch a hand, and with their fingertips painstakingly seek out the edge of the container filled with explosive and, with the touch of a sensitive brain surgeon, discover and cut through the cable linking it to the battery.

One slip, one fingertip applied too harshly could result in death or dismemberment.

Yet every day these astounding people repeat the procedure, often putting themselves in the crosshairs of snipers to conduct this essential task, and save the lives of countless others in the process.

Some people ask why we are in Afghanistan and what we have achieved.

The successes aren’t well known but speak for themselves. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan had 1,000 schools — today there are 14,000.

The 20,000 teachers have increased to more than 190,000 today. And while under that brutal regime only one million children were educated and not a single girl was allowed to go school, today 8.3 million young people are enjoying education, including 3.2million girls.

Access to healthcare has increased from eight per cent of the population to 60 per cent today.

These are just some of the strides forward our troops have helped deliver.

To be able to visit our troops was an honour and a privilege.

To see the conditions they live in and the job they do was awe-inspiring.

Yet words cannot express just how courageous, determined and impressive are the sacrifices and the bravery they demonstrate every day.

I am so glad I was able to go out there and tell them just how proud we all are of them and how much we appreciate what they do on our behalf.

We should be proud.

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