Archive for November 2009
Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid sounded uncharacteristically strained as his tearful words crackled over the telephone line from Afghanistan. Exhausted after another gruelling four-day operation defusing bombs in one of Helmand’s most dangerous districts, he told his wife, Christina: “I’m hanging out, hun. Can you come and get me, babe?”
The next day he was dead, blown up as he tried to render harmless yet another improvised explosive device (IED) planted by the Taliban. He was due home this weekend on leave. Instead, wearing his medals, Christina stood among a reverent crowd in Wootton Bassett on Thursday to greet his body.
“Oz” Schmid was an unusual soldier, not just because of the lonely and terribly dangerous job he did but also because of his outlook on soldiering itself. A former army cook, he volunteered to learn bomb disposal skills — “no different from cooking, really” — and set about protecting people rather than killing them.
Christina said he hated conflict, “any of the gung-ho stuff”. She saw him as a warrior, part of an ancient code vital to the strength of society. Oz himself had told me modestly: “I suppose, thinking about it, I’ve been given a skill or been taught a skill and — well, I don’t know, I’m going to sound a bit chav really — at the end of the day it saves lives, it’s not killing.
“I go home, and people go, ‘How many f****** Taliban have you killed?’ Well, it’s not really about that. It’s more about how many lives I’ve saved, I think.”
The 30-year-old from Truro in Cornwall operated in territory unimaginable to the armchair warriors at home. Called the “green zone” — an ironic dig at the ultra-secure green zone in Baghdad — the fertile Helmand River valley is a labyrinth of sodden fields, irrigation ditches and small mud-walled hamlets. It is crisscrossed by lethal footpaths and narrow alleyways where many of the 230 British dead in the Afghan war have been blown up by IEDs.
The Taliban have perfected the art of channelling soldiers towards an IED by blocking side alleys with debris or using a “scout” to draw them on. Oz’s task was to go into the killing zones and defuse the explosives waiting there.
I first met him during the Taliban’s brutally successful bombing campaign over the past summer. My photographer, David Gill, and I were sitting at a wooden table on the bank of the canal that runs through the British Army’s forward operating base Jackson in Sangin. An easy-going, fast-talking soldier with a mop of blond hair and an infectious smile casually plonked himself down next to us. Read the rest of this entry »