Posts Tagged ‘Wishtan’
The British Army’s forward operating base at Wishtan — known as the Devil’s Playground because of the high number of casualties suffered there — is one of those abandoned by US marines. At the height of the Taliban’s onslaught, the British saw a man killed or wounded on one in every three patrols into the surrounding maze of alleyways.
It was in Wishtan that a “daisy chain” of IEDs killed five riflemen from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles last year — the highest loss of life for the British Army in a single incident since the war began.
My younger brother Jim, a second lieutenant, was also wounded on his way to replace the injured platoon commander.
Three months later, I walked along Pharmacy Road, which was described as the most hazardous route on earth because so many people had died clearing it.
The road is now littered with IEDs again and the British men who fought in Wishtan are wondering whether the loss of friends and comrades was futile.
“Success has to be measured in small units — opening up the bazaar, being able to walk down Pharmacy Road,” said a British veteran. “We sacrificed a lot of men on that road to keep that base open.”
The platoon was only 200 yards from its base when Lieutenant Robert Kelly, the 29-year-old son of a US Marine Corps general, hauled himself out of an irrigation ditch and on to a Taliban mine buried in the mud bank.
The force of the blast hurled him back into the ditch, slicing off both his legs above the knees. The men nearest the explosion — Corporal Travis Buckholz and Corporal Vatividad Silva — grabbed his body armour and dragged him out of the water.
Buckholz, 21, pulled out a tourniquet to stem the blood and rolled his commanding officer over. But when he saw the lieutenant’s face he stopped still with the tourniquet clenched in his hand.
“I knew when I saw it there was nothing we could do for him. Half his face was missing,” Buckholz said.
“When we got back to base it was like someone had stolen the life out of everyone. All you could see were pale faces and blank looks. I sat on the stairs and fixed my eyes on one spot for hours.”
Death has become an all too frequent reality for American marines fighting in the Sangin district of Helmand, just as it was for British forces before them. The British suffered a third of all their Afghan war casualties in this valley labyrinth of canals, tree-lines and fields of opium and corn.
When the men of the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines arrived their commanders could not understand how the British had failed to pacify Sangin, where inter-tribal feuds, the opium trade and a vicious insurgency have combined to make the district the most dangerous for Nato troops in Afghanistan.
The British strategy was privately criticised. The Americans believed an undermanned British force had become hamstrung by the large number of patrol bases they were maintaining in a ring around the centre of the district.
No sooner had they assumed command at the start of October than they began to tear down more than half of the 22 bases that 106 British soldiers had died defending. Hundreds more were wounded, many so severely that their lives would never be the same again. The Americans abandoned some of the terrain that the British had clung to at grave cost and directed their extra manpower at other areas that had not been penetrated before.
But the marines are already paying a devastating price for this early aggression. Read the rest of this entry »
The blast tore through Sapper Matthew Weston’s body as he searched the mud compound for mines. The rifle he was carrying sliced off his hand, leaving it dangling by a thread of skin. Both his legs were blown off and he could feel the blood gushing from his two remaining stumps as medics leapt on top of him to stem the bleeding with bandages and tourniquets.
The 20-year-old Royal Engineer struggled to sit up, but his fellow soldiers pushed him back to the ground, afraid he might go into shock if he saw what was left of his legs. “It felt like someone smacking me in the head with a baseball bat. My head was thumping and my ears were ringing,” he told me.
Sapper Weston and his team of mine-clearance experts had been tasked with clearing a dirt track that leads through one of the most dangerous parts of Helmand. Night had fallen when the team from 33 Engineer Regiment began to search for bombs in the compounds that lined the track, known to soldiers as Pharmacy Road.
“I was the man at the front,” he said. “I didn’t have any night-vision equipment. They just didn’t have enough to go round,” he said matter-of-factly, as he sat on his hospital bed. As he turned to his commander to give the all-clear, the bomb that would leave him crippled for life exploded. Seven others were wounded in the blast, some with deep lacerations to their necks.
A quick reaction force was dispatched from the nearest British military base 100 metres down the road to evacuate the casualties.
“I didn’t lose consciousness until they put me on the back of the quad bike. That’s the last thing I remember,” he said.
An American medical-evacuation helicopter flew Sapper Weston to the British field hospital in Camp Bastion, where he was immediately rushed onto the operating table by surgeons who thought he would never survive his wounds.
By the time the doctors had finished operating on him, he had lost seven pints of blood, part of his intestine and his spleen. Shrapnel had shredded parts of his liver. When he got to Bastion he still had his right knee, but the doctors were forced to chop it off, leaving him with two stumps for legs.
The next thing he remembered was seeing his sister by his bedside in Birmingham’s Selly Oak hospital. Both Weston’s arms were in casts, attached to a pulley system above his head, which he could barely turn. He asked where his girlfriend was. “I didn’t want her to see me like this. I didn’t realise I’d been unconscious for a week and that they’d been by my bed all along,” he said. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
The Sunday Times, Wishtan, Sangin
THE first explosion that tore through the alleyway flung an 18-year-old soldier into the air, killing him instantly. As the dust cleared, troops racing towards the body of Private Johnathon Young came to an abrupt halt: one improvised explosive device (IED) after another lay in their path.
It was Sergeant Paul McAleese who took the initiative. He radioed an urgent request for bomb disposal experts, only to be told the team would take two hours to arrive.
So anxious was McAleese to retrieve the fresh-faced soldier from Hull that he ordered one of his men to attach a chain from his quad bike to Young’s left arm. They would try to winch him out of the kill zone.
Walking backwards out of the alleyway, however, they triggered two more explosions. McAleese, from Hereford — a 29-year-old veteran whose son was born a week before he was deployed to Afghanistan — died beside the body he had been trying to recover.
The incident happened in August in Wishtan, a maze of alleyways and compounds ringed by mud walls 16ft high on the outer edge of Sangin, in the southern province of Helmand. McAleese was the eighth member of C Company, 2nd Battalion, the Rifles, to die in a series of attacks that have made Wishtan the most dangerous place on earth for the British Army.
Of the 120 soldiers who have served there in the past six months, one in three has been killed or injured, according to Major Rupert Follett, the commanding officer of C Company. The vast majority of the casualties — eight killed and 30 wounded, including my brother James — were caused by IEDs, the Taliban’s most feared and cost-effective weapon.
Last week I became the first reporter to reach Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wishtan and speak to those fortunate enough to have survived. The drive from Sangin to the base, along a dirt track known as Pharmacy Road, took us past sand-coloured compounds which had provided insurgents with perfect cover to lay IEDs and an army tractor blown up and left to rust in the sun. Read the rest of this entry »