His last lonely walk

The Sunday Times

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.

He wanted to know what we did. We said we were freelances. He thought we were bold yet foolish coming to Helmand without a salary. Then we found out he defused bombs for a living.

“I once looked into getting life insurance,” he said with a wry smile. “It would have cost me £350,000.” We laughed and told him we couldn’t afford any either. For the next two weeks we’d bump into him in the mess tent and he’d sit and share a joke over another staple meal of gravy-covered noodles. We talked again whenever we met, most recently two weeks before his death.

I asked him why he’d nicknamed the team he commanded Rainbow. “It’s because we’re the only all-gay counter-IED team in Helmand,” he joked, a grin spreading across his face. “We named ourselves after Zippy, Bungle and George. It was good for morale. When we’re out on a job people always ask us why we’re called Team Rainbow. We could joke about it. Our team mascot is a duck. We call him Corporal Quackers.”

Oz became interested in bomb disposal when he was a chef, cooking for an infantry battalion in Northern Ireland 10 years ago. “I saw the bomb team at work and I thought, ‘Yeah, I can do that’,” he said.

After working as an ammunition technician, he qualified for the role of high-threat counter-IED operator, becoming one of only a handful of bomb disposal experts in the army trained to such a high level.

On counter-IED training exercises the instructors would stand behind him with a brown paper bag, ready to burst it with a bang if he cut the wrong wire on the imitation bomb.

“You do the same with a training bomb as with a live IED. If you do the wrong response or cut, then you are f*****. It doesn’t matter that they are not real when you train. You know when you have screwed up,” he said.

The skills he built up over the 10 years of intense training made him a vital asset to counterterrorist operations in the UK. Attached to 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps, he was often involved in missions conducted by British special forces. He was commando-trained and had done the notoriously tough P Company course, earning him his parachute wings.

“What’s it like doing my job? It’s like when I used to cook. You could always get burnt. It’s like any other job. It’s the same as stacking shelves in Tesco. You could slip on milk and break your leg,” he said, his eyes sparkling as he spoke.

“I don’t count the jobs I do. How many devices have I defused throughout the whole tour? I’m three months in and I’m between 50 and 70. I’m not counting. You’re probably the first people I’ve said that to.”

I asked him how he coped knowing that he risked losing his life every time he went out to defuse a bomb.

“I treat it as a job — I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it before. Some guys deal with it in their own little way. Some lads dance around and shout how many jobs they’ve done or what they are.”

In July, another of the army’s top bomb disposal experts, Captain Daniel Shepherd, 28, was killed defusing a roadside bomb in Nad-e ’Ali district in Helmand.

“The device was . . . well we don’t know what it was,” said Oz, staring into the distance, caught up in memories of a fallen member of this small and tightly knit community who do one of the most dangerous jobs the army has to offer.

“There are times when I’m actually thinking about Dan and I’ll go down the lonely walk, as they say, get to the target and think, ‘What am I doing here?’ But it’s a flash through my head, if you like.”

He said that uppermost in his mind were the patrol who had found the device — and the unseen Taliban watching them. “Nine times out of 10, in fact 99.99% of the time, I’m down there and I’m doing it as quick as I can, ’cos obviously the longer the guys are down on the ground the more they present themselves as a target.

“And then obviously once we’re out on the ground, other things . . . atmospherics around us . . . you know I’m getting dicked as well — they’re trying to look and see what I’m doing, so it’s a lot of focus into what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.

“My brain’s always thinking about the device: how I’m going to render it safe. It’s not necessarily wandering off to ‘Am I going to get home?’

“Every device is different in its own little way . . . you have got to find exactly what it is and come up with the best way of dealing with that, so your mind is constantly focused on that.

“I don’t really think about the enemy. There have been a couple of piss-take jobs, though, where they are trying to have a bit of a joke. I found a dollar on top of a pressure plate in Nad-e ’Ali the other week.”

In July, Oz was sent to an area of Helmand known as Babaji to take part in the largest British assault of the summer, Operation Panther’s Claw, which was supposed to make the area safe for the ill-fated presidential election.

After the initial surge into the area, the Light Dragoons and the 2nd Battalion the Mercians became bogged down in fierce close-quarter firefights with the enemy, who littered the valley floor with IEDs as they retreated in the face of superior British firepower.

“That was proper warfare,” Oz said. “It was similar to world war two. The combat was very, very close. We were lucky on several occasions. IEDs blew up 10ft away from some of the guys as we went through clearing compound after compound.”

Then in August, Oz was involved in a large road-clearance operation. The Taliban had mined one mile of dirt track known as Pharmacy Road, which leads east from Sangin district centre to forward operating base Wishtan. Wishtan had by then become the most dangerous place for a British soldier in Afghanistan. One in three riflemen ran the risk of being killed or wounded there this summer.

The mines had killed a number of British soldiers, cut off the base from resupply by land and restricted troop movements in the area. Three previous attempts to clear the road, which is lined by compounds with 15ft-high mud walls, had failed to lift the siege and had left a number of Royal Engineers seriously wounded.

Then Royal Engineer search teams, flanked by riflemen providing cover, pushed out of FOB Jackson under cover of darkness. By 5.30am, the engineers began moving along Pharmacy Road, searching ahead until they came to a military digger blocking the road. The ground around the vehicle, blown up in a previous explosion, was littered with IEDs.

Oz cleared a route to the digger, meticulously defusing a number of devices along the way. Winches were attached and the vehicle was hauled off the road and through a hole blown into the side of a compound wall.

“We started searching forwards along the road again. We found another bomb half a metre away from the lane that I’d used to search up to the vehicle. We sent two little robots out and they got blown up, so I went on my feet,” Oz said.

By the time he reached Wishtan, Oz and his team had found more than 30 IEDs along the route. He defused 10 of them in 24 hours.

“When I got to Wishtan I had a nice cup of ice-cold water to finish with,” he joked to me later. Ice-cold water is as likely as a polar bear in Helmand, where the temperature can reach 45C.

Despite the risk, Oz never wore his protective body suit. “It’s too hot to wear a suit out here and it’s tactically not feasible,” he said. He saw the suit as an easy way for the Taliban to identify him. “Every time we’re out on the ground we’re obviously denying them their kill against us, so in effect we’ve become a high-value target for them, as they are for us.

“Certainly a few times, certainly in Sangin we’ve been targeted and over the old i-comm they say, ‘The bomb team is here, let’s hit them.’ They call us the bomb team, according to the interpreter — probably ‘w******’ in the local language.”

In this skilled and deadly battle of wits, the Taliban have their own techniques to catch out even the best.

Their bomb experts plan IED attacks months in advance, planting devices in areas into which they believe the British will eventually move.

Some of the devices can be buried six months ahead of an expected British assault. The Taliban produce detailed maps of the mined areas. When they sense an attack is imminent they simply attach batteries to the command wires and pressure-pad IEDs to activate them.

Because of the time some devices spend in the ground, the earth compacts and hardens on top of the bombs as vehicles, people and donkeys trample them underfoot, making them harder for the search teams to detect.

Sometimes the parts degrade, said Oz. “I have been to a couple of devices that have been very unstable. The bomb makers’ construction of the devices isn’t brilliant. A loose wire in the wind could create a short, so when I have my fingers in there I have to pay attention.”

The bombs are usually found by local Afghans, specially trained Royal Engineers or by the British infantry as they patrol in fields where maize stands 12ft high or along irrigation ditches and dirt tracks.

In October I went on patrol through the green zone. It wasn’t long before two soldiers from the 3rd Battalion the Rifles had stumbled into a trip wire attached to an old Russian hand grenade.

Luckily, the pin on the grenade had rusted and it did not explode. As we rushed out of the irrigation ditch a soldier spotted a 105mm rocket lying menacingly in the water below us — the Taliban’s second bomb, intended to rip through the section as it evacuated the casualties from the first blast.

Oz, permanently on 10-minute standby, crashed out of the base in Sangin to deal with the two devices. I asked him afterwards how he could be sure there weren’t command wires attached to those devices. All the Taliban needed was patience — a fighter hidden behind a wall or in a ditch with a button in his hand waiting for Oz to appear.

“We can cut the wire if we see it . . . It’s not to say there isn’t a command wire down there and there’s not another one buried deeper and that it’s a come-on, but we have certain drills we do to mitigate or lower the threat,” he said.

“Threat assessment is massive in our line of work. It’s a big thing working out what they are up to but you don’t know 100% that, when you’re down there, there’s not another command wire leading into there.”

In mid-October, Afghan soldiers spotted a massive bomb in the Sangin bazaar close to seven large cans of diesel. About 40 civilians were inside the kill radius. The soldiers did not evacuate the area, afraid the Taliban were holding fire against them only because of the civilians. Again Oz got the call.

He said later: “My heart’s not racing at all when I go in. No, that’s not true, there are some points when it does. There’s a lot of apprehension, a lot of adrenaline going through you, but it’s important to appear calm.

“The guys look at you, they draw strength from you. For the infantry commander on the ground it’s a hell of a weight off their shoulders when you come in.”

Oz had never come across a device that he had to explode because he could not defuse it.

Defusing was not his only task, however. He also had to gather the vital forensic evidence that enables military teams to trace the militants who smuggle, make and plant the IEDs.

Forensic evidence was what Oz called “the big picture in the IED loop” and what sets apart British high-threat IED operators from any others.

“As British teams, we’ll get everything out of the device because our skills and drills are the best in the world, believe it or not.

“Because of our background and what we’ve learnt over the years in places like Northern Ireland, it allows us to adopt some techniques in order to gain vital information from devices.

“It’s all about getting the forensics, matching it and going that way round it as opposed to just making it safe. We want to capture them, to get criminal convictions.”

Forensic evidence gleaned from IEDs over the summer led to the arrests of a number of high-value targets — IED facilitators, bomb factory owners and smugglers.

I once asked Oz whether he thought he would get a medal for the work he’d done. “I am just looking at getting home with my legs,” he replied.

“A friend e-mailed me to say ‘You did well’ after the Pharmacy Road operation but I just want to come home with my legs.”

I left Helmand soon afterwards. When I returned to Kabul I found an e-mail waiting for me from Christina, asking for the photos that David Gill had taken of Oz over the past two weeks. I sent her the link and she replied with the words “very happy wife”.

She stuck up copies of the photos on the walls of their home in Winchester but then tore them down because they looked “spooky” — like photos that would appear in newspapers if he died.

Two weeks later I received another e-mail from her. “He died yesterday” was all it said.

He had been killed on the eve of his departure on rest and recuperation leave (R&R). He could have gone on leave earlier. “I want to get most of the tour under my belt so I only have a short stint to do when I came back from my R&R,” he had told me.

In five months in Afghanistan, he had defused 64 bombs. The 65th killed him. I still don’t know exactly how he died, but I can picture it — the long, lonely walk towards the bomb, Oz bending down onto his knees and then onto his belt buckle as he began to feel his way around the device with his fingertips. Then the explosion.

A few days after he died, Christina called me. “I wasn’t surprised,” she said. “I got this gut feeling after he called me for the last time. He never speaks like that. He was exhausted. He said he had been out there too long and could I come get him. I told him I couldn’t.”

At about 9.30pm last Saturday, Hallowe’en, Christina watched as two men wearing green berets approached her house. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are they doing here?’” she said. Laird, her five-year-old son, thought it was Oz, his stepfather, returning home.

“I can remember saying he’s definitely not here. It’s not Daddy. I asked them why they were there. I said, ‘Just tell me he can talk. I don’t care about his legs and arms. Can he talk?’ They looked at me and said, ‘Let us in.’

“I didn’t cry. No one else was hurt. I remember thinking what a relief that was.”

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