“Don’t get too close – if he goes up you’ll go with him.” Stuart Webb, a cameraman with Channel 4 News, describes life on the frontline in Afghanistan with British troops fighting an IED war.
The interpreter’s radio crackles into life. It’s the Taliban. They say they are about to ambush the patrol I am with. The tension has been building all morning. From the moment the Coldstream Guards set off on their patrol the insurgents have been watching their every move.
It is an unnerving experience to be walking across open farmland knowing the Taliban are out there and threatening to attack at any moment. Leading a patrol in Afghanistan today takes an extreme form of courage. Not only does the man at the front have to contend with the constant threat of ambush but also with the constant threat of stepping on a homemade bomb – and it is these hidden bombs the soldiers fear most.
Afghanistan has become an IED war. The last two years have seen a massive increase in there use – and the vast majority of all British and American deaths are due to these improvised explosive devices.
It’s eerie especially when you know they can see you. That’s the bit when you start to worry. Sergeant George Pal
They are seriously hampering Nato‘s operations in the country, severely restricting the soldiers ability to move and work. Without freedom of movement any progress in Helmand will be difficult to achieve. The 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards know through bitter experience the threat posed by IEDs. They risk stepping on hidden bombs every time they move out of their patrol base in the Babaji area of Helmand. Five of their soldiers have died during the this tour with a further six having their legs blown off – all victims of IEDs.
The soldiers pause at a farm compound. Across a poppy field another section of the patrol continues moving. An Afghan interpreter with the Coldstreams monitors the Taliban’s radio transmissions and relays what they say to the company commander – everyone can hear.
Over the radio the insurgents give the positions of both patrols and say they are getting ready to attack. The Taliban know the British can listen in – so they constantly threaten to ambush to ratchet up the pressure on the men. It’s straight physiological warfare.
“It’s eerie especially when you know they can see you. That’s the bit when you start to worry,” says Sergeant George Pal. “Sometimes it’s just a fear tactic – straight away as soon as you hear the interpreter that’s enough to put the hairs up on the back of your neck. It’s either genuine or it’s not – we’ll wait and see.”
Sometimes it is just a bluff – but the level of radio transmissions and movements this morning makes the soldiers believe this time it is for real. “They’re gagging to take us on,” says the Company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor.
“They’re just waiting for us to move and then they’re going to take us on with a shoot. The insurgents are in a position where either we’re going to move into their arcs (fields of fire) or they’re just going to take us on within the compounds we’re in – and obviously try and kill us. So they’ll wait until we move and then they’ll attack us.”
The Taliban are on the radio again. This time it’s a Taliban commander – he gives the order to attack: “Fire, fire fire!” Gunfire erupts – the patrol across the field is being ambushed. Steve is now worried about the location of his men, “It’s a small compound so we definitely need to push out.”
It’s time to move on. As the Coldstreams form up under the sounds of battle there is a real tension in the atmosphere. The soldiers fall silent – now they know it’s for real. None of them can be sure whether they are about to step out of the compound and straight into a hail of bullets.
Vallon Man’s lonely walk
Leading the patrol is 20-year-old Guardsman James “Steveo” Stephenson – but everyone just calls him “Vallon Man”. The threat from IEDs is so high that every patrol must be led by a soldier sweeping with a metal detector. The Vallon is the type of detector used by the army – and being a Vallon Man is one of the most dangerous jobs any soldier can do in Afghanistan.
Just three weeks ago Steveo’s friend, Lance Corporal Darren Hicks from the same battalion, stepped on an IED and was killed while patrolling as a Vallon Man. He admits to being terrified every time he goes out the gates of the patrol base. Steveo the Vallon Man knows full well the insurgents are trying to use less metal in their bombs, making them more difficult to detect – and more likely to catch him out.
It’s the Taliban again. Everyone listens to the interpreter intently, “Everything is ready – if they leave we will shoot them.” The insurgents also say they have laid IEDs to the south of the patrol and have prepared an ambush to the west. Vallon Man looks nervous. With a pistol in one hand and a metal detector in the other, this young man steps out the compound to face whatever is waiting out there. He heads out – and turns west.
Every primal urge in my body screams at me to run for cover. But Vallon Man can only go at walking pace – any quicker and he risks missing the metal signal for a bomb. Out ahead of everyone else – it’s the loneliest walk. Everyone must follow him – but no one can get too close. A shouted warning from Steve the Sergeant Major leaves no one in any doubt, “Don’t get too close to Vallon Man, if he goes up you’ll go with him.”
The patrol reaches a stream and clambers down into the water – but any hope the steep banks can offer protection is quickly dispelled. The sound of flowing water is instantly punctured by the shrill noise of incoming fire. There’s a sickening high pitched whoosh as bullets scream past. Soldiers dive to the bank for cover – but it’s over in moments. The Coldstreams call them “shoot and scoots.”
The insurgents are fighting the war on their terms and using tactics to their advantage. Outgunned by Nato’s superior firepower the Taliban simply melted away during the recent Moshtarak offensive. Now they are back and they are fighting the war with IEDs and hit-and-run attacks. During their three-day patrol the Coldstream Guards were ambushed around 20 times – and all this just a mile and a half from their base. Moving off again I look at Vallon Man just ahead of me. Standing bolt upright, pistol in one hand and metal detector in the other, he set off again – out front and alone.
It is the likes of Staff Sergeant Gareth Wood who has to deal with the IEDs. “Woody” is a British bomb disposal specialist. I joined him as he cleared IEDs from a section of road near Nad-e-Ali in Helmand.
Woody finished the final part of his advanced training in 2008. In September of that year Warrant Officer Gary O’Donnell became the first British bomb disposal operator to be killed in Afghanistan.
For Woody the news was a stark reality check: “The first killed was a real shock because up to then we always beat the bomb. No one had been killed (by an IED) since the 80s.”
A further three bomb disposal specialists have now died along with a similar number of Royal Engineers – who have the job of finding the IEDs. Sergeant Kevin O’Dwyer heads the search team. “It’s not been a good tour for us – terrible,” he says. “The losses among the counter IED force is phenomenal.” O’Dwyer’s best friend was one of those killed. He helped carry the coffin at his funeral.
The bomb disposal teams are a very small and close knit group of people – they all know each other and many spend years training and working together. Any loss or injury is a terrible blow to such a small community.
The losses among the counter IED force is phenomenal. Sergeant Kevin O’Dwyer
Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid was killed on the final day of his tour in October last year while diffusing his 65th bomb. Woody and Olaf had been close friends for 10 years and trained together. Woody was at his funeral. After his death Woody was given the cigars out of Olaf’s kit. He had one after diffusing the first bomb on his tour – Woody says he’s keeping another for when he returns to Britain. He wants to share it with Olaf’s widow Christina. He has three months left on his tour.
The scale of the IED threat is enormous. British military vehicles striking IEDs was an almost daily occurrence while I was in Helmand. Many soldiers owe their survival to a new generation of mine resistant vehicles. With a stronger design they can sometimes be repaired and put back on the road – some have been blown up multiple times.
In the evenings the British commanders hold a conference call which rounds up the day’s events. It is usually a catalogue of IED finds and explosions – with foot patrols and vehicles regularly hitting IEDs. Woody is constantly in demand. “In Northern Ireland during The Troubles you might do five or six in a whole six month tour,” he says. “You can do that in a day in Helmand.” He doesn’t keep a tally of the ones he’s diffused – Woody says it’s bad luck: “Some of the guys who kept a tallies aren’t with us now.”
The bombs are generally low tech – but they are simple, easy to make and deadly effective. The insurgents use whatever is to hand. The most common uses a so called “pressure plate”. The explosive is often farming fertiliser housed in a yellow cooking oil container; the trigger is two strips of metal which are then attached to electrical wires and batteries. When the two pieces of metal are pressed together – by a soldier’s foot or vehicle wheel – an electrical circuit is formed causing the bomb to explode.
Becoming the Taliban target
Once the IED is found Woody gears up to move in. Despite having an 11-strong search team and a column of armoured vehicles and soldiers to protect him, Woody makes the final approach to the bomb on foot and alone, leaving the rest behind. The soldiers call it “the lonely walk.”
“It’s quite surreal really, you’re just on your own in your own little world. It’s pretty normal to us, it’s not abnormal – although to most people it would be.” Woody doesn’t wear a huge bomb suit like those depicted in the Hollywood movie The Hurt Locker – in the real world of bomb disposal in Helmand they are too hot and cumbersome. Instead Woody wears the same body armour as any other British soldier. Using little more than a paintbrush and his bare hands, he very gently reveals the devise. It’s a kind of deadly archaeology – his head just inches away from the bomb.
Woody has a very pleasant character; he is remarkably calm, thoughtful and level headed. But despite his outward appearance, every now and then he reveals an insight into the tremendous stress and danger he faces.
Before we set off in the morning he confesses to me a real apprehension about the day ahead. “I got an odd feeling today – and not a good odd feeling. There’s new devices going in the ground which are potentially targeting specific people. So we’ll just have to keep our wits about us.”
In “targeting specific people” Woody means himself – the bomb disposal expert. He knows he is a prime target for the Taliban. The bomb makers are constantly looking for ways to catch him out – and kill him. The second IED of the day has a normal pressure plate mechanism – but hidden under a stone near by is also a pressure release trigger – working in completely the opposite way.
If Woody had lifted the stone to clear it while working on the IED, the release of pressure would have detonated the bomb – and it would have blown up in his face. Woody remains philosophical: “Soldiers often say “you must be mad, why do it?” But I think I’d rather do this than be some 18-year-old soldier patrolling around and stepping on one and losing my legs.
“When I find one I’m OK – I know it’s there and I know what I’m doing. It’s the ones you don’t find that worry me.”
By late afternoon Woody is on bomb number three. He’s been working for seven hours without a break. Through the zoom lens of my camera I can see he is struggling with the hard earth around the IED which has set like concrete in the baking sun. He looks hot, tired and frustrated. Woody takes his helmet off. It’s a shocking sight to see his bare head right next to the bomb – and he’s dealing with the biggest IED of the day. It’s enough to blow up any military vehicle. Being that close no amount of body armour would save him anyway.
There are so many IEDs that the team unwittingly drove past four on their way to deal with the first reported bomb. The others were found later by passing patrols. Two are at the side of the road and will be marked and dealt with the next day. But the others are in the middle of the road and block their route back. The team was lucky not to have triggered the bombs on their way out. Woody looks exhausted, he wearily clambers back out of the armoured vehicle so the solder who found this latest bomb can tell him where it is.
“I hear you’ve found me another f***ing bomb,” he says.
It’s dark before Woody detonates the last of these IEDs. In over 11 hours of non-stop work he’s dealt with five bombs. He already has four lined up for tomorrow – and all this on a stretch of road measuring just several hundred meters. A pin prick on the map of Helmand – and Woody knows as quickly as he can take the bombs out the ground by day, the insurgents are returning by night – and putting them back in.
It takes eight to 10 years to train a bomb disposal specialist to the highest standard required to work in Helmand – more than a doctor or a barrister or nearly any other profession. There’s only a 14 per cent pass rate. But the work in Afghanistan is considered to be so dangerous and stressful that a bomb disposal operator will only ever be asked to do one six month deployment. Their first tour will also be their last.
Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker of the Grenadier Guards is in charge of British forces around Nad-e-Ali. He knows the pressures and has first hand experience of IEDs. During this tour his own armoured vehicle was blown up by an IED with him in it.
He reflected on the toll the tour has taken on his men. “We’ve lost soldiers, men have lost their legs and some will be broken by their experience. Some people have come here and been so frightened they have failed to perform. Some people have come here really frightened and have turned into lions. So everybody is touched by it. Some people will be physically disfigured for the rest of their lives. Some people mentally will have some sort of mental anguish for a long time. It affects everybody. No two people will come away from this unchanged. It’s going to change peoples’ lives fundamentally.”
Stuart Webb is a journalist and cameraman with Channel 4 News.