Courage under fire: Afghanistan heroes honoured

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There were 160 names in the military awards list yesterday, a record, and poignant reminders of a bloody year in Afghanistan: seven of those honoured did not make it home, writes Kim Sengupta. Others bore the scars of bravery under fire.

Rifleman Paul Jacobs was in charge of a handheld mine detector and leading a patrol on one of the most bomb-strewn stretches in Helmand when an explosion fatally injured a comrade. Amid the mayhem, the 21-year-old continued to clear the rest of the alleyway to ensure that others were safe, when a secondary blast sent a shower of shrapnel into his face. Severely wounded, he dragged himself back on his hands and knees to ensure that those coming to rescue him would not be in danger.

Rifleman Jacobs, who was blinded in the attack, was awarded the George Medal for "sheer personal courage, startling determination and dedication to his comrades". Yesterday he said: "I am obviously very proud to have got the medal. But people I knew, mates, died when this happened, and that is something I'll always remember. What I did was what any soldier would do ... and my mates would have done the same thing. I think every medal here is for those who had fallen."

Standing beside Rifleman Jacobs, of 2nd Battalion The Rifles, was Louise Smith, 24, a healthcare worker at Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham, where he was receiving after-surgery care. They met last September and became engaged last month. Rifleman Jacobs added: "What happened to me has created some difficulties – but I have got to say I have also had a stroke of luck because of it, and here she is."

Ms Smith, from Stourbridge in the West Midlands, who has worked at the hospital for a year, said: "He slowly made an impression on me. Despite what had happened he was always laughing and joking. You have to have a laugh with the patients. It's more uplifting than being serious about things because some of the situations are really sad. You just get to know the guys on the ward."

A fellow member of the Rifles, Corporal Carl Thomas, 30, from Liverpool, raised his eyebrows at all this. "It's good to know the Florence Nightingale syndrome is still around these days – actually he is a smashing lad and he deserves every bit of luck." Cpl Thomas, a combat medical technician, received the Queen's Gallantry Medal for evacuating casualties while explosions ripped around him.

Lance Corporal David Timmins, who lost an eye and the hearing in one ear, and sustained other severe wounds, joked that there were now "so many bits of metal in my body that I am terrified to go through airport scanners". As a bomb disposal expert he was carrying out the most dangerous task of any soldier in the Afghan conflict, where 93 per cent of casualties are claimed by explosive devices.

L/Cpl Timmins, 29, from Glasgow, received the Queen's Gallantry Medal for disarming bombs, saving a patrol after a device had exploded, wounding soldiers. His own injuries came after he went back on duty to deal with more IEDs. He said: "I feel very humble. In a situation there isn't really much time to think, you have just got to do your job as quickly as possible."