Veterans recall British army's bloodiest day in Afghanistan


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The Independent Online

Some of the young men who survived the bloodiest day for British soldiers in Afghanistan, when five died and ten were wounded, are speaking for the first time about their battle to conquer painful memories.

Less than 30 soldiers from 2 Rifles [9 Platoon, C Company] went out on patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province on 10 July 2009.

More than half were killed or wounded by improvised explosive devices (IEDS) in what remains the worst casualty toll for a British foot patrol during the war in Afghanistan.

Kevin Holt was barely in his 20s when he went on the patrol that would change him forever. The 24-year-old already has the stare of someone who has seen far too much. 

For the former rifleman, nicknamed ‘Holty’, survived. But his best friend, 18-year-old James Backhouse, didn’t. In the aftermath, one soldier who rushed to the scene mistook Kevin’s tears of grief for hysterical laughter.

Despite being caught up in the explosion, he continued clearing routes with his metal detector – his bravery saw him mentioned in despatches. But he says: “I think all the people in the platoon deserve it more than me... everyone should have got one.”

Kevin made it back with his body in one piece, but his mind was broken.

After the tour he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and left the army in January 2011. “I had mood swings. Anger, anger problems I smashed up my room.  Smashed tv up, everything and I don’t even know why.”

Now living in Doncaster, Kevin’s eyes well up as he confesses to “taking things day to day” with no plans for the future.

Describing his sense of isolation, he says: “I feel more alone since I got out than I did when I was in….Sometimes negative thoughts like overwhelm in me in my head and that.  I could go for days without talking to anybody or just seeing anybody.”

His struggle, and that of other survivors from the patrol, to readjust to life back in ‘civvy street’ is told in a new film – Life After War: Haunted by Helmand - being broadcast on BBC 3 on Wednesday.

The young men featured are part of a wave of returning veterans traumatised by their experiences of war, with hundreds of soldiers returning from Afghanistan each year needing treatment for mental health problems.

Matthew Ramdeen left the army six months afterwards. Back home in London, he struggled to walk down the street for fear of being caught in another bomb last. “Walking down the street, you think ‘Am I going to set off an IED with every step I take?” He doesn’t want to dwell on what happened in Afghanistan “because you can take yourself back there very quickly... and it’s a constant battle to forget it.”

Two years after the explosion, and living back at home, he went off the rails. His mother Jo recalls how “The anger just came out of nowhere” and he would punch doors and start fights with his brother.

She found herself worried sick about what he might do: “Has he killed his brother, has he walked out in the street and killed someone?” Fortunately, the anger eventually passed thanks to anti-anxiety drugs and counselling.

Looking to the future, Matthew wants to be a fighter pilot and is now in the third year of an engineering course. He laughs as he says: “The future’s bright.”

Peter Sherlock, 24, had not been out on the patrol – having come down with heatstroke the day before - but saw his dead and injured friends brought back. One was his best friend, Danny Simpson, 20.

On his return to Britain, he turned to drink to block out his memories suffered nightmares every night for three years. “You wake up with quite a jump and quite a fright...a bit of a sweat on sometimes, so sleeping can be pretty rough.”

He has only recently started to get through some nights without waking up in terror.

Now out of the army, he lives near Southampton, where he works as a painter and decorator.

Peter has the names of the five who died tattooed alongside a cross on his back which he calls a “living memorial.”

Referring to “the nasty day” he says: “You could never forget times like that. That’s going to be with you for life.”

But some, like 20-year-old rifleman Allan Arnold, could not live with it. He committed suicide in 2011 - unable to deal with the loss of one of his closest friends, William Aldridge, who was barely 18 when he was fatally injured in the IED blast - the youngest British soldier to die in Afghanistan.

Allan’s mother, Nicki, wears her son’s army dog tag around her neck. She clutches it and fights to hold back tears as she remembers her son’s torment. “The nightmares, the flashbacks, the memories, the loss, it was too much in the end for him to cope with. I suppose he saw it as his – the only way to get peace.”

Platoon leader Lieutenant Alex Horsfall, who lost the lower half of one of his legs and most of a hand, left the army last year and now works for the Ministry of Defence.

Although he cannot remember anything after the explosion, he will never forget the day that changed his life - and ended that of others. “It’s a date that you actually remember more than your birthday because it’s sort of three years – hey, I’m alive – and at the same time it does come along with the deaths of five guys in the platoon.” He has managed to recover from his injuries and now works for the Ministry of Defence, having left the army last year: “Life’s pretty much back to normal.  You know, the human body’s got a wonderful knack of telling you to sort of get a grip and telling you to move on.”

The 29-year-old, from London, keeps in touch with the men he commanded and organised a reunion last year. “Getting everyone together is quite a good soothing way to sort of deal with things like post-traumatic stress, being able to talk amongst your friends who were there who know what you’re talking about.”